Being White among a Sea of Brown:
Transformative Moments when Teaching in Navajoland
EDWARD J. BRANTMEIER, PH.D
If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound in mine, then let us walk together.
Lilla Watson, Australian Aboriginal educator
Standing atop a red plastic chair and looking out over a sea of brown faces, I read the words, I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Known by nearly every school child in America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jrs famous words I have a dream fuel our utopic efforts toward building a just and equitable society. And for special one day in January each year,1 we commemorate the collective effort of African-American people2 and many others in pushing toward civil rights for all people living in America. This particular MLK Day was different from most however. I began my student teaching this snowy January in 1997 in a small desert town in Navajoland. 3
At first the Diné (Navajo)4 children at my school didnt take to me. One child spit pickle juice on my shoes when walking toward the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) dormitory. I felt as unwanted as one of the wandering Rez dogs.5 Another student destroyed my computer disk with the syllabi for our Arizona State History, Foreign Countries, and Navajo Government courses. I was told to F-off, called a cheeini, a witch, white ghost, white trash, long hair and numerous other derogatory names that caused me to seriously question why I had chosen this as a student teaching option as opposed to simply teaching in the comfort zone of home--small town, white Northeastern Wisconsin. Confused about my dream, I felt sad, lonely as a grey juniper skeleton against a blue sky.
Early in my youth, I had naïve illusions of living and teaching on an American Indian Reservation, living one with nature, participating in spiritual ceremonies and becoming accepted and integrated into Indian cultureall the result of too many romantic portraits of Native American people projected in movies and other forms of mass media.6 The harsh realities of lack of economic infrastructure, of alcoholism and diabetes linked to historical trauma, genocide, exploitation of a people and land, and the realities of child abuse & neglect were hard to swallow; the personal attacks on my whiteness stung like wasps.7 I felt the isolation of Arizonas northern deserts, living in my Isolation Room8 at a Bureau of Indian Affairs dormitory, and being white among a sea of brown faces. I had never felt so alone.
You may ask why I was standing atop the plastic chair, reading the words of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to my students in a Navajo Government class. Until that point in my life, I never had to question what it meant to be white. I had lived in a small, rural Wisconsin town of the USA without much diversity and with the privilege of being in the mainstream majority. People of color, other than peach, were of interest to me--a focal point of curiosity. Minus experiencing war-torn Nicaragua, never before had I been in the minority. In addition to my comfort zone being stretched by being in the minority, as a white male I was asked to teach a Navajo Government course to Navajo students. I didnt know how to teach about campaigns of linguistic and cultural genocide that were integral to the educational policy and practice of the USA during the late 1800 and early 1900 assimilationist periods. I didnt know how to teach about the sadness of the Navajos Long Walk9 when many Navajos were forcibly removed from their homelands and marched to New Mexico to become sedentary farmersa failed attempt by the U.S. government indeed. I didnt know how to teach about the senseless murders of Navajos at Massacre Cave in Canyon De Chelley. I didnt know how to teach about the deceased and living Navajo miners who suffered and are suffering from radiation sickness because of their work in uranium mines on Navajolandmines that provided raw materials for the U.S. nuclear warhead projects. I didnt know how to best convey the position that a centralized Navajo government, traditionally intensely local, was established in the early 1900s by the USA government for the purpose of lawful extraction of natural resources. But I tried my best to provide some Navajo perspectives10 on history.
You see, I was standing atop that red plastic chair because I didnt know how to connect with the Navajo students in my classroom. I had asked the Navajo/Chicano principal of the school, Dr. C, for help. Quickly and with enthusiasm, she offered to attend my 6-7-8 multi-grade class the next day to teach a lesson on discrimination, civil rights, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). When students entered the room, she swiftly and sternly divided them according to the color of their t-shirts: red, blues, whites, and blacks. Taken by surprise at the presence of the principal, students compliantly found their respective color groupings. With every bit of seriousness she could muster, Dr. C proceeded to allot the students wearing black shirts a grade of A for the day, the blues Bs, the reds Cs, and the whites Fs. Students quickly grumbled and complained about this injustice. Dr. C proceeded to debrief students about their experience and feelings of discrimination. She then talked about the civil rights period from a first person perspective, and then about MLK as well as several Navajo leaders of the past and present.
After talking about leaders who enabled social change through their memorable words and their actions, she directed me to stand atop the red plastic chair and read aloud MLKs I have a dream speech. It was then that I experienced the power of cross-cultural immersion and the power of co-learning. Dr. C had consciously put me in a position to be the other. I was a white man speaking a black mans words to a sea of brown faces. But momentarily when reading the words of MLK, color didnt matter. What mattered was our collective hope for a peaceful and just future through non-judgment and the advancement of equal and fair opportunity for all. What mattered was a deeper understanding of the other in order to cultivate my capacities for empathy and love--love unfettered by color, conditioning, or creed. What mattered is that I had come to Navajoland to learn about the power of love to transform conflict into mutual understanding; I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose and belonging. Student perceptions of my feelings during moments standing atop the red plastic chair, including my goal of advancing their individual and collective rights, transformed their initial rejection of me and spread a comfortable and accepting peace in our classroom like a warm sunrise in a gust of biting-cold January desert wind. From that moment forward, we better understood one another.
Tumble weeds somersaulted across the desert floor as I sat alone looking out the small window of my isolation room at the Bureau of Indian Affairs dormitory. I understood that I had come to Navajoland because I needed to learn some deeper lessons about power, privilege, whiteness, and historical oppression from the perspective of Navajo students and the wider community that I was living in. With humility and sadness, I recognized my need to view current realities of poverty, alcoholism, & domestic abuse in the context of past historical atrocities of biological, linguistic, and cultural genocide. The historical trauma experienced by many Native American people continues to impact Native American communities today. In fact, I was staying in a Bureau of Indian Affairs dormitory, an infrastructure that was originally established to de-link Native American children from their families and language in U.S. government attempts at total cultural assimilation. Children were forced to speak English, their hair was cut off, they encountered unspeakable physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in BIA dormitories and schools. However, the focus of this Bureau of Indian Affairs dormitory and school had subsequently changedNavajo students were then encouraged to participate in traditional crafts, speak in Navajo, learn the Navajo language as part of the school curriculum, and participate in cultural heritage celebrations. Most teachers at school were Navajo and a bi-lingual approach to learning was very much supported. Many of the children seemed to enjoy coming to school on Monday mornings to meet their friends.
After several months of living in Navajoland, the sea of brown faces, that I originally perceived through a homogenous lens, changed. I began to get to know individual students with unique backgrounds and family histories. Juans 11 father was in prison and Juan suffered from severe anger over this. Juan had drinking problems and he had joined a gang.12 On one Friday night, Jenny was dropped off at home on Friday night to an empty hogaan.13 Melissa, who was half Hopi, half Navajo, dreamed of attending Northern Arizona University on a basketball scholarship; she was both a sharp student and an excellent basketball player. Tony loved to read books while herding his familys sheep in canyons hear his home; he wanted to go to college some day. Over time, I learned to see my students not as a sea of brown faces, but as individual people with particular needs and dreams. However, I didnt neglect facets of group identity integral to addressing the needs of my students.14 I purposefully learned more about Navajo history and contemporary governmental realities and incorporated curriculum that was more relevant to students lives. We traveled to their reservation capital of Window Rock to observe a session of the Navajo Tribal Council, where we even met the President of the Navajo Nation in his office. We later wrote papers on the Navajo leaders of the past and the present. Students were then asked to identify and explain their own leadership qualities.
Essentially, through trial and many errors, I inched my way toward a culturally responsive pedagogy and culturally inclusive curriculum. I learned how to compliment students in private, how to ask for choral responses when no individual student would respond, how to respect silence and forethought before speaking, and how to not ask students for direct eye contact. I learned to not talk about myself and my accomplishments as much; I learned to talk about my family more.
My students began to view me not as a white man who was their historical oppressor, but as a caring teacher who desired to advance their individual abilities and collective group rights. The derogatory comments subsided. My students and I learned not to judge each other by skin color and the histories they represented, but to accept one another as human beings whose liberation is bound together. We learned deep lessons about empathy, co-learning, and mutual understanding.
In beauty may we walk
In beauty may we walk...
A Navajo Prayer
Edward J. Brantmeier is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Saint Louis University. He enjoys teaching English methods, multicultural education, multicultural literature, curriculum development, and philosophy of education courses. His research interests include peace education and intercultural education in the context of teacher education.
1. A deeper recognition of the multiple voices and perspectives that comprise the “American” identity and experience would require much more than one day each January; deeper social change would require reflection on realities of privilege, power, and oppression in a much more holistic and comprehensive manner. Some would argue that Black History month was a start in the right direction. Some would suggest it is an add-on approach to diversity recognition and integration.
2. White Euro-American allies, people devoted to women’s issues,
Native American groups, Latinos, and other historically marginalized and oppressed groups were also involved in civil rights struggles.
3. Navajoland is typically referred to as the Navajo Reservation—a reference to the reserved land in provisions made by the U.S. Government to Native American people. However, Navajo people lived in this region for hundreds of years prior to European contact. It is their homeland. Thus, Navajoland more accurately depicts whose land it actually is.
4. Diné is the indigenous word for Navajo. Diné translates to the People in this indigenous language. The word Navajo was probably derived from Spanish. However, it is commonly accepted to refer to this group of people as Navajo.” Some insiders do demand the use of Diné though.
5. Rez is an insider term used for the word Reservation.
6. The noble-savage stereotype, a stereotype that juxtaposes contradictory images of Native American people living in harmony with nature on horseback on the Plains but also killing and scalping all white settlers they came across, had been deeply engrained from my consumption of mass media and local Northeastern Wisconsin white narratives about Indians. The noble-savage stereotype is still negatively projected onto indigenous people in the United States today.
7. Toward the end of my experience I began to understand that my whiteness represented a legacy of historical oppression by the U.S. government. I learned to step back from these derogatory comments and empathize with students who made such comments. I identified my skin color as symbolic of a legacy of historical oppression, de-personalized the negative comments, and tried to understand, from the perspective an insider, why so much animosity might exist toward white people, bilagaanain the Diné language.
8. Isolation Rooms were used for isolating sick students from the general population in order prevent the spread of infection. I lived in one of these Isolation Rooms when working in Navajoland.
9. The Long Walk was the Navajo version of the Cherokee Trail of Tears during removal and relocation efforts by the U.S. Government.
10. We used Rough Rock Community textbooks for this course. Rough Rock is a local press that developed materials for Navajo schools from a Navajo perspective.
11. All names used are pseudonyms.
12. On a subsequent supervisory visit to Navajoland in 2002, I learned that Juan had died in car crash. Apparently, he and his friends were drinking alcohol and lost control of their vehicle.
13. A traditional Navajo house made of earth and logs.
14. I currently hear some of my college students say things like, Just treat everyone as an individual, and everything will be o.k. I disagree with this position that individuates cultural group members from the collective. Is it not important to recognize the individual and the cultural group? We are individuals, and members of cultural groups. Schools are often sites for contestation among cultural groups and to not recognize group phenomena that occur in schools can be problematic, particularly for groups who do not hold social, economic, or political power.