Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Silence as Shields: Agency and Resistances among Native American Students in the Urban Southwest

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Silence as Shields: Agency and Resistances among Native American Students in the Urban Southwest

Article excerpt

When I first met Eileen,1 she was a senior at Desert View High School, an urban school in the Southwest United States. She was one of sixteen students (and one classroom teacher) with whom I worked and developed humanizing relationships (Paris & Winn, 2014) over a period of three years in one unique class called Native American literature that was taught to multicultural and multitribal students. From the moment I met Eileen, who self-identified as half Navajo, half African American, she greeted me with a smile that I always returned. On one particular day early in the semester, Eileen entered the school's library with a poster board she had created for another class. She saw me sitting at a back desk (where I routinely transcribed class recordings, constructed initial memos, and deepened my field notes). She stopped for a few moments to talk, which over the course of the year, happened once or twice a week during her lunch break.

When I asked her about her poster, she said she had created it for a class assignment about students' lives beyond the school walls. Her poster board collage was composed of pictures of her two dogs, one cat, and two turtles, as well as fastfood emblems of the places she liked to eat. As I continued to make my visual way around the collage, I noticed in the upper-right-hand corner of her poster board that she had cut out the symbol for the History Channel-a large, golden H like two huge metal pillars with a bridge between-and pasted it on the board. It lay atop a blood-red square, also outlined in gold. Underneath the H was the word HISTORY in all-caps. Eileen, with a thick permanent red marker, had circled the golden H and put a bold X through the middle of it. I asked her what it symbolized.

"It's not my favorite subject. I like math, but I haaate history," she said, emphasizing and elongating the word hate.

A small laugh escaped from me. Within the laugh was a set of shared understandings with Eileen. I think back to my own education, having grown up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana as a Filipino American. I remember my confused disdain for history. The ways in which the lessons and stories contained little, if any, mention of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille peoples whose stories flooded the Mission Valley, but were somehow blockaded by the school walls as if the school were a ship floating atop the storied waters below, unable to see past the glimmer of the refracted, rippled waves. I remember having this uneasy tension between accepting lessons taught as truths and seeing the contradictions and complications that came along with my early development of critical consciousness. This tension often left me in a state of silence as I did not have the words to process my feelings when I was in high school like Eileen was able to as she spoke with me in the back of the library. Eileen's words resonated with me then and continue to affect me now because, as she was sharing her understandings with me, she helped me make sense of my own schooling processes growing up.

I asked Eileen, "Why do you haaaate history?"-elongating and emphasizing the word like she did.

In her answer, she brought me into her history classrooms through the story she told about how her history teachers always did the same thing at the beginning of each semester. According to Eileen, her teachers would always "discuss some things about Native American history early on, but quickly move on to the next point." Many students I worked with shared this sentiment. Eileen said that when Native Americans were discussed, it was as if they were locked in the past and forgotten in the present. Her stories and realities, her communities and tribal histories, were not reflected in the lessons taught at Desert View High School. She found herself on the outside of the narratives told in her American history class. This outside-looking-in positioning relates to Tuck and Yang's (2014) assertion that "the relentlessness of the master narrative . …

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