Good morning. Happy Mother’s Day. I’d like to acknowledge and honor the Sokoki People and their homeland that we’re gathered on today and I’m very happy to be here and honored to be here as well.
You’re probably wondering why I’m standing here as a student, a student with quite a few years under my belt. Well, you see, I’m the executive director of Gedakina. Gedakina translates to “our world, our way of living,” an indigenous philosophy embedded in long-standing experience that human beings and all creatures and the environment are interconnected and interdependent upon each other for survival. Our emphasis is on activities for youth, women, and their families.
I’d like to share a few statistics with you: 3,512 Native Americans received a master’s degree in the years 2014 to 2015; 3,412 master’s degrees were received in 2016 to 2017 by Native Americans. I want to make sure you just heard what I said. That’s 100 less students than the year before. That means under 1 percent of the Native American population received their master’s in 2017—only 1 percent.
Our youth have withered in a bureaucratic school system bogged down with the fight over which federal agency will pay for their schooling, resulting in the lowest graduation rates from any subgroup in America. The final straw that seems to be sneaking past most Americans, is that the current administration is putting MBAs—Master’s of Business Administration—in the schools throughout Indian country as principals so that the tribal schools can be run like a business not a school. We have once again become a commodity. Our schools are being run by principles without degrees in education or any cultural background. Dropout rates are increasing daily, our youths of becoming addicted to opioids, and at a surprising rate the suicide rates are also climbing. They need our help.
I wondered about this. What were the challenges these youths were meeting? It was a long time since I’ve been a youth. I thought about it. I looked around and I talked to people and here’s what I discovered: The lack of resources were at the top of the list. The average income on a reservation in Maine is $8,000. Followed by leaving home, leaving family, and community behind was equally as difficult. Stories of children being taken from families for boarding schools that wanted to quote “kill the Indian and save the man” lingered for generations. So, to pack up and leave home as you know it is not an easy task for these youths.
And the third reason was the lack of cultural inclusion. Most school perspectives of Christopher Columbus, eugenics, boarding schools, the Pilgrims, and the founding fathers was just too depressing and unbearable to sit through without support. Hearing these one-sided stories from the same perspective over and over and over again is painful. I know this because I’ve lived this. My parents were told at a parent’s conference quote “of all the children you have if you could afford to send one to college, send Nancy because she is blonde and light-skinned and has a better chance to make it. I know Judy wants to go to college, but she should take the secretarial track.”
Coming from a family of five children. I knew there was no money for anyone to go to college. So, I fought the system and snuck into college prep classes when I had free time from the secretarial track. I knew that some way, somehow I would be a lifelong learner. I know this because I was forced to read We Americans: A Study of Cleavage in an American City in high school. This book was written by Elin Anderson, the assistant director of the Vermont eugenics survey. The Vermont eugenics survey, a collection of surveys in which many French Indians were targeted simply because they were deemed by progressive leaders to be either defective, dependent, or delinquent and in this book I read about my family—the family that actually became the largest targeted family by the Vermont eugenics survey.
I was bewildered and confused at best when I read the files of 623 people in my family. Members over generations who had been hunted, tracked down, institutionalized, and many sterilized simply because they were different. But I read both the book and the files anyway. You see, I had to. This was the story of my family told from a perspective belonging to those that didn’t understand. A story told by those that simply wanted my people gone. I knew somehow I would reclaim the story, and someday, I would tell another perspective. I knew I was here to do just that.
I knew this because I’d had learned to stay ahead of the truant officers that didn’t want me to participate in family gatherings and the cultural learning that occurred every summer in my life. I spent seven months of the year at camp where my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all gathered for summer harvesting. It’s here that I learned about traditional ecological knowledge, how to fish, how to harvest, how to make baskets, and so much more. It’s here I learned how to braid different knowledges together.
Somehow I understood that braiding these knowledges together would be needed in the future. I knew the next generation would need these skills. I just knew it. I know this because I see it every day with the children and women I work with. I see it—the poverty, the isolation, the lack of cultural inclusion—it hits me between the eyes every time I work with a native community. It’s a constant reminder of insults being hurled at you, name-calling, and bullying, but yet I keep educating myself. I keep braiding those knowledges together because I want to learn.
I have memories that make me strong—memories of my mother and father working together in the kitchen to prepare rich meals from the food we grew in our garden and orchard, and harvested on the riverbanks near we live where we lived. Sunday afternoon rides of dropping apple cores down the hole of the backseat floor of our car and watching them fly out behind us. Memories of my father placing a bowl on her head and cutting our hair around the bowl. I guess we were just maybe 50 years ahead of our time because that style stills seems to be fashionable now. I remember fishing with my grandfather for dinner and learning exactly where the fish spawn, and when. I remember learning from him how to read the weather, the water, and the land. How to understand the currents and learn where the fish are waiting for us. I remember struggling to find just the right spot on my father’s lap so he could read one of our favorite Aesop’s Fables.
You see, I’ve dug deep for the memories both good and bad and I am a rich girl for doing this. I am wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. I have to help others learn how to braid these knowledges together for they too will have a rich life and understand the value of those around them. I somehow knew respect, responsibilities, relationships, reverence, and reciprocity were the keys to wealth, and I knew had to teach others of these values. Week after week during this past year I saw a new path to teaching the latest generation of indigenous children. A path unfolded that would help me direct those that followed me. A path to increase the process of braiding knowledges together appeared.
You see, the need for a role model is still there for my grandchildren and the indigenous women and youth I work with. So it seems I’m not so old after all. I’m just starting part two of my life. A life where I’m working to increase self-determination, creativity, revitalization, and leadership development for the indigenous women and girls I work with. I’m working to build solidarity, cultivate communication, and develop the strength and ability to think with one mind. Reclaiming our past stories, songs, and prayers will help us to understand today and then direct the future for our people forward in a good way you.
You see, an elder is someone that leads their people forward. An older is someone who just gets old. I don’t want to be an older. I want my people to learn how to braid knowledges together just as I have done. I want them to survive. I want to increase the rates of youth that successfully achieve their master’s and more. For this role modeling is what our youth needs. Braiding knowledges will help them to survive and beat the statistics. Learning to embrace education will move them forward.
This is what I’ve learned with my time at Marlboro College. What have you learned? Will you take the knowledge you have learned and share it or leave it on a shelf with the heavy textbooks you’ve accumulated? Will you continue to learn and then braid the different knowledges together or will you be dismissive to different ways learning? Will you have a clear mind and an open heart in which to create memories that you can always share, or will you have a closed mind and a hardened heart that blocks out new ways of learning? Will you stand up to the obstacles that you meet and resist wrongs or will you take the easy road and conform?
Just like a drop of water that falls in the puddle and creates concentric circles, I hope you too will explore, experience, and observe life and then go out and fight for change. The next generation needs our help in so many ways and you know what? They’re waiting for us. Age doesn’t determine an elder—wisdom does. Pick up your people and move them forward in a good way. Thank you to Marlboro College for this opportunity and especially thank you to the faculty at SPARK along with my younger classmates for helping me to continue my learning journey. A journey that has brought me a new and different gift each day. I wish you all the future that allows you to continue learning so that you too one day may become an elder and not just an older. Aho.