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A Letter to Indigenous Graduates: Protect Who You Have Always Been

Thing About Skins: A congratulatory letter to Indigenous graduates from Gyasi Ross
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“Imperialism and colonialism are not something that happened decades ago or generations ago, but they are still happening now…”
John Mohawk, Seneca

“Every child born into the world should be looked upon by society as so much raw material to be manufactured. Its quality is to be tested. It is the business of society, as an intelligent economist, to make the best of it.”
Lester Frank Ward

“The great purpose which the Government has in view in providing an ample system of common school education for all Indian youth of school age is the preparation of them for American citizenship. The Indians are destined to become absorbed into the national life, not as Indians, but as Americans.”
Thomas J. Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs
“Inculcation of Patriotism in Indian Schools”

Dear Native students and graduates,
You are graduating. Congratulations.
That is a huge deal. Historic. You beat the odds. Your family and community should be very proud of you and you should be very proud of yourself as well. For what it matters, I’m very proud of you. Native students have the lowest graduation rates from high school in the nation. Native students also have the highest dropout rates from college in the nation. There are a myriad of reasons, heartbreaking stories and culprits why Native students have the lowest graduation rates and the highest dropout rates in the nation—those reasons, stories and culprits are all very, very real. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The fact that you made it through school despite those very real things is nothing short of amazing.

Yet, you persisted dear graduates. You somehow survived this system that was intended to devour your soul.
This educational system was meant to take beautiful, free and liberated young Natives and spit them out to be soulless Americans, mere raw material to be manufactured and consumed. At that point, you were simply meant to enter into the work force and forget who you are and from whence you came. Those aren’t my words—that is what the architects of this system said the intent was. That has always been the aim of educating Native people—to kill the Indian and save the person, because the values of Native people are oftentimes in direct opposition to simply being a wasteful American. This system was meant to break you, like a wild animal, and turn you into a consumer.
Some will tell you that the educational system has changed and that is not the intent any longer. Those folks are wrong. Those people who say that are naïve at best; today, Native students (and black students) get assigned to special education classes at astronomically high rates—far higher than other ethnicities. Those people who say that the educational system is no longer like that are liars at worst; today, Native students (and black students) receive discipline—suspension and expulsions—at astronomically high rates—far higher than other ethnicities.
The intent has not changed.
It is no surprise that Native students and black students are joined in these statistics, since as Richard Henry Pratt said, “If millions of black savages can become so transformed and assimilated, and if, annually, hundreds of thousands of emigrants from all lands can also become Anglicized, Americanized, assimilated and absorbed through association, there is but one plain duty resting upon us with regard to the Indians, and that is to relieve them of their savagery and other alien qualities by the same methods used to relieve the others.” As John Mohawk pointed out, imperialism and colonialism are still happening now and their major instruments are schools.

Yet you made it graduates. You survived an evil system that was literally designed to destroy our communities.

When I say “evil,” please understand that I’m not talking about “I disagree with their perspective.” No, I’m talking “steal your children” evil; “you will never, ever see your Native children again” evil; “cut your children’s hair off” evil; “put them in special ed to get them classified as less intelligent” evil; “hundreds of unmarked graves for the children who died at boarding school” evil.
That is the legacy of the US educational system with Native children. It’s really that bad.
Now comes the unlearning time. If I could give one piece of advice to students who have just graduated, it is this: take the time to consciously protect who you have always been. Your diploma is not who you have always been. Your degree is not who you have always been. Your job, if you are now entering the job market, is not who you have always been. The diplomas, degrees and jobs are, hopefully, simply tools to help maintain who we have always been in this modern era.
But there is a danger is that we start to believe that the diplomas, degrees and jobs are the goals themselves. We might begin to believe that those things make us smarter, more worthwhile, and more capable than our non-educated family and community. We might begin to think that we are somehow different than our community.
That is dangerous.
That is why we must have a time for unlearning some of the invisible lessons from western schooling. It might only be a week, two weeks, a month, but if I were to give some advice it would be to forget your amazing accomplishment for some period of time. I would say to also forget your cell phone and forget the Socratic discipline of questioning everything. You are brilliant—there is no question about that. You were always worthwhile. You were always capable. Worthwhileness and capableness were genetic traits passed down from people who survived some of the worst hardships known to humankind. You survived a system that was intended to destroy you. But now I would advise, if I were to advise, that you not onlystep away from what was intended to destroy but to actually step toward something that has always sustained our people.
Pow wow season and summer ceremony seasons are coming up. Perfect opportunity to go talk with some elders for a few days. Camp. Talk with them as long as you can into the night. Wake up and talk to them some more. Go to a sweat. Unplug for a few days. Unplug for a few weeks if you can. If they smoke and you do not, sit in their smoke and listen. If they speak their language and you do not, listen anyway. Hear the rhythm. Learn the brilliance of their communication—how they made it through an incredibly violent world, a world intended to destroy them.
And yet they made it through. Which, of course, allowed us to make it through. You owe that time to them.
College, grad school and the job market will all be there. Those things are not going anyplace. You are going to do amazing there. But the best that we can do against imperialism and colonialism AND also the best thing for our mental and spiritual health is this: take some time to remember who you have always been. Send me pictures. Let me know how your graduation went.
Your Friend,

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Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Breakdances With Wolves Podcast, available on Soundcloud, iTunes

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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