Tom Torlino, student at the Carlisle Indian School, in 1882 when he arrived and three years later.

Image source: umich.edu/~ojibwe/lessons/semester-one/boarding-schools

Tom Torlino, student at the Carlisle Indian School, in 1882 when he arrived and three years later.

Leaving the Rez: Eyeryday, Modern-Day Assimilation (for Kreestal)

Quick Story: I was on the “Indian Plan” on my journey through college, attending (seriously) six schools before finally graduating. I basically went everyplace that I could go for free, or alternatively, for really, really, REALLY close to free. I ended up going to four “mainstream” schools (two universities and two community colleges), and two tribal colleges. After college, I attended Columbia Law School (good gawd knows how they let me in after my vagabond undergrad experience). All in all, I attended five non-Native schools, and lived off the rez for about eight years of my life.

In hindsight, I think about that time in those non-Native schools and also living off the rez. I suppose I’m old enough now to have a bit of objectivity about that time in my life. I noticed certain themes and commonalities at all those schools—not good, not bad—just themes.

Theme #1

I had to be the “official” spokesman of ALL things Native. As SOON as any question, statistic or the word “Native,” “Indian” etc came up, all eyes turned to me. I didn’t mind—I’d give the requisite disclaimer, “All tribes are different, blah, blah, blah…”—yet try to answer the question as best I could. It was actually a blessing—it made me learn MORE about myself and my people and where I come from. I didn’t wanna pretend that I knew stuff simply because I was Native (I’ve watched many do this—speak blindly on behalf of their communities).

Still, this was a definite theme. “Indian question? Ask the Indian guy!”

Theme #2

Another consistent theme, at these non-Native schools, was a curiosity about how I made it away from the rez. This was interesting—I knew that the people asking the questions had good intentions; they weren’t asking in a malicious way. But there are two implicit messages in this question, and these are sneaky and ugly: 1) that the reservation is this place that needs to be escaped from, like a black hole, lest all hope and potential be sucked away. 2) That I was somehow different than the other people on the reservation because I was resourceful and smart enough to sneak away from the reservation’s destructive power.

Why Am I Telling You This?

Well, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I speak at a lot of colleges and universities and students oftentimes ask me what I think about education. PLUS, it’s squarely on mind because my niece Kreestal just got admitted to a very, very prestigious university. That’s cool—she’s a beautiful, brilliant kid (as are ALL of my nieces and nephews, by the way)—my family doesn’t really have a history of academic success and opportunities. So that’s a big deal. Her and I talk about this stuff. I know that there are a lot of those “Ask the Indian girl” moments coming up for her, as well as a lot of questions about how she “made it away” from the rez. Fortunately, she’s very well grounded in her community and family, and I know that she won’t provide the fodder that they’re asking for.

We talk about how her grounding in her homelands and in her family will also mitigate the assimilating damage that university education will do to her psyche. I tell her, “Make no mistake—Richard Pratt’s mandate to “kill the Indian and save the man” assimilation policy is still fully in effect and university education is a large part of that assimilation.”

Once again: western education is assimilation.

I tell my niece Kreestal (and the other students who I interact with) that a little bit of strategic assimilation can be good. Learn the mechanisms, the systems. Come back. That’s positive.

To wit, when Native people get educated for the purposes of contributing BACK to our precious Native homelands and people, then education is good. Then assimilation is a necessary evil—“Go away, gain knowledge of how to help contribute and improve our communities. Come back. Strengthen the community.” Positive. Use that assimilation for good.

However, education can also be a negative thing to Native communities—it can be a tool to take away many of the talented people from our homelands. When Native people go away (“Make it away!”) from the rez for education, and then ACT like they really did escape—they don’t come back but instead just live in middle class splendor away from their homelands. That’s called a “brain drain.” During treaty negotiations, our ancestors included both “education” and “reservations” into the same treaties. That shows that the two concepts were related to our ancestors. “Education” and “reservation.” When we separate those concepts and take the education with no intent to reciprocate to our homelands, that’s not positive. That’s a Native person buying fully into the assimilation lie—those people effectively have saved the man (or woman) and killed the Indian.

Many times my niece (or any of the students whom I speak to) will ask me WHY we have an obligation to our homelands. “Why SHOULDN’T we just move away like all other Americans?”

Fair question. Still, I tell them that there are many reasons why our homes are different than ALL other people in this nation. First and foremost, our homelands literally carry the spirits of tens of thousands of our ancestors through genetic memory, blood and experience. WE are buried there. That blessed soil in our homelands is nourished with the literal DNA of our people and that fertile soil is UNIQUELY situated to take care of our own kids, our educational, nutritional and spiritual needs. THAT’S why our ancestors thought it was SO important that they reserved it for you—the land is holy and spiritual and deep and carries our literal and metaphorical DNA sequences in the soil.

If we ask the land earnestly and diligently, those spirits that are in the soil WILL answer. Sometimes we just don’t ask the right questions.

The second reason is less lofty, but important nonetheless. Many times, our Tribes pay a portion of our educational costs. Some tribes pay ALL of their fortunate tribal members’ higher education costs. That is NOT a birthright—that is good fortune. That is an investment. The ONLY way that tribe sees a return on that investment is when tribal members contribute back to the community.

Native students who are getting back acceptance letters right now: I’m proud of you. Your people are proud of you. You have an opportunity to do something amazing. Do it. We’ll be waiting for you. Your communities are special places, magical places. Those homelands are worthy and, yes, this is where you truly belong. There is a reason that your people were created and evolved in your homelands—it takes care of you. But assimilate for awhile—learn what you can learn.

Go experience the world, make friends, enjoy the outside world fully. 

But at the end of that, realize that those cities and non-Native places are not your homes. There’s a reason why your ancestors fought to keep these reservation lands separate. Come back.

Love you Kreestal. Congratulations. 

'Holding On (Oil On Chief Mountain)' by John Isaiah Pepion, 2014, pepionledgerart.com

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Dad/Author/Attorney
New Book, How to Say I Love You in Indian—order today!!
www.cutbankcreekpress.com
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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