Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 13, Boarding Schools & B.S.

In the thirteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, I read a crappy book, a good book, and a fantastic critical review, and I finally meet Geronimo. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

My Heart Is On the Ground is a crappy book.

my heart is on the ground cover ann rinaldi
Do not pay money for this book!

There’s just no other way to say it, folks. Despite the fact that I knew there was some controversy surrounding this book, I tried to come at it with an open mind. I’ve actually read 8-10 other books by Ann Rinaldi, who is a prolific author of children’s historical fiction, and I really liked some of them. So I really, really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

But once I started reading, there was no denying the awfulness.

From the start of the novel, where Rinaldi has the protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, write her “die-eerie” in stereotypical broken “Indian English”, to the afterword, where Rinaldi says of the Carlisle Indian School children whose gravestones inspired her to create this novel, “I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it” (p.196) — this novel is just bad.

And not only is it bad — it’s just plain fake.

The whole time I was reading, my Spidey senses were tingling. Wouldn’t Nannie say “Lakota” and not “Sioux”? Why did she just blame her chiefs for giving away their land? Did she just describe white people as “very powerful” and say that “They know almost everything on the earth’s surface and in the heavens, also!” (p.7) ?? (No, I did not make that up.)

When I got to the end, I immediately read a review of the book co-authored by Debbie Reese (who runs the blog American Indian Children’s Literature) and eight other native and non-native women. And there, I learned that my Spidey senses had been right.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I will simply excerpt some of Ms. Reese & co’s fantastic article below. I strongly recommend reading the review in its entirety, as it is impressively thorough and very educational in and of itself. (All quotes below are from the above-linked article by Reese & co. All emphasis is mine.)

In response to Rinaldi’s depiction of Native children wanting to stay at Carlisle rather than go home with their parents:

In her autobiography, Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) remembers that parents taught their children to play a game similar to hide-and-seek to avoid being taken away to boarding school. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940, Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) reports:

“The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz” (p. 13).

Many children died at Carlisle, and they died running away from the institution. Child (1995), in her study of boarding schools, found that running away was a universal thread that ran across boarding schools and across generations. Physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, is well documented in the stories of survivors of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Children were beaten and worse for not understanding English, for speaking their languages, for minor infractions of military rule, for running away, even for grieving. Many died of illnesses, many died of abuse, and many died of broken hearts.
On Rinaldi’s appropriation and story-invention of the names of the children who died at Carlisle:
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in museums all over the U.S. and Canada. For the last hundred years, many of our traditional stories have been turned into books for children without permission and with little if any respect given to their origins or sacred content. Now, Rinaldi has taken this appropriation of Native lives and stories one step further. That she would take the names of real Native children from gravestones and make up experiences to go with them is the coldest kind of appropriation. These were children who died lonely and alone, without their parents to comfort them. They were buried without proper ceremony in this lonely and sad place. Native people who visit the cemetery today express a profound sense of sadness.
On Rinaldi’s lack of both accuracy and cultural authenticity:
Contrary to Rinaldi’s statement in the historical note that “most of the graduates were able to earn a living away from the reservation,” and “others went on to higher education,” evidence points to the opposite. Earning a living “away from the reservation” meant going into Indian service and working on a reservation or agency— or in one of the dozens of off-reservation boarding schools modeled after Carlisle. And very few children graduated. Of the total population of 10,000, only 758 students—or fewer than 10%—graduated. More students ran away than graduated—1,758 runaways are documented.
The events in My Heart Is On the Ground are not plausible. In 1880, a Lakota child of the protagonist’s age would have been well-educated by her aunties and grandmothers in Lakota tradition and lore, and ways of seeing the world and behaving in right relation to it. She would probably have had younger children to care for, as well as older sisters in her extended family, her tiospaye, to emulate.
A Lakota child in 1880 would not have referred to herself as “Sioux.” (beginning at p. 6) It is a French corruption of an enemy-name used by the Ojibwe. She would have referred to herself by her band (Sicangu) or location (Spotted Tail Agency) or from a much smaller familial group, her tiospaye. And she would certainly not have referred to Indian men as “braves.”
On putting stereotypes in a Native protagonist’s mouth:
Throughout, Rinaldi uses stereotyped language to express Lakota (or “Indian”) speech and thought patterns. These include over-emphasis on compound words (e.g., “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us,” “Time-That-Was-Before,” “night-middle-made”) to “sound Indian,” when there is no basis for such use. For instance, Rinaldi makes up the term “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us” as Nannie’s word for “interpreter.” Yet there is a Lakota word for “interpreter”: iyeska, literally, one who speaks well. The original term meant “translator,” since most translators at the time were the mixed-blood children of Indian women and white traders.
In response to every possible objection:
Individuals in the field of children’s literature may dismiss our concerns and ask, “But is it a good book?” We think not. From a literary perspective, it lacks consistency and logic. As a work of historical fiction, it is rife with glaring factual errors. As a work of “multicultural” literature, it lacks authenticity.
Seriously, folks — I cannot overstate the awfulness and potential damaging-ness of this book. Please, if you ever see someone about to read it, kindly say to them, “I’ve heard there are some major inaccuracies in that book…” and then send them a link to AICL’s review. (Here it is again, just to keep it handy.) There are WAY better books about both young Native people and the history of Indian boarding schools.
Speaking of which…

A great children’s book about Indian boarding schools

As a native-authored counterpoint to Rinaldi’s disasterpiece, I grabbed a copy of Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow. This beautifully illustrated (and autobiographical) children’s book tells the story of Larry’s last summer before being sent away to boarding school.

larry loyie family illustration
Larry & family (dad, siblings, grandparents) as the kids imitate their owl

This might be like any other “I’m gonna miss my family while I’m away at school” book… except that Larry’s parents were forced by the Canadian government to send him to a mission school for First Nations children or be jailed.

While the bulk of the book focuses on Larry’s time spent with his family (including siblings nursing a baby owl back to health and grandma shooting dead a huge grizzly bear), the epilogue includes photos and biographical information about the time that Larry and his siblings spent attending St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Alberta.

You may remember from early on in the Little House series that I have previously struggled with how and when children should be told about difficult events. What most impressed me about this book is how truthfully AND appropriately it teaches children about an important topic in our history.

This book was the perfect truthful antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s fake stuff. Difficult truth > easy lies.

Wounded Knee Ch. 17

In this chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we pick up with the Chiricahua Apaches (whom we saw last in Chapter 9). Their part in this book concludes in what is becoming an all-too-predictable fashion: Indians do things US doesn’t like, US tells Indians to surrender, Indians resist and/or flee for X amount of time, eventually US catches Indians and forces them to go somewhere else than where they want to be. Bada bing, bada boom. It’s like a really predictably awful sitcom, except full of death and sorrow.

Anyway, since that outline is pretty familiar, I’ll just pull out a couple of unique points that struck me while reading the story of the Chiricahua Apaches:

1) It’s cool to see the “character development” of General Crook — he finally treats the Apaches like PEOPLE!

Brown notes this attitude change himself in his narration about Crook, but it’s cool too just to see the change in Crook’s own words. When he is called in by the US to “deal with” the Apaches, his first move is to… search out individual Apaches and sit down to talk with them. I was SHOCKED when I read this! Imagine — asking the people you’re supposed to supervise what THEY think! It’s a sad commentary on the rest of the book that this seems like such a refreshingly novel concept to me at this point. Anyway, here is an excerpt from Crook’s assessment after his chats with some Chiricahua folks:

“I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people [whites/Americans] existed among all the bands of the Apaches. It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me … that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe. … [The Apaches] had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace” (p.403-4, emphasis added).

Oh my goodness — THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THIS. I have been SO impressed SO many times with various Indigenous folks’ commitment to honoring their peace agreements throughout this book, and Crook is the FIRST white person in this book to acknowledge the strength of character it takes to get kicked around all the time and STILL keep up your end of the deal. (Again, the fact that he is a rarity speaks volumes about the crappiness of most of the rest of the US representatives in the book.)

2) We finally meet the famous Geronimo and — surprise! — he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty warmonger.

Geronimo was just another regular guy trying to take care of himself and his people in whatever way he could. But the white newspapers made him into a monster. In fact, one of the strong themes in this chapter is how the anti-Apache sensationalism of the newspapers (beginning with those near the US-Mexico border, which then fed other papers around the country) had a strong negative effect on all efforts to have straightforward communication and relations with the Chiricahuas. In the end, when Crook promised Geronimo & co. a peaceful return to their White Mountain Reservation if they surrendered, stories about “dangerous Geronimo” probably strongly influenced the US Government’s refusal to meet those terms, and the rumors flying around contributed to Geronimo getting spooked and fleeing the scene. After Geronimo fled, the papers eviscerated Crook and he was reprimanded and forced to resign.

3) Carlisle Indian School is far-reaching and terrifying.

After Geronimo & co. were later convinced to surrender, both they and the “friendly” Apaches (including the Aravaipas, who we met back in Chapter 9) were shipped to Florida, where many died from consumption and suffered in the humid climate. (Not quite like Arizona!) Additionally, Brown notes that “the government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there” (p.412). This is terrifying and sad, because the government is totally destroying all connection between the generations and all connection to the land each people is tied to, thus totally disintegrating every major thread of the fabric of Apache society (and others…). Not to mention, here they are sending children who are from Arizona, and have been shipped to Florida, to live in Pennsylvania! With no family and maybe no one else who speaks their language! Wow. Talk about total uprooting and disconnection. Seeing it here in the “real life history” section makes Carlisle even more sinister in my brain, and it makes me even madder that Rinaldi portrayed it so falsely and toothlessly.

The Chiricahua Apaches: Where are they now?

Because Florida was such a bad climate for the Chiricahuas, Crook and other white allies worked to get them permission to return to the Southwest. They succeeded — but Arizona refused to allow them inside its borders, so the Mescaleros allowed the Apaches to live on part of their reservation. Today there are two federally-recognized Chiricahua/Apache tribes: one, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, lives in Oklahoma in their tribal jurisdictional area and numbers around 650; the other is the joint Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose reservation is located in south-central New Mexico and numbers just over 3,000 tribal enrollees. You can read more about all the Chiricahua peoples here.

Conclusion

As I near the end of this project, I keep coming back to the importance of telling true stories. When false stories are told, it can do a lot of damage. Rinaldi’s false story has probably taught a lot of children a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about Lakota people and Carlisle. The southern newspapers made the climate incredibly volatile for US-Apache relations in the 1880s. On the other hand, pursuing the true story can also have powerful impact. Larry Loyie’s sharing of his experiences of being torn from his family is a powerful witness that is accessible even to children. When Crook took the time to hear the true story of the Chiricahuas people he was supposed to serve, he gained their trust and did his job better for it (even though his compassion got him fired).

The moral of the story: Take the time to learn the true story. And then, fight the false ones. Because which story we tell matters. 

Tune in next week for Little Town on the Prairie (LH #7) and The Game of Silence (Birchbark House #2 — YAYYYYYY!).

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Stop Saying that Teachers are Inspirational

This morning on the radio the DJ reported a story about how a Nobel prize winner said he “owed it all to his bassoon teacher“, and then the DJ went on and on about how inspiring teachers are and how the station was going to have a series on inspirational teachers.

Now, I’m very glad that the laureate in question had such a wonderful bassoon teacher. Good for both of them. But I have to say — especially as a former teacher — I am tired of hearing about how “inspirational” teachers are. 

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we pay them 60% of what we pay their education-level peers?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come so many of them want to escape the profession (and 46% of new teachers leave within 5 years)?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come everyone and their mother thinks they know more about educating children than teachers do?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we degrade the teaching profession by saying things like “those who can do; those who can’t teach” or “you’ve got it easy — you get the summer off”?

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d pay them livable (or even generous!) wages instead of empty applause and flattery for a select few who rise to the top.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d treat them like the co-parents to our children that they are instead of like stupid babysitters who aren’t working hard enough to make sure our kid gets an A.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d let teachers figure out how best to educate our children instead of tying their hands and forcing them to chase an ever-moving and impossibly high bar.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d stop using their love of educating children as an excuse to take advantage of them.

So you can call teachers lots of things. 

Call them “professional”. Call them “educated”. Call them “mentors”. Call them “graceful”. Call them “patient”. Call them “loving”. Call them “thoughtful”. Call them “passionate”. Call them “creative”. Call them “dedicated”. Or, call them “ineffective” or “impatient” or “frustrating.” They’re people — so call them whatever they are.

But don’t call them “inspirational”. That’s just an excuse not to call them “equal”.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 4, The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

In the fourth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, freed blacks have to wait a lot and we see the best and worst of white settler behavior. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

[content note: graphic description of violence – not for children.]

“I Thought My Soul Would Rise & Fly”

i thought my soul would rise and flyThis fictional diary, based on a one-line description of a real person and other historical documents of the time, tells the story of “Patsy, a Freed Girl” right after the end of the Civil War in 1865. I found myself a little bored reading this one, probably because the main concern of most of the book was waiting. The things Patsy and the other newly freed blacks waited for were actually pretty interesting, though.

  • They waited to see if they were still emancipated now that their emancipator, President Lincoln, was dead.
  • They waited for news of their loved ones who had been sold away from them, or they waited for a chance to leave themselves. (Side note: It was cool to see how black churches came to function as community centers for support, information, education, etc.)
  • They waited for the right to vote (and women had to wait till the 1900s).
  • They waited for a white teacher to come establish the school they were promised in exchange for continuing to work their plantation. (She never came, because no one would house her.)
  • They waited for the plots of land they were promised. (Instead, most land was returned to former slaveholders.)
  • Patsy waited to see if it was still illegal for her to read and write.

Overall, it was educational to learn about how long and confusing the emancipation process was for many of these black folks. They had been forbidden to learn to read or write, they had little access to information, and they were constantly being fed misinformation by their white former owners, so it’s not that surprising that it took a while for slavery to actually be done. Not to mention that once the white plantation owners went to Washington D.C. and took their oaths of allegiance they pretty much regained their former influence, which they used to codify new restrictions on free blacks (see the “Black Codes”).

Basically, the Reconstruction Era was chaotic because of all the migration and massive socio-political upheaval caused by literally reorganizing an entire society all at once. Some blacks were able to band together and purchase land through associations (as the folks in this diary do in the epilogue), but many were roped into the “new slavery” of sharecropping and never really got a chance to stand on their own two feet.

“War Comes to the Cheyennes” & “Powder River Invasion”

In Chapter 4 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown relates the story of Black Kettle and the Cheyennes, who worked hard to maintain peace with white folks, even sending a few chiefs (Black Kettle included) to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. Black Kettle received from Lincoln a medal, papers, and a huge American flag, which he flew constantly and insisted would protect his tribe from being mistaken for non-peaceable Indians.

Despite this proactive diplomacy, and despite having several other local white advocates (I was happy to find a few finally, goodness!), the Cheyennes were still told to camp close to Fort Lyon to ensure that they stayed peaceable. This relatively neighborly arrangement continued under the sympathetic Major Wynkoop, until complaints from less Indian-friendly officials that he was “letting the Indians run the place” resulted in his being relieved of command. He was replaced by one Major Anthony who, along with his commanding officer Colonel Chivington, was bent on “collecting scalps” and “wading in gore” (Chivington’s words). They kept up a peaceful front with the Cheyennes and neighboring Arapahos until they had time to amass their troops. When some of Anthony’s officers objected that an attack on the Cheyennes would violate the peace treaty and “would be murder in every sense of the word”, Colonel Chivington replied, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians!” (p. 86) (Did I mention that Chivington was also an ordained Methodist minister?)

The ensuing Sand Creek Massacre was horrific. Due to the sense of safety from Major Wynkoop’s friendship and Major Anthony’s facade of peace, the Cheyenne camp was almost totally unguarded. A witness in the camp later remembered this scene:

…in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise — men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms. … I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camp. (p. 88, emphasis added)

The soldiers in this slaughter were particularly brutal, killing most of the 100-200 people and scalping and mutilating the bodies. One soldier graphically described the carnage: “In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner — men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c. …to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J. M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them” (p. 90). Brown notes that “in a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. ‘Nits make lice!’ he declared” (p. 90), thereby adding his name to a (sadly) long list of those who have justified extermination and genocide by comparing people to pests.

To me, this chapter illustrates both the best and worst of white-Indian relations. On the one hand, Major Wynkoop and many other soldiers lived in peace and perhaps even friendship with the Cheyenne. They knew and respected honorable behavior when they saw it, and spoke up even when their own people violated that honor. On the other hand, Colonel Chivington is clearly a man sick with hate and racism and violence, orchestrating and gleefully executing the slaughter and mutilation of hundreds of blatantly innocent people. If only, I keep thinking, if only the U.S. Government had listened to the Major Wynkoops and worked toward peace and stability instead of privileging the Colonel Chivingtons and participating in deceit, murder, and evil.

Unfortunately for Chivington’s goals of wiping out the Cheyennes, many of the tribe had been off hunting. The Indians he had slaughtered and desecrated were, in fact, the least threatening — over two-thirds women and children. The remainder of the Cheyenne split — a disheartened Black Kettle (who somehow survived) and several hundred followers headed south to join the Southern Arapahos, while the rest headed north to the seemingly impenetrable stronghold of the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux in the Powder River area to mass for a revenge attack. The Northern group defeated an outpost of soldiers and retreated to Powder River, hoping they would now be able to keep the whites at bay. (More on that later.)

Meanwhile, down south of the Arkansas River, Black Kettle and his band of Cheyennes joined with Little Raven and the Arapahos who had also been driven off of their land. Since the new territory of Colorado could be proved through previous (broken) treaties to stand on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, government representatives organized a council meeting to sign a new treaty. When Black Kettle and Little Raven argued that it would be difficult for their peoples to leave their homelands and fallen loved ones behind, they received this reply:

We all fully realize that it is hard for any people to leave their homes and graves of their ancestors, but, unfortunately for you, gold has been discovered in your country, and a crowd of white people have gone there to live, and a great many of these people are the worst enemies of the Indians…. Under the circumstances, there is, in the opinion of the commission, no part of the former country large enough where you can live in peace. (p.100, emphasis added)

What is so evident here is the instant privilege given to anyone who is white over and above anyone who is Indian, and the proprietary sense of manifest destiny. “Since we white folks have discovered gold,” it seems to say, “naturally we have a right to your land and will do nothing to prevent current and future whites from crossing your borders and taking your land.” Any white desire for Indian land is assumed and normalized — and granted — and the Cheyenne/Arapaho desire to maintain their land “just to be near their fallen ancestors” is not worth preserving in the face of such potential monetary gain. This whole statement is heavy with self-righteous inevitability.

Left with no other options to secure peace, the leaders of the remaining Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the new treaty in October of 1865, agreeing to “perpetual peace” and totally relinquishing all claims to their former homeland in exchange for a tiny reservation in Kansas.

Chapter 5 of Wounded Knee is short; it details the ever-hardening resolve of both the white settlers and the federated Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho to entertain no other option than killing each other. We also meet our first Indian “mercenaries” in the Pawnees, who were old tribal enemies of the Dakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos and hired themselves out to the soldiers at Fort Connor. The aforementioned Connor (a general who named the fort after himself) took a band of soldiers and went out to “hunt like wolves” any Indians he could find. They destroyed a peaceful Arapaho village before being stopped and held in place by the Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho federation, who harried their supply trains to keep them starving and demoralized. The chapter ends at this uneasy stand-still, with the Indian alliance temporarily keeping the soldiers at bay but knowing they cannot match the firepower of Civil War arms and howitzers. We’ll read more about these tribes, I’m assuming, in Chapter 6, “Red Cloud’s War.”

The Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne: Where are they now?

Since there are many tribes in these and later chapters, I’ll try to break them up a bit and do a few at a time.

After the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes were given a small reservation in Kansas, the land was not to their liking, so their reservation was relocated to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma. However, in 1907 the federal government dissolved all formal Indian reservations land ownership in order to allow Oklahoma to be admitted to the Union as a state. Today the state of Oklahoma has reinstituted tribal sovereignty, but in a non-land-owning way. Instead, it recognizes “tribal jurisdiction” of various sectors designated as “Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Analysis (OTSA) areas“. You can see a map of the former Indian reservations below.

Former Indian Reservations in Oklahoma

 

Today, the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes live together in the combined Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe in western Oklahoma. Of over 12,000 enrolled tribal members, over 8,000 live in Oklahoma. In 2006, the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe worked with Southwestern Oklahoma State University to found the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College. You can learn more about the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe here.

Conclusion

This week, the common theme is how far some people will go to defend the privileges granted to them by their entrenched beliefs and power structures. To me, Chivington is the epitome of evil in the book so far — his actions turn my stomach and makes me want to shrink away. But even though it really disgusts me how evil humans can be, I also believe it’s important for us to keep reading and knowing and sharing true stories, because that’s what happened. And even though it’s hard sometimes to admit “yes, my government endorsed deception and thievery and massacre and mutilation, and I still benefit from it today,” it is still true. I feel like the very least I can do is to tell the truth as best I can.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Chapter 6 and (finally) Farmer Boy (Little House #3).

What to Read Wednesdays — July 3, 2013

Sometimes, when I haven’t read through my RSS reader for a while, it starts to pile up. And then, when I finally DO read it, I have like 237 million articles that I want to share… which is too many for Facebook. So this time I’m just going to start funneling them into one blog post list. That way it’ll be easier to avoid link-spamming my Facebook, *plus* I can give some extra blog-cred to these fantabulous folks.

Ok. Without further ado, here’s this week’s What to Read Wednesday list:

Christena Cleveland: Psychology, Faith, & Reconciliation [the whole blog]

Ok folks, seriously, I don’t understand how I am just discovering this blog. I mean faith + racial reconciliation + psychological research??? Yes, please! Here’s an excerpt from Why our diversity efforts often fail – and what we can do about it:

Research suggests that diversity initiatives are most likely to fail amongst Christian groups that idolize their cultural identities. Due to this idolatry, minority group members are not invited as valuable members of the all-inclusive we.  Rather (and perhaps this is unintentional) they are invited to participate in the organization as them – subordinate ‘Others’ and second class citizens who are bound to be dissatisfied. Until we relativize our cultural identities and adopt an inclusive group identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated.

Wow. Just so much food for thought! I’m just digging in myself, but here are a couple more posts that have already grabbed my eye:

Sandra Glahn at bible.org: “How to Influence ‘The Liberal Media'”

This is a thorough, well-thought-out piece from a (conservative I think) Christian about the best way to influence and deal with “the liberal media”. A quote:

Are we willing to listen to why without assuming those who disagree must have a low view of the Bible? Some believers think the government has no business deciding what marriage is. Some think commitment is better than serial sexual relationships, thus seeing gay marriage as landing higher in an ethics hierarchy than uncommitted relationships. Some read in Romans 1 that “God gave them over,” and reason, “So why don’t we ‘give them over’ too”? … Proverbs 18:2 serves as a fitting reminder here: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” How much are we willing to listen without labeling people as “liberal” whenever we disagree with them?

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary: “The Perfect Shade of Greige”

As a current suburbanite struggling to find ways to live out reconciliation, I felt totally convicted by this post about finding God in suburbia. Great read.

It’s a rookie mistake, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I think I have managed to translate my cross-cultural experience into something holier and more important than my life in the U.S. I almost convinced myself that God was more present there than he is here. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

Richard Beck at Experimental Theology: “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 46, The Confession of Public and Private Sins”

While the post title might sound really boring, the direction Dr. Beck takes this is quite the conversation-starter!

It seems that for Benedict public confession and repentance is inherently a communal and relational activity. Public confession is about a rip in the communal fabric and the attempt to mend that tear. Public confession is less about airing your dirty laundry than about being reconciled to your sisters and brothers. … Thus I wonder if our public confessions of private sins isn’t symptomatic of something wrong in how we approach church.

Jerry Park at Patheos: “Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?”

This fascinating dissection of national census data is a great reminder of why sweeping generalizations break down. (Because they’re sweeping generalizations.)

As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. …while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level of attainment.

 

What other awesome things have you read recently? Let me know in the comments!

Banned Books Change Lives.

[Warning: Offensive language ahead.]

This week (the week of Sept. 30th, 2012) is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. As someone who loves books and who has been greatly challenged and stretched by some of these “banned books”, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you why it’s important to keep “banned books” in our libraries, and especially in our schools.

As you may know, I am a licensed secondary English teacher. As a part of my student teaching, I had the privilege of teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to 9th graders at a small rural-ish (almost entirely white & Latino/a) school in Minnesota. But before I continue my story, let me share a little background on the controversy surrounding this novel:

  • In the last ten years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the #21 most challenged book.
  • Although its major race-related theme is the injustice and wrongness of racism, it is often challenged for being a racist book or for “promot[ing] white supremacy.”
  • One of the most frequent reasons cited for its banning is the use of the word “nigger”.

Now, back to my classroom. Knowing a few of my mischievous 9th graders as I did, I decided to be proactive about the use of the “n-word” in our classroom. I spent five minutes at the start of the first reading day explaining to my students that, although the author used that word frequently to accurately depict the setting of her writing, it was not acceptable for them to use that word, and they should count this as their fair warning that anyone choosing to say that word in class would be sent directly to the office.

Of course, the first “culprit”, to my embarrassment, was a student whose English proficiency was not up to grade level and who, I’m pretty sure, accidentally let it slip only because he had read it so many times in the novel. (But, follow-through-er as I was, I sent him to the office as promised, poor kid. I make me wince sometimes.) That night, I went home and designed an entire lesson specifically to educate my students about the historical significance of the “n-word”, because it was clear to me that the vast majority of them had no idea what they were (not) saying.

The next day, we went through my lesson and I did my level best to help my students understand that the “n-word” was so awful because of the hateful, dehumanizing racism it embodied. I searched for and found a photo that I thought exemplified the demeaning stereotype whites created to oppress blacks, and we discussed it:

A slide from our discussion.

Before, the class had been its usual jovial self; as soon I showed this image, it was silent. You could feel the shock in the room, and when I finally coaxed responses to the discussion questions they were muted and brief.

After I was sure the meaning of the word had been made clear, we talked about the history of various words used to describe African-Americans (including which terms are generally acceptable today) and then ended by taking a few minutes for the students to jot what they had learned on a notecard. Most responses were simple — “I learned never to say that word” — but a few students shared more deeply:

I learned that the “n word” is more meaningful than I thought. I knew you shouldn’t use it but I didn’t know it was that important.

I found out that colored is not a good word to call a black/African-American person.

I learned today that black people were introduced as monkeys and were set up as them just because their skin was a color that some people didn’t like. I hate how whites think they can make fun of a different skin color!

I thought it was very sad when we learned about the bank of a man and saw the resemblance between it and the one of a monkey. I will never call anyone that word because of how disrespectful it is.

I learned that black people are not bad, and have never been bad. White people just made them out to be bad, and made them seem like they were [bad] to everyone. They are the same as us, just different colored skin, but that means nothing. They are still the same as us, and we are still the same as them.

My feelings were changed about how people treat other people that people were really awful to people that were different races and they still do. I got chills when I heard the things that people did and said and even showed the African American people as. It was upsetting to me and really hit a spot in my heart that had never really been touched before. Thank you. : )

I share these not to toot my own horn — clearly I was not a model teacher! — but to show the incredible need to educate our young people about past sins in order to help them understand their present world.

If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain “the n-word”) were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the “n-word” into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it. If I or the school or the parents had tried to sweep it under the rug, my students would have remained ignorant, and the only way to make any good out of our messy, hurtful, embarrassing history is to stop it from repeating itself. So I ask you this: If we sanitize our schools of all the ugly past, how will we ever learn from it?

Humanity is cruel and kind, evil and good, racist and just, murderous and life-giving. We learn how to act by seeing both what to do and what not to do. Removing the “bad parts” from our children’s education doesn’t make them better people, just more likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

So this week, check out a “banned book”! You don’t have to like it — you don’t have to think it’s appropriate for any age (most things are not) — but please, before you reject it as a “filthy, trashy novel”, think about what we it might teach us and how it might help us to avoid repeating history.

Foundations

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know you said that you were okay with me leaving the “strawberry patch” for another denomination — and I know you still love me anyway — but today I wanted to take the time to say “thank you” for raising me in the Lutheran church.

As I started to “wake up” in college and pay attention to my beliefs and my surroundings, some of the first things I noticed about the LCMS were the hard things that I couldn’t quite swallow and needed to wrestle with, like closed communion and women in the church. (I still wrestle with those things, by the way.) But now that I’ve gotten a little older and have the benefit of a little more hindsight, I’ve started to realize some of the less hard, more awesome things that have been planted in me through you.

For example, in looking back at the LCMS I’ve realized the huge emphasis that it places on education and knowledge, which has definitely been passed on to me. The impulse to study and dig into something before I make a conclusion might just be a personality thing… but I think it’s more likely that this was cultivated in me by you and by a church that values knowledge of scripture to the point of memorization. (I still remember parts of the catechism — this is most certainly true!)

I also appreciate that from a young age I was taught the importance of knowing my church doctrine — that doctrine matters, and is something to be pondered and not treated lightly. Some of this came in the form of jibes about some “Christianity lite” churches we visited… but in the end, I think I got the point, which is to make sure that my faith isn’t just about “Ten Steps to a Better Life” but is always rooted and based in the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, even in the midst of the gentle teasing of other denominations, I still learned the importance of respecting the folks across the theological aisle, so to speak. I remember attending different sorts of services with you several times, whether due to vacations or volleyball tournaments, and I always felt like it was an important part of my education to understand how our faith and traditions fit into a larger picture of Christendom.

Speaking of traditions, I’m also really glad that I grew up in a church that has a strong sense of church tradition. I think I really came to appreciate and understand the layers of meaning behind the traditions, especially since as a pastor’s family we were so immersed in them from year to year. Now, I also appreciate the value of more spontaneous worship, but I will always have a special spot in my heart for the color-coded observance of the church year and the liturgy that I still have memorized.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though I’ve “left the fold”, I still respect and appreciate my roots. And I’m thankful to both of you for working so hard to plant and raise me in the “strawberry patch”.

Happy Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day too)!

Love,
Rebekah

On being the language minority

This past week at the middle school where I currently teach we had parent teacher conferences. Since my middle school is about 60-70% Latino students, and since I speak Spanish, I always expect a few conferences will be conducted in Spanish rather than English. This round, however, it turned out that almost ALL of my conferences were conducted in Spanish. I honestly really appreciate a good excuse to remember (and verify) that I speak another language! But I’ve got to admit — I was pretty nervous those first few times the answer to my question (“English or Spanish?”) was “Spanish”. My brain started scrambling for vocabulary, I made stupid mistakes, and I felt embarrassed for using words that may not even be real words in front of other adults. I even asked a student once if I said everything right. (She said I did good.) But it was hard! I had to communicate important information on the fly in a professional setting in a diplomatic manner — and I had to do it all in my second language. Needless to say, I felt a little off-balance for much of the evening.

Then today, as I was reflecting back on it, I realized that most of my Spanish-speaking parents probably feel like that a lot. I have the privilege of knowing that when I go into a restaurant or store there will always be someone who speaks my language there to help me. I have the privilege of knowing I can get any book or magazine or form I want in my language. I have the privilege of never having to worry whether someone is judging my intelligence because of my language abilities or accent. Or at least, I do outside of parent-teacher conference night.

I’m not gonna lie — I’m glad I don’t have to worry about those things most of the time. But I’m also glad that I did have to on one conference night, so that hopefully I will remember to have a little more compassion in the future.