Taking on this project has meant more to me than just researching an interesting topic. Although this project has increased my knowledge on the struggles of Native American tribes and Reservations out West, I was able to learn more about my own heritage through the process. Since moving away from Akwesasne, my own Reservation in Upstate NY over 5 years ago, there have been days when I couldn’t stop thinking about home and questioning whether I made the right decision to leave. Every few months, I’ll hear about 3 or 4 tragedies that have occurred at home, whether that be one of my friends’ parents dying or another suicide committed by a kid that I used to play sports with. Upon hearing these things, I take a few minutes to think about how people at home must be feeling and how sad it must be to deal with, and also how lucky I am that it wasn’t one of my family members. I keep them in my thoughts and let it slide, but some days are worse than others. I know for a fact that one day when I receive a text or call from my parents that its not going to be so easy to let go of. I know that while i’m 7 hours away from home, sooner or later i’m going to get that call that one of my family members isn’t okay.
It’s not only death or tragedies such as these that give me a sense of regret for leaving home. It’s due to all of the reasons that I’ve been researching for projects like this. America is failing its original people. Those who were here first are now coming in last. We are being oppressed, excluded from opportunities and access to resources, and looked down upon governments who should be celebrating the differences that we bring to the country. Instead, I’ve learned and experienced the idea that our culture is being silenced and told that it is inferior to American culture. I’ve seen the effects of oppression first hand. I live on a Reservation that works to improve its community through positive organizations and groups that empower young people to be the best versions of themselves, but there is only so much that we can do for ourselves that can turn statistics around and create a community of successful individuals.
What bothers me about what I just wrote is the word choice of “we,” including myself in the mix when talking about individuals who are struggling at home in Akwesasne. The problem is, I grew up there, and though I am only half Native American, that place is and will forever be my home. I should never have to question if I can include myself in the mix when talking about Native people struggling at home, but I do question it. When I begin to question myself, thats when those feelings of regret start to arise. I’m hesitant to discuss it with people because i’m afraid they won’t understand it. I left to go and find better things; receive a better education and play better basketball and develop better connections so that I can get a better job than I would get at home. Of course my family is proud of me and would never blame me for leaving, but its hard not to blame myself for taking the easy way out when some of my best friends from home did and haven’t spoken to me since. Sometimes I wonder what I could have done and changed about home if I had just stayed. I feel like I betrayed the problems that every single person in Akwesasne faces every day, whether that be struggling with addiction, abusive relationships, expressing their feelings, confidence and self-image, education, depression, and other personal difficulties.
I’ve seen these things first hand. My public school at home, which was composed of about 75% Native students, lacked all of the same resources that I have discussed in my research – books, certified teachers, equipment, up-to-date facilities, high-level classes, and a full staff that really cared about the success of their students. Many of my teachers were not Native American, and did not put in the time or effort to push us towards success because they did not think that we were worth their time. Now i’m not blaming them. If you look at the statistics that I have shown and saw the way that many of my classmates treated their education, it would be difficult as a teacher to put in so much effort and not see many results. I saw the way that these students treated their education and the faculty, but I believe and know for a fact that it takes more than just a surface level relationship to get through to these students. This is another one of the problems that Native American students run in to with their education. What I found was the non-Native staff members didn’t put in the effort to motivate their students or support them in any way. It was easier for them to just let them get by and move them through to the next grade so that they did not have to deal with them again.
Thats one of the problems. That’s where the division of understanding comes in. It is hard for Native American students to relate to their non-Native teachers and administrators. Their lives and their experiences are completely different, even if they live 20 minutes apart. Generations of oppression and exclusion have wedged the gap between Native Americans and other individuals even further as time has gone on. Historical trauma has ruined familial ties, contributed to mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD, created normalities of sexual, verbal, and substance abuse, increased suicide rates, caused educational dropout rates, and very much contributes to the lack of self-confidence and insecurity issues among a majority of Native American citizens.
It’s hard for people to talk about. It’s hard for people to deal with. I know this because I deal with and have dealt with many of the issues myself. For years, I have struggled with personal things that I wanted to and did blame myself for. Though I know that I have caused some of these situations for myself, I have realized through doing this research that there are so many factors that I have dealt with that have been caused by where and how I grew up. By no means am I blaming Akwesasne or the people there. I have just realized that I am one of the many, many Native American youth that struggle with underlying problems of oppression and exclusion that comes in all different forms.
It took me many hours of research and reflection over a course of some years to realize that as much as I feel like an outsider who doesn’t necessarily belong with Native people or with white people, I am still just a 21 year old woman who experiences challenges just like everyone else. My challenges just look a little bit different sometimes. It took me minutes of sitting down after dealing with a situation or confrontation with a friend or someone that I care about that made me realize that its not that I don’t fit in with people of other races or ethnicities: I have just learned that I deal with my feelings differently than many other people, especially the people that I have met at boarding school and at Bowdoin. But I think that my experiences are things that I can use to make a change.
I have moments of weakness. Too many, some might say. I go through minutes or hours or nights thinking about how privileged I am to be in the position that I am in, but how unfair it is for me to be where I am and not someone else from Akwesasne. Or a group of individuals, or even the entire Akwesasne youth community. Sometimes the regret gets overwhelming. I think about all of the underprivileged, underfunded and undereducated Native Americans across the country, particularly in Akwesasne, and how they are suffering and most of the time, I am not. Im receiving the support, funding, and opportunities that I need in order to succeed and have an incredible life, while they are not receiving these same things.
I’ve spent too much time thinking about the things that I have done wrong and the selfish decisions that I have made when it comes to where my future is headed. But if it weren’t for the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had, including this research project, I wouldn’t have had been able to think about possible solutions. I can’t say that I have come up with a solution, but I have definitely had the opportunity to think about it, and this is where the research and lessons I have learned from class comes in.
So, here are the lessons that I have learned throughout the semester.
From Class: I’ve learned that hard work can get you places. If you don’t your time or effort into something, you won’t get the results that you want. I’ve learned that you should be confident in yourself and your knowledge. You may not know as much about a certain topic as someone else in the class and though that might intimidate you, your word and your voice is just as important as everyone else’s. When interacting with others, whether that be in front of the whole class or in a small group, it’s okay to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. By making yourself vulnerable, you allow others to feel more comfortable. To me, this is one of the most important life lessons that I have learned in class, and should be the goal of every educator. We’re all just people trying to navigate our way through life. With a positive outlook and the right people in your corner, the future will look pretty damn good.
From Grassroots Organizing & Urban Education: The topics and information that we covered in this class were foreign to me. Coming in, I knew very little about grassroots organizations as a whole: what they are, how they are formed, what they do, and what their objectives are. I’ve enjoyed reading about all of the actors who are involved in the origins of grassroots organizing, such as Ella Baker, Paolo Freire, Myles Horton, and a number of others. I’ve learned the principles of organizing, and who is involved depending on what the challenge is, where the problem resides, and who it effects. What I think is the most important part of learning about grassroots organizing is that it is so significant to our day and age. We can look in the news and see organizations formed around any sort of challenge that people are facing today, whether it be gun control, law enforcement, unequal access to institutions, violence in cities, and so many more. Because I am from a rural area, I did not have much knowledge on urban education prior to this class. I know that there are many struggles that come with urban schools and educational institutions. Learning about some of the challenges in urban regions across the country and how grassroots organizations become intertwined in populated areas has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the future of our generation, and how we will work towards improving the conditions and meeting the needs of those individuals who hope for and work for change.
From My Individual Research: I’ve learned about myself. I’ve learned about Native American populations across the country. I learned more about the Reservation that I grew up on and consider my home. I was able to educate myself on a topic that personally effects me and the way that I go about my everyday life. It was more than just statistics to me and it was more than just finding grassroots organizations that strive for change in oppressed Native American communities. I don’t have much left to say about what this project has done for me. I think I wrote enough, maybe too much in the beginning paragraphs. But I guess what I can do is sum it up since it seems like there is no telling of where it was actually going.
It’s been a struggle for me sometimes to feel like I fit in with groups of people. In certain moments and situations, I feel like I don’t belong with a group of all Natives and other times I feel like I don’t belong a group of all whites. But I am proud of where I come from and I always will be. That place raised me and effected me in so many different ways. People residing there, as well as on other Reservations across the country, are oppressed and treated unfairly. It’s a simple fact. They lack the resources and outlets that they need in order to deal with generations of past trauma that still effect people today today. Like I said above, many aspects of their lives are effected by this: their health, well-being, education, family life, job opportunities, and resources in general. A majority of the time when I think about where I am now, I can’t help but to blame myself for not helping or doing anything about these things. I feel like I ran away from the difficult realities that people face at home in order to benefit myself. I’ve regretted this and struggled with this and haven’t shared my true feelings about this, but so many things that happen at home indirectly effect me even if they have nothing to do with me. Being at home the past few summers and working with the kids on the Reservation has given me insight into what I want the future for Native Americans to be like, even if i’m not around to see it happen. Programs such as the one that I have worked for and others in Akwesasne, along with the programs that the grassroots organizations I have researched have provided opportunities and opened up spaces for Native American youth and families to turn to when they come into contact with these everyday challenges. Through traditional and cultural education, these organizations and programs work to empower individuals and restore the confidence that they deserve to have and need when thinking about their futures. I have witnessed these programs benefit Native American individuals by giving them the chance to be proud of who they are and express their identities. For me, it’s been both a challenge and a blessing to do this research and reflect on how it has effected the way that I think about myself and how I navigate my partial Native American heritage. I know that I am not getting at much of a conclusion to any of these problems and I’m far from reaching a solution. But I do know this: people are stronger together. Some of the strongest individuals I have ever come in contact with are Native American and live on reservations. The community of Akwesasne is strong, and it will continue to get stronger as people realize that they are not alone in their suffering. This goes for Reservations across the U.S. We can’t change the past, that’s just a fact. But we can change the future. And I know that what this research has done for me is help me realize that instead of regretting my decision to leave the reservation and leave the people that I love, I can use what I have learned and experienced outside of the reservation to help empower those within it through communication and support. Without realizing it, this project has made me reflect heavily on my own personal issues and things that I have struggled with throughout my 21 years. It has made me think about where I want to go from here and how I want to help those going through similar and even more difficult things than I have. I don’t know where this reflection is going and I don’t know where I’ll be going from here either, but I do know that this project has taught me to be proud. Proud of who I am. Proud of where I come from and all of the people from home that have made a mark on my life. Proud of those Native American individuals who struggle and face oppression every single day, yet wake up in the morning in hopes of something brighter. And I think that with the contribution of everyone, no matter what percentage Native American you are, what family you belong to, or what Reservation you live on, that light will never dim, and soon enough, we as people will no longer come in last.