When I was a child, I remember coming home from school one day and sharing with my mom that at school they were teaching us that George Washington was the first leader of our country, "But this is not what our indigenous Elders are teaching us", I said to my mother.
She continues cooking and says in a loving voice, “Anita, if you want to get an A, then you answer the way they want you to answer out there. But know that you can always come home and we can talk about the truth.”
I respond, “But, Mom . . .”
My mom continues: “Anita, you get to choose. And remember, the winds are always changing, and someday the wind will be at our backs and we will be able to speak the truth and create change that we have always dreamed of.”
HISTORY, WHO’S STORY?
Many years later when I’m 32, I am submitting my doctoral dissertation about the contribution of personality temperament and organizational variables to visionary leadership behavior. With great pride, I include the stories and quotes of indigenous Elders who were great visionary leaders: Black Elk, Chief Sitting Bull, and others. Their knowledge sits right beside my acknowledgment of works from Harvard professors who study leadership.
So I am confused when I hear members of my doctoral committee say, “No, you must take out the indigenous Elders, their stories and experiences. You are doing grounded science and these stories are anecdotal, not tested science.”
I retort, “Indigenous people have been doing sound science for thousands of years. Science is about knowledge, the systematic study of the world based on facts learned through experiments and observations.
“Indigenous science and practice are not anecdotal. These Elders and our people have survived for millennia based on reliable accounts of the real world. Testing and retesting through observation and experience has given us a deep understanding of the natural world and our interconnections.”
My heart is pounding, for I can sense threat.
“Anita, you cannot get the highest degree in this country by not following the protocols,” says one doctoral committee member. “Take these sections out and after you get your PhD, then you can write and speak about whatever you want.”
PLAYING THE GAME
My fear that I would be denied my doctorate overcomes my commitment to honoring the wisdom of my Elders. I reluctantly do what I am told and take out the citations about indigenous Elders and their wisdom. This decision feels like I am cutting off one of my arms.
Hidden behind the acceptable guise of academic ivory towers, this insidious tentacle of historic racial hatred stems back to the colonization by the British of the indigenous tribes of the U.S., when our children were forced to leave family, culture, and tradition, and live in residential schools in North America. The point of the Indian residential schools was to complete the physical and cultural genocide of the tribes by beating the Indian out of the Indian, as has happened to indigenous people in many other parts of the world, across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.
As a result of being cut off from our history, our traditions, our wisdom, our people are reeling from the effects of alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, abuse—toxic remnants of the hurts and mistreatment. However, the miracle is that we are still here, and that many of our traditions and spiritual practices are still intact.
Today, we see indigenous peoples working to save, and revitalize their history and that wisdom, to stand in pride with the knowledge passed down through countless generations. As our people rise in ceremony and prayer, at Standing Rock and around the world, my heart sings, and I remember my mother’s words: “Someday we will be able to speak the truth and create change that we have always dreamed of.”