By Jessica Helen Lopez
After 140 years, nine young Lakota relatives who lost their lives at a Carlisle, Pennsylvania, boarding school were recently brought home and ceremoniously laid to rest at the Sicangu Rosebud Reservation of the Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
The school was the first among more than 350 government-funded boarding schools founded by the United States governmental Bureau of Indian Affairs with the purpose to acculturate, assimilate, and violently steal away Native American children from their families—in the words of U.S. Captain Richard. H. Pratt, to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
That ruthless ideology would reverberate across the nation for decades to come, and it is thought that close to 40,000 Indigenous children, but most likely many more, died during their forced internment across the vast system of Indian boarding schools. It was an act of genocidal acculturation.
Earlier this year, as news about these deaths came to light, Secretary of Interior Deborah Haaland (Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico) remarked at the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference that under the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive review of federal boarding school policies would take place.
“I know that this process will be painful and won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel, but only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace,” Haaland said.
But despite the critical importance of acknowledging and understanding what happened during the boarding school era, I did not learn about this act of brutal sanctioned kidnapping and slavery in my classrooms while growing up. Ever. There was no mention of it in any of my textbooks, lesson plans, or lectures by my teachers in elementary school or high school.
And even as the truth of white settlers’ conduct in the Americas is kept out of schools, so too are BIPOC stories of how history has played out from our perspectives. When I was a young student living in Long Beach, California, and then later, the rural town of Deming, New Mexico, along the U.S. and Mexico frontera, I also did not ever read or learn about writers of color in my schools. Ever.
My English and literature classes were barren wastelands lacking brown, Black, Indigenous, Asian/Asian Pacific Islander, Muslim, and queer testimonials. This was true across all grade levels and subject matters.
It is accurate to say that I was blatantly and violently lied to, and I wasn’t the only one. In 2010, the state of Arizona passed a law banning Mexican-American studies in the schools. I remember that year as a visiting artist in a Tucson Unified School District high school, walking into a teacher’s classroom and noticing there were rectangular, discolored patches on the wall. The teacher was forced to remove posters promoting books such as, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya and, Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.
Then in 2017, a federal judge ruled the banning unconstitutional, though at the height of what I call the “book burning,” over 50 titles existed on the TUSC banned book list. Most of them were authored by BIPOC writers, including Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States. This particular ethnic studies ban directly resulted from the zealous racial profiling and ethnocentrism of a bigoted border agenda against our undocumented relatives. It was propagated by the perceived threat of terrorism, emboldened by the Arizona Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), all of which was backed by the tea party Republicans and their Senate Bill 1070.
This was and continues to be a war on young minds, therefore an institutionalized and oppressive means to abdicate our BIPOC communities. Needless to say, I am righteously angered.
Today we face further erasure of our BIPOC histories as right-wing conservative politicians, pundits, and allies ban ethnic studies in schools and demonize a deliberately mischaracterized version of critical race theory (CRT). States such as Tennessee, Texas, Arizona, and more have zeroed in on CRT as a vehicle for villainizing white people and the historical legacy of white people as rampaging colonialists and enslavers. Well? That legacy is a historical fact.
In An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote, “Awareness of the settler-colonialist context of U.S. history writing is essential if one is to avoid the laziness of the default position and the trap of a mythological unconscious belief in manifest destiny.”
While I align with Dunbar-Ortiz’s ideologies and truth-telling wholeheartedly, I’d argue that it is not laziness that our BIPOC people are defaulted by, rather by an enforced ignorance through the institutionalized lies that our governmental, societal, educational, and stratified systems of power have and continue to inflict upon us.
But the tides are turning. The public educational world must work to catch up, and it is through the resurgence of ancestral knowledge and the radical movement-oriented shifts enacted by communities of color that are actively affecting change, dedicated to promoting anti-racist education and ethnic studies as core pedagogical practices available to our young people.
And now that more truths have come to light about the Indian boarding school era and other histories the anti-CRT panic aims to erase, I’m hopeful that the facts uncovered by initiatives like the federal boarding school policy review Haaland spoke about will also lend themselves to the fight for inclusive, intersectional, and truthful curriculum being mandated, or in the very least not banned by our states’ public and private schools. If the charter school movement that has swept our nation is one of equitable and culturally relevant access for our most marginalized communities and not yet another monopolized private and capitalistic venture among the elite, then maybe our youth can finally be privy to the truths of our nation.
No longer will our BIPOC children go unlearned. No longer will the status-quo of the long domineering and privileged go unchecked. No longer will our stories of ancestral survival, brilliance, and resilience go unheeded. This is happening as we continue to disseminate and read one “banned” book at a time—student by student, conscientious teacher by teacher, community-designed school by community-designed school.
Jessica Helen Lopez is the City of Albuquerque Poet Laureate, Emeritus (2014-16) and an instructor at the University of New Mexico for the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department, as well as the Native American Community Academy. She is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent, “The Blood Poems,” published by UNM Press.
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