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When A Warrior Returns

The idea for this piece came from a connection to the realities of Native American Servicemen, Warriors with a lifeline to the complexities of the transition “Home.”

I’d had friends in high school whose desire and sole mission was to enter a branch of the military and get off the reservation. It wasn’t until my son was fueled with a passion all his own, that the words and intent of “serving your country” invaded my heart and home. Mind you, he was in the first grade when he self-proclaimed he was going to be a soldier. Having that experience early on, I thought it might be a phase of Cowboys and Indians that he would outgrow and I could settle my nerves.

One night a few years later, I was jolted awake by his whimpering and heaving sobs. I sat next to him, trying to wake him from a dream. When he opened his eyes, behind the tears was a dark and heavy fear that he had just experienced. He started to tell me he dreamt he was at war and his best friend had died in combat. His account of the dream was so vivid and the details jarring that I came to tears realizing this was not just a childhood phase, my son had made a life decision in his early years that I would have to come to terms with.

I’m not sure that all mothers, parents or families have the same experience or similar epiphany. I spent a number of moments, like many of you, anticipating the day you’d have to say good bye to the child or children you so carefully tried to mold into a responsible young man or woman, preparing them to be independent with just enough spirit and courage to take risks that will improve the quality of their lives. When you can tell your children apart from the next room by the pitch in their laughs, the way their feet shuffle down the hall or just how quiet or loud the room gets in their presence, it’s hard to imagine their absence. All of these familiarities become the pitter-patter of your heart. Parenting and letting go is nearly as painful as their first moments tearing into this world. Our children are born Warriors.

Fast forward to reconnecting with friends who had gone to war or entered into a life of service. Some went in and came right out when they paid their dues. Others reenlisted and held tight to their commitment.

I’d later come to meet people who were dating or married to military men or who were military themselves. When the occasion arose, I got to visit with friends who returned from active duty and the experience in itself was not as heartfelt as it is to me now.

In my 20’s, brushes of conversations were limited to quick updates and I might have been more interested in where they’d been and what they saw than how they were doing. Not because I didn’t care, I just wasn’t close enough to the experience to  be a better friend or support.

My early 30’s wouldn’t have been much different, except that I’d become more interested in making my experiences with people, more meaningful and intentional. I think I’d always had the desire to be connected to people in my life, for any given amount of time, even acquaintances.

My role through this piece as an advocate has me rallying behind efforts, lending my passion to push for results that will benefit not only those close to me, but for indigenous communities with families just like yours or mine who may have sons and daughters who will or have taken on a life of service and may not return as the child they nurtured and adored, however, coming home needing ever more to be loved and understood after the complexities of war or active duty.

What wars are being fought today depends on the unintentional or intentional method of word placement to any given internet search site. Wikipedia hosts a front of documented American Indian Wars while search results for “American Indians prepare for war” draws up surface level interpretations of war paint, symbolism and an artist’s depiction of indigenous people gathering with spears and shields. Closer to home for my community, Wikipedia’s account of The Pueblo Revolt  does little to capture the significance of a day or days of revolt amongst Pueblo peoples across New Mexico and Arizona enacting vigilance in acts of war to reclaim their cultures, identity and end the deprecating and invasive practices of the Spaniards. The accounts of this personal war from the mouths of our elders draw anguish and tears, as oral history does not minimize or water down the horrendous events where so many shed their humble lives to afford their children and grandchildren a future rich with culture and humility.

Onward through centuries & decades, across history and wars that paint grotesque pictures of devastation through massacres  aimed at the genocide of indigenous peoples, termed rebels and savages, the original hosts of the land we now call America. Throughout these times, many a tribal member has aided the opposition, promised riches or access to the resources that made life in our quiet and remote lands a bit more glorious.

Today, we are moving into new frontiers where our history and warriors are acknowledged for their roles and contributions to past wars. A report published in September 2012 titled, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Servicemembers and Veterans does a phenomenal job in the Introduction for acknowledging warriors, followed by a dry presentation of tables that compare the data of American Indian and Alaska Native veterans or servicemen against “All Other Races.” In the area of Veteran Analysis, two bullet points speak to income, educational attainment, unemployment, health insurance and disabilities. Whether you are well read or have a vested interest in the statistics, or the outcomes, of American Indian and Alaska Native people of any age, you know that it is merely a game to interchange the words low/lower, high/higher, lack or likelihood in front of any of those named categories to distinguish minority representation of the data. This is true not just of our warriors of service to America, but our warriors in the classroom in a one-size fits all educational system.

Just as teachers are preparing our children to lead lives of social accountability through civic service, independence, traditional values, character and innovation, our men and women are enlisting in service and sent into conflicts on behalf of an America that once treated them as the enemy in their homeland (and maybe continues to). This is the fork in the road that I’ve come to in observation of my fellow classmates, tribal members and friends who come home with little support for the transition back to a life they once knew. Family is still family, dirt roads remain unpaved, the solitude of a rural landscape does little to quell the war they’ve waged with themselves by strapping on a uniform, shelving cultural values and practices in hopes that the life of service will provide everything the recruiter said it would. An affordable education, employment preference, leadership skills and service to the great America.

In reality, Warriors return home to reservations, with limited opportunities for employment or professional development, and little support for transition back to civilian life. If one has significant medical needs, veteran’s hospitals are located in cities that  may require a couple hours for travel time. There may be additional delays in re-acclimation, having compromised cultural values and expectations based on their experiences and conflicts with war and active duty.

While some communities have local veteran’s affair offices that help with applications for specific assistance for veterans, a friend tells me that a large part of the transition lies with the individual. I came into my desire to advocate for veteran services after several experiences of veterans hit close to home. Some of these individuals have left this world while others are still fighting their internal wars.

The most common battle is that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I’ve watched and listened to stories of how one’s PTSD has led to domestic violence, inability to communicate stresses, difficulty establishing routines of sleep, rigidity and the list goes on. Friends who have taken prescribed medication and attended counseling have expressed that they dislike the feeling of being on medication and most often resort to substituting alcohol or drugs, which later results in dependency. Counseling is sometimes interpreted as a sign of weakness and if traveling to larger cities for treatment, the cost can become a deterrent. Local counseling is not always favorable with the uncertainty of confidentiality and fears of being judged.

Some have tried local medicine men only to find that this does not help to absolve them of the haunting realities of war and active duty. Church or religion outside of the culture may be frowned upon, so a veteran must be resolute in their attempts at faith in order to seek counsel or refuge of this form. I believe this is true with any undertaking, big or small, personal or professional.

Limited access to adequate care for the variety of dispositions a veteran returns home with can fill one with feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy and maybe just plain resolve that there is no help.

Stark realities.

Each year that I hold off on posting this because I fear that there isn’t enough information, maybe I’m shooting too far, perhaps I missed the opportunity to say something profound. I’ve met people who have learned to live day to day, some who have absolved to chalk up their losses in returning home in exchange for life moving forward.

Thank you to the communities at large, advocates and partners who are working their tails off to develop creative services for our Warriors who make it home. Countless prayers and blessing to all who have served… and their families.


Developing Intentional Partnerships for Indian Education

Have you ever wondered about the opportunities that lie in waiting for you and why they took so long to present themselves?

I’ve been exploring the power of giving life to my passions by putting them out into the world to be delivered to a person, place, or idea where I can be an asset. Much like the germination process where pollen is released, carried by the wind or clinging to the wings of a hummingbird, without much intent, invoking the process of life. Sounds simple right? I’m learning that it can be. The power lies in embracing your journeys and being able to inspire others to do the same.

With that, I want to share the product that’s developing out of a thought being nurtured. I’ve just returned from presenting at Native Education Alliance’s (NEA) Gathering of Educators (GOE) in Sells, Arizona where I had many revelations about what I have to offer and the opportunities that are spurred by sharing information. If you know me, I make it a point to share as many experiences as I can for the benefit of bringing perspective, creating new meaning or understanding, and hoping to inspire people to enact change. The GOE is an event that is organized by Native Education Alliance, a small cooperative group of inspired educators from Tucson, Arizona and supported generously by committed indivudals who submit voluntary presentation proposals. Selections are conducted by a committee of NEA with the clear and distinct purpose of providing culturally relevant best practices to interested stakeholders and educators. Its inception is both ingenious and much needed in a time where Native or Indian Education moves towards innovation and establishing deep-rooted connections to the students we serve in all sectors of education.

The two presentations titled Creating Meaningful Partnerships; Engaging Families & Community in Support of Student Achievement along with Exploring Opportunities for Tribal Partnerships in Education were meant to engage practitioners in reflective thinking, evaluating current structures and resources in order to begin planning to engage in partnership development (both I am willing to share and make readily available to you via email). With hour presentation slots and 10 of those minutes set aside for evaluations, the opportunity to expand and take this into strategic planning for partnerships fell short. However, I’m excited to work towards that and will share what takes shape as it develops.

There were so many rich experiences that developed out of the 2012 GOE and I’ll take you through the realizations I’ve come to in the hopes that you are able to nurture, restore, guide & inspire 1 action to develop partnerships for your link to education or community. Here we go!

Gathering of Educators attracts the spectrum of educational practitioners and most times, the hosting organization requires their faculty to partake in the opportunity to increase their knowledge base for serving Native populations. A small twist of the arm, nonetheless, it’s a Saturday and we all know educators are unpaid, time and a half employees. In anticipation of this, I embedded opportunities to engage my audience. Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a true oasis in the desert, is rich with scenic views, an amphitheater style auditorium, and my favorite part – technology. It started out feeling like it was going to be a tough crowd to engage, but it quickly turned around as we got into inserting relevant stories to bridge content into context. While I don’t consider myself a cultural expert, I also know I tend to undersell my assets. I know this about myself and I still do it regularly. Go figure.

As we maneuvered through age-old topics with links to historical implications and building understanding for broken partnerships throughout Indian education, stories told from the perspective of our cultural elders furrowed brows and painted compassion. It actually made a whole lot of sense to me that we have to work harder to make these connections in order to break down barriers, even in adult education. Too often, as we progress (not really), we forget that across Indian country, there aren’t many exemplary stories (know any?) of attempts to restore the partnership between tribal communities. Historical impacts live on in the daunting tales and hollowing experiences of imposing a formalized educational system on indigenous communities across our nation, as well as globally. There is still hurt and anguish over the stark realities housed in museums, books, and now webspace, memorializing the pain.

Recognizing this allowed me to dig deep and change the direction of my presentation to encapsulate knowledge from the heart so that the relationships I was creating could be given some clout for the work ahead. If we are ever to move forward in education for indigenous populations, we have to make change relevant and purposeful.

As we moved through the recognition, then comparison of education structures of public education and the skeletal postulations of tribal education, it occurred to me that what I was attempting to do was monumental and not going to be covered in 50 minutes. In these moments, you have little time to restructure an entire presentation, but you have opportunity to leave an imprint.

Ask yourself these FUNDAMENTAL questions:

What are your educational aspirations for children?

What do STUDENTS want from an education?

How do we see education impacting our communities?

Where will students be able to apply their skills to come home?

*Think outside the frame of what is here for them vs. what they will bring back.

Whenever we come of age and choose to leave the reservation, we hardly think twice about when we’re coming back. You hear and read about the remote lands, equipped with little to no resources, poor housing structures under systems that do little to support their people, much less education. Grim? Desperate.

I’m here to tell you and remind those of you who may have forgot, WE are not a reflection of the print in newspapers or the statistics in databases that leave our schools with labels and our children facing their success one assessment at a time.

You need evidence? More Than That, a YouTube video in response to ABC’s 2020 documentary titled Hidden America: Children of the Plains (full video is now difficult to find, then again, it could just be me or Aliens). The filming of  2020’s Hidden America: Children of the Plains takes place on an Indian reservation and offers a small glimpse into the lives of 3 children who face difficult challenges in their life through family dynamics and personal choice. If you’ve watched it and your reaction is that it painted a pretty good picture, I can assure you that this documentary is a mere corridor into the soul of a child facing struggles such as those reflected. Surface.

I watched this video with my 10 year-old daughter, whom I consider fortunate, alongside her two older brothers. Heartwrenching, yes. Real? More than you could ever know. However, it’s the stories like this that get pushed to the forefront in order to justify poverty, poor conditions, and lack of progress for Indian country. Stories like this leave politicians with their foot in their mouths over statements that there’s no need to worry, then assuring the American people that there is a system in place for the poor and disadvantaged. From where I sit, ineffective systems that have been handed to us without the input from the communities they are supposed to support are a poor standard of accountability.

I’ve learned that there is little we can do about stories that capture hearts and boost ratings, except to respond and act. And that’s exactly what the tribal students of this community did. We need to support our students being their own advocates and develop the 21st century skills that empower them to respond and ACT. The power of technology is evident in their response.

So where do we go from here?

YES, I am going to make that BIG leap from poverty to partnerships. We see it all the time. Social media feeds RT messages of support and sponsorship for struggling people and programs. So how do we get from there, into our own backyards?

Back to the fundamental questions and a quick look at blending two worlds (wink-wink… presentation). The societal structures of indigenous communities everywhere were so far advanced, they carried us into this world and have sustained our people & cultures for hundreds of years (if not more). From the dynamics of cultural roles & responsibilities, social calendars (yes, we were planners), onward to clan systems. We need to take more credit for the ingenuity that runs through our veins. Long before Marzano and Understanding by Design, our entire existence (including today) revolved on systemic values and process.

Reciprocity. The “Pay it Forward” model sustains Hopi society. From the day we are born, the process has been set in motion into the time and belief of the journey to leave this world.

What does reciprocity look like in an educational setting? Partnerships. We’ve got to apply self-evaluation to our own tribal and school-based education systems. Evaluate our practices as a people and embed those factors that contribute to success into educational systems of support. This includes establishing a purpose (fundamental questions) for education and reviewing policy and practice to determine if they support one another. Engaging in strategic planning to clarify goals, who will be responsible for what, and how we are going to measure our progress.

We can’t do this alone and we shouldn’t. Shooting back up to some of my initial statements of imposed systems, we’ve got to build understanding and gain consensus in order to solicit partners to support the vision. Knowing what we are aiming for will help us prioritize immediate and long term goals.

When you have a destination, you almost always know who you want to travel with. Get out and engage your parents and community, local businesses and organizations in efforts to share the journey. Be expected to know what you’re talking about because your partners will want to know how they can help, who they need to contact, where they can be an asset, and when they should show up. Create intentional partnerships by setting clear expectations and the level of engagement you desire from stakeholders. The investment may take time, but you will see your rewards as you continue to evaluate, refine and nurture your partnerships.

Be transparent. Share the purpose, how you came to establish that goal, and how you expect it to support the learning community to benefit students. Invite them in to see the opportunities they have created for children to be successful and celebrate your progress with your partners.

I have some insightful and creative ways I end my presentation, but I am going to leave you wondering. So send me an email to request the powerpoints. If you aren’t satisfied, I’d be happy to talk about potential partnerships to work with your organization or learning community to develop a deeper understanding of how to build effective partnerships.

Thank you for reading to the end.

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