Native American students learn 'their' literature
You’re a high school student of European descent, and it’s the first day of your senior lit class.
Your teacher passes out the reading list for the semester: Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” Louise Erdrich’s “The Plague of Doves,” and N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.”
Wait a minute. What happened to Shakespeare, Steinbeck and Melville? The books on this list are all by Native American authors!
David, a student at Westwood High School in Mesa, was ready to drop out of school at the end of his junior year. He didn’t need those boring senior classes.
But then David, a Pima/Ute, heard that teacher Andi Box planned to offer a class in Native American literature in the spring, and he quickly changed his mind.
“He was the first one to sign up. “Midway through the semester he told me, ‘I come to school for this class. I deal with the other ones,’” Box said.
Box’s class, a pilot project created with the help of ASU English faculty members James Blasingame and Simon Ortiz, is the first literature class in the Mesa Public Schools (MPS) to focus entirely on Native American authors and texts.
It grew out of the Beta Project, part of ASU’s Educational Partnerships initiative, whose goal is to provide a continually increasing Web-based “treasure of resources for the teaching of English language arts,” said Blasingame.
After the Beta Project was launched, Cliff Moon, MPS’s director of diversity, asked Blasingame if ASU could help create a Native American curriculum, since there are a good number of Native American students in the district.
“Westwood High School has the highest native population, so we took the grants there,” Blasingame said. “We had some money to buy books so we bought Sherman Alexie’s book, ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,’ and Andi did a pilot project on his book. Alexie went to Westwood, where he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of students.”
About that time, Ortiz, a nationally known poet and member of the Acoma tribe, joined the ASU English faculty, and Blasingame asked him to chair a consortium to put together a course.
“I became aware that the Phoenix area had many Native Americans when I moved here in 2006,” Ortiz said. “I was curious about the curriculum in Mesa Public Schools. I was involved in a public school curriculum project in Portland, Ore., in 1989-90, so I knew it was possible to do it in other places.”
Planning for the first course took several years and included librarians from the Pima-Salt River, McDowell and Gila reservations, ASU faculty and graduate students, tribal leaders and administrators from MPS.
The pilot class focused on regional Native American literature of the Southwest, and included material from books such as “Rising Voices,” by Beverly Singer, a collection of poems and essays by young Native Americans about their identity, rituals and the harsh realities of their lives; “Code Talkers,” a novel for young adults by Joseph Bruchac (which the students didn’t want to put down, Box said), and Alexie’s novel, as well as films such as “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
Class units have included “Finding Our Warriors, Finding Our Beliefs”; “Finding Our Inner Poetry”; “Finding True Education”; “Finding Frustration: The Rise in Indian Activism”; and “Finding Our Future.”
The class brought tears and laughter to the students, as well as anger and pride.
There were 36 students in the class (and only 34 desks but no student wanted to drop out), of which 12 were Native American, from the Apache, O'odham, Ute, Pima-Maricopa, Navajo, Hopi, Creek, Tewa and Zuni.
Box started by having each student read a 13-page packet about Native American historical events that have seldom been talked about in history or literature classes. “From that information, they then had to choose what they thought were the top 20 most important historical events that all high school students should know about before they graduate.
“When we talked about the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, for example, they were shocked,” Box said. “They asked, ‘Why has our history been whitewashed?’”
The students created 12-foot-long timelines, using their “top-20 events,” which they displayed around the school.
“I had many teachers and students come to my classroom and say ‘Thank you for teaching the truth,’” Box said.
The students also made posters, brought in Native dishes to share, created pictures to symbolize themselves, and wrote stories or poems about themselves. Box said she focused on both the positive and negative sides of Native American history.
For some of the Native American students, it was the first time they had read or seen an outsider’s view of their history.
“The students said they like the class because they got to hear how people were reacting to their history,” Box said.
“One student commented, ‘Every time we watch something in here it shocks me.’ A Hispanic student told me that she had cried three times in the class.”
The pilot class gave Box an idea of what should be included in the curriculum – and also what is needed as a foundation for the class.
“We have to learn some history first, before studying literature,” she explained, “such as how many tribes there are in the United States, and in Arizona.”
That Box is excited about the first class and others to come is evident by her e-mail notes, which are filled with exclamation points.
“There is too much to learn and not enough time!” she said. “I think next year I am going to have this class as a full year, with the senior writing class folded into it. Yay!
“We are all learning from each other, and it is such a joyous experience!”
Box wanted the initial class to be offered for senior students “due to the level of content and critical thinking I am expecting of my students,” she said, but Gary Loutzenheiser, acting education division director for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, suggested that senior year might be too late for some students.
“Among Native American communities, we have a lot of kids who don’t make it to the sophomore and junior years. They don’t have a chance to jump in and understand their heritage,” he said. “Such a class would bolster their pride, help them feel better about themselves – and stay in school.”
For Box and the consortium, the work will begin again in June.
“We’ll start the whole process over again with a social studies class,” said Blasingame. “The long-range plans are to develop appropriate curriculum for all ages so that Native American history and culture are infused into classes for younger students, as well as older ones.”
The hard work will pay off when every student in Arizona routinely learns about the Native communities around them, Blasingame added.
“Eventually, we hope to follow in the footsteps of the Montana Office of Public Instruction and make Native American curriculum a part of the state standards.”
It was a close call for David, but, thanks to the Beta Project and Box’s enthusiasm, he made it to graduation – and into boot camp for the Air Force.