Friday, March 08, 2013

Inspired by Students at University of Redlands and Sherman Indian School

On Wednesday, March 6th, I spoke at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The next day (March 7th, 2013), I spent the day at Redlands University and Sherman Indian School. My hosts at Redlands were Heather Torres and Nora Pulskamp of the Native American Student Programs office. Here we are at the end of the day:

In the morning, I gave a guest lecture to a class on Native Women taught at Redlands University by Dr. Larry Gross. I talked about depictions of Native women in the media and children's books. The students were engaged and engaging. I showed them "What Makes the Red Man Red" from Disney's Peter Pan. Their response was similar to the ones I get when I ask teachers and librarians to read aloud from selected passages of Little House on the Prairie. Surprise, that is, at how racist the depictions are, and that they do not remember those depictions from when they viewed/read these two items as children. We focused on the sexualization of Tiger Lily, and talked about the Violence Against Women Act.

From there, Heather and Nora drove us out to Sherman Indian School. It is one of the boarding schools originally designed (by the federal government) to 'kill the Indian and save the man.' Like Santa Fe Indian School, it is now a different place. Native history and culture is affirmed, for example, by the murals in the hallways:

Murals at Sherman Indian School affirm Native identity

I spent an hour with Native students. I talked with them about mascots, showing them photos of "Chief Illiniwek" (the former mascot at the University of Illinois) and stereotypes in children's literature. They were very attentive. When I showed them the photo of "Chief Illiniwek" doing the splits in mid-air, they exclaimed aloud at how ridiculous it is.

I also talked about the need to have books about American Indians, written by Native authors. My favorite example is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. I love showing that book to Native students, no matter how young or old they are. I was delighted that it slowly made its way through the group of 30 or so students, as they pored over the pages. Clearly, Cynthia's book touched them in a good way. After class was over, one young woman approached me to say she wants to be a writer. Her English teacher was also there and praised her work.

I was inspired by the students on both campuses. From them, I gained a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The public lecture on campus last night reminded me that certain segments of society will not welcome them or the work they wish to do. That lecture drew Native people who live in the Redlands area, and Redlands students who tutor Native youth. All took note of the woman who entered the lecture hall wearing a "Chief Illiniwek" jacket. When she took her jacket off, I noticed she had one of the newer shirts fans of "Chief Illiniwek" wear. When the mascot was retired at Illinois, private vendors designed and sold several different kinds of shirts, including the one she wore. It has the word CHIEF in large bold letters across the front of the shirt. The woman sat alone and quiet throughout the lecture, but at the end, told us she is a Fulbright scholar who studies cultural genocide, and that "Chief Illiniwek" is not a violent mascot like the one at Florida State. She was belligerent and loud and said in her 30 years of being at Illinois, she never saw anything violent about it.

Her decision to be there, to dress as she did, to proclaim her credentials, and argue as she did, was puzzling to me. What motivated her to do that? Hate? Privilege? Both?!

Though I'm certain there are administrators at the University of Illinois who wish the mascot was still there, I think they would have been embarrassed at the behavior of this woman. She is, whether she realizes it or not, the embodiment of racism.

The students at Redlands and Sherman Indian School will encounter people like her. Change--for the better--will happen. It is never easy work, but change does happen. "Chief Illiniwek" no longer dances at Illinois because Native people and our allies fought to get rid of it. I leave California with the faces of the students in my head, inspired by each one of them.

Update at 9:45 AM, 2013
Added photo of mural from Sherman Indian School and cover of Jingle Dancer. 


jpm said...

Wonder why on earth the mascot-fangirl focused on whether or not the image is "violent"? Thirty years at Illinois, and a Fulbright scholar who studies cultural genocide? It would be interesting to see some of her scholarship. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Morgan York said...

Hey, I was at your presentation at the University of Redlands, and I really enjoyed it! Glad you mentioned that woman in your post. That was incredibly embarrassing to listen to, and I'm sorry she behaved like that.

Venetta said...

This is cool!