I have been thinking of banned books.
On January 10th, the Tucson Unified School District voted to eliminate multiple books and essays by Mexican-American and Native American authors from it’s curriculum. They did this because they were afraid to lose money. Only one person on their governing board was against the ban. The others fell to the side of greed.
Let me tell you about my own white-washed high school education:
- I was taught that slavery was “not really as bad as people think.” My history teacher told the class many slave owners were kind and gentle to their slaves and treated them like family. We didn’t need to believe it was so terrible.
- I was taught that Native Americans were a primitive people whose only contribution to the world was providing the technology of arrowheads and mortar and pestle. And provided squash and corn to the Thanksgiving menu.
- I was taught that the Americas did not become populated until after 1492.
- I was taught that the Mayan and Aztec people were long extinct.
All the while my own identity as an Indian woman was invisible.
We only hurt ourselves and our society when we white-wash history.
Take, for example, my weekend at school. As a religious studies program, intensive class weekends begin with a student-led ritual. In the three years I participated in these rituals I have been deeply moved, inspired, and filled with the presence of the Holy. I have also seen rituals that fell absolutely flat. Generally, these sessions stem from the student leader’s personal faith tradition, sometimes they are more interfaith.
On Saturday, I entered the ritual space to find a table with name cards, hemp rope, and beads. I put my school items on my desk and walked back through the ritual space to get my morning cup of tea. As I walked past the altar I noticed that it had a few feathers and, it seemed to me, someone was taking great effort to offer a “Native American” flair to their set-up. I shrugged it off and procured my tea. When I came back into the room the handouts for ritual had been placed on the chairs and I saw more feathers. Uh-oh. I thought. I read the handout. It was a list of so-called “Native American Prayers.” A long list.
Now, this may seem harmless to many, but white-washed education denies us sensitivity to other cultures.
To me this list of so-called prayers was painful. How does anyone know the prayers are actually Native American or even indigenous? They were printed in English. Are they the badly mis-translated quotes of some antiquated anthropologist who “studied” Indigenous people as though they were not human? Are they quotes gathered up by some new age hipster editor who calls him or herself a shaman in some make-believe fantasy of Indian people? I looked around the room to see if other people were having a similar reaction.
No. At least they weren’t showing it. My hand was shaking while I held the paper. Shaking in anger and grief and sadness and hurt.
I knew I could not be there. I went to my desk and grabbed my phone. My tea. And headed for the exit. On the way out, another glance at the table with the beads and the hemp rope and the names revealed a dream catcher. The kind you can buy in any new age bookstore.
I left the room quietly. Burning inside with grief and pain. Another example of non-Native people taking the pieces of my culture they think look pretty and leaving the rest, including its people, behind. I took myself to the student lounge to wait out the half-hour it takes for ritual when another wave of grief grabbed me. I knew that when I showed my face again I would be confronted with the voices of my colleagues, Melissa! You would have loved it! A Native American Ceremony! Because these people, who I love dearly and who I know have good-hearted intentions, do not understand how inappropriate and un-Indian their so-called ceremony really was. They cannot possibly understand the grief in my bones.
And, of course, this is exactly what happened. I told those who said the dreaded words to me that I chose not to be there because it was inappropriate and untraditional and had nothing to do with my culture. Some people heard me. Some did not. I wanted the day to progress, for class to start, to move on from the pain, but there was another wave of grief about to hit.
Someone told me this had been a “naming ceremony.” Oh, Melissa, What name did YOU get?
Among my people, according to the small amount of teaching I have received from one of my auntie’s, the naming ceremony is a deeply sacred and precious gift. For some families it can take years of preparation and commitment. To receive a name in our own indigenous language is, for me, a way to know God and the way in which God would know me. For my people, names have been lost because of white oppression. Creating a bastardized version of something so sacred is devastating.
The woman who created this ritual meant to do no harm. I trust that her intentions were to inspire and uplift, I trust that she has a genuine interest in my culture. The problem is she did not know any better. Because no one has ever taught her anything different. For too long our classrooms, school districts, teachers, and parents have allowed for a white-washed version of history. The book ban in Tucson is only one example of taking away our story. And I do not only mean our Native story or our Mexican-American story or our African-American story, I mean our AMERICAN story.
If you would like to sign a petition in response to the book ban you may do so here. The letter attached to the petition reaches directly to the members of the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board.