apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
It was the second week of school. My 10-year-old son cleared his dinner plate, rubbed the cat’s belly, then dropped one of those tiny little bombs, as they do.
“My Spanish teacher has a play tipi in her classroom.”
He’s my second son. I don’t want to say I’ve been to this rodeo before, but, well, I’ve been to this rodeo before. Fifth-grade boys are wonderful creatures. They are still children, wanting very much to believe in magic and the amazing possibilities of the universe, yet they are pragmatic thinkers who are working on the complex puzzles of human interaction and the existential universal truths of personhood. Or maybe that’s just my kids because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Either way, there is a good reason Harry Potter received his letter from Hogwarts on his 11th birthday.
One of the parenting challenges with boys this age is that they can be slightly feral. There are times when they want very much to be the little boys they once were, nesting on your lap and being comforted by your warmth. Yet they are starting to feel this new itch that is telling them to stretch out, broaden their circle, think new thoughts, try new things, court danger. From my side, I feel as though I might spook them if I act too quickly, take too much notice, assert too much mom-ness. I have learned that it is in my best interest to act aloof, even when I am so curious my head and heart are aching to go all Sherlock Holmes.
So when B told me about this new classroom prop, I tried to play it on the DL. I ignored him.
“Did you take a bath last night?”
“Yes. I don’t need a bath.”
“Are you sure? I think you need a bath.”
“I’ll take one tomorrow morning.”
“How big is the tipi?”
“It’s one of those ones that little kids can play in.”
“Are you sure it’s a tipi?”
“I don’t think you did take a bath last night.”
“Yes I did.”
“How do you know it’s a tipi?”
“It has all these stupid things drawn on the outside that don’t make any sense.”
“Do you want to read before bed?”
“What is the tipi for?”
“I think it’s for the little kids to play in.”
“Let’s get your book and we can read in the living room.”
I thought about the tipi all weekend. As I thought, I began composing the email I needed to send to the school’s principal, asking to have the tipi removed. Whenever I am writing an email in my head over and over, I know I need to act. On Monday, I sent an email to the principal explaining the situation.
My son came to me this weekend to talk about something at school that was on his mind. He commented that there is a tipi in the Spanish classroom. He described it as a small but human-sized tipi, with markings on the exterior, small enough for children to fit in, set up as a place for people to sit in. Ben doesn't have the language to name cultural appropriation in all its guises, but it is something that we discuss, particularly around Halloween in the context of costumes. He identified this item as such and we discussed its presence in the classroom. I have not seen this item, so I am only going by what my son has told me. I did ask him if it wasn't just something that looked a bit like a tipi but wasn't a tipi, he said it was definitely a tipi.
Our tribe uses tipis as ceremonial structures, particularly for puberty ceremonies, which are among the most sacred of all the events that we attend and participate. It is not considered an appropriate or acceptable practice within my tribe or in other tribes I know of to construct a child-sized tipi, adorn it with any symbols, or leave it up for playtime. I know that there are mass-marketed tipis made for purchase on the market- a simple google search will provide you with zillions of affordable toy tipis for all the classrooms in town, none of which would be appropriate.
If indeed this item is one of these toy tipis, do you think you could speak with the Spanish teacher about removing the tipi? There are a number of reasons for this that I won't go into in this email, but suffice it to say, if my son felt it was something worth bringing to my attention, I feel it's worth bringing to your attention. I am happy to discuss this with you further if you wish, my cell # is XXX-XXXX- this is the best way to reach me.
To her credit, the principal responded soon after I sent the email. She confirmed the presence of the tipi, stating she would speak with the teacher and ask to have the tipi removed. She also asked me to come in and talk with the 5th and 6th grade students about cultural appropriation, making this a learning experience for everyone.
After a discussion with the Spanish teacher, the principal forwarded me an email from her, in which the teacher explained that the Spanish teacher had the tipi in the classroom as part of her lesson plan on state history for the 5th and 6th grade students. The intention was to educate the students and enrich their cultural awareness. They invited me to “chat” with the Spanish teacher about her plans to use the tipi in the classroom.
In case you, gentle reader, aren’t familiar with these toys, here’s a link to a great example of cultural appropriation in action using one of these charming items as a playhouse in a well-furnished home. My sons know tipis as structures used only during traditional and sacred ceremonies. Our tribe doesn’t and hasn’t used tipis for housing, we used wickiups. Other tribes might have used them in our state, but the use is unusual at best, except for ceremonial use. No Native I know makes child-sized tipis for use inside their homes, and I’ve never, ever, ever seen a tipi with random and meaningless quasi-tribal looking designs on the outside, made to look Native-ish. To do that would be to make a serious statement, perhaps someone might do it as an art piece as a commentary on the state of indigenous culture today. They might also dress up in a fake buckskin mini-dress that showed a lot of cleavage and had painted turkey feathers for decoration.
After reading the emails and thinking on the matter, I decided that I didn’t need to speak with the Spanish teacher. My son was uncomfortable with the tipi, I freaking hate the things, and I can’t imagine how something like this could possibly fit into a 1-2 hour/week class conducted in Spanish taught to English-speaking children. I pay for private school so I can have some say in my kids’ education, and I decided this was a time to exercise that Native American privilege.
I emailed the principal back. I told her that I appreciated her leadership in this matter. I wrote that my son’s experience with the tipi was not from an educational perspective. I gave some historical context to the use of tipis in the state, explaining why I felt the Spanish teacher's explanation was inadequate. I said I was comforted knowing the teacher was sensitive to my request to have the tipi removed from the classroom.
Then I responded to the principal’s invitation to have me speak to the children about cultural appropriation. I wanted to write to her that I believed it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the parents of color to take on the difficult work of educating the student body on race, that this singles out the children of these parents, and it allows the faculty and the other parents to ignore their biases and areas of ignorance. But I didn’t write that. Instead, I wrote the following:
“I am not a trained elementary school educator, I feel this is not my place and I prefer to leave conversations with children about difficult topics of race to the school. I am comfortable talking about race and issues of intersectionality with my own children, but I don't feel I have the sensitivity to meet the needs of all the students were I to come to the classroom and present on this topic.”
This is all true. I can see my words travelling home to the parents of those children who have worn culturally inappropriate costumes at past Halloween events and causing a terrific stir. I am the parent who talks about racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and other important topics with her children. I haven’t ever tried to “protect” my children from these topics because I cannot protect them. They have always needed to tools to understand their world, which is filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. If only I had the luxury of worrying about when to talk about police violence with my sons. This is why my 10-year-old sees a racist item in his classroom and he calls it out. But I can’t speak my truth and protect white fragility at the same time. It’s not fair to my kids- and to be totally honest, it’s not fair to me.
The next week, I waited until a few days after my son's Spanish class had passed, then I tried to casually insert the tipi into a conversation. Of course, he didn't get the hint. He's 10. So I flat out asked him if it was still in the classroom. It was, but it was no longer set up, now it's leaning against the wall. So it's not being used for his class, but I have no way of knowing if the other Native American children in the school have to also deal with this ridiculous and offensive disaster. I asked to have it removed from the classroom, and that hadn't happened last I asked. I ran this issue past a friend who used to be the director of a similar small private school. She was shocked this was even an issue. Of course you wouldn't allow a teacher to erect a play tipi in the classroom, she said. And then she apologized that I even had to bring this to the principal's attention. It's not even her school, and she apologized. Which is what I wish the principal had done in the first place.
Phenotype- a) the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences. b) the expression of a specific trait, such as stature or blood type, based on genetic and environmental influences.
Genotype- The genetic makeup, as distinguished from the physical appearance, or an organism or a group of organisms. (from: thefreedictionary.com)
Scenario: I’m in a conversation with someone new, but someone who I assume knows something about me. They might know me through my kids, through work, or some other connection that would lead me to believe that they have a small amount of familiarity with who I am, or what I do. My last name is recognizable locally- we have a street named after us, my relatives include several prominent artists who have sculptures located throughout town. In my work, my research is focused on a subject that usually signals to those who are paying attention that I have a particular cultural and ethnic background.
At some point during this conversation, I will reference myself or my kids as being Native American. The tone of the conversation changes immediately. My conversational partner’s eyes widen, then squint, then widen again. This person (always a non-Native) will question me, surprise in their voice, “You’re Native American?”. They can modulate their level of surprise depending on their level of sensitivity, but their faces always betray them. They have been reading me as something other than what I am, now they are squinting to see that thing that they missed before, the genetic phenotyping that tells a different story from the one they understood to be true.
Indigenous scholar Adrienne Keene describes herself as a white-coding Indigenous woman. This is where I fit as well. My ethnic and cultural identity is Indigenous, I am an enrolled member of the Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Tribe coming from my father’s side. I am also mixed-race; my mother is white and her ancestry extends back to Europe.
Unlike other racial or ethnic groups in the US, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are a political category whose racial identity is established through enrollment in a recognized tribe or nation. Every tribe or nation has its own criteria for enrollment, some determined by blood quantum and others by descendant status. Based on these policies, a person’s appearance has no relationship to their enrollment, yet most people consider a Native American to be more pure if they have olive-colored skin, round, brown eyes, and straight, thick, black hair.
I don’t look like the noble savage from an Edward Curtis photograph. When I look in the mirror, I see an indigenous woman with light skin. I most often see my mom looking back at me in the mirror. I have her mouth and her nose, I have her chin. I have my dad’s dark intense eyes, I have his round face, and when I smile, I see his warmth. My brother’s skin is much darker than mine, sometimes he looks like my dad, sometimes he looks like my mother’s father. My skin is a pale yellow- not white, but definitely not dark. In the summer, it gets a shade darker, but it will never be close to the light café au lait that I always coveted. My hair is truly bi-racial, it typically starts the day curly and full, sweet and perky, a cheery white lady taking your order at the breakfast restaurant. At the end of the day it hangs straight, dark, and long, showing no reaction and looking right through you as you ask for directions to the bathroom at the interstate rest stop. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t see me for anything but a mixed-race indigenous woman.
A few years ago I heard my sons teasing each other in the slightly cruel way kids do. One bragged to the other, “My skin is darker than yours.”
“Oh yeah? My hair is darker and straighter than yours.”
How do I respond to that? When my own racial identity is unrecognizable because my phenotyping is expressed as white, how do I help my children understand that indigeneity is so much more than the color of their skin or the texture of their hair? Do I intervene and say, “Kids! You are both tribal members, so nobody cares what parts of you are more Native looking?”
Unfortunately, that is not true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me, “How much Native American are you?” as though I could quantify my identity into percentages, x% Native-feeling, x% white-feeling, x% Hispanic feeling… yet also 100% of each? That is not very satisfactory. How do you help someone who isn’t multiracial understand what it feels like to have a fully realized ethnic identity that exists in multiple worlds simultaneously? The other issue is the isolation that comes with being an outside within one’s own in-group. There are costs to not having the same racial coding as your in-group peers. I have privileges that other members of my tribe do not have; I have had advantages due to circumstances of my life and appearance to which my cousins and other family members haven’t been given access.
Ultimately, I can only respond similar to how my parents did. I help my children to understand the world from a decolonized perspective. I teach them to see that we are all related; every living and non-living being in this universe has a place. I work with them daily to identify racism, racist behavior, othering, and the damage it does. I advocate for them, but I also I teach them to advocate for themselves and for others. Their father and I live our indigenous values, including helping them understand that skin color plays an important role in our society but it doesn’t define us as indigenous people.
I'm a Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Nurse Researcher. I write, speak, and think about health equity and parenting in our complicated world.
Views expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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