Wednesday, May 26, 2010

‘I come to school for this class. I deal with the other ones.’

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The title for today's post are words spoken by David, a Pima/Ute student at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona.  The class that gets David to school is one focusing exclusively on American Indian authors and their work. The list of authors includes Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, and Sherman Alexie.

The class was developed by James Blasingame and Simon Ortiz at Arizona State University. Ortiz is shown in the photo (photo credit: Tom Story).  Go here to read more about the class and how the university is working with the Tucson schools. It is a model, I think, that can be used in other university/school partnerships. Blasingame is am Associate Professor in Education, well known in literature circles for his work on young adult literature.

Ortiz is a Professor in English. From Acoma Pueblo, Ortiz is an accomplished writer, poet, and activist. I've written about his books for children several times. (See Native Literary Nationalism and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Simon Ortiz's Books for Youth.) Of late, Ortiz has been active in Arizona, participating at protests and speaking about recent laws passed in Arizona. Years ago, Ortiz wrote The People Shall Continue, an outstanding picture book about people coming together to work against injustice.

One of those laws is a ban on ethnic studies courses in high school. Budgets of schools that continue with ethnic studies courses will be cut by ten percent. In those courses, students read literature by Latino/a writers. A transformative curriculum model, the program itself is based on the work of leaders in multicultural education (James Banks, Sonia Nieto, Paulo Friere). 

A summary of the law is here. In the stipulations portion of the law is one that says "Courses or classes for Native American pupils as required for compliance with federal law" will not be restricted or prohibited. I'm not sure how that effects the Blasingame/Ortiz project...

I've got more to say on the Arizona immigration law and the ban on ethnic studies....  That word "ethnic" is one thing to consider, but also important is knowing that some tribal nations, particularly the Tohono O'odham Nation, straddles the U.S./Mexico border!

I do have more to say, but as I write this post, I'm looking at the clock...  In 30 minutes I'm due at a meeting. I'm in Washington D.C. for meetings of Reading is Fundamental's Literature Advisory Board and the Multicultural Advisory Committee. More later...

Monday, May 24, 2010


Earlier today Brian Young sent me two photos, taken today, with his cell phone. In both, someone is shown in a headdress, and, neither one of them is Native...  (I'm sharing one of the photos here. In it, the person's face is not visible. At the moment the photo was taken, playing cards were being tossed about, obscuring the individual's face.)

I met Brian three years ago. He's among the outstanding Native people in the Class of 2010 at Yale.

Brian took the photo at "Hat Day"---one of the many events taking place this week at Yale. Events at which graduating students and their families gather to celebrate four years of hard work and study.

Brian's family is there at Yale with him. They are Navajo.

They are, understandably, experiencing a wide range of emotion. Joy and pride in Brian's accomplishments, and, surprise and anger at the audacity or ignorance in the two students wearing these headdresses.

Brian inspires me. He approached one of the students and asked her to take it off. He explained why it inappropriate. In the foreground you see a baseball cap and a hard hat---both of which signal an occupation or a pastime.  They signal something you can do or be through training or study.

The thing is, unless you are born into a Native family, you can't really "be" an Indian. You might dress up like one, but, doing that is precisely the same thing as putting on one of the items the pope wears on his head (the small white skullcap is a zucchetto and the larger one is a mitre---I'll need to double check these terms later), and most people would recognize that activity as sacrilegious.

As I said, Brian inspires me. Rather than fret, he took action. He talked to the individual, and she took the headdress off. I don't know if he knew her personally or not. The point is, he demonstrated a tremendous act of courage and pride in who he is. In doing that, he modeled activism for his family.

Brian is considering further actions he can take. No doubt, he is thinking about other Native students at Yale, and what their "Hat Day" experience will be like.

Today's blog post is a public CONGRATULATIONS, BRIAN YOUNG, for graduating from Yale. I am deeply proud to know you. 

 Let's get some chili in July...

Update, May 25th, 6:45 Central Time

How/why does Brian's experience relate to children's books? A few years ago (before I started this blog) I came across a children's picture book. The cover was hats of all sorts. Among those hats was a Plains-style headdress. I'm sure thee are others like it. If anyone knows the book I'm remembering, please let me know. And there are, of course, other examples of non-Native characters wearing a headdress to "imitate Indians", dress like "an Indian", or, as a disguise to conceal one's identity....

Brian submitted a comment last night. It's the fourth comment below. Thanks, Brian, for taking time on your graduation day to submit the comment.  Some people may think that students at an Ivy League school would "know better" --- and I am confident that some, if not most of them, do --- but the point is the increase in this sort of thing all across the United States.