Monday, November 23, 2009

‘Myth, Colonialism, and the Next Generation’ by Shelley A. Welch

Today's post is submitted to American Indians in Children's Literature by Shelley A. Welch, MA, LMHC, of The Capturing Spirit Project.  


Myth, Colonialism, and the Next Generation
by Shelley A. Welch

I write this from the perspective of a mother, a school counselor, and elementary educator of 15 years.  My father’s Eastern Cherokee family relocated to the Northeast where I grew up and later met my husband, an enrolled member of a Massachusetts tribe.  My sons were born here in this ‘New England’ where the term ‘colonialism’ prevails.  This year, my oldest son began 1st grade.  Thanksgiving approached the public school calendar and with it came the perpetuation of historical myths that some educators just don’t want to let go of.  I am assuming, if you are reading this, you know the accurate chronological order of how Thanksgiving came to be.  If not, please refer to the following stated resources.

I knew the Massachusetts frameworks for elementary education and that it included Columbus and Colonial life, therefore I laid down the resources with the school before my son ever stepped foot in the building:  Plimoth Planatation, Oyate, Cradleboard Teaching Project, the National Museum of the American Indian, and American Indians in Children's Literature.  School staff ensured their understanding and sensitivity.

I allowed myself to believe that the sources would be utilized.  In retrospect, I should have requested to see all the material before they were presented yet I let my little one enter that building day after day and he and his classmates were exposed to the same old mis-teachings of my youth.  As parents, our feelings were  intense and included anger, frustration, guilt that we put him in this vulnerable position, fear, and the whole thing had fine strands that connected to historical traumas.

My 7 year old son expressed feeling pressured to try and ‘correct’ what he knew was wrong in school, but he also felt that he might ‘get in trouble’ for speaking his mind.  It certainly was not his responsibility to monitor curriculum.  I can’t tell you how complicated it was to un-teach what was taught to him in those brief weeks.  He would actually hang his head and exclaim, “I am confused.”  In those moments, with burning eyes, I felt like home schooling.   My son’s sense of self that was so confident in September was now shaky.  The more my husband and I scrutinized the upcoming material, the more the system back-pedaled and tripped up.  The educator in me knew this was a systematic issue that required a long- term commitment to examining personal bias and creating a bias-free learning environment, but the mother in me wanted to pack up and get the heck out of here.

Some teachers will say that historical realities are too heavy for young children.  Actually, it seems to be the adults that shy away from those topics because they are personally conflicted in what they know about Indigenous existence, European influence, and the development of America.  It is the adults who don’t seem to want to let go of American myths of ‘friendship and good will’ between the first settlers and the Indigenous people, a People who were once the majority and are now the smallest minority.  As a mental health professional specializing in child development, I can say that when children are told that one group bullied another, they are quite amazing peacemakers, acknowledging the breach of civil rights and offering cooperative resolutions.  It is true, elementary-aged students aren’t developmentally ready for the specifics of genocide, but they can understand the inhumanity of racism. 

And it isn’t just about the misrepresentation (or lack of representation) of Native presence that arises.  It also makes me question all of the curriculum material our children are exposed to and the complacency of parents and educators who don’t question the curriculum materials nor who demand a bias free education for all children.  

Shelley A. Welch, MA, LMHC

1 comment:

JCD said...

In our school district, the REAL story of history - the one where the truth about Columbus, Thanksgiving, and even the Revolutionary War are 'revealed' - doesn't really happen until HIGH SCHOOL US history in grade 10. It's a crime.

I've used sources Shelley Welch linked to with my children. I also have copies of Howard Zinn's books and James Lowen's "Lies MY Teacher Told Me" readily available.