This blog was added to the Top 50 Native American Literature Blogs. Scroll down to the "Rest of the Best" after the Top 5

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Haverhill Pow Wow & Language Cards Educational Presentation by CFT

Over the many years that I have been teaching about Native American culture and helping people unlearn stereotypes and misinformation, one thing has emerged - everyone is in different places with what they know, don't know, and want to know about.  In addition, we can all improve in our ability to understand oppression and grow in activism and ally behavior.  The challenge for me has been to meet people where they are and help them reach not only a new learning, but also a deeper understanding that they might be able to apply to their next encounter. 

The MCNAA Haverhill workshop was a brief opportunity to discuss a sampling of topics through an activity involving cards with words and phrases related to Native Americans.  When people arrive, I ask them to look at the cards and talk to their neighbor about what they know and/or don't know about the words and phrases in front of them.  Then, I ask them to choose a few cards for me to elaborate on.  In this way, the activity and conversation is different every time and geared toward interests of the group.  It also builds a learning community emphasizing the power to language; words on paper and words on the tongue.  In addition, a level of trust begins - It's okay to talk about this, I have something to contribute, and I might even learn something.
I have created these "language cards" with four sets of words and phrases.  The "name cards" have words that are used to describe Native People, like "Indian," "First Nations," "Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere Before 1492," "Wampanoag," and "Woodland."  These words provide a point of departure for conversations about when one would use which word, or what words should be explained before being used (or not used at all), and why getting to the Nation's own name for themselves is a good idea.

The "text and media cards" have words that are "problematic."  These words are seen and heard in textbooks, novels, movies, commercials, and cartoons, to name a few areas.  They include words like "Tonto," "Westward Expansion," and "primitive."  They can be a problem because of inaccurate information and also because of the emotions that may be triggered when the word is used.  In Haverhill, the word "legend" came up for elaboration.  The problem here is that our creation stories are called legends, but other people's creation stories are called names like the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Torah.  Our oral stories passed on by ancestors through the generations are just a legitimate as the ones that were written down and deserve to be respected in the same way.

The "phrase cards" have expressions that one might read or hear like "low man on the totem pole" and "acting like a bunch of wild Indians."  This conversation can be about the problems with the phrase, or it can also be about a piece of history that is captured in the phrase.  In Haverhill, the phrase, "I'm part Indian," was selected for further explanation.  This phrase is important because it reminds us that many/most Native Americans are multiracial and multicultural.  Also, it reflects a part of history where identifying as Native American was dangerous or shameful, so families did not pass on their heritage, and now descendants are reclaiming their culture.  The context of the expression can also yield varying responses from the people who hear it.  Some people will laugh because it is said so often.  Others might wonder if the person knows their nation or aspects of their culture. Some might even be offended that someone identifies as part Native, but doesn't interact. learn, or practice within the culture. Still others, might want to know why we hear, "I'm part Native," but never hear "I'm part African/Black," thereby reminding us that oppression of fellow humans continues and, for now, Native Americans are the group that is admired.

The "culture cards" have words that are meaningful to Native Americans, like AIM (American Indian Movement), smudge, Tisquantum (Squanto's name), regalia, and tobacco.  If people know the meaning and significance of these words, then they are "in touch with the culture."  I choose some words which are common across Native Nations, and others which are specific to a particular Nation, to give participants a taste of culturally relevant terminology.  For example the word "Boriqua/en" is the indigenous word for the island of Puerto Rico and "Diné" is what the Navajo call themselves.  In Haverhill, most people were familiar with the words on the culture cards, in most other situations, these are the cards which people know the least about. People who attended the workshop on Saturday or Sunday contributed their own perspectives and also had a chance to listen to each other's points of view, as well as mine.