Learning to Belong to the Multicultural Chorus

Interview with Greg Sarris

Cristina Perea Kaplan

Greg Sarris

Cristina Kaplan: There was a panel at the Shamanism Conference on education and several of those speakers are writing articles for it. But, I realized as I was starting to write my introduction, that I wanted to have a Native American perspective on education, especially because this past year, I taught two students who were Native American, which was a new experience for me. And I really saw that that perspective was something I wasn’t really sure of, and that it was an important thing to reflect on further, and get more information about. So that’s where you came in. And I hoped that you would be willing to participate, and I’m really glad that you are.

Greg Sarris: Where are you teaching?

CPK: I teach at Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa. 

GS: Oh, here in Santa Rosa. 

CPK: Yeah, here in Santa Rosa.

GS: Oh great! Okay, because I grew up down the street in the Sunset apartments at West and Sunset there. So if you go down Sebastopol Road, you go back towards Santa Rosa and you come to West, to where there’s a taco place, La Fondita, the taco truck, which is West Avenue and you just hang a right and the next right is Sunset. I lived there.

CPK: Wow! That is close. I happen to live in the neighborhood just about a mile from Cook, which is nice, but I do see my students sometimes around and about, which can be great, but it also can be uncomfortable.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, tell me about it. I see a lot of my students from Sonoma State in the gym and they always come up and say, “Hi Professor Sarris.”

CPK: (Laughs) You can’t really be anonymous or have too much of a private life.

GS: I forfeited that a long time ago because of the casino, unfortunately. I’d love it if a lot of people were coming up to me and saying, “I read your books” or something like that but they’re all coming up because of the casino.

CPK: I can see that that would be kind of an odd thing, being a professor and the whole casino thing.

GS: I wanted to do that to help my dad’s people. I’m not, as I think you saw from my writing and my teaching and so forth, I’m not exactly a casino guy (laughs).

CPK: Well, that’s it.

GS: I learned a lot, I’ve seen a lot, but it’s not me.

CPK: I hear you. That’s one thing that I find about teaching too: you have to be an accountant with grades, and that’s not me either, but the other part, that is me.

GS: The greatest thing about teaching, Cristina, and it’s a wonderful thing, as I always say: Teachers and nurses, if there is a Heaven, teachers and nurses will be the first to go to that because the nurses take care of people and the teachers teach the next generation, hopefully in new and better ways. And both professions are not well regarded.

CPK: Yeah, I hear you.

GS: But you do it because you love it.

Greg Sarris received his Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, where he was awarded the Walter Gore Award for excellence in teaching. He has published several books, including Grand Avenue (1994), an award-winning collection of short stories, which he adapted for an HBO miniseries and co-executive produced with Robert Redford. He is serving his thirteenth elected term as Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Formerly a full professor of English at UCLA, and then the Fletcher Jones Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Loyola Marymount University, Greg now holds the position of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair of Sonoma State University, where he teaches a number of courses in Creative Writing, American Literature, and American Indian Literature.

CPK: Yes, and I try to get better at it every year, but sometimes it’s just so hard. My first question is about some of the efforts at reform in education, and one of them that’s big right now, is Common Core. And I just wonder what you think about Common Core? Have your read something about it, or have you had some experience with it? 

GS: I don’t know thoroughly about its detail. But one of the things that concerns me is when you have a common core. The idea of a common core is good, that there is an equity in what is offered and expected of students—that is good. The problem is where we start to ask questions: What is the core? What is the subject? What constitutes the core?

CPK: Right.

GS: How do we know? What is the subject? And, as I always say everywhere I go, one of the big questions that American Indians, Mexican Americans, women, all of us have such a problem with in the classroom, and what the problem has been—and of course the whole Mission system is based on it—is school as a kind of colonizing activity where you are expected to put who and what you are on the back burner and adapt to the knowledge base, which is created by a certain group of people in the classroom. Those of us who succeed in adapting to that knowledge base or who may know it better going into the classroom will succeed. All of us, particularly those of us from the margins and from diverse groups who aren’t represented in that knowledge base, in order to succeed we have to become successfully and fully schizophrenic because we’re taught that who and what we are has no power, and that we have to adapt to a rubric that is not generated from and by our communities. So, what do you do? 

And again, one of the things in the past that we’ve run into problems with here is that people scramble to be politically correct that is, we’ll have an Indian text, we’ll have an African American text, we’ll have a, Latino/a text, and somehow cover all our bases. And again, you miss the point. You can very well miss the point because it’s not just the subject, but how you teach it. Not everyone’s Mexican American experience is the same. So when you say you have a couple of Native American students immediately I’m going well I don’t know anything about them. What does that mean? Who are they? Are we thinking about kids that run around and just come out of the woods with feathers?

CPK: (Laughs.)

GS: Or more than likely, like a lot of my relatives, they’re hedging in gangs and things like that. So what is the reality?  What we need to do more than anything, shamanism and all that stuff aside, because so much of this shamanism stuff is really Western at heart, as I understand it, but what we really need to do is have any text, even if it’s a lousy old text, and create a context of dialogue about that text so that learning becomes what it has been in indigenous worlds, in other places, forever. The best learning situations are where you’re invited to bring in your background to inform the text. So the idea here is to both be informed by the text, and able to inform the text. 

CPK: Yeah, I love that. 

GS: And that’s what has to happen. That doesn’t cost a lot of money, that doesn’t mean you need to bring in twenty-seven American Indian or Latino texts. It does not mean that. It means teachers being comfortable as learners, facilitating true learning situations, which are predicated, which are predicated on dialogue.

CPK: Yes, that’s wonderful.

The best learning situations are where you’re invited to bring in your background to inform the text. So the idea here is to both be informed by the text, and able to inform the text.

GS: So that a student feels empowered, so that, again everybody is engaged, and that way when a Latina student gets to college and takes a Sociology 1 course where the nuclear family is described as mother, father, sibling she’s comfortable raising her hand and saying that definition does not suit my community where abuelo, abuela, tio, tia are also part of the nuclear family. And that way, the Latina is not totally colonized so that she becomes a social worker and starts yanking kids out of families when the grandmother is raising them.

CPK: I hear what you’re saying. That’s a wonderful answer. Today, there’s an idea of kids working together in groups and engaging with a text, and then you allow them to have at it with a group, and then the teacher is a facilitator of that kind of thing, and hopefully there will be more of what you’re talking about. 

GS: It’s not just a matter of, and the important thing here—and this often the push back that I get—it’s not a matter of cultural relativism, saying that everything is okay, because, we also need to be informed in education.  There needs to be respect. If you fall into the trap of cultural relativism that means everything is okay. Certain things are not okay. In some of the American Indian communities, in some of the African American communities, even in some of the Latino communities, it is not okay for men to treat women the way they do.

CPK: Yeah, I hear you.

GS: And education has to inform us that no, this is not good. So that a dialogue doesn’t erode our indigenous culture, but strengthens it, makes it better.

CPK: Speaking of that, have you heard of Restorative Justice and its use in the schools?

GS: Yes.

CPK: What do you think about it?

GS: I think Restorative Justice is a great idea. But again, from what little I know of it, and I have talked to some people in this area about it, you’ve got people who are not prepared to really deal. It’s an idea. I hate to say it, it’s a liberal, I hesitate to say, a white liberal idea of doing the right thing. They don’t know our people. They don’t know…They get kudos for raising money and giving the Indians an orange at Christmastime like they used to do a hundred years ago. 

But, fundamental change has to be in our communities. And so, if you’re going to have Restorative Justice, you have to have people who are prepared to talk to our folks and council our folks, our students, and be familiar with where they are coming from and what has motivated them to fall away. Often going back to the chasm created in the classroom where they have self-alienated. There is no kid that wants to be bad or wants to do graffiti. Every kid, Cristina, is saying, “I’m here, I’m somebody, see me. They need to belong. They need to belong. 

CPK: That’s a very good point. 

GS: And if you won’t let me belong, I’ll find people, I’ll go places where I can belong.

CPK: I think that’s part of what happens at Cook when kids band together to form gangs.

GS: Let’s just create a situation here, Cristina. You have American Indian kids here and say Latino kids over there and they’ve had bad alienating experiences. You’ve got some lazy teachers around, teachers who are prejudiced or culturally naïve at best, and unwittingly alienate these students. They feel not engaged, they feel powerless; they don’t feel the classroom is their home. They are made then to feel outlaws in the school. So, internalized oppression, self-fulfilled prophecy: I’m an outlaw. Let me find other outlaws who validate my outlaw-ness. 

CPK: That makes sense.

GS: That’s the pattern, Cristina. I’ve been there. I was one of them.

CPK: That’s a good segue into one of my questions or comments. You have been very open about some of your youthful activities in junior high and high school that might have kept you from becoming the leader that you are today. You mention that working at age sixteen kept you away from friends who were maybe a negative influence. Do you think work experience for even younger students, during summers and maybe some afternoons, might help students look for a way forward as you did?

The worst thing you can do for our young people is to have low expectations. That’s the cardinal sin right there.

GS: I do think that that’s important. I would just hope that, and I’m going to go back to my own experience, I would just hope that students wouldn’t have to be sixteen. When I began to work, Cristina, it took me away from the gangs and the streets. In fact, when I was there living at Sunset, I used to babysit for drugs.

CPK: Wow!

GS: So, some of us old folks joke about it—those of use who’ve survived. I would hope…what happened when the work separated me from all my friends I became extremely lonely. And I was able to see, I happened to be in a restaurant where I saw some of my friends’ parents working as a dishwasher, and banquet waitresses. It became very clear to me that I was going to spend my life being told what to do by a multitude of bosses, that thought I was just a piece of—someone to wash dishes, or pick up dirty plates. So what happened is…when I went back to school. When I went back to school, it was sort of the whole Horatio Alger thing. I will pick myself up by the bootstraps; learn everything I can. Going back and learning, it was adapting to the world of the dominant culture, or the standard culture, whatever you want to call it, was totally adapting to that, and it was the most lonely, alienating experience, that I didn’t come to rectify until I was a much older intellectual in college. 

CPK: Right.

GS: So, I would hope that—I think work, and I think that discipline, are very important elements. And I think we should have very high expectations for our kids. The worst thing—and this is where I get mad at liberals—that just want to give them the work experience because that’s what they’re going to do anyway. The worst thing you can do for our young people is to have low expectations. That’s the cardinal sin right there. You should expect that they graduate from high school. 

CPK: That’s right.

GS: You should expect that each and every one of them, each and every one of them take college prep courses. That does not mean that they have to necessarily go to college at the end. What that means, is that they’re able to make a decision about college. Furthermore, they’re able to be an engaged, empowered citizen of this country. 

CPK: I agree. I think I had a very similar experience as to what you spoke about, becoming part of the dominant culture, and not until much later realizing what had been done to me, the decisions I had made.

GS: For me it was a real question of survival, survival at the expense of separating myself from the community.

CPK: That’s right. It seems to me that your community became part of what you studied in your Ph.D. program from what I recall.

GS: And I never forgot them, I never forgot the love, and I never quite got over the loneliness. It was so hard. I don’t think many people can do it. I don’t know how I did it. But the loneliness on those Friday nights when, instead of going out—and it wasn’t necessarily doing bad things—just being next to people, talking to people hearing stories, just being with my own people, the people who loved me. But just to sit there with a light bulb and a book was such a lonely experience. And books that had nothing to do with, very little to do with what I was familiar with.

CPK: I think you talk about that in one of the two essays at the end of Slug Woman, about this chasm opening when students are learning something that their parents know nothing about or have no connection to. Is that what you are speaking about?

GS: Yes, exactly. Here I was living in a home—my adopted mother was white—where I’d gone back to that home, was in a middle-class neighborhood, middle -class mostly white neighborhood—we had a couple of Latino families, a black family a couple of blocks down, but it was, for all intents and purposes, a very white neighborhood. And I went back to that neighborhood, and while my mother, my adoptive mother, was white she could not—while she thought it was good that I was studying—she couldn’t help me. She didn’t sit down and read poems or Shakespeare with me, she couldn’t—for the life of her—do algebra or geometry. I was alone and dependent. I would imagine for a lot of our students, especially over where you are—remember, Cristina, this is not a pejorative at all—that many of our students’ parents come from Mexico with a minimal education, often illiterate.

CPK: Yes, that’s right.

GS: So even reading and writing in Spanish—any kind of reading and writing—I hang out with the Latino guys, my buddies in the gym and many of them are minimally educated, from Mexico, and yet every one of them has huge dreams for their children and they talk to me about those dreams. And think about those parents who are ashamed of being illiterate, and they don’t want to talk about it, ashamed and embarrassed around teachers; and they feel that their kids are ashamed of them. They start joining gangs, which is not what their parents want. It’s a cycle, and it’ll never work, education will never work, until there’s a buy-in from the parents. I don’t mean the parents have to understand what’s going on, I mean the parents have to be talked to and become a part of the process and feel good about it.  

CPK: And you mentioned that. I have something here about, a quote of yours—it’s a little bit long:

Finally, the practice of reading must work to engage the parents, and the entire community. If the parents are not involved, if they do not know what is going on in the classroom, another chasm forms across which there will be limited communication. So teachers must get out of the classroom if they are ever going to gain a clearer sense of the community.” (Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 197).

That kind of blew me away, that statement. So I wonder, do you think that parents would receive teachers in their homes? Or are you talking about engaging with the community?

GS: It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the home, it could be a neutral place, or even in the school, but become somewhat familiar. Let me just go on another contemporary tangent with the Andy Lopez thing.

CPK: Oh gosh, yeah.

GS: Police say they’re over there protecting our neighborhood. Andy was killed right down the street, if you know where I grew up, and he looked like me. He had fair skin and blue eyes. And if I said to the people living in the eastern part of Santa Rosa: What would it feel like for you if you constantly had police going around and looking at every one of your children. Start imagining what it’s like for us. As I said at the Andy Lopez—our tribe gave $8,000 to his family for the funeral—and I went to the big thing that the county put on. You know the supervisors were there, the congressmen, all the white folks were there, and they got up and they were saying how we have to heal and get over this, and all of this sort of thing, and I stood up—and you can go look at my speech, I think its “Discovering Andy Lopez,” you can Google it—but I got up and I said to them, plain and clear, I don’t understand this. You’re telling us we have to heal, and we have to get over it, and all of this, but we’re basically living in apartheid here, where you people are saying we have to get over it and it’s a tragedy. Living on one side of the town, not coming over or understanding anything about us or how we live. And you’re sitting there, saying all-of-this-sort of thing, and it sounds good, but basically I have a real problem with it. We’ve been cleaning your old peoples’ asses, mowing your lawns, doing your dishes, feeding you…you come over and shoot our kids and then you tell us we have to get over it. What about us sitting all down together talking? What about you coming…how many of you stand in line at the taco truck?

CPK: Wow…Well, I wasn’t at that hearing, and I would like to hear more of what you said. Andy Lopez was a student at my school. He was booted out for his behavior. He wasn’t one of my students. But what does happen to the Andy Lopezes, to the families?

GS: We didn’t have continuation schools when I was at Santa Rosa Middle School. But basically what happened was I just became truant. They didn’t have places to put you, Juvenile Hall, so I just ended pretty much not going to school.

CPK: I hear you. That’s what a lot of our students do. So I should try to get to a couple of my questions.

GS: That’s okay. Sorry.

But the heart of education is a multicultural chorus… and the goal of education is to get us to that chorus.

CPK: No that’s okay, I hear your passion, and I’m with you and I think I need to be more with these things. 

GS: Well, you’re doing a wonderful job that you’re teaching and doing what you’re doing. God bless you.

CPK: Well, thank you. I got my Master’s degree actually in the hopes of doing something else. I wanted to do rites of passage with kids, and I have a lot of problems with what’s going on in classrooms. I try to do it differently, but you kind of get sucked in to a system that can be pretty dysfunctional. So now, things are changing a bit. We can use more novels, we can be more innovative in the classroom—that’s a wonderful thing, but anyway…I wanted to ask—the issue is called “The Heart of Education.” What do you see as the heart of education at this time? Maybe some of this you’ve already spoken to, but…

GS: Well, that’s a huge broad question, so I’ll give you a huge broad answer, Cristina. But the heart of education is a multicultural chorus… 

CPK: That’s wonderful…

GS: …and the goal of education is to get us to that chorus.

CPK: That’s beautiful, thank you, that’s very well said. Let me see…do you remember any kind of positive experiences in education when you were going through school, that you would like to see continued or replicated? Like I think of field trips that we can rarely take now, anything like that? Or experiences?

GS: Well, my own experience is subjective and what works for me, and at the time, these days wouldn’t necessarily work for everybody. But when I went back to school and began studying, which was in my senior year in high school. I was in a remedial English class and I had a very tough teacher. He was tough, and he’s passed away since, but he’s well known, he was a legend in this town, Mr. Gene DeSoto. And he was Anglo, and all that, but I just have to go to this: he singled me out. I felt singled out and I felt personally challenged by him. He took me aside, and he said, “I picked you out, and I’m making you a bet. Prove to me that you can do this.” 

CPK: Wow, that’s interesting. I had teachers like that too who made me think that I could do something that I wasn’t sure I could do.

GS: Well, and push you. It was like he took me to the edge and said: You’re going to fall over unless you fight back here.

CPK: Wow. That’s a very risky thing, I think.

GS: That is a very risky thing. That’s why I prefaced what I said, it doesn’t always work, it did turn off a lot of students, but he—and this all depends on the teacher too.

We are in a huge culture where the rite of passage is predicated on homogeneity, how like something, how like a cultural icon you are.

This isn’t something that you could necessarily institutionalize. It all depends on the teacher, but I knew, I knew that he liked me; I knew that he cared. If it was a hard-edged teacher hitting me on the knuckles with a ruler or just saying: You little shit, you do this or get outta here. But he almost said: I’m not letting you out. I sensed that he cared.

CPK: Yes, that’s right, and I think that’s huge. In middle school we have a lot more students than elementary, I used to teach elementary, and I felt like I could care for every single student then, but in middle school, it’s a more distant relationship. They need us to be closer, in a way.

GS: Yeah.

CPK: In some ways they’re becoming individuals. I think we have too many students and not a close enough relationship to them.

GS: The other thing is it’s that very, very—it’s adolescence. And you talk about rites of passage. It’s the very age where they are trying to distinguish themselves from their parents, their teachers, from one another. They’re suffering all kinds of peer pressure, hormonal. All these things are, it’s a very difficult age. And perhaps it’s as intense as it will ever be in their life, that sense that they’re separate, and different, and they’re longing, more than ever, to belong because as they’re trying to separate themselves, and to figure out who they are, they’re aware of who they’re not. And the loneliness…in this culture it is very hard because in this culture we do have a rite of passage, it’s very clear: for a guy, you’re supposed to screw as many girls as you can, be a jock, and have an attitude. For a girl, you’re supposed to be blond and anorexic, and have boys like you. The more you’re like Paris Hilton, then you’ve passed your ritual of passage. We do have rituals of passage, and these kids are under pressure to pass them. 

What’s interesting—and now I’ll get back to the indigenous thing: the indigenous world, the problem of any nation-state cultures which have been in existence for about 5,000 years or so, is that we have, the culture is predicated, and depends on, homogeneity, people being alike. And so, more than ever, now with advertising and everything else, we make money by people feeling that they’re not as good or can’t reach certain goals.

CPK: Absolutely.

GS: We are in a huge culture where the rite of passage is predicated on homogeneity, how like something, how like a cultural icon you are. In the indigenous world, heterogeneity was honored. The more different you were, the more honored you were. And you were curious about it, about that sort of thing. So that’s why in the indigenous rites of passage, most of those had to do with secret things or the individual is taken into a secret cult…

CPK: Right.

GS: …or went out on a vision quest, found out who they were, and learned to celebrate at this age both their separateness and their distinctness and therefore the way in which they belong as separate, distinct individuals. We never get there. We remain adolescents trying to be like everybody else and we die that way—it’s horrible. 

CPK: Yeah, you’re right. And I think that maybe, with the Internet…I see my own daughters—I have a 15-year old and 21-year old—and they seem to want to be like certain communities, but small and distinct communities. And I like that. They have their individual quirks and such. And I hope that maybe, with the empowerment that’s coming with the Internet, there can be a way to be distinctive, and fit in as well, like “nerd” culture, for example.

GS: We have to be careful. There’s a caveat here, the rebel or the difference often co-ops the same pattern as the oppressor. 

CPK: That’s interesting.

GS: You could still have the same pattern of dominance, and who’s more different according to a certain rubric or standard as somebody else.

CPK: Sure, sure.

GS: But, yes. The Internet is interesting, but one of the problems I have with it in terms of education and lots of other things, Cristina, is that it doesn’t allow for deep thinking and reflexive thinking because it’s predicated largely on images, not text.

CPK: That’s a good point.

GS: Remember, the difference between seeing a movie and reading a book is a movie does most of the work for you…

CPK: Yes.

GS: It cheats you. Remember, a book does not exist until you read it. What happens with a book, or a longer text is it engages the imagination. 

CPK: Yes, I agree… I’m trying to look at my questions here. It feels like we’ve gone in a different direction, which is fine. It just means that I won’t ask one of my questions, but I mentioned the two students that I had last year that were Native American. One was in an advanced class, a girl, who was very bright, and a big reader. She read Harry Potter and different things, and was so well spoken and confident in front of the class. And the other was a boy who was in a remedial class and who didn’t want to do anything. And, so it was just such a different experience with the two of them…and yet feeling like I still made missteps. I don’t know where I’m going with that except I do hear you that you can’t just say a “Native American” or “indigenous person” and think that it’s a homogenous thing. 

GS: No, and just because they’re Native American doesn’t mean, there’s such a range of how they grow up. Many of us are mixed with Mexican, have a Mexican father in the household or a Mexican mother, or even African-American or white or others that the kids will have a tendency to go with the dominant culture.  

CPK: And, actually, these two kids had a sense of their identity as natives. Like the one girl went to Pow-wows or that kind of thing. And the boy as well talked about his native roots, so…anyway.

GS: Then of course there are Pow-wows, which is a Pan-Indian culture, versus a specific California Indian culture, which is different altogether.  

CPK: That’s right. So, one thing you mentioned in one of the essays was the really extremely low graduation rates. Has there been any improvement in that that you’ve seen?

GS:  Yes, yes.

CPK: That’s wonderful.

GS: In my tribe, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, had a TANF program—Tribal Aid to Needy Families. We don’t just serve people in our tribe, but all American Indians, regardless of their tribal affiliations in all of Marin and Sonoma Counties can take advantage of our educational services. We have a learning lab with computers and all that sort of thing. We have after-school programs, we have summer programs, we have tutoring programs—all of that. And I don’t know what the record is overall, what the statistics are or what affect it had overall, but I know in our tribe we have virtually everyone graduating from high school. 

CPK: That’s amazing. I haven’t heard of that, but it seems like something that Cook Middle School could make use of for their students, for their Native American students. 

GS: Yeah, certainly. And many of the families would qualify to use our TANF services and they might already be, I don’t know. 

CPK: They might already be and we just don’t know about it. 

GS: And we also have for our tribal members, scholarships and all of that. And again, the message is, you know, we have very high expectations. In fact, just last week I had to intercede because we hired a woman, who happened to be Native American, from another tribe into our TANF program and she was to work with the kids and she started talking about the Job Corps, and all these kids raised their hands and said, well wait a minute, we’re planning to go to college so why are you talking about this?

The Indians, before contact, the landscape, the features of the landscape, was our bible, was our text. Each rock, each grove of trees, each creek had a story that reminded us of who we were.

CPK: Right. Very interesting. So it sounds like you talk about empowered disputants—is that what you’d call those students? (Laughs.) 

GS: Yes. Yeah.

CPK: I love that phrase. Have you heard of an author named Don Trent Jacobs who goes by “Four Arrows”, as well? And he has a book called Teaching Truly: A Curriculum to Indigenize Mainstream Education—are you familiar with the concept? And if so, what is your take on it?

GS: No, but I have an immediate repulsion for it. 

CPK: (Laughs largely)

GS: Because anytime you call “indigenize education”—I don’t know what he means by indigenous. There are 600 tribes in this country, all very different. And again, when you get this Pan-Indian—you get so many Pan-Indian things already, I get scared. Why a person has to call himself “Four Arrows.”

CPK: Yeah, I wondered about that too. Yes, that’s why I called him by his given name.

GS: You have all these shamans who go around—shame on you, as we say in my family. You already have great traditions—explore your own traditions or mix them! The irony is when people try to become something else, they’re denying who they are! They’re falling into the same trap!

CPK: Yes, that’s right. I guess the idea is that everybody has indigenous ancestors, but if you’re Irish, your indigenous ancestors aren’t Native-Americans, they’re Celtic, or something.

GS: This is the thing—listen: this is what drives me bananas—I’m writing a novel about it right now—this is what drives me bananas: you can’t go back! That’s running. You’re running backwards as fast as…you’re still running…quit running! Stand right here! Stand right here.

CPK: I think it’s this idea of connecting with roots.

GS: That is part of your past. You cannot forget your history. And that’s what gets us dangerous. We want to forget the history. We want to forget the pain. People want to run around Sonoma County and say: Show me the Indian sites. This county is also singing with the blood of war. With the wonderful fruits and labors of Mexican families, of Filipino families. It is not just Indian anymore and it never will be. 

CPK: Yes, that’s a very good point. 

GS: Come home, all of us, here, now!

CPK: Yes. Do you think there’s a way to teach history that takes all of that into account? That isn’t racist, because you have this title, American History and you teach it from a perspective that is colonizing in my opinion.

GS: Let’s just talk about local history. The Indians, before contact, the landscape, the features of the landscape, was our bible, was our text. Each rock, each grove of trees, each creek had a story that reminded us of who we were. And reminded us of certain lessons, certain behaviors, certain things that the Coyote Creator may have done or something like that. But that hasn’t changed. It’s just diversified. 

So there are places I go around this town—in fact I’ll have Angela send you a story about Maria Evangeliste—about going around this town where the landscape speaks to me from my home past. I remember dairy farms I worked at, where dairywomen worked and took care of cows…where certain families did certain things…where life happened at Sunset and West Avenue, where I walked Sebastopol Road at night. I was simultaneously an ancient Indian and a Filipino and a Mexican and a white person all at once…all living in this place.   

CPK: That’s right.

GS: You have to accept people. The dialogue must be one to open us to all we are, not just one thing of what we are.

CPK: Maybe people feel like it’s too complicated, they call themselves “Heinz 57.”

GS: Oh, no, it’s wonderful! It keeps your eyes open all the time.

CPK: Sure, sure.

GS: You know, as I always say to students and to everybody—and I may have said it to your class—there’s only one art form, only one art form that America has produced, that’s unique to America. Nothing in painting necessarily, nothing in literature, but something in music and it’s called jazz. 

CPK: You did say that to our class.

GS: But a combination of Muskogee Creek, that is indigenous rhythms, African rhythms, and European rhythms. 

CPK: That’s wonderful. So, let’s see… 

GS: Let’s jazz it up. (Laughs.) 

CPK: Yes! (Laughs.) That’s great…there was one other thing here from Keeping Slug Woman Alive. So, you said:

First, reading must engage the students in a way that encourages them to feel that they have power equal to that of the text they are reading and to that of the teacher who has given them the text to read…they must feel knowledgeable and able in an encounter with a text and when responding to it” (p. 196). 

I completely agree with that, but I wonder, in your experience, did teachers just assume that you had this background knowledge with a text that maybe you didn’t have? 

GS: Maybe they do, but that’s where the teacher has to learn to be able to ask questions, get the student to ask questions, not tell them. Have them tell stories. That’s one of the things I talked about, storytelling in the classroom. That takes me out of it. That puts them in the position of the storyteller, of the informant, not me. Teachers usually become informers. They tell you what this is and what that is. All of a sudden create exercises—storytelling in the classroom is one of them—where students are positioned to tell their own stories. They become really empowered because they start seeing: Oh my god, I had answers here. That example that I gave, it’s classic, where you have these Canadian Indian kids, natives. Many of them had dropped out of school, had horrible experiences in the education process, and we read something—I believe it was by Richard Rodriguez—about alienation in the classroom. And I wanted them to do something on it. They were all going to go to the library and do research, where their own lives can tell more than any book. 

CPK: Sure, well that’s it—

GS: —They’re totally separated from, they’ve totally divorced their experience or any power they might have to inform the text from the context of the classroom. 

CPK: Yes. Jurgen Kremer has a class that he teaches, that does a lot with auto-ethnography. And I’d like to bring that into the middle school classroom. I’m not sure about how to do it yet, but I think it can be part of everything: the reading, the writing, and all of that. 

GS: Sure, yeah. I like that, where you start describing your own culture. Always reminding the student of his or her subjectivity. They don’t have the last word on what it is to be Indian, or Mexican or whatever. 

CPK: Yes, that’s right. Well that’s it because they get very frustrated with those of us who have been here a couple of generations, and who aren’t “Mexican” like they’re Mexican because they are more recently arrived.

Getting kids to wonder at the power, at the sentience, if you will, of life, of all life, not just human life.

GS: Yeah, “pocho, pocha.”

CPK: Yeah, that’s it, pocho. What’s your take on indigenous science? For example, one teacher in Oakland is having students connect with the trees on their campus in a way that seems to me kind of authentic. Any opinions on that

GS: How? What do you mean connect with the trees?

CPK: Well, that’s a good question, I need to reread the article, but they study the trees, but they also go and touch the trees and hug the trees and have a physical connection.

GS: Okay, let’s stop right there. How do you know the tree wants you to hug it?

CPK: (Laughs.) That’s a good question.

GS: How white, how European. 

CPK: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. Instead of sitting still…

GS: The Indian questioned, looked at the trees. Let me tell you what my aunt once said—I think I mentioned this in the class, I quote it often—she said, “When us Indians hear a word or hear a story, we wonder about it, we think about that story. We wonder about its genealogy, different tellers, where it comes from, what it means. We wonder about because we’re going to carry it with us in our lives, in our bodies, for as long as we’re alive. We don’t know everything, so we wonder about it.” She said, “White man is different, he don’t want to know he don’t know.”

CPK: Wow…and so that’s it. 

GS: That’s it—bingo. That’s it…so, hugging trees: how do you know that the creek wants your smelly body in it? How do you know that tree isn’t some kind of person, a medicine person that might put a spell on you and hex you? Show it some respect!  

CPK: Yes, I hear you. Yeah, that was interesting to me, the story about your cousin, the hexing that happened. 

GS: Yeah.

CPK: It seemed your family was willing to go all the way around it: the Native American way, the take-him-to-the-doctor-way…I wonder about the story in the Mexican culture, La llorona, and the Slug Woman story, maybe there’s just something there that’s speaking to us. The kids are always bringing up that story of La llornona and it reminds me of the slug woman story…

GS: And there are various ways, you look at how all the different versions and ways now La llorona is getting used. Because one of the old things was if you got La llorona—remember she mixed with the Mexican and the Indian thing, so she’s punished, she’s bad, and crying. So there’s that version of her. Then there’s the feminist version that Sandra Cisneros and others have put out, somewhat recreated, and they hate the idea of a woman crying or weeping. Then a lot of the kids use it as a ghost or a spirit that scares you. 

CPK: Exactly. It’s a scary story to them.

GS: So you don’t go near a creek because La llornona might be down in the creek.

CPK: Exactly. Then there’s the Chupacabra, that’s the other one the kids are always talking about. And, I don’t have that much relationship to these stories, but it seems like there may be something in them that, like Slug Woman, the kids turned off when that was brought into the classroom—some of them.  

GS: Yeah.

CPK: That there’s something there that can be explored. 

GS: Yeah, yeah, well that could be something…that’s what they could do, remake it, use it, and always respect the story’s power. That’s really, really, I think, necessary. But it’s interesting too, among the Mexican American people, while many of them are Catholic and see many of these things as devil-worship, or spirit, or bad things. It’s interesting because, as in Mexico, they’ll try—and this is very common in Mexico—they’ll try the doctors and medicine, but as soon as that doesn’t work they’re seeking out a curandera so fast it’ll make your head spin.

CPK: That’s right.  

GS: And, here, growing up I remember very Catholic Mexicans who kind of put down Indians around here, and ironically, a lot of the Mexicans had more Indian blood in them than we did. But they would put down Indians as backward, and all that sort of thing. They have that caste system in Mexico.

CPK: Yeah.

GS: But boy, I’ll tell you, the minute something couldn’t get fixed, the minute that priest couldn’t exorcise a spirit or something they were looking for an Indian doctor so fast. 

CPK: (Laughs.) That makes sense, yeah. There’s that whole Mestizo thing in my family too. The Catholic thing, the European—it’s like a war, an internal war. 

GS: I laugh, Cristina, because all you have to do is turn on a telenovela to see the internalized oppression right away. The rich people all look like Germans and the maids all look like Mexicans.

CPK: Exactly, exactly. So let me see…I wanted to ask you this one last question because I’m sure we’re almost out of time. Do you have any suggestions or ideas about how we, as teachers or parents, can become better role models in right-relation to Earth and non-human creatures?

GS: Um, I think just to question, or to wonder, to look at things, and imagine; to get our kids to imagine. We don’t know; get them to imagine, get them to wonder. Well look, just ask questions: How is it that a bird knows where to go? How is it that birds can fly a thousand miles and hummingbirds can go back and forth between here and Mexico and they know where to go? In other words, what they really should be doing is de-centering us as knowers. Telling us that we’re not so smart. Getting kids to wonder at the power, at the sentience, if you will, of life, of all life, not just human life. We think we’re smart because we have brains—in fact we’re pretty dumb. 

CPK: (Laughs.) When you say it that way, knowing how to fly a thousand miles, we couldn’t do it as humans.

GS: No, we can’t, we can create all kinds of things. And this goes back to some of the old ideas of the local Indian creation myths. Coyote was the creator. He was a jokester. You can’t trust creation. And it puts you in a position of not thinking you’re too smart because you’re going to get in trouble all the time. Other things have other powers. So you know, there was a time when all of the animals were people. But, Coyote thought he was too smart, and tried to kill deer, and she grew legs and ran away. She’s been running ever since. Bear grew claws, birds grew wings—they’re all laughing at us. We’re stuck here on Earth trying to be smart. 

CPK: (Laughs.) Well I really appreciate everything that you’ve shared, Greg, just amazing…