We need to get educated, seize the day before it's too late

Southeast Tides

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

I used to think that one or another of our Native corporate or tribal executives and elected officials would take a vacation or retire and experience some sort of revelation about the illegitimacy of the way most of our entities are organized and managed. In recent years it even seemed that a few of those who have been in power for more than 25 years had begun to wake up. But as of this fall, I haven't heard anything but variations on tired themes. Among the messages I am waiting to hear are:

• As a financial fiduciary, the corporation doesn't make sense as a foundation upon which to build our future as Native people.

• The tribal government invariably ceases to be legitimate, as getting and spending soft money becomes the primary end of most of its activity and planning.

• Education is the key to survival and success in both modern and traditional society; so we should have our own schools, curricula and teachers.

• The community and family are critical in maintaining our way of life and our values, so we should concentrate most of our attention and resources on programs that strengthen them.

• The lands and waters of our homeland belong to our children and must be nurtured as we would the heritage of our ancestors, not squandered according to the vagaries of foreign markets.

• We were strong once and we still are. Whatever we decide to do we can do, with or without the corporation, the tribe, or the federal government. We depend on no one, but rely on each other and draw courage from the memory of those who came before us.

In rereading Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," I was reminded of the importance of such praxis. Early on in his seminal work, Freire states that, "... almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors." This is the overriding thesis of his book, that oppressed people rarely view themselves as such, and that the kind of reflection necessary for them to see this clearly and to respond does not come naturally but must be learned. Thus the importance of education and control over schools and curriculum. ...

In the midst of my own reflection, I realized that much of what is wrong with tribal governments and Native corporations is that they have provided too many opportunities for us to become dependent. This isn't so much a financial dependence as it is a misplaced trust in the knowledge and wisdom of those in positions of power and authority.

Why is it that the majority of us are so blind to the truth of what could be if we imagined our world more personally and profoundly? Largely, because the tribe and the corporation are fictions, artificial means to an ambiguous and poorly conceived end. They do not do what Native people most need done. Their leadership meets regularly at great cost to examine the bottom line and measure their progress against ill-considered goals and comforting, measurable objectives. But missing from these analyses and subsequent plans is any serious thought about the lives of the people.

The best evidence I can cite that our leaders don't get it is by the way they have "managed" education issues for 25 years. For example, they have spent millions of dollars to provide scholarships to shareholders and citizens without considering either the nature of K-12 education, or the purposes to which college degrees would be put. This is the equivalent of our ancestors sending our young men and women down the coast to be instructed by neighboring tribes without any concern for what they will know, how they learn, or whether, in fact, they actually return and take their rightful places within our communities.

For all that they have learned in college and through their service on boards and councils, why is it our Native leaders do not stand up and say we should change the way we elect board members; re-examine our policies with regard to distant investments versus local jobs; stop exporting raw logs in weak markets and create value-added industry within a conservation economy; put in place a program so that every shareholder family claims a piece of their land; leave behind the constitutional hypocrisy of tribal governments, electoral politics, and parliamentary procedure and return to choosing leaders according to earned respect and wisdom; govern to meet the long-term needs of the whole community; and not rest until tribes and corporations reinvent themselves and find ways to work together for the good of all our people.

There are a few saying what needs to be said, like my fellow Empire columnist Ernestine Hayes; but neither she nor I occupy positions of power. Could it be that seeing and saying the truth is antithetical to being selected for such positions within the system? Consider that it is the people who elect those in power, and those in power who hire those in authority over the people. Why is it that Natives disregard the truth when they see it, hear it, know it? It is because they trust the trained experts to do what is in their self-interest, to put in place more programs, distribute a larger dividend, give them what they think they need.

Only through education can we break this cycle, through schools that Native people control and with curricula that invest fully in the connections between our traditional clans, communities, and the modern world.

•Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Juneau teacher.

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