Indigenous student(s) + educational institutions/academia

As I begin drafting this post, I am sitting on the bus and heading home after a brutally tiring day. It wasn’t that this day had anything special going on. In fact, I was excited about today until I arrived into class.

From since I was a young child, I had many experiences within educational institutions that range from super-duper awesome to “holy fuck! Did that just really happen?” You know not the good kind of WTF!

Or maybe you don’t know but that’s besides the point.

When I think back to my initial experiences in education, there is always this one troubling memory that comes to my mind. I do not recall how old I was but I remember it was when I was quite young. I attended a catholic school whose student body was mostly comprised of Indigenous students. This school wasn’t within my Indigenous community, however. So, those from my community had to be bussed into town to attend a non-Indigenous school. This memory though was troubling because of what I witnessed.

On this day, we were walking past this one hallway (it might have been one of the portables) and we were lined up waiting. I remember looking down this little hallway and I noticed a teacher who was holding a student’s head between his legs. If you can picture a student sitting in a chair and the teacher standing behind him and forcing his head between his legs (to bend at his torso). The student was screaming. The teacher was yelling. The student didn’t stop screaming but another adult (or teacher) blocked my view from what was going on and soon enough, the line progressed forward. I don’t recall if I ever told anyone, like my parents, about this incident. Yet, when I think about it, I wonder what the little boy had done and what happened to those teachers/adults.

This experience provides the premise for the remainder of this post: experiences in educational institutions from an Indigenous student’s perspective. But let me tell you that I am not alone in my experiences. This isn’t an individual thing. It’s an institutional thing.

What I both experienced and witnessed throughout my educational years did not change much since that first memory. Throughout my elementary school years, I recall teachers throwing chalkboard brushes at students, calling students names, strapping students to their chairs/desks as a form of punishment, forcing students to stand in the corner at the front of the classroom or stand at the back of the classroom (sometimes with books in their hands while they stood there), and even slapping our desks with wooden meter sticks while our hands were on top of them–slapping these sticks so hard to the point of breaking them in half. Remember, this was a school whose student body was predominantly Indigenous. I don’t think I have to highlight what that statement suggests.

Okay, maybe for some people, I do.

Those experiences of mine are not much different than my older sisters’ experiences. In fact, my one sister overheard a teacher call her peer a “stupid Indian.” Yup. There you have it plainly and boldly in your face racism. Being a child in a school where you are meant to be subservient, most children didn’t say or do anything to stop this behaviour. However, my sister who overhead her teacher call her peer a stupid Indian did tell my mom what happened that day. From that experience, my sister ended up taking the teacher to human rights because of the way the teacher approached her after she told my mom about the experience (ended up humiliating her as well). The teacher? She was just moved to a different school and told to apologize.

This isn’t a one time thing either. Because I also remember the school principle at one point saying something equally offensive to our entire class which made reference to our Indigenity. I can’t recall what she said word for word but I remember I had to tell my mom and dad. What followed is telling of these experiences. Not only did the principle deny openly what she said but she also accused me of hearing things (you know, calling me crazy/unable to comprehend what she really meant by her racist remarks). She even caused my own father to grow angry with her to the point that he had to walk out on her condescending/patronizing behaviours. This principle now sits on a board for an Indigenous non-profit organization (or least sat on this board for a period of time).

By the time I made it to my final year in elementary school, these experiences didn’t stop. In fact, our teacher in the final year at my elementary school actually stated to the class, “Don’t think I don’t know about your reputation.” I asked her what this reputation was… she sent me to the office without answering the question. Honest question though right? I really wanted to know what our reputation was. But It didn’t stop there. In fact, throughout this final year, she ended up calling our entire class names such as stupid, dirty cow, dumb cow…. you get the gist. Not only did I start to believe that I was stupid (even if she wasn’t talking to me), but this was also the same year that I first tried to commit suicide. It wasn’t as bad as my attempts that followed but this was a turning point for me because I began to internalize these ideas about myself, not as an individual being but because I was Indigenous. Even though I graduated at the top three of my class, I soon believed that I had to be perfect in order to prove to the white teachers that I wasn’t dumb/dirty/stupid. You know, not just another dumb Indian, dirty Indian, or stupid Indian.

Then when I arrived at high school, I made a few close friends, some Indigenous and some non-Indigenous. I ended up going to the academic stream and usually didn’t coordinate my class schedule around what my friends were taking (I did what I did and what I thought would peak my curiosity). I was usually the only Indigenous student in my classes. It was hard. I was also bullied by a group of white girls, tripped by white boys, and racial slurs would be whispered as I was walking by to my seat at the back of the class (god forbid I sit at the front because then everyone could see that I was the only native in class). Sometimes these slurs were non-racial and perpetuated the whore stigma (because of my choice of clothing–dresses and skirts). Eventually I changed the way I dressed but this wasn’t until after my car accident, which was so bad that I fell back a year and ended up having to receive accommodations for my brain injury that I sustained in the accident. I don’t know what happened in that car accident except for that I was walking on the highway running through my reserve and I was hit while walking.

Now, fast forward to my move to London and to my experiences in university, I always question whether if it is all worth it. Not only during lectures (both online and offline) I have witnessed many other racist comments or behaviours from my peers, professors, and people I have worked with in a research setting. Whenever discussions are centered around Indigenous issues, there is rarely enough context given to the discussion. Many times these discussions result in someone saying something racist, ignorant and just downright stupid (both online and offline). Usually when something ignorant or stupid is said, it is usually racist. So putting those qualifiers in a list doesn’t mean the exist or present themselves individually. I have had to write to a professor to ask a student to stop making racist comments about Indigenous peoples, especially since these comments usually resulted in the rest of the class agreeing with her/him. I was never given any confirmation that a professor did speak with a student when such comments were made but professors usually just send a quick email to say, “Yup. I will talk to her/him.” Am I stifling discussion/free speech or whatever academic bullshit? No. It is actually hurtful and stressful especially since I am usually the only Indigenous student present AGAIN, and I usually have to leave class or debate on whether I will attend the next lecture. Thus, my educational experience usually suffers.

Another university experience included working on a research project and being the only Indigenous person on a team that was actually called “Indigenous Research Team.” Kind of contradictory right? Not only did this team have ZERO Indigenous representation on this team but the passive aggressiveness from one of the team members actually resulted in me going to human rights for advice. Did I want to file a complaint? No. I was scared, again. I also knew that I would be causing myself more stress had I actually filed a complaint. I ended up documenting the behaviour and comments towards me, which included reference to my Indigenity, or Indigenous peoples as a group, especially those comments not made within ear shot of a supervisor. When I finally approached one of the supervisors  about my experiences, this supervisor plainly stated that because both she and this person (who were making these toxic remarks about Indigenous peoples) were both minorities that in no way could my feelings/experiences have any truth in them. Some of these comments were so problematic that they made fun of Indigenous nations’ experiences–some of the same nations that they were attempting to recruit for research. When I finally had enough, I wrote a 4-page letter to the principle investigator. By this time, I wish I had followed through with the initial remarks made towards me and my Indigenity that was made at the beginning of summer instead of waiting until the end.

Then today, all these experiences came rushing back to me. I already wrote a detailed post about it on my Facebook and wrote several tweets about it. Briefly speaking, a professor asked me how my weekend was, I told her that it was great. She then switched the conversation to presentations. I said, “I was done but I did present at a graduate student research conference” and mentioned it was on Indigenous research. She replied, “Oh so nothing academic then.” I stopped the conversation there because I didn’t want to assume she was implying this work was non-academic. Come the end of the class, I had asked her to clarify what she meant by that comment. She said, “Oh I guess that was a poor choice of words.” I said, “Yes for being a professor, who has done research herself. Yeah.” She goes on to say that what she meant by not course work. I said, “Okay.” Then she goes onto say that she appreciates work being done outside the classroom and that she was sorry that she “offended me.” I said, “No. Don’t apologize for me being offended. You should be apologizing for your poor choice of words.” So she does, but this time I am in tears. I was in tears because of the triggering this comment did for all previous educational experiences, and the dismissal of my experiences. And that’s why I told her she shouldn’t be apologizing for offending me because offending me isn’t the problem… it was her choice of words which in all previous experiences were also the cause for such problems. And words and language have power.

As I stated earlier, this isn’t an individual thing. This isn’t me being super sensitive, easily offended. This is an institutional thing. This is a larger problem within society, especially Canadian society, where these experiences serve to maintain these structures and power (including both individual and institutional power). It is part of a larger problem that continues to cause problems for many Indigenous students (and Indigenous peoples/nations) within educational and similar dominant institutions. Remember that young girl from Saskatchewan who was told to wear her “Got Land? Thank an Indian!” sweater inside out because it was offensive/racist? No. Well you can read about that here. The reactions from non-Indigenous (namely white people) was so problematic/violent that the young girl had to deactivate her Facebook on the advice of the RCMP. Why didn’t the RCMP press charges against those who were posting such violent comments? Because this is part of a MUCH larger problem.

When white people say that I need to get over these experiences or comments, or that I should just forget about it, or that I should forgive people (in positions of power) for these comments, it infuriates me. Forgetting about these experiences, or moving on, or just getting over it IGNORES structures of power that reinforce and reproduce these experiences as being nothing more than well, something as not as significant. It says that I am misinterpreted something which basically questions my intelligence. Fuck that!

So if you are white and you are reading this, please don’t ask me what you can do to help me or don’t apologize for what happened to me or other Indigenous peoples/nations. We already had enough shitty apologies from the government that basically mean nothing.  You know what you can do to help Indigenous peoples? Take time to tell other white people to shut up or intervene in situations that are similar (aka racist). As an Indigenous person, I am always asked by white people, “How can I help?” You know what, if you want to help an Indigenous person or Indigenous movement or whatever, we need your help in  your own communities/institutions. That’s where we need your help. Now go and use your white saviour for some actually good–saving your own people and institutions.

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