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Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Four

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0 and Fair Use for Educational Purposes

In my last three posts, I have described how my teaching partner James and I approach teaching Tommy Orange’s novel There There. In this final post, I will explain how we wrap up the study of the novel, suggest additional resources to use in teaching Native Voices, and share a summative assessment we use with our students.

James and I decided we wanted students to finish the entire Powwow section before we discussed it since that part of the book moves quickly among the different characters, but at about 60 pages makes up 3 reading assignments. Rather than plunge into discussion of this fast-paced part of the book, we paused to show students this video from Vox about the Native boarding schools, including the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This video also touches in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which will be challenged in the Supreme Court case Brackeen v. Haaland this year. Our students found this video very interesting. It covers a great deal of important ground that is not covered in great detail in the novel. ICWA connects to the character Blue , who is adopted by White parents and must reclaim her Cheyenne culture as an adult. I understand that Tommy Orange’s sequel to There There will explore the Native boarding schools.

We also showed students the following video that asks Native people to reflect on several statements and explain whether they agree or disagree and why. It helps students to understand that indigenous people are not a monolith—their backgrounds and opinions on issues that impact Native people vary. Fair warning: the video includes the F-word and one reference to the N-word, so students should be warned.

Once students finish the Powwow section, we will use a class discussion strategy called “Conversation Stations” or “Converstations” to unpack quotes we identified as important in this section. We use big poster-sized sticky paper with a printout of each quote taped next to the paper. Students will travel in groups, discussing the quotes, and capturing their ideas on the paper. Then they will rotate to the next station and add their thoughts to the ideas already written and connect to their peers’ ideas.

James and I assess our students’ learning at the end of this unit through a writing assignment we call “I Used to Think… Now I Think.” This assignment allows students to discuss what they previously believed to be true about Native people and reflect on their learning. What stereotypes did they believe? How have their perceptions changed? Students might consider the following issues from the novel:

  • Addiction
  • Trauma
  • Identity
  • Belonging
  • Nation
  • Family
  • Connectedness

Students can weave discussion of symbols and motifs from the novel as well. Some examples might be the spider and its web or reflection and mirrors. We ask students to write one body paragraph explaining what they used to think and then, in two additional body paragraphs, explain what they have learned in the unit, focusing on two different things (one per paragraph). It’s not a five-paragraph essay in that we don’t expect students to write an introduction and conclusion, though sometimes they do. We encourage first-person voice, which is a natural choices for a personal reflection. An optional challenge for students is to include a third learning takeaway. We use a graphic organizer that looks like the following to help students plan.

TopicDelete this text and type your topic, the focus, theme, or thread you plan to discuss.
I used to thinkDelete this text and discuss the beliefs you previously held about the topic. Discuss 2-3 things you used to think about Native people prior to this unit.
Now I think 1Delete this text and discuss one aspect of your thread or focus that you have learned more about. Think about what has changed. How have stereotypes been altered or eliminated? How did that happen?

Identify two pieces of evidence for your learning in the text of There There or other resources.
Now I think 2Delete this text and discuss one aspect of your thread or focus that you have learned more about. Think about what has changed. How have stereotypes been altered or eliminated? How did that happen?

Identify two pieces of evidence for your learning in the text of There There or other resources.

We use the rubric below to assess the writing. It’s a variation on a rubric I have used for years, originally developed and published on Greece, NY’s Schools’ ELA resources site (which is, sadly, no longer accessible).

I hope the resources shared will help you in teaching Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Three

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0 and Fair Use for Educational Purposes

In my previous posts, I shared how my teaching partner James and I prepare students for reading There There and how we teach the novel’s Prologue. In this post and subsequent posts in this series, I will not share day-to-day lesson plans; rather, I will share some resources that James and I have used. Our class is discussion-based, and if you are looking for discussion ideas, you might want to check out my blog post on discussion strategies and use or adapt them for discussing this book if your class is discussion-based also. You know your students best and understand what sorts of activities or prompts will work for them.

Tommy Orange has some prior involvement with StoryCenter, formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling. In fact, his novel was informed by storytelling organizations such as StoryCenter and StoryCorps. Orange says in his acknowledgments that he received a grant like his character Dene Oxendene. He created a digital story that we shared with our students because it gets at the heart of what Dene is hoping to do (in some ways) and also shares some interesting context for the novel. In fact, Orange gives a line from the digital story to his character Edwin Black (watch out for it!).

Tommy Orange’s Digital Story Ghost Dance

If you’re interested in learning more about digital storytelling, you might want to check out some of my prior work. I have done digital storytelling projects with students in the past, and they are powerful. 

When teaching about Opal’s first chapter, which takes place during the Native occupation of Alcatraz, we introduced students to the American Indian Movement (AIM) through this article. We did a close reading of the imagery on AIM’s flag. We showed our students the video below, but I have to share a caveat. This video is relatively short, which makes it great for class, and it also summarizes pertinent information about Alcatraz. However, at one point in the video, the host snarkily makes a remark to the effect that Native people didn’t understand inflation. Even if he meant it as a joke, it falls flat. James and I addressed this problematic comment head-on, and our students concluded that it wasn’t lack of understanding of inflation but rather a symbolic gesture. The moment in question falls about 1 minute 45 seconds in. James and I are always on the lookout for a short video that is this comprehensive without being sarcastic. Let me know if you found one!

Edwin’s chapter refers to A Tribe Called Red, which has since changed its name to Halluci Nation. Edwin describes their music as “the most modern, or most postmodern form of Indigenous music [he’s] heard that’s both traditional and new-sounding” (77). James and I play a track called “R.E.D.” and ask students what they think of Edwin’s assessment. Note: the lyrics are not “clean,” but to be honest, the book includes the same curse words, so James and I didn’t worry about it.

While we’re on the topic of music, Tommy Orange created a playlist of music he either refers to or listened to while writing the novel.

In teaching Jacquie Red Feather’s first chapter, we thought it was important to address her alcoholism and discuss how alcoholism affects Native communities, so we shared this fact sheet.

Jacquie’s grandson Orvil is attempting to reconnect with his Cheyenne heritage through powwow dancing. We shared this video so students could get a feel for what a powwow looks like.

America’s Largest Powwow by Keeley Gould

We also showed students this short video explaining powwow regalia.

And finally, we watched part of this video tutorial on powwow dancing. You might draw students’ attention to a couple of things: 1) the instructor is clearly in an urban or suburban area (apparently a park), much like Tommy Orange’s characters, and 2) this is exactly the kind of video Orvil probably watched to learn.

I wouldn’t necessarily have your students learn and perform this dance if they are not Native as it would be cultural appropriation, but they might appreciate seeing the kinds of tools Orvil would have had at his disposal.

Later in the book, Orvil scratches a bump on his leg and removes spider legs. This is something that really happened to Tommy Orange, and your students might be interested to know what inspired him to write it into his novel. Orange has turned it into a symbol, of course, but it’s possible that he suffered from Morgellons Disease.

Blue’s chapter offers a couple of opportunities for discussion. First, you might want to faciliate a discussion on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Deb Haaland is the first Native cabinet secretary. She is the Secretary of the Interior, and she oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We discussed the fact that not much was being done to address this horrible problem until Sec. Haaland introduced the formation of a Missing and Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Our class discussed the harrowing scene in which a strange woman protects Blue from her violent husband by pretending that she is the only person in the restroom where Blue is hiding and decides to wait with Blue until her bus leaves. This moment in the novel is so poignant, and I shared with students that it makes me cry every time because of the solidarity the woman shows. One of our students said she found it remarkable that Tommy Orange could write this scene with so much sensitivity since he is a man.

Another opportunity for discussion in connection with Blue is that she is adopted by a White family and has to reconnect with her Cheyenne culture later on. The current season of Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land focuses on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The Supreme Court will hear a case this year that seeks to challenge ICWA. You may want to use the podcast in conjunction with teaching the novel somehow. If you don’t use it with students, you will still learn a lot from listening to it yourself. Keep your eyes on the Supreme Court. Given the Court’s current makeup, I am worried about how Brackeen v. Haaland may go. 

Thomas Frank’s chapter is written in the second person, and it is a great opportunity to point out that Orange uses first-, second-, and third-person narration in this novel. Whose chapters are written in the first person? Why? Third person? Why? What does Orange achieve by writing Thomas Frank’s chapter in the second person?

Thomas Frank also expresses appreciation for the artwork of James Hampton, and the Smithsonian recently produced a video about Hampton’s work.

We decided to teach a short lesson on Native language preservation, especially Sequoyah’s creation of the Cherokee Syllabary.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you might check out the series We Shall Remain. James and I are considering showing our students the final episode, “Wounded Knee,” which details the occupation of the Pine Ridge Reservation by members of AIM in the 1970s. I think you can only access this documentary if you purchase it on DVD or on one of the streaming services.

In my next post, I’ll share a few final resources and how we assess students’ learning in this unit.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Two

In  my previous post, I discussed how my teaching partner James and I approach pre-teaching or setting the context forTommy Orange’s novel There There

The Prologue introduces readers to a lot of history that many of them might not know. James and I decided that this year, we wanted students to unpack the Prologue and generate the questions, so we used Marisa Thompson’s Thoughts/Questions/Epiphanies method (see this blog post) so students could generate discussion questions. Here is a screengrab of the slide deck I used with prompts for the students.

Tommy Orange makes several allusions in the Prologue, and I thought it was helpful to create a slide deck to unpack the allusions, especially if the students didn’t ask questions about them. You can make a copy of the slide deck by clicking this link.

You’ll notice this slide deck starts with the biography slide I mentioned in the previous post and also includes a picture of me and Tommy Orange (you can easily delete this if you make a copy) and the PBS News Hour video I mentioned in the previous post. What follows is a run-down of some of the remaining slides and how I use them:

  • Slide 4: A journal activity designed to generate discussions/reactions to the Prologue
  • Slide 5: A video of the Indian Head Test Pattern that Orange mentions. Warning: the sound is included, and you may want to turn it low or off. We scared our students!
  • Slide 6: Allusions to Native depictions in films. Orange doesn’t refer to Apocalypto by name, but that’s the movie he’s describing. He also describes Dances with Wolves and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Slide 7: Orange makes a references to John Wayne’s role in Westerns, and James and I dug up this quote from Wayne as a talking point.
  • Slide 8: Orange also mentions Iron Eyes Cody, a Sicilian-American actor who made a career out of playing Natives and insisted he was Native (note: I am just old enough to rememeber the commercial embedded in this slide, but James is not and can barely believe it was real!).
  • Slide 9: This slide offers a great basis for discussing logos and mascots. Land O’Lakes has changed their packaging, and the Washington R-skins and Cleveland Indians have changed their names and logos. I screengrabbed a few headlines and images to talk about what messages the depictions send.
  • Slide 10: This slide offers another discussion/journal talking point.

The remaining slides are used to discuss other elements of the text, and I’ll explain them in a future post.

Tommy Orange discusses the Sand Creek Massacre in There There, and it might be worth spending some time reading about the massacre with students. James and I like this article from Smithsonian Magazine. Tommy Orange grew up hearing about the Sand Creek Massacre from his father and grandfather, and I believe I heard him say in an interview that he descends from a survivor of the massacre.

The slide deck above collects a lot of the resources I have used (and some I still use) in teaching There There. Thank you to the great Joel Garza and Scott Bayer for creating a Google hyperdoc with a graphic organizer I have adapted. If you click the image below, you will be taken to the document. You can make a copy of it and adapt it to your liking.

James and I used the sections “Tracking the Characters” and “Questions About Structure,” but we found it worked better for our students to have the Structure part at the beginning, followed by the Character section. I cannot overstress how helpful this hyperdoc is, so make sure you grab a copy if you plan to teach this book.

Stay tuned for more posts about how James and I approach teaching the rest of this wonderful novel. As a reminder, we teach this novel as part of a cross-curricular course on Social Justice.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part One

Tommy Orange discusses Native writers, his process, and his book There There

Is it just me, or is February the busiest time of the year? I’ve been meaning to start this blog series on teaching Tommy Orange’s phenomenal novel There There for a long while, but trying to carve out the time to write the blog posts has been challenging.

I teach this novel as part of a unit on Native Voices—Native literature and history—in a cross-curricular elective for seniors at my school. This elective is technically titled What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History. I team-teach the class with my wonderful colleague James, who is a history teacher.  It’s a year-long course, and students decide whether to take the class for an English credit or a history credit. Over the last three years that we’ve offered the course, the numbers of students earning English credits as compared to history credits have been roughly even, so James and I divide the students in those roughly even groups when we are assessing their work—I assess the work of students in the English section, and James assesses the work of students in the history section. Of course, both of us conduct formative assessments on students through discussions, conversations, and the like in class, and we both facilitate discussion. We plan our lessons together, meeting at least once a week during one of our planning blocks. At some point, I should share more about that course on my blog, but I think that context is enough to understand our approach to teaching There There

Because of the special cross-curricular nature of this class, some of the lessons I will describe may need to be adapted for your purposes. However, I might argue that it’s important to share the historical and contemporary context of the novel, even if your students are not taking a cross-curricular class, and when I teach other novels that require this kind of contextualization, I teach the history or contemporary events (see, for example, my resources for teaching Homegoing).

This year, James and I decided to start the unit with something interactive: a role play. There are two great options available from the great educators at Rethinking Schools. One lesson in their book Rethinking Columbus involves putting Columbus and his men on trial. We have a colleague who likes to use this lesson when teaching US History, which I inadvertently discovered the first time I taught There There and some of the students informed me they’d already done this role play. Truthfully, one part of the role play is problematic, and students pointed it out as well: we shouldn’t hold the Taínos responsible, and it shouldn’t even be on the table to contemplate that they might hold any responsibility for their own genocide. The role play invites students to consider that the Taínos themselves might be responsible for their genocide.

James and I decided instead to use Ursula Wolfe-Rocca’s role play on the Dakota Access Pipeline (Ursula is a great follow on Twitter!). This lesson is perfect for our class’s focus on social justice because it asks students to consider what is the right course of action—what’s the right thing to do? We use Michael Sandel’s text Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, particularly his framework on thinking about justice decisions through a consideration of competing interests of welfare, freedom, and virtue. Asking students to take on roles and consider these competing interests in connection with the DAPL was a perfect way to start our unit (thank you, Ursula!). Everything you need to engage in this lesson is provided at the link I shared and also at the Zinn Ed Project (note: you’ll need to create a free account and login to access the downloadable materials). Our students found the lesson really engaging, and it turned out to be an even better way to start the unit than the Columbus role play because it exposed our students to a present concern most of them didn’t know much about. To quote Tommy Orange in the novel’s Interlude, “we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive.” Learning about an issue that impacts modern indigenous people was a perfect way to start engaging with Tommy Orange’s novel. 

James and I ask our students to do a great deal of reflection. We invited students to contemplate what they would have decided had they not been assigned a role. In other words, would they have built the pipeline or not? Most of the students felt they wouldn’t have built it, but a few saw economic advantages, and it seems as though they were swayed by the arguments they had to take on as part of their role. We had an interesting discussion.

The next class period, we started with a land acknowledgment. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a land acknowledgment is simply a statement acknowledging that the place where you are gathering is Native land. You might find this resource on land acknowledgments helpful. You can use this resource to find out whose land you’re on. It’s important to mention that land acknowledgments should not be an empty gesture. Debbie Reese, an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo, has a great blog post on land acknowledgments. Our school happens to be located on the land of the Nipmuc people, and I shared with students the name of their current chief, who lives in Worcester, as well as the fact that they named the area where we live Quinsigamond, a name they’re familiar with as it lives on the name of several local places, including a lake famous for crew racing and a community college. The Nipmuc Nation is recognized by Massachusetts, but not by the federal government.

After the land acknowledgment, I share a Nipmuc creation story with students (embedded in the slide deck below). If you do something similar, I highly encourage you to find a story from the people whose land you are on.  We discussed the ways the story is similar to other creation stories they have heard. I explained that many indigenous people refer to North America or even the whole of planet Earth as “Turtle Island” and that the turtle features in many indigenous origin stories.

We use a lesson from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) that quizzes students on their prior knowledge about Native peoples. Unfortunately, in the renaming of their website and subsequent moving around of tools and ideas, I’m not able to find the quiz. However, I created a Pear Deck slide deck (that allows for interactive quizzes) based on the questions in the quiz. The answers to the questions are in the Notes sections of slides, and you can make a copy of the presentation embedded below by clicking this link.


After engaging in this important work of grounding our unit in the place our school calls home, we learn about Tommy Orange. I will share my slide deck for the unit in a future post, but here is the biographical slide.

We shared the video embedded below as a way to introduce students to Tommy Orange. He reads a brief excerpt from the Prologue to There There in this video.

PBS News Hour interview with Tommy Orange

In the next post, I’ll discuss how James and I teach the Prologue to There There, which packs an emotional punch and introduces students to history they may not have learned before.

Upcoming: Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There

Tommy Orange
Dana meeting Tommy Orange at the NCTE Convention.

About a month ago, I shared my conviction that it’s important to teach contemporary authors in the classroom and wrote a series of blog posts about the resources I use to teach Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing. My next series will focus on how I approach teaching Tommy Orange’s novel There There.  Stay tuned for these upcoming posts!

I team-teach a cross-curricular course in Social Justice, and There There is the centerpiece of a unit on Native history and literature.

On a slightly related note, I recently polled some folks on Twitter as to whether there was any interest in receiving a monthly email newsletter from me. This blog already publishes posts to subscribers’ email inboxes, but the newsletter might collect posts in one place and share other resources and ideas. To be honest, I’m not sure what yet, but I’m open to your ideas. I am sharing the subscription link below and will add a convenient link to the sidebar as well. My plan is to share my first newsletter with subscribers in March. Feel free to share your ideas and questions.


Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©