Heated language may have overshadowed column's merits

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2004

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

What the Hell! Who are you but a white man?" When I got this email I was a bit shocked, though not really surprised, if you know what I mean. I imagine the writer was saying what a number of people thought in response to some pieces I've written in the Empire this winter. But to have received the note on Thanksgiving Day was discouraging.

If you missed the column(s), you may wonder what I wrote that could elicit such a response. I won't rehash it all, but in a nutshell I said I was waiting for Native leaders to awake and see that schools, not tribal governments or Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations, are the foundation upon which to build our future as Native people. Maybe I used the word "our" when some Native people think that I am not one of them, or at the very least, that I do not represent their views. Maybe some people mistook my criticism of a general lack of primary focus on education as a personal critique on their leadership. That wasn't really my intention. But I can see how they arrived at that conclusion. Ironically, one of the Native leaders who wrote a letter to the editor in opposition to my column is one of several I would have exempted from my critique, based on his record managing an ANCSA corporation. But, that's what I get for painting with too broad a brush.

I don't mind honest debate on the issues I brought up or on the way I said what I said. The language I used in my column two months ago was, admittedly, too harsh. I used words like illegitimate, oppressors, hypocrisy, and others because polite jargon seems not to have gotten anyone's attention over the years. But after reading some rather heated responses, I now see that the merits of my argument were lost amid a few of my overly inflammatory words. And for that I am sorry.

Another e-mailer lashed out at me because she said I talked about problems but contributed no solutions. I didn't have time to respond to her in depth, but intended to eventually point out the several possibilities I posed, or at least clarify them for her. But when my initial reply proved too brief, she asked to be removed from my e-mail list and not contacted again. Maybe I at least got her thinking about education in a different way.

As a new year approaches I have a feeling of hope, but I'm not exactly sure why. I know that racism and bigotry will creep around this generation and the next so long as ignorance has its way. But it feels like the tide is turning, as more people see the importance of education and take a personal interest in where we go from here. As the holiday season comes and goes, it's good to see that we'll have Alaska history taught in all our schools, that more Native teachers are entering the profession, that Native curriculum projects will reach across all disciplines and grades, that the rich languages and cultures of our tribes and clans are flourishing in all our communities.

And as for who I am but a white man, I won't dignify the question with a response. However, I am disturbed by the writer's apparent belief that because I am part white I cannot be Native, or that because I am mixed-blood I am less human. That's some twisted reasoning, and I'm still not sure what to think of it.

During this season, especially, we should thank God or whatever powers we acknowledge are at work in the universe, that we live in a country where we at least have the opportunity to be equal. I think it will take many generations of hard work before we actually are. But the steady elevation of schools and education in the public debate on community change is a really good sign of progress.

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

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