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November 10, 2005



This diary and your previous one about not being able to enjoy Las Vegas remind me of what a Native American elder once told me. Living on a Native American reservation (or in other rural areas) is like going in a space-time machine to the world as experienced by most people today and by most of our ancestors. What we experience in 21st Century American urban centers is, to use his words, "the unnatural world." Buying meat under Saran Wrap removes us from the daily contradictions of growing a chicken or cow and then killing it for food.

The Native Americans you are meeting have seen it all. One thousand idealistic young teachers have been through there already, and have done their little bit of good before running away to a big city with a high salary job.

Transient teachers don't have to live with the externally-imposed as well as internal crabs-in-a-bucket problems that have trapped too many in a cycle of economic privation for hundreds of years. For you and other teachers, this is a way-station. For the kids you are teaching and their families, this is their lives.

I'm not saying that what you are experiencing isn't hard, or that you should not be commended for making the effort. I just hope that you will not shrink back and say that suffering is inevitable and run for the good life. You are getting the micro view, but don't neglect the macro view - why are things the way they are? Who benefits? Does it have to be this way? How can it be changed?

Hang in there! You are where you should be and doing what you should be doing. Keep up the inspiring work!


BTW, here is a Thanksgiving gift - an essay that Emi and I wrote in 1991.

Rethinking Terminology
by Emilienne Marie Ireland and Phil Tajitsu Nash

[First published in Rethinking Schools, September 1991]

Think about the people in your hometown. Is there any adjective that describes them all? Are they, without exception, honest, wild, immoral, spiritual, ignorant, generous, brutal or noble?

Are they all baseball fanatics or beer drinkers? Uniformly kind to strangers? Talkative or quiet?

Sure, you may be able to come up with a few generalizations. But it would make no sense to describe them as a group in terms of personality traits, moral values, or even physical appearance.

With this in mind, think about the words used to describe the events of 1492, and to refer to Europeans and Native Americans in general. You may find that the words you use reveal hidden assumptions or biases.

Many words used to describe peoples and cultures implicitly compare one group with another. What do we really mean by terms such as “primitive culture” or “simple society?” In what ways are the communities “primitive” or “simple?” Why is it that words with such negative connotations are used to describe some societies and not others? Do we mean merely that their material technology is less complicated and less expensive to produce than that of modern-day industrial societies?

No human society is “primitive” or “simple.” Every society is primitive in some ways and complex in others.

If we put aside our fascination with technology and material wealth, we may find that, for many people in the United States and Europe today, life is primitive and stunted in terms of family values, spiritual life, commitment to the community, and opportunities for rewarding work and creative self-expression. These are the very areas most richly developed in traditional Native American communities.

Nor can traditional Native American life be called “simple” or “primitive” in an intellectual sense. A typical elder of the Wauja people in the Amazon rain forest, for example, has memorized hundreds of sacred songs and stories; plays several musical instruments; and knows the habits and habitats of hundreds of forest animals, birds, and insects, as well as the medicinal uses of local plants. He can guide his sons in building a two-story tall house using only axes, machetes, and materials from the forest. He is an expert agronomist. He speaks several languages fluently; know precisely how he is related to several hundred of his closest kin; and has acquired sufficient wisdom to share his home peacefully with in-laws, cousins, children, and grandchildren. Female elders are comparably learned and accomplished.

Other phrases to watch out for include Stone Age, trapped in time, prehistoric, timeless, and ancient. All imply that cultures and people never change, that they no longer exist, or that they are somehow inferior or backward. And words such as warlike, bloodthirsty, or treacherous do not ask whether a group resorted to war in self-defense.

Implicit assumptions and biases also affect geographical terms. The earth was all formed at one time, so why is one hemisphere called old and the other new? Why do we choose Greenwich, England to serve as the center of the earth, determining East and West? This bias also is seen in the words oriental, which means “where the sun rises” in Latin, and occidental, which means “where the sun sets.” In order for these terms to have meaning, someone has to be in the middle as the reference point.

Since it is universally agreed that Native Americans were around before Columbus, why do phrases such as “uninhabited land,” “virgin land,” and “unknown land” persist? Do terms such as “untamed land” and “unproductive land” imply that deforestation and agriculture are the only suitable ways to use land?

Maps also reveal biases. For example, the Mercator Projection Map is useful for sailing, but distorts geography. It makes the top half of the world two-thirds of the map. This subtly but surely sends the message that the southern hemisphere is less important. The Peters Projection Map, first developed in the 1970s, addresses this distortion by presenting the continents closer to their real size on the earth.

Popular descriptions of the events of 1492 are often one-sided. Seemingly neutral terms such as “encounter” and “discovery” are less painful to European Americans than the words some Native Americans would prefer: genocide, murder, rape, butchery, or conquest.

“Civilizing” or “Christianizing” a people presumes that their own society and religion are inferior. Calling the European conquerors “courageous” or “far-sighted” justifies their actions. Saying that European atrocities in the Western Hemisphere were “unavoidable” (or that the perpetrators of genocide were only “products of their time”) dulls our sense of injustice regarding events both past and present.

When we write about the events of 1492, we try to be aware of bias. For example, we have tried not to use the term New World, for that implies that somehow the Western Hemisphere was formed after Europe or Asia, or that history began with the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Because no geographically or politically neutral term is widely accepted for this section of the globe, we generally use the term Western Hemisphere or the Americas.

We also have tried to be sensitive to how Native Americans refer to themselves. When appropriate, cultures and peoples should be defined as narrowly as possible, including specific names such as Apache or Wauja.

We encourage readers to think about the implicit assumptions of words. Ask yourself how people refer to themselves before describing them to someone else. Whose point of view is represented in the terms you are using? Whose point of view is left out, minimized, or distorted?

Rethinking our terminology is essential to developing analytical minds. As we describe the events of 1492, we must teach our children to respect all peoples, and to celebrate humanity rather than its destruction.



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