Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Native Call of Education: Manifestos and Making History

Opening Service for Faculty
3 September 2013
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School

I’d like to wish everyone a happy September.  It really is here.   In the last few weeks of summer, especially the dog days of August, I spend my time working on my bucket list.  This is nothing dramatic—it’s a list just for the summer.  Things I absolutely must do before the summer ends.  The items on this list, mostly in my head, are the books still left to read, the hikes to take, or that last trip to the city.  But in my years at Kent, I have learned not to give up the bucket list once the year starts.  My list continues this week, with intention, and I’d encourage yours to continue as well, even into the fall months.  Don’t forget to have a life.  It’s only Early Week, after all.  Take it slow.  If you do, I think you’ll find it’s actually good to be back.  It is a grave understatement to say that we begin a marathon, not a sprint. 
            Since we have established when we come back--tonight, it is helpful to consider why we come back.  The quick answer for me is that I come back for the students.  Not all of them, that’s for sure.  Just last week we remembered the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall—the words that changed our hearts.  I thought of the special educators who taught King—taught him to think, about the history of his nation and the history of his people.  From grammar school to divinity school, who were the people who inspired him?  And who were the people who stood in his way?  The powerful role models he resisted.  We know that Dr. King did not go to Kent School, but how would we think about our own school history if he had?  How would this change, if at all, how we approach the students who are arriving this week? 
And this is the moment where things take a surprising turn.  What would you say if I told you that a Martin Luther King did go to Kent School?  Well, it’s true, in ways stranger than fiction.  One of the greatest leaders of a beleaguered but surviving people graduated from Kent School in 1951.  This individual might be our most famous and influential graduate, though there is significant competition there.  Only no one knows who he is.  Who he was, since he died in 2005.  His name is Vine Deloria, Jr.  He was only the greatest intellectual activist and political leader of the Native American community in the twentieth century—the MLK of his people, and time.  Deloria wrote over twenty books and 200 articles in his prolific academic career as a college professor.  Yes, he became a teacher, like you… He taught at Western Washington, the University of Arizona, and Colorado-Boulder where he was a graduate of their law school, and taught law.  He founded the discipline that we now call Native American Studies at Arizona.  He was the first academic to recognize that the Native American experience could only be accurately assessed with an interdisciplinary approach–one using history, literature, anthropology, music, law, and yes, even theology.  Along with being a law school graduate and professor, he also went to divinity school.  We’ll come back to that training. 
Deloria was an intellectual powerhouse—a rigorous, independent, and often sarcastic polymath.  Deloria was an iconoclast who rejected intellectual, political, religious, and even scientific orthodoxies.  He rejected the Bering Strait land bridge hypothesis of archeology, arguing that American Indians were always indigenous, from the very beginning.  Deloria is sometimes called a creationist because he believed that Native American creation myths were real.  They are true.  He rallied his people, and he definitely pissed some people off with books titled Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, God Is Red: An Indian View of Religion, Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact.   Like our current president, Deloria was a grassroots, and eventually national, community leader.  He was also a feared and respected lobbyist in Washington.  Deloria ascended to arguably the most important post that a Native American could hold in the United States: National Director of the Congress of American Indians.  During his tenure in this position, the Congress grew from 19 tribes to 156.  He was the voice of his people, and he was our conscience too.  Like King, his career and thinking went in surprising directions because of his faith in God; and the arc of justice bending to earth that we must seek with all our hearts and minds in every age.  Justice doesn’t just happen, not in the real world.  And that’s where Deloria lived.  He was also willing to call out and challenge his own people.         
Just imagine Deloria arriving at Kent School from South Dakota in 1947…meeting his white roommate, going to the dining hall for the first time, walking under the portrait of our founder, Father Sill.  I try to see him in mind’s eye, strangled with a tie that he would never need in his career, sitting in one of our wooden desks on the first day of school…The image fills me with inspiration, hope, some sadness, and humility.  What was going through his mind?  What was this young man thinking in chapel (which occurred everyday in 1951)?  There is evidence that this religious exposure in St. Joseph’s was not a complete disaster.  Like Black Elk before him, Deloria was quite comfortable with Christianity at its best; he just didn’t think white people knew their Jesus very well at all. 
For Native Americans who made it to boarding school in the last century, the message was straightforward and unyielding for those offered scholarships.  Your job is to assimilate, to fit in.  The message that came through loud and clear was that you had to forget your heritage in order to be successful.  We’re giving you this once in a lifetime opportunity—look at how wonderful we are.  We’re putting you on the fast track.  When I hear this kind of language, I always want to know where the fast track is going.  I see a lot of miserable people who are right on track, just perfect.  Deloria had an additional influence in his ambitions, and personal trajectory, one which affected him in ways both large and small, for his whole life, I suspect.  Deloria was here to become an Episcopal minister, just like his father and more famous grandfather, the Reverend Philip Deloria (known among the Lakota as Black Lodge), the Episcopal missionary to the Sioux tribe.  Become like your grandfather and father; that was the family message, and why Deloria was sent to a church school in the first place.  Deloria rejected, very thoughtfully, this particular doorway of assimilation, and he chose not to serve in the church despite graduating from divinity school following his days at Iowa State.  Vine Deloria, Jr., was one of our own, but he was not one of us.  In the significant histories written on the Native American experience in the twentieth century, no Native thinker gets more praise, more attention, more respect than a Kent graduate.         
I like to think the English Department gets partial credit for Deloria the writer, but I’m sure he suffered at times in our classes.  At any rate, he became a remarkable writer and thinker.  His powerful sentences did not take him to the ivory tower, but rather deep into the seemingly insoluble problems of Native Americans.  His prose has an energetic charge that possesses, at times, the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King assuming, eloquently, the prophetic mantle of his people.  But his writing is more regularly in the trenchant and sarcastic realm, or better yet, in the satirical pitch and range of Ralph Ellison in his novel Invisible Man. 
Here is Deloria at the beginning of his Indian Manifesto in Custer Died For Your Sins.  This seemed like a good choice after yesterday’s mighty thunder storms--and eventual rainbow over Kent, Connecticut—a small arc of justice reaching the earth perhaps.    
“Indians are like the weather.  Everyone knows all about the weather, but none can change it.  When storms are predicted, the sun shines.  When picnic weather is announced, the rain begins.  Likewise, if you count on the unpredictability of Indian people, you will never be sorry.
One of the finest things about being an Indian is that people are always interested in you and your ‘plight.’  Other groups have difficulties, predicaments, quandaries, problems, or troubles.  Traditionally we Indians have had a ‘plight.’
Our foremost plight is our transparency.  People can tell just by looking at us what we want, what should be done to help us, how we feel, and what a ‘real Indian’ is really like.  Indian life, as it relates to the real world, is a continuous attempt not to disappoint those who know us.  Unfulfilled expectations cause grief and we have already had our share.
Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to tell truth from fiction or fact from mythology.  Experts paint us as they would like us to be.  Often we paint ourselves as we wish we were or we might have been.
The more we try to be ourselves the more we are forced to defend what we have never been.  The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always there.  Those Indians are fierce, they wear feathers and grunt.  Most of us don’t fit this idealized figure since we grunt only when overeating, which is seldom.”

The most significant thing that Deloria accomplished, intellectually, and practically among the tribes, was reversing the unquestioned assumption that assimilation was the only route to survival, and economic success.  To him this was the way of extinction as a people.  In his work as a writer and national leader, Deloria presented Native heritage and its revitalization as the medicine for the future, and not just the past. 
Now, for just a moment, a show of hands.  True confessions with the priest.  How many of you, before tonight, had never heard of a Kent graduate named Vine Deloria, Jr., class of 1951?  It really is time to go back to school.  Anything can happen here. 
For example.  In the spring each year, I teach a course in Native American Literature.  Every year since its inception, at least one student has done his or her research project on the longstanding legal dispute between Kent School and what remains of the Schaghticoke Tribe (there are actually two branches in this lawsuit, with one supported financially by Subway Sandwiches…yes, the gods must be crazy.).  But not until last spring did a student actually walk down Schaghticoke Road to interview the chief, whose name is Alan Russell.  Our student and the local chief met many times—and I was not aware of these interviews.  I probably would have discouraged them, with the so-called wisdom of safety first.  It’s dangerous down that road…imagine what they say about us.  The result of these meetings was the best research project I have ever received.  It was not a well-written paper, let that be said.  It was not even a formal academic essay, though the documentation of the research was ok, certainly passable in New Student Seminar.  But no student had so thoroughly explored the Native point of view, by talking to those involved, and trying to walk in their shoes.  The student was inspired because of his own Indian heritage from Canadian tribes.  The paper is now in our library, along with the eight titles that we have by Vine Deloria, Jr.  Chief Russell was deeply moved by the personal interest and courtly manners of our student.  And so was I.  Amazed is more like it. 
Who wrote the research paper Schaghticoke Tribe: Seeking Land?  It was supposed to be 7-10 pages long, but this student wrote twenty and could have written more.  This research project was undertaken by one Alexandre Villeneuve.  For those of you who are new, let’s just say Alexandre was not our top student in last year’s class.  But his extraordinary work last spring reminded me that we do is extremely important, and subtle, and shocking at times.  Our work with our students is life-giving, holy, and even magical.  It is always mysterious, even when we fail, or think we have.  This is our blessing and our burden as teachers, our soaring inspiration and our thorn of conscience that keeps us grounded.  It is one of the few vocations that is clearly undertaken in the name of God.  Atheists can be quite good at it too. 
So why do we come back?  We come back to meet our students, of course.  To begin a journey that will last the rest of their lives.  Graduation is just a beginning in that vein, and so is tonight.  Your journey as an educator begins with that first practice, the first class this Monday with a list of names—some known and others just a question mark.  Who are these people?  The prickly and tickling curiosity—the great mystery--of this year begins with a single step forward.  Tonight we move into the future again together.  To make our own little history. 

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