Timothy San Pedro is a PhD Candidate in English Education at Arizona State University, where he has conducted three years of ethnographic research in a Native American Literature classroom in a state that has banned ethnic studies programs in public schools. He taught Alaska Native High School students for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. He is a Ford Fellow; a Gates Millennium Scholar, mentor, and regional director; and a Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color Fellow. San Pedro’s research interests include Native American Urban Education and socio-culturally sustaining pedagogies.
As I enter the Native American Literature classroom that I am conducting research in, I see many faces, hear many stories, and engage in many conversations. On this particular day, I overhear a conversation Eileen has with another classmate. She says to her friend: “If you cut us in half and put us together, you’d have two complete people.” Eileen is referring to her and her friend’s ethnic makeup; they are both half Navajo and half African American.
Although a joke between two friends, I know what it feels like to want to be fully something, rather than on the margins of two or more cultural or ethnic identities. I want to reach out to both of them at this point and say, “It can get quite confusing. Take me, for example. I’m half Filipino, half Caucasian, yet I grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Since my family left my father, I have had zero contact with my Filipino culture and have been embraced by the Native American community around me. Where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Where do I fit, if anywhere?” Those conversations centered on identity may come later with Eileen. For now, I just give them a smile.
In the process of getting to know Eileen, who is a participant in my research, I have had an incredible opportunity to reflect on what I experienced when I was her age growing up in a school system that rarely acknowledged cultural expertise, perspectives and knowledges of the Native American peoples that surrounded my and her high school.
In interviewing her later, she tells me that she sees many contradictions in what her teachers are telling her, especially since she is being taught a Native American historical and literary perspective in her second period Native American literature classroom and then having American history during period three, which is mostly void of any discussion of her culture and her people. I ask her, “Having this Native American class before your American history class, does that do anything for being in the history class at all?”
Eileen: I think it gives me more opinions to say sometimes in the American history class since they are back to back. So like it’s interesting to see what Ms. Bee will say and then go into American history and see what Mr. Decker will say and I always say that it’s completely different, but it’s a little interesting. It’s really the only thing I pay attention…. I just sit there.
Eileen says that although she just sits there, quiet, she is still taking notes in class and attentive to what is being taught. The notes she is taking are not the normal notes that we may be used to where we write down what the teacher has said so that we can memorize events and “facts” to pass a test. No, Eileen takes notes on the contradictions in knowledge between her American history and her Native American literature class. She is having a conversation with herself on paper in class, a silent one, where she is addressing what Mr. Decker left out of his power point slides and what has been left out of the “American” history textbook in front of her. What keeps her attention is where her knowledge fits and where her knowledge has been erased, skimmed over, ignored.
I think back to my schooling and wonder about those faint thoughts in the back of my head when being taught a particular and political curriculum at my school. I can remember thinking: “Why are the histories of my Native American friends and families not being discussed? The only section they mention anything about Native Americans is at the very beginning and they discuss them as if they are in the ancient past, dead, gone, when I am sitting next to my friends who still are alive and are very much tied to their culture and their traditions?” Having been a participant in Eileen’s classroom, I know that she and her classmates are getting the opportunity (that they say is rare) to discuss power, to discuss race, to discuss how history and science and math and English subjects are taught in a particular perspective that may or may not confirm what they are taught at home. When Eileen’s history textbooks present Western European versions of “discovering” America, “finding” Arizona, or limiting discussions about Native Americans to the first chapter of the textbook, she now understands that such teachings represent one perspective. She can now push back on perspectives that do not represent her own. More specifically, Eileen and her classmates have an opportunity to navigate their understanding as to why their histories, their Indigenous knowledges and languages are not a part of their school’s official curriculum. They have an opportunity to see the inaccuracies, complications and/or contradictions in their education and to do so in a safe space where differing opinions are heard and not torn down if different than others.
For Eileen (and many of the other participants I have worked with), she said that having one space where her ideas, her opinions, her identity can be shown and heard allows her to deal with the other spaces in her school and in her community that deny her portions of herself. In this Native American literature classroom, she has the chance to see her and others’ tribes, both in a historical and contemporary context, in a way that reflects back to her that, yes, she is a part of the conversation, and, yes, she is more than a bullet point on a power point or a creation story from someone else’s tribe at the beginning of a textbook and, yes, certain knowledges are ignored, denied, and invalidated in official school spaces. Eileen’s Native American literature class is one way to move forward in schools, but for other non-Native minorities these classes are considered threatening and in some cases even prohibited.
I think back to my high school and a few of my Native American friends who made the decision to leave school before graduating. I wonder, if they had one space in school, one classroom where these important discussion of race, power, and perspectives could be shared and collectively understood, might they have had an opportunity to deal with the other spaces that attempted to ignore or gloss over these issues that they see on a daily basis?
I do know that last year, Eileen failed her American history course because she refused to learn a biased history that didn’t reflect her own. She took a stand against the education she was receiving. The consequence of this decision was that she had to take the course again; however, this year, she had a Native American literature classroom that validated her perspectives and allowed her to learn another side of history. As such, she passed her American history course, not because she necessarily believed in what was being said, but that she was engaged in the conversation because she was taking note of the inaccuracies between the two classes.
Eileen’s navigation between these two very different classrooms makes me wonder: How can we, as educators, provide these safe spaces for students? How can difficult conversations around issues that our educational system does not want to address become meaningful and enriching? How can we validate the many histories, perspectives, and issues that all our students bring with them, rather than creating laws that deny them books, and classrooms, and ideas that help them make sense of their world?
What are we afraid of?