I would like to introduce you to my son, Wind-Wolf. He is probably what you would consider to be a typical Indian kid. He was born and raised on the reservation. He has black hair, dark brown eyes, and an olive complexion. And like so many Indian children of his age, he is shy and quiet in the classroom. He is 5 years old, in kindergarten, and I can't understand why you have already labelled him a "slow learner." At the age of 5, he has already been through quite an education compared with his peers in Western society. As his first introduction into this world, he was bonded to his mother and to the Mother Earth in a traditional native childbirth ceremony. And he has been continuously cared for by his mother, father, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extended tribal family since this ceremony. From his mother's warm and loving arms, Wind-Wolf was placed in a secure and specially designed Indian baby basket ... the traditional Indian baby basket became his "turtle's shell" and served as the first seat for his classroom ...
Although you in Western society may argue that such a method serves to hinder motor-skill development and abstract reasoning, we believe it forces the child to first develop his intuitive faculties, rational intellect, symbolic thinking, and five senses. Wind-Wolf was with his mother constantly, closely bonded physically, as she carried him on her back or held him in front while breast-feeding. She carried him everywhere she went, and every night he slept with both parents. Because of this, Wind-Wolf's educational setting was not only a "secure" environment, but it was also very colourful, complicated, sensitive, and diverse ... Wind-wolf was with his mother in South Dakota while she danced for seven days straight in the hot sun, fasting, and piercing herself in the sacred Sun Dance Ceremony of a distant tribe. He has been doctored in a number of different healing ceremonies ... And he has already been exposed to many different religions of his racial brothers: Protestant, Catholic, Asian Buddhist, and Tibetan Lamaist. His aunts and grandmothers taught him to count and know his numbers while they sorted out the complex materials used to make the abstract designs in the native baskets. He listened to his mother count each and every bead and sort out numerically according to colour while she painstakingly made complex beaded belts and necklaces ... I realize he may be slow in grasping the methods and tools that you are now using in your classroom, ones which may be quite familiar to his white peers, but I hope you will be patient with him. It takes him time to adjust to a new cultural system.
He is not culturally "disadvantaged," but he is culturally "different". If you ask him how many months there are in a year, he will probably tell you 13. He will respond this way not because he doesn't know how to count properly, but because he has been taught by our traditional people that there are 13 full moons in a year according to the native tribal calendar and that there are really 13 planets in our solar system and 13 tail feathers on a perfectly balanced eagle, the most powerful kind of bird to use in ceremony and healing. ... All these influences together make him somewhat shy and quiet – and perhaps "slow" according to your standards. But if Wind-Wolf was not prepared for his tentative foray into your world, neither were you appreciative of his culture. On the first day of class, you had difficulty with his name. You wanted to call him Wind, insisting that Wolf somehow must be his middle name ... Yesterday, for the third time in two weeks, he came home crying and said he wanted to have his hair cut. He said he doesn't have any friends at school because they make fun of his long hair. I tried to explain to him that in our culture, long hair is a sign of masculinity and balance, and is a source of power ... Now he refuses to sing his native songs, play with his Indian artifacts, learn his language, or participate in his sacred ceremonies. When I ask him to go to an urban powwow or help me with a sacred sweatlodge ritual, he says no because "that's weird" and he doesn't want his friends at school to think he doesn't believe in God ...
Sharing, not changing
I want my child to succeed in school and in life. I don't want him to be a drop-out or juvenile delinquent or to end up on drugs and alcohol because he is made to feel inferior or because of discrimination. I want him to be proud of his rich heritage and culture, and I would like him to develop the necessary capabilities to adapt to and succeed in both cultures. But I need your help. ... All I ask that you work with me, not against me to help educate my child in the best way. If you don't have the knowledge, preparation, experience, or training to effectively deal with culturally different children, I am willing to help you ... My Indian child has a constitutional right to learn, retain, and maintain his heritage and culture. By the same token, I strongly believe that non-Indian children also have to learn about our heritage and culture, because Indians play a significant part in the history of Western society.
My son, Wind-Wolf, is not an empty glass coming into your classroom to be filled. He is a full basket coming into a different environment with something special to share. Please let him share his knowledge, heritage, and culture with you and his peers.
This feature: Lake, R. (M. Maine Grizzlybear). Acknowledgements: Teacher Magazine