Image source: umich.edu/~ojibwe/lessons/semester-one/boarding-schools
Tom Torlino, student at the Carlisle Indian School, in 1882 when he arrived and three years later.

Leaving the Rez: Eyeryday, Modern-Day Assimilation (for Kreestal)

Gyasi Ross
3/24/14

Quick Story: I was on the “Indian Plan” on my journey through college, attending (seriously) six schools before finally graduating. I basically went everyplace that I could go for free, or alternatively, for really, really, REALLY close to free. I ended up going to four “mainstream” schools (two universities and two community colleges), and two tribal colleges. After college, I attended Columbia Law School (good gawd knows how they let me in after my vagabond undergrad experience). All in all, I attended five non-Native schools, and lived off the rez for about eight years of my life.

In hindsight, I think about that time in those non-Native schools and also living off the rez. I suppose I’m old enough now to have a bit of objectivity about that time in my life. I noticed certain themes and commonalities at all those schools—not good, not bad—just themes.

Theme #1

I had to be the “official” spokesman of ALL things Native. As SOON as any question, statistic or the word “Native,” “Indian” etc came up, all eyes turned to me. I didn’t mind—I’d give the requisite disclaimer, “All tribes are different, blah, blah, blah…”—yet try to answer the question as best I could. It was actually a blessing—it made me learn MORE about myself and my people and where I come from. I didn’t wanna pretend that I knew stuff simply because I was Native (I’ve watched many do this—speak blindly on behalf of their communities).

Still, this was a definite theme. “Indian question? Ask the Indian guy!”

Theme #2

Another consistent theme, at these non-Native schools, was a curiosity about how I made it away from the rez. This was interesting—I knew that the people asking the questions had good intentions; they weren’t asking in a malicious way. But there are two implicit messages in this question, and these are sneaky and ugly: 1) that the reservation is this place that needs to be escaped from, like a black hole, lest all hope and potential be sucked away. 2) That I was somehow different than the other people on the reservation because I was resourceful and smart enough to sneak away from the reservation’s destructive power.

Why Am I Telling You This?

Well, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I speak at a lot of colleges and universities and students oftentimes ask me what I think about education. PLUS, it’s squarely on mind because my niece Kreestal just got admitted to a very, very prestigious university. That’s cool—she’s a beautiful, brilliant kid (as are ALL of my nieces and nephews, by the way)—my family doesn’t really have a history of academic success and opportunities. So that’s a big deal. Her and I talk about this stuff. I know that there are a lot of those “Ask the Indian girl” moments coming up for her, as well as a lot of questions about how she “made it away” from the rez. Fortunately, she’s very well grounded in her community and family, and I know that she won’t provide the fodder that they’re asking for.

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arizona's picture
arizona
Submitted by arizona on
Reeally enjoy all your commentary and vinegar/honey insight. I was wondering, what do you think of Natives who left the 'rez' and chose to stay away and didn't come back? More and more Natives leave for a variety of reasons. Therefore, do you think the Almighty Superior beings in D.C. or wherever they gather stats, data, and infor. on trends pertaining to Natives, do you think Big Brother is watching and knows that as time goes by, Natives are leaving their homelands and not coming back? What is your take on this and do you believe you will live to see that demise of the Reservation? Thank you again for your columns.

ravenhawk's picture
ravenhawk
Submitted by ravenhawk on
I beg to differ on education equating into simulation - I chose what/where/when I educate myself and have resisted anything 'forced' onto me all my life. Whats the option then just being dumb Indian? Best conversation I ever had in my life was with a Cambodian who said "education" is the only thing White man has to offer that I like. we had soO much in common from culture to being resistant. Indians aren't assimilating today - we've evolving - I do know some Indians that chose to de-volve though. I've recently applied at several local Colleges ... too white for me I went running to Tribal College.

ravenhawk's picture
ravenhawk
Submitted by ravenhawk on
I beg to differ on education equating into simulation - I chose what/where/when I educate myself and have resisted anything 'forced' onto me all my life. Whats the option then just being dumb Indian? Best conversation I ever had in my life was with a Cambodian who said "education" is the only thing White man has to offer that I like. we had soO much in common from culture to being resistant. Indians aren't assimilating today - we've evolving - I do know some Indians that chose to de-volve though. I've recently applied at several local Colleges ... too white for me I went running to Tribal College.

Ryanbellerose's picture
Ryanbellerose
Submitted by Ryanbellerose on
This was an interesting read but I would say I disagree with a few things you say here. first I know a lot of native kids who go away to school, and when they come home to the rez to make changes they get stonewalled. so many reserves are miserable places to live, is it any wonder that when we get stonewalled, we do not want to live on moosemeat and macaroni just to get treated like pariahs? I do not ascribe to the misplaced belief that we should worship our jails, and thats what many reserves are. instead we should be talking about taking control of our education, adding cultural components and teaching our youth how to live in the modern world while remaining true to themselves.

wahskohon's picture
wahskohon
Submitted by wahskohon on
My parents chose not to return to the reservations they came from. For a long time I was ashamed. After, 5 colleges and zero assistance from any culture, I graduated and desired to return to the rez- as if not being from the Rez or living there meant I couldn't be Native. Soil calls to my soul and I visit regularly. But I decided that I would be a deep undercover Skin. My reason was that I would rather take my knowledge and experiences, which were listed, and infiltrate the public schools of America!! So now, I have been teaching American school kids about the Indigenous! I am fighting the battle of ignorance by teaching "their" kids. I am well liked by all cultures, but I do my best to walk proud as an Indigenous man. I have been asked by my district to lead minority issues and now my peers and other schools are changing. Let's see... that's 40 teachers at my school... and 6 schools... plus all the kids I know... I'm a Red virus extinguishing their ignorance and inflaming their children to love the Mother Earth and her children. This entire continent was full of people of the soil (Indigenous). Assimilation means that the enemy screwed up by not killing us all - now we have permeated throughout them, as we planned, and they are realizing it's too late to murder us outright. Their children know too many wonderful humans - that are real Natives. We've infiltrated so well that the American government had to determine how infected they are... I hear nearly all Americans claim the have and Indian relative. NOW - we awaken their spirits!
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