Luci Tapahonso, Boarding Schools,& the Smithsonian

From Indian Country Today:

Luci Tapahonso (Navajo) wrote the text for a photo essay in the July 2016 issue of Smithsonian magazine: “For More Than 100 Years, the U.S. Forced Navajo Students Into Western Schools. The Damage Is Still Felt Today.”

She opens, “At the beginning of Navajo time, the Holy People (Diyin Dine’é) journeyed through three worlds before settling in Dinétah, our current homeland.” After describing the formation of the Dinétah physical world, she says, “Today, in the fourth world, when a Diné (Navajo) baby is born, the umbilical cord is buried near the family home, so the child is connected to its mother and the earth, and will not wander as if homeless.”

Tapahonso, now poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, writes from her roots. She was born and raised in Shiprock, the town where I first encountered Native culture, as a lawyer for Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii —the Navajo legal services program.

The Smithsonian essay focuses on the infamous boarding schools, where Native children were kidnapped from their families and forcibly inducted into American culture under the rubric, “kill the Indian, save the man.” The notion of “saving” arose from the Christian missionary complex that attended the entire boarding school assimilation effort.

Christians approach life from a starting point of “sin,” and see themselves—and all Creation—as in need of being “saved.” All too often, in trying to kill the Indian, the children themselves were killed. Mass graves are still found on old boarding school grounds. “Saved” by death.

The boarding schools were a knife stabbed into families and clans—the heart of Indian Country. The government and churches in Canada have acknowledged all this in what they call a “reconciliation process,” though it needs to be asked what “reconciliation” means when anti-Indian policies still exist.

United States government and churches have done far less—in most cases, nothing at all comparable to the acknowledgment of wrongdoing in Canada. For whatever reasons, Native people in the U.S. seem comparatively willing to let the wrongdoers go unnamed and unaccountable.

Tapahonso doesn’t wade into the “reconciliation process.” With her usual incisive writing, she chooses instead to focus on the survival of Native Peoples from the boarding school experience; albeit, survival that carries deep scars, passed from the children who were kidnapped to their children. “Today those [boarding school] students are parents and grandparents. Many hold onto a lingering homesickness and sense of alienation. Others are beset by nightmares, paranoia and a deep distrust of authority.”

Tapahonso tells her own stories of surviving a mission boarding school, and recounts the legal history of the 1928 Merriam Report and a 1969 U.S. Senate report, which constituted “major indictments” of the boarding school system. “It would be several years,” she writes, “before widespread changes would take hold.” By 1990, “tribal involvement in education had become the norm.”

I have the Navajo to thank for beginning my education in what it means to be a human being. My encounters in Navajoland set me on a path that changed my legal career and my life.

I recall one example related to Navajo schools: I had just spoken in the Teec Nos Pos Chapter House about the community taking control over the local school. When I finished my talk, which was being translated by Frank Begay, a Navajo Tribal Court Advocate, several people spoke. Frank said, “They want to know more.” I began to discuss the general plan for Navajo legal services. He stopped me: “No, that’s not what they’re asking about. They want to know about you. Where were you born? Do you have any brothers and sisters? Things like that.”

I was flabbergasted. American society—and especially law school—isolated professional work from personal life. I felt shock and surprise. I was embarrassed. I was thrilled. The people were looking at me as a human being, not just as their lawyer.

After that first experience of being cared about as a person, I worked with Frank a lot. We traveled to meetings together, sometimes hours away. He told me stories about places we passed, about people, about what it means to be human in the Navajo cosmos. I learned to see the world with new eyes.

One morning, months later, a family arrived outside my house. They said they were there to have an argument. They didn’t want my legal services, but my presence as a person. All day they stayed around, talking out whatever it was that had erupted among them. I never knew what it was, whether it was a legal problem or something else. By day’s end, they had resolved something, and they left. Their presence was an honor and a blessing.

You can tell the Smithsonian editors had trouble figuring out how to present Luci Tapahonso and the photographs by Daniella Zalcman without angering U.S. politicians who vote their budget: Although the essay subtitle focuses on “how native populations had a new nation foisted upon them,” the overall section title steps back from the acknowledgment of force and separate nationhood: It reads, “American Exiles: Leaving Home: A series of three photo essays explores how America has treated its own people in times of crisis.”

“Leaving home” sounds tame—even romantic—compared to “forced.” Moreover, Navajos and all other Indigenous Peoples of the continent are not America’s “own people.” The boarding schools were one element in a long—and still ongoing—effort to make Indians disappear as nations, to force them to become Americans. Many have succumbed.

If the Smithsonian were really to present the full history of U.S. treatment of Indigenous Peoples, the exhibit would be named “American Holocaust.” That would stir up even greater anger in the U.S. Congress than the 1995 controversy about the museum’s atomic bomb exhibit, or its 2003 exhibit about the Arctic and climate change.

We can be thankful that Luci Tapahonso’s essay made it through the gauntlet.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.
Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/07/25/luci-tapahonso-boarding-schools-smithsonian

Written by Peter D’errico 

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