A University of Minnesota teacher reconnects his Gen X students to their spiritual center 

She was about 19 years old but seemed younger. I knew the minute I saw her in my office doorway that she was troubled and close to tears. I encouraged her to talk to me as I leaned forward in my chair and said, “It’s OK if the tears come.” Her small frame trembled as she began to talk. Within minutes, she was crying openly as she shared her experiences of being a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota.

“…We were told that we were to be athletes first, students second and human beings third and that we needed to keep these parts of us separate from one another. I can’t understand that and refused to buy into it. So I quit the team. But I can’t understand why I’m feeling so guilty and bad about what I’ve done,” she said, her voice trailing off.

“And not only am lied up with that, my being in school just isn’t making any sense to me,” she added. “I’ve never liked school and I’m just here to please my family. I hate it. I’m so tired of everything, I’m so tired of the lies.”

We talked for just 15 minutes but in that short time she told me things that she said she had never shared with anyone else. I asked her to tell me of the lies. She said: “No one in any school I’ve gone to ever told me of the real story of your people. I’ve never been told of the beauty of your culture and my heart aches for what has happened to the Indian people. I’m angry and saddened by it all.”

Learn from us
I smiled and took her hand and said, “But now you know… and you should be grateful for the gift you’ve received. Yes… our history is filled with sadness and harshness, but we can’t look at it that way. Instead, you should see the strength of my people and learn from us. Some of us aren’t bitter over the history; we can’t be, we can’t let anger be our central focus. It will just drag us down.” She looked up and gave me a brief smile.

Before she left, I gave her some sage and told her to burn it every night for the next four nights, always at the same time. I told her it would help calm her. “Use it. It will help,” I said. “If nothing else, it will help you deal with the craziness of the world.”

Before she left, I grasped her hands tightly and thanked her for coming to talk to me. The tears had stopped and she smiled and glanced at the floor and said in a tiny voice, ‘Thank you for listening. You’re the only one I’ve ever been able to talk to since I’ve been at the U.”

I am a full-blood member of the Anishinaabeg-Ojibwe Nation and a teacher of American Indian Philosophy and Spirituality at the University of Minnesota. This student was one of many who have come to me or called me to tell me of the frustrations or to seek more information about the Native American ways of life.

As I begin my fourth year in the Department of Indian Studies at the university, I continue to be amazed at the vast numbers of students who flock to my classes. While my course, American Indian Philosophies, fills two requirements, the majority of the students come to the class because they have heard about it from other students. The waiting list is long and many students have tried for several quarters to get in. Approximately 98 percent of the students who take my course are white and middle class.

Teaching of the heart
As I walk into the classroom at the beginning of each quarter, I am aware of the sense of anticipation and excitement of the students. My teaching assistant has taken the initiative of placing the chairs in a circle and has begun playing a tape of Native American flute music. Students turn and watch me apprehensively as I ask my assistant to shut the lights off. I glance quickly around the room to catch reactions. Several students look at one another as if to say, “What’s he up to?”

I let them sit for several minutes as I busy myself with pieces of paper. The silence heightens their expectations. The music ends and I begin to speak: “Welcome to American Indian Philosophies.” I begin my walk around the circle. The eyes of the students follow my every movement; the students seem to hang on to my every word.

I tell them of the expectations of the course. “This course is unlike any that you’ll ever experience. It is a teaching of the heart, and those of you who expect an intellectual message may not want to be here. For those of you who choose to stay, it has been said that your life may change forever.”

I begin each quarter reminding the students of the inequities and problems that permeate our society. Children throughout our country face violence, poverty and despair. In a Newsweek (“Growing Up,” 1993) poll on what children and adults fear most, violence against a family member ranked number one. The media is filled with stories that describe the violence that pervades our homes, our streets and our schools.

This violence reflects the larger drama of global crisis, from genocidal wars to environmental disasters. It reflects the violence brought on by racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of social injustice.

If today’s young people are lucky, they will have a teacher who understands the role of education in the larger realm, who will help them grapple with and understand moral issues and provide them with opportunities to take appropriate action. Unfortunately, the majority of educators don’t share this larger vision.

Reinforcing alienation
Through the use of conventional instruction, classrooms and schools are more likely to reinforce the alienating conditions of the larger society. Rather than viewing the classroom as a community of spirits connected to each other in the complex concept known as Truth, students and the world around them are resorted to unrelated objects to be lined up, counted, organized, labeled and studied in sterile and cold conditions.

Typically, teachers stand in front of the classroom, talking at their students, who sit in neat rows. They are addressed by a title that elevates them above their charges. The teachers wield the power of having the final say in the outcomes of the students’ academic futures. Traditional teaching has most often been performed from a detached, ego-oriented, culturally biased, impersonal position. Teachers who reveal themselves in a light other than all-knowing, or share personal experiences or are overcome by emotion are engaging in behaviors considered taboo.

In college, the learning environment becomes progressively more impersonal and superficial. Being forced to conform to the system they are attempting to exist within, students begin to lose sight of who they are. Learning how to play the game of academia typically means figuring out what information will be necessary to know in order for them to regurgitate in response to test questions. A measure of learning often is a multiple-choice guessing game, not the application of knowledge.

As real-life issues are elevated into the form of lofty, intellectualized, theoretical concepts and are reconstructed into neat, round figures and graphs using statistical data analysis, students learn to depersonalize the experiences of others. They become numb and desensitized to the needs of human reality, particularly to issues of poverty violence, social inequities and oppression and the repercussions of injustice.

Depression and anxiety disorders run rampant within the student population. For many, these conditions mark the beginning of the road of refusing to accept the status quo. Their disillusionment and discontentment drives them to search out their own meaning of life. Some of these students are surprised when they discover their Truths embedded in the philosophies of the American Indian people.

Native American Elders have long stated that the people who have treated us with hatred will turn to us to help them heal when they have nowhere else to turn.

Ultimately, the dominant society will realize that the road of materialism has not brought them fulfillment and will want deeper meaning in their lives. Indeed, many tribal prophecies have predicted that the people of this nation will turn to the indigenous people for help when they realize that their society has become destructive, unhealthy and has little hope. Considering the state of today’s society, rampant with violence, racism, sexism and poverty, it appears the time for healing is upon us.

Our pedogogical system echoes the structure of democracy. White forefathers of the United States of America derived the concept of democracy from the Iroquois Confederacy’s form of governance. In the 1390s, the

Five Nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Seneca, Cuyuga, Onandaga and Oneida) developed a peace-oriented, egalitarian form of social order with a strong spiritual center. It was based on consensus, equity and social justice.

In the European American version, several key features were omitted. Egalitarianism was replaced by a hierarchical structure. The Native American form of government, based on cooperation, sharing and community, was rejected for one based on competition, materialism and capitalism. Shared leadership and shared responsibility were eliminated and leadership became the responsibility of a handful of male elitists.

The Native American models of governance were predominately matriarchal in nature, wherein female tribal members played a huge role in the government decision-making process. In the new democracy of the United States, women were excluded and treated as second-class citizens.

The Five Nations people advised the creators of the new government to design a spiritual center to guide their new government. A spiritual center, symbolized by a fire lit in Philadelphia, burned brightly until the legislators decided to separate church and state, at which time they mistakenly determined that spirituality was the same as religion or church.

Native American spirituality is heart-based and is seen as the traits found in human nature, unique characteristics of the human personality, which include a spectrum of emotions and physical dimensions.

Sacredness of all things
To the Native people, “church” in essence is honoring the sacredness of all things, which includes our intangible human qualities. Democracy, as a process in America, defines “church” or “religion” as “an application of a specific set of organized rules and guidelines based upon the ideology of the human spirit.”

This belief often impedes the growth of the human spirit and, therefore, it seems to have eliminated mutual respect and reverence for all things. Clearly, the fact that government prohibits the connection of state with church (religion) leaves our education institutions without a spiritual center.

I see a direct correlation with the societal ills of violence and oppression with the lack of a heart-based and truth-based spiritual center in education. In the process of valuing intellectual and physical superiority, our spiritual and emotional aspects have been denied. Because the intangibles of our human nature, such as emotions, intuition, feelings, heart, peace, soul and love cannot be measured, they have been left out of our current education pedagogy.

By expecting and demanding people to perform like machines, we have created emotional and spiritual vacuums, vacuums that have caused people, in desperation, to resort to violence and other anti-social ads in order to be seen or heard as individuals.

It is crucial that we acknowledge the human side of our experience. We need to see our students as human beings, not numbers. Our goal needs to be to teach students how to actualize their full potential, not to force them to behave in ways that will enable them to fit into the molds of societal expectations.

It is important that we encourage students to examine and challenge their knowledge bases and belief systems so they learn how to think for themselves. Critical thinking skills are a part of the process, but without encouraging students to exercise their own initiative to think up better ways of doing things, we are only teaching students how to be a part of the problem, not the solution.

Our schools, for the most part, are organized in a strict, rigid fashion, with set timelines and set student behavioral expectations. Schools demand order and structure. Freedom is denied. Expression of spirit is nonexistent. Therein lies the problem.

Angry and disillusioned
Hundreds of students have shared their tack of direction, disillusionment, anger and needs with me. They are angry at an educational system that has omitted the truths of the destruction and genocide of whole groups of people in this country. Many students feel devalued because their creative talents have been reconstructed beyond recognition instead of having been encouraged to explore their true nature.

I try to honor my students’ spiritual nature in many ways. Students are encouraged to share personal experiences relevant to the material, which is an effective means of integrating their learning. This sharing also helps students to get to know one another. They congregate after class to discuss what has been said. It develops a sense of connectedness and community among the students. They cease to be nameless faces in a crowd.

Keeping a journal is an ongoing assignment throughout the course experience. Students journal about the material presented in class and observations of the world around them. They are directed to reflect upon their emotional responses, to use them to explore what they have been taught on a more personally meaningful level (if something upsets them, they are directed to dialogue about it: If this view is true, what does it mean with regard to my current belief system?; or, Why is this upsetting me so? What does my reaction to this reflect about my sense of identity?).

As a teacher of spirit, I conduct ceremony in my classrooms. It is important for me to share my heart and soul of my people’s philosophies. Through my use of the sacred medicines of tribal people, I honor students when the ancestors are invited into and become a part of our learning environment.

Human qualities
As an educational leader, I try to follow the teachings of the Ojibwe people and make people feel welcome in my “home” (school or classroom). I want them to feel safe, comfortable and know that they are important to me.

With that as a beginning, I try to personalize the environment by using my positive energies in an open-hearted way I ask that teachers open their hearts and their natural positive energies and invite their students to join them on an exciting and fun-filled journey that we call school. In doing so, we create a climate where students feel loved and that they belong.

At the start of each quarter, I open my heart and lay out my soul for my students, knowing that I risk having them stepped on — but it is who I am. I was taught by my grandmother to listen to the ancestors, because they will always be with me, guiding me in the belief of how and what I teach is good. To teach from the heart is risky, but I have seen hundreds of students respond positively to my cultural way of teaching. I have seen lives change, sadness and despair disappear and hope become part of their reality.

We Indian people believe our words are sacred. When we teach others about our beliefs, we are sending a sacred message. Therefore, it must be done respectfully and trust that the respect will be reciprocated. My experience at the university is evidence that young people are willing to trust and be respectful if they are treated in a like manner.

America’s greatest prophet, Deganawidah, a member of the Huron Nation, told the Five Nation’s people that they must believe in the magic of people, the power of women and always maintain the practices of spirituality — and never waiver from these principles. My people’s view of spirituality that it cannot be separated from our daily life, lies at the heart of our strength and survival.

Respecting and valuing our Earth Mother, each other, all life forms and things, giving thanks to the Great Spirit trusting that all we need will be provided for us, honoring our traditions, maintaining our sense of community and living in a cooperative way are things we have always done and continue to do to reclaim our right to exist and to become whole again.

These are concepts that all people must consider as we work together to bring Black Elk’s vision of restoring the Sacred Hoop of Life back into balance and harmony so we all may survive and live together in a peaceful and loving way.

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The late Jerry Buckanaga taught in the American Indian Studies Department, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus. A graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education, he founded the Pine Point Experimental School, a spiritually based school for Ojibwe children on the White Earth Reservation in 1970 and had been a transformational educator for 28 years. He was co-founder of Winds of Change Center for Transformational Healing.

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