Laura Waterman Wittstock

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Interviewed, February 11, 2011

For more on Laura, see Diane Wilson’s essay on Laura Waterman Wittstock: Writer, Educator and Activist


Diane: We start out by asking you to introduce yourself in whatever way you choose.

Laura: I am the Heron clan, which is depicted in what I’m wearing, made by my son. That’s one of the clans of the eight clans of the Seneca Nation, which is located outside of Buffalo, New York, not too far from Niagara Falls. At one time the whole territory around Niagara Falls to mid New York State to parts of Ohio was ours. I think that because the Seneca Nation is one of the casino-owning tribes and the casino is at Niagara Falls, there has been a great deal of sudden wealth that has come to the Nation. It has really changed the way that we perceive our identity. We were once a poor nation, put there by the circumstances of our history. Now we’re a rich nation and putting up buildings all the time, which increases our debt. The infrastructure is growing, but poverty has not been overcome. The annual allotment, an annuity, as it’s called, is made to every Seneca. I believe it’s the only tribe that the payments are untaxed. That came about because of a specific agreement in Congress when the city of Salamanca was leased out for 99 years. Congress said, oh by the way, any proceeds you get will be tax free. So it is. But it’s still only $8,600. Some people live on that amount of money as their annual income. There are still issues of deep poverty. And efforts have been made to reduce the number that get the annuity or other benefits by requiring an annual, in person, restatement of membership. This will reduce who receives benefits and some of those will be Senecas too poor to make the annual trip to the Nation.

Tribal Politics

Laura: There are lots of people like me who live in another place who want to go home at some point and be able to help. The structure of tribal councils and tribes is not really welcoming to individual tribal members who want to return. I’ve seen this all over the country with other people who talk about wanting to volunteer or wanting to do something to give back to their nations.

Joe: Do you think that’s because the governments in many cases aren’t traditional, they’re IRA type of governments?

Laura: I believe so. Even though our particular government comes out of a pre-Civil War constitution in 1848, it still has that protective shell, mimicking the U.S. government. That makes it very difficult for the ordinary citizen of the tribe to have access. The current tribal president ran on a platform that partly said, we’re going to be transparent. He runs a conservative, pro-business government. We’ll see how that goes. As we move into the next phase of Indian participation in our own cultures, I hope that there will be transparency. People want that. You look at what’s happening in Egypt right now and what is the main thing people are saying? Democracy. They want to participate and, by and large, people in the Middle East are young. That’s what we share in Indian Country. Our people are young. They’re not going to be happy with the way things were back in the ’50s, back in the ’60s, even the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s. They want a new kind of tribal government that is going to be responsive to their needs and transparent.

Joe: And maybe inclusive.

Laura: Absolutely. They want democracy. Because I’m a journalist, freedom of the press on reservations has always been a challenge. When tribes own newspapers, they don’t allow a lot of freedom of expression. When tribes don’t own newspapers but they’re located on a reservation, they don’t allow a great deal of criticism of the Chairman or the council. It’s interesting that in 2011 we’re still having those issues of freedom of the press on reservations.

Joe: We sound colonized.

Laura: It’s really post-colonial. We no longer need the military or the Indian agents to tell us what to do. We act on our own people as they did in the 19th Century.

Joe: That reminds me of that movie, Trainspotting. He goes, the English are “wankers”, but we, on the other hand, are colonized by “wankers”.

Native Resources: The New Gold

Laura: I listened to the State of the Nations speech by the National Congress of the American Indian President Jefferson Keel. He said, this is the beginning of a new era. He did mention education and I was very glad to hear that. But he was very interested in the economic development of the tribes. That’s a good thing. But the Congress responder was Senator Murkowski from Alaska. She talked about resources and how we need to relax these rules and regulations about resources. Congressman Young from Alaska is the new Chair of the House Interior sub-committee on Indian Affairs. That sub-committee has not been functioning since about 1996. They just didn’t have it. All of a sudden they have it again. Congressman Young is talking about it’s just terrible the way the tribes are not able to open up their resources. We have all these onerous regulations that keep companies from being able to do business with the tribes.

A very interesting thing was in the news just this week. That is the check cashing companies are locating on reservations now. Santee Sioux, I think, is one of them. By means of tribal sovereignty, the U.S. cannot regulate the usury of the check cashing. They are charging hundreds of percents for short-term loans. That’s something the Mafia can only dream about.

A family member told me, in the Seneca Nation people are going out and borrowing against future payments. What they get is $1,500 or about 70% on a $2,125 check. Just look at how much is going to whoever these shadowy people are.

Joe: That kind of reminds me of the BIA when they first got on the reservations, they did that same thing. They drove people into debt and that’s how they acquired the land. They had to sell because it was the only way to pay off their debts.

Laura: One of the things I just finished reading about is the uranium mining in Navajo. It’s a book called, Yellow Dirt, by a journalist Judy Pasternak, who was working for the Los Angeles Times at the time she began the series, which then turned into the book. It was a little trading post type place and Navajo people were bringing in their rugs, jewelry, things like that. The same thing, they were hedging, they were borrowing against the sale of that item. The owner was making a huge profit. One of the young men brought in a chunk of this yellow dirt. There were some mining engineers looking around and it was like gold. It wasn’t gold but it was like gold, it was exactly what they wanted.

At the end of World War II they needed uranium because the arms race had started instantly once the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The companies couldn’t just come into the Navajo Nation and start mining uranium. They had to get permission via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was very weak at the time. They just did what they were told. The next step was the individual owners of the land, where they wanted to dig. One of the grandfathers said, you must never do this. You must never even let them see these rocks. The son disobeyed. That became one of the large mining areas in Navajo. The result of that has been brain cancers, liver cancers, kidney cancers, which all skyrocketed. Birth defects that made baby hands look like fins, fused fingers, and an inability to walk was named Navajo Neuropathy. There had been no Navajo Neuropathy before mining started. But they tried to say that it was genetic. There were children that were born and soon died as they lived very short lives with this. Families used radioactive materials to build the foundations of their homes. There were huge blocks like cement that were part of cutting into the earth. Big, big holes that filled with water. Navajo people drank that water. The reporter took a cup. It’s very cold and it tastes very good. It was impossible to see that this was poison. The little trading post guy got very rich. The mining engineers division directors and so forth got very rich. The Navajo people stayed extremely poor and they got very sick.

Today the Congressman and Senator from Alaska want the doors to open, to come in and start exploiting energy and resources. In Washington State it’s timber. Here it’s water and timber. Minnesota reservations have resources as well. It’s a very bad time that’s coming. It seems as if very few people are aware of it in our community. It’s my job to let them know what’s going on.

Joe: Did you ever hear that Buffy St. Marie song, Greedy Guts, she’s talking about that. Lot of tribes have a story about the spirit of greed, like the Lakota talk about the mouth that just devours everything. That’s kind of what it is. They never have enough and they don’t care who they hurt along the way.

Laura: We have a radio program called First Person Radio from Migizi. We had Robert Miller, professor of law from Oregon, talking about the discovery doctrine. We had Walter Echohawk talking about the 10 worst law cases of Indian history. He’s written a book called The Ten Worst Cases. We’re going to have John Echohawk, who was the Executive Director of NARF (Native American Rights Fund). He belongs to organizations that are very tuned in, very concerned about environment and exploitation of resources. I’m sure he’s going to be very busy in the coming years. It’s like a big cloud is on the horizon and we have to spread the word.

Joe: I think the only way is that everybody knows so we can do something about it. The greatest trick they’ve always had is to keep everybody fighting.

Laura: We’re in the urban area, it’s very hard sometimes to know that transparency is not there with the tribes. We can try to let them know but what they do about it is going to vary from one tribe to another. If you’re a very poor tribe and all you have is copper, then 9 times out of 10 you’re going to sell that copper. Corporations will mine copper all over Arizona through a land exchange that will affect tribal sacred areas.

Joe: Especially if they don’t have traditional values.

Laura: Right. Stewart Udall was an attorney for the Navajo Nation at that time before he became a congressman. Because of his experience as a little boy, his son, who is a senator from Utah now, part of his whole motivation for being in public life is because of the Navajo uranium mining. He was just a little kid and his father would drag him around to all these meetings. Case after case lost. That was how the United States dealt with a resource that they wanted. So therefore it was blind to any arguments about what it was doing to the Navajo people.

Joe: The greed is appalling.

Protecting Our Resources

Laura: I think that one of the things that we have to fight with is spirituality. I believe that is a strength that can’t be broken. Greed is a very insidious thing. When you’re poor, an $8,000 annuity is a lot of money. When you have a job, $8,000 becomes an additional asset. The difference between the two is enormous. Spirituality is something that can help poor people understand that other people want their money more than they do. They’ll do whatever they can to take it away from them — take away resources.

One of our biggest resources is our kids. We’re raising a great-grandchild. My husband and I are so sentimental about when she was little and all the things that she did. We keep reminding her and she gets very annoyed with us. This is the semester end right now and she’s in the 9th grade. She got her first grades and she’s a category 5, outstanding student. That’s the way South High ranks. She is on the Honor Roll. She’s done very, very well. We’re happy.

I see that potential in every Indian kid. Sure, we have disabilities, we have alcohol effect kids, nothing we can do about that. But potential is still there if we give them a chance. I’ve come to believe that the critical years are 5th to 8th grade. Something magical happens with a kid. They really seem to be able to get hooked into the technique of learning, the curiosity of learning, and the ability to criticize. Those are like the main things. If we can’t show them how to do that, then I think it’s tough going.

Diane: So give them the skills for critical thinking and if they get it at that point…

Laura: It has to come in Middle School. From kindergarten up to 5th grade they’re having fun. They’re just learning machines, you couldn’t stop learning if you tried. They’re in plays, they’re singing, they’re going to powwows. Nothing is uninteresting to them. We bring kids out to the sugar bush and all you have to do is keep them from drowning, they’re in mud up to their ears. And then, 5th grade, they start to stand back a little bit, be more critical.

Diane: So it’s ages 10 to 13, when they hit puberty.

Laura: It’s that too. The ability to have close friendships is another.

Joe: I think television is a huge factor. If we as a people just threw our TVs out the window, I think the whole nature of this country would change dramatically.

Diane: How about video games for kids?

Laura: Well, you know it’s really interesting, my other granddaughter spends her nights at our house, she sleeps with us. Neither one of the girls watch TV more than half an hour, at the most. They have replaced watching time with some texting and then they’re on the internet and they’re getting their homework done. They’re both in a volleyball club. They practice several hours a week and they have tournaments. They’re extremely busy. In between they’re doing other things, girl things. They actually don’t watch television very much. There’s nothing on anyway.

Joe: Don’t you think they’re kind of unusual? A lot of kids spend a lot of time. A statistic I heard one time said the average American spends 8 hours a day in front of the television.

Laura: You see this stuff, and it’s addictive. The soap operas, the game shows, things like that. When I flash through some of those programs, the commercials are for long-term insurance, gadgets, medicines, prescriptions delivered to your door. The audience for that is older people. That’s who they’re shooting for. We watch mainly public TV. I notice that their pledge week has the oldies from the ‘50s and so forth, they know the people who have the money. What’s public television going to do in three decades?

Born to Write

Diane: I read somewhere that you started writing at the age of 10. A lot of the kids that we see come to Dream of Wild Health farm really struggle with reading and writing. If we ask them to journal, it’s the hardest thing. They’d rather be out in the field in 95 degree weather than have to sit down and write. I’m wondering if you would talk a little bit about how you came to writing and the difference that has made in your life.

Laura: I think I was lucky. In the 4th grade my teacher was the wife of one of the accused Hawaii Seven, they were accused Communists. She took any child who didn’t have parents to special things: plays, symphony orchestras, things like that. Because I was without my parents, my parents were living but I was in Honolulu, she took me to these things. She talked to all of us as if we were not kids, as if we were other adults, sharing opinions, things like that. That’s when I started having an inner life. In order to write, you have to have that. I think that is something you teach students about having an inner life. It’s not about the writing, it’s about what’s going on inside, how you’re responding to the world and how to make observations.

So at 10, my teacher sent away one of my poems and it was published in the National Education Association Journal. I have the poem, my mother framed it, or it would have been long lost. I still have it. It’s there to teach me a good lesson. I chalk it up to Aiko Reinecke ― that was her name. She was almost 100 when she died. Those of us that were there went to her funeral. She was an unforgettable teacher. Somehow she knew that expression comes from having an inner life. Of course we all have it, but we just don’t knock on that door.

With some Indian kids, life is episodic. This happened, then that happened. Depression is common. We all have some trauma in our lives, some unhappiness, stepfathers who hit us. All of those kinds of things drive a nail in our willingness to share with the world. The antidote is to try to engage that inner life.

Way back when COMPAS first started the Poets in the Schools, we got one at Red Schoolhouse in St. Paul. It seemed like a great idea to get the kids to write these poems and sort of express what their take on the world is. It was just wonderful. The secret was not the process, it was the relationship with the person that is showing the way. We lucked out and had a very good guy.

Diane: To get them to write then, they have to be working with someone consistently that they trust, who can lead them into it.

Laura: And who can share his own inner life. That’s what he did. He shared himself with them. He went around and asked several of the staff to also participate. When you have an inner life and you share some of it, you’re giving up part of your individual sovereignty, your sacredness, you give up a little bit of that. It’s hard! When the kids saw some of the staff people writing personal things, it helped them to get the humanity of it and to share. Adults and little kids all share humanity, they all have fears and hopes and desire, all those things.

Diane: As a published poet, how did writing continue to shape your life?

Laura: Apparently it was the thing I could do. I just kept writing. I had a very bad episode in the 7th grade. We were given a homework lesson on writing a little essay, writing a poem, or drawing a picture about pilgrims. I wrote a poem and it had several stanzas. I got up to read it and the teacher grabbed it out of my hand, tore it up, and threw it in the trash. This is in Hawaii, where the great majority of the population are Japanese. People are very reticent to say anything when the teacher is scolding somebody. She said, plagiarism. Do you know what plagiarism is? She shook her finger at me. Several classmates stood up and said they knew that I had written that. After that episode, it broke her, I don’t know if it was her fear, but she just didn’t like local people.

We had a baby luau for one of the kids and we invited her to come. She came! She really enjoyed herself. The whole rest of the year, she wasn’t apologetic, but she seemed to be a different person. That certainly was something I’ll never forget.

Diane: But you didn’t hold it against her. You invited her to the luau.

Laura: I don’t know why but I did. It seemed like she was turning a corner.

Joe: Do you think that may be a big problem with our kids—misinterpreting their behavior? Making assumptions about them. Not here, but at a lot of schools I’ve seen people not understand what our kids are doing.

Laura: Yeah. She was from the mainland and she just didn’t understand.

Joe: A lot of times our kids will have their heads down but they’re listening.

Diane: But isn’t that just bad teaching too? That moment when you’re reading a work, you’re vulnerable, surrendering sovereignty like you’re saying, and a teacher grabs the poem. And you remember this moment all these years later. That says a lot about the impact that teachers have.

Laura: And some of my classmates remember. I go to reunions.

Diane: What effect did it have on your writing? Did it stop you?

Laura: No. It was just a trauma. It was the first time I ever ran into that kind of hatred that she was expressing toward me. On the reservation where I was born, all of our friends, our tough little gang of five- and six-year-olds, we thought we were invincible. We had no idea there were all these people out there that hated us. It was when I went to Hawaii to live with my oldest brother that this episode happened and I realized it comes out of hatred. They just don’t like you.

Joe: It can be very shocking.

Laura: It was 7th grade.

Joe: I can remember being really young and having something like that happen, really hateful. It can be really scary. It does shock you.

Laura: In Honolulu, it was very progressive education. But you have this one teacher that showed you the way to express yourself and this other teacher that slams you. Both in the same educational system.

Diane: Do you still write poetry?

Laura: Yes. I belong to a group called the Irregulars. I just wrote a poem, I’ve been doing that more lately. All of my career has been writing proposals and reports. It was actually very hard to get back to creative writing. I almost didn’t know how to do it any more.

Next Step: Native Journalism

Diane: So your writing led you to journalism?

Laura: When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I went to work for a large, Daytons-like store. The big stores back then had their own advertising division. They wrote their own ads for their own stuff. I got a job there and learned how to write copy. When you write for newspapers it has to be an exact length and height. They give you a box and everything has to fit in there. You learn to write expressively in very short things.

I married and we moved to Washington, D.C. They were looking for Indian journalists. I was referred to an advertising executive. He took me over to where the magazine was being done. I was hired but as an administrative assistant. I didn’t know how to put phones on hold. I was right on the cusp of being fired. Browning Pipestem, big guy, brilliant, came over. He was an editor of “Our Brother’s Keeper,” which was one of the first books after the Meriam Report that talked about the condition of Indian people. He came over and said, is your boss in? I said, yes. He went in, closed the door, and ten minutes later, he came out and I’m the editor of the magazine. He said, a good Indian is a bad thing to waste, or something like that. Then I was fully into journalism and working for the American Indian Press Association. I met Richard LaCourse then. We’re in a picture on Facebook. He’s from Yakama Nation in Washington state.

Then I came here. I was hired by the National Indian Education Association. They used to be located here. My husband loved it! It was so much like Sheboygan. I was shocked. I had never seen so many white people in one spot. It was shocking. Coming from Washington, D.C., it’s African-American, especially at night. During the day it’s 10,000 lawyers and all the politicians. In the evening it’s all people of color. A very comfortable environment. Then we come here and it’s so different. We had to get used to that. I said to my husband, they have white baggage handlers and white bus drivers. That was so funny.

We didn’t really have any problems. What is different about racism now is the Internet. The new Congressman, Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son, has introduced a bill to extinguish the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to cut Indian Health in half, to extinguish the Department of Education, and a couple of other things. It calls his hand on what he thinks. If they’re waving the Constitution around, they ought to take a look at the commerce clause. We’re in there.

I was doing a brand new program called the Media Project. That was to collect and develop evaluation criteria for everything that was in print at that time. I just sent off for everything. We got this huge collection, including phonographic discs and tape. It is now at Bemidji State University in the library. We wanted to let Indian people have access to and ownership of it.

First Person Radio

Laura: I started working with the schools, Red School House and Heart of the Earth. In the meantime, we had a radio program at Migizi. We started out once a week on KFAI. It’s interesting because that’s where I am now, once a week at KFAI. It’s a circle. Meanwhile Migizi is getting bigger and better.

There was a group of us that founded Migizi. In 1974 –75, a big recession hit the United States. Half the Indian newspapers folded. They couldn’t get advertising. They just died. It was only the big Navajo Times and a few others that really continued. Different people said, why not try radio. KFAI was just starting, we started at the same time. We thought, well, okay. Then we tried to market to the community radio and Indian radio clientele. We had 50 stations that were taking our program. First Person Radio was a magazine journal. You had the news of the week and different stories.

Indian Education

Joe: One of the things we talk a lot about is what’s been called Indian Education. I think what that means is working with Indian kids. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the development of that or even on what works or doesn’t work.

Laura: I always thought that Indian education was the means, the way in which Indian people educated their children in the post-colonial period. At the time that Indian education was coming into reality, as Vine DeLoria pointed out, anthropologists were coming around to the reservations and studying the last of the Indians before we all keeled over. There was sort of a disarray. I inherited some of my uncle’s papers and I saw that he used to hand type various information about legislation. He had copies of the original Wheeler-Howard Act, which became the IRA. I have the actual bills. He was very interested. I think now that Wounded Knee in 1890 scared the heck out of Indian people everywhere back at the turn of the 20th century. The IRA in 1934 was supposed to bring some order into the way that Indian governments acted, but it was really another way to break the back of culture. Then a sort of realization came that if we didn’t do it ourselves, it was going to be done to us, as it had been. A rejection of the boarding school methods and curriculum followed in the 1960s and 70s, but total rejection never came.

The American Indian survival schools in the early ‘70s popped up all over the country. Along with other schools, called alternative education, all over the country. Indian and non-Indian groups came into being for much of the same reason. They wanted their kids back. They wanted to have some direct interaction with the education of their children.

The National Indian Education Association, when I was hired there, was very interested in finding out how they, as an organization, could help real education on the ground. They made an offer to Red School House and Heart of the Earth to partner. For some reason, Heart of the Earth said no. But Red School House said, when can we start? I took a team of my staff over to Red School House and we started to interview. To me, that was the best way to find out what people thought about education and how it should happen. We interviewed for two weeks. We had volumes of stuff to sift through and say, this looks like a theme, this seems to be said over and over again. From out of that came the first federal proposal from Red School House and it was funded. They got the money and they got to experiment with their ideas of what Indian education is.

For Red School House, the plan was to saturate kids with language and culture. A lot of people can criticize the leaders of Red School House and they do. But the school gave the kids a very strong grounding in culture. If you look at Facebook today there is an area of former Red School House students. I think if you examine Indian education, you have to look at the legacy of what has happened in some of these schools. Because the students tell that story, not the staff, an interesting picture is emerging. They are the ones that witnessed the change; they are the ones who were the learners of that change. They are the ones that are going to tell the story of that change.

I think Indian education is unfolding yet. I was in a hotel in Albuquerque recently when I stumbled into a meeting of Middle School kids. There were over 1,000 kids there. From all the Pueblos and so forth. The conference was about getting ready to think about college and what you need to do for that. It was focused on “you’re all winners, you’re all going to do this.” It was just amazing. It was a stealth drug program. It was to help them overcome any issues of chemical dependency in their family and all that. But it was coded as going to college and being successful. It was all positive. It didn’t say, don’t do this or don’t do that. I was very, very impressed with the people doing that. Here we don’t have those big numbers of students. If we call a Middle School meeting together, you’ve got probably several hundred but not thousands like the Southwest. But that doesn’t change the fact that the experience of an all-Indian education is going to leave an impression on those kids throughout their lives. We have a tremendous responsibility to get it right. A lot of us are not getting it right.

Joe: I like the way that you focus on assets and not deficits. I think that’s the best way to do it. That’s one of the biggest problems we have with the District is that they’re always about deficits. What you’re alluding to is that it’s not a good focus for doing something successfully, especially if you’re trying to build. It’s not a good way to build.

Laura: Generally speaking, let’s say it’s a classroom or a group of kids. They’ve come together because they’re interested in something, say it’s going out to the sugar bush and learning about making sugar. It’s a process, you start out with A and you end up with Z, and in between you’ve learned a process. You are a participant and you are an observer. If you come along and are a good learner, then you can also be a leader during that time. It is not in the best interests of people who make sugar to have a deficit posture with the kids. But the teachers look at the potential of that tree, of what is going to be a gift really to the Ojibwe people. In the same way, you are like that tree, you have a lot to give in your lifetime. It’s never too early to start. Little kids are full of enthusiasm, you almost have to put the brakes on.

Kids are all potential. That’s just an example but it has to be a conscious effort. You can’t go into a classroom and try to decide what you’re going to do. You’ve got to have a plan.

Diane: Are there other practices like this that you consider to be really important for teachers to bring into the classroom?

Laura: For reasons I can’t remember, I was called on to be a teacher for one semester in Indian History. I am not a teacher and I admire teachers greatly. My husband is a teacher. I can never do what he does. I can never do what Graham does. I was called upon to do this, they were lacking a staff or something. I had kids 10 and 11 years old. I didn’t know what the heck to do. I had a rolling file cabinet. I made up a file with each one of their names. I said, you’re going to fill this file up. I don’t know what to put in it. Let’s discover together what in Indian history is going to be in this file. I did have a syllabus but I wanted them to find something, and put it in the file so we could talk about it later on. That’s what we did.

It just happened that Eddie Benton, the head of the school, won a national award from the National Education Association. NEA sent out a team to visit the school. There I was, stuck, being a non-teacher. They were going to come to my classroom. I asked the students if they would help me and take something from their file that they liked a lot and if they’re asked a question to talk about that. They were asked a question about Sitting Bull. They knew his tribe, they knew his Indian name, and they knew the circumstances of his death. That really impressed those people. But it just happened to be one of those things that came out of those files. If they had asked a question that wasn’t in there, we may not have looked so successful. But I think using files is a way that you can encourage children to have confidence in themselves that they do know things. They do have the capacity and they can share it also.

Graham: I think another thing you added in your initial description when you were talking about the files is to discover together. That it wasn’t that you were going to feed them the information. It was going to be something that you did together.

Laura: They had bits out of the newspaper, different magazines. They copied a page out of a book, stuff like that. It wouldn’t seem like very much to an older person but to them that was their file. We had some tough little kids there. One child was very stubborn, but by the end of that term, she was really producing right along with the rest of them. I was also the bus driver. I picked this particular child up every morning. I had a regular route. I’d bring the Minneapolis kids over and then I’d go to Mt. Airy and some of the places in St. Paul. I amaze myself when I think of all the stuff I did. We were so eager to make Red School House work. We’d do anything to make it work.

Joe: Whenever I visited there, my impression was always that it was working. There always seemed to be something interesting going on.

Laura: It’s pretty amazing. It was people that were just so focused on culture. You got a glimpse of life from 100 years ago. And when culture is predominant, it makes a big difference. That’s a credit to Porky White and Eddie Benton.

Graham: When we talk about the culture and language piece, we talk now about immersion. You talked about saturation. What’s the difference?

Laura: I’m not sure I know that. When we had lunch, Porky would go from table to table and speak only in Ojibwe. Maybe they understood some and maybe they didn’t. They always say to combine two things: music and language, food and language. Then I said, what would happen if you wrote the menu in Ojibwe? He would do that every morning. Pretty soon they got used to it. I thought, this is what must happen if you’re suddenly living in Greece. It’s sink or swim. They only had to sink or swim during lunchtime. The rest of the day was okay. I think that’s saturation of a moment in time. But immersion is the whole day. But with parents, that’s the hardest part, isn’t it?

Historical Trauma

Diane: That raises the undercurrent of historical trauma that you have to deal with everywhere. How do you work with that in school?

Laura: I don’t think there’s much awareness at in public schools. They’re seen as behavioral problems. The number of Indian children who are diagnosed as behaviorally handicapped is a growing percentage. It’s up to 30%.

Joe: It’s like the prison population, we’re overrepresented. We’re 1% of the U.S. population and 14% of the prison population.

Laura: Not handicapped in the sense that they are developmentally delayed or have some severe illness. It’s all behavior. The kids are lost in the system. There’s very little hope that we can teach the system how to be more Indian oriented. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to understand the Indian population. That’s all left up to the Indian education program of the system. There’s a great deal of African-American leadership within the system. Even with that, the African-American student population is having a horrible time. Their culture is not being recognized either. So then what? You see that a lot of the Somali kids are leaving the system and going to charter schools. We have one a block away from my house. It’s 96% Somali. It’s so calm and peaceful in there. It’s like a whole different universe. I got a chance to get a view in. These Somali kids were very happy. Culture was right there, front and foremost.

Joe: No one stripped it from them. They brought it with them.

Laura: You can see when it works, and when it doesn’t work. It does not work in the public system for Indian kids.

Graham: When you talk about the behavior piece, one of the interesting things is that the suspension rates reflect exactly what you’re talking about in special education and in the prison population. The overrepresentation of both the African-American kids and the Indian kids. The interesting difference between those two, however, is that the overall highest reason for suspension is for aggression. That’s absolutely turned upside down when you look at American Indian kids. Their greatest reason for suspension is because of defiance. That’s near the bottom for every other cultural community except the Indian community. That defiance is a really interesting thing to look at as a deficit as opposed to an asset. If you turn it into an asset, it’s a strength of will, a powerful, powerful thing for a second grader to be defiant towards their professional teacher in the classroom.

Laura: There’s a book, I Won’t Learn from You by Herbert Kohl and, we bought several copies at Migizi. He said we should distinguish not learning from failure. All learning must at some level be voluntary. That was his thesis in that book. When kids act out, and you cannot make them do what you wish, there is something wrong in the paradigm. It’s time to really examine that. Not to say, you belong in this category of kids. Which gives them a mark forever. It’s so easy to do that.

Joe: It goes back to society has this idea of what power is. To them power is external. To indigenous people, power is internal. In other words, the one thing that you can truly control is yourself. The one thing that you truly have control over is what you do. The dominant society teaches that power is when I can make other people do things. It’s not about me, I don’t have to control myself. I can just do anything. But I have to make somebody else do something, that’s power. That’s the issue that they’re so caught up in trying to make other people do things. You don’t have to make people do things, you can bring them to it and they’ll do it.

Laura: That’s sort of the essence of gangs and the sub-rosa culture of illegal everything, drugs. It’s making younger and younger people do things. It’s very distressing because those are our resources, those are our future. We’re throwing them away. We’re saying, oh, gangs, bad. Put them in jail forever. You hear Indian people saying that, unfortunately.

It’s hitting reservations very hard because there’s no police force adequate to handle that. As a result Indian women are being beat up and assaulted and raped.

Joe: Significantly higher than any other demographic group in this country, which is sad because we can’t be so hedonistic and addicted to pleasure that we forget to be humble and understand that we have to go through some pain too. That’s out of balance.

Laura: At least now we have an Indian Law and Order Act for the first time. For the first time we have two Indian advisors on staff in the White House. Obama takes his Indian name seriously. It is from the Crow tribe, Black Eagle. That’s the name of the family. He was named Black Eagle. It’s very interesting. He tells audiences his name and that he is proud of it. He’s probably the first president ever to do this. It gives you a little bit of hope about what can happen.

Joe: Eli Parker?

Laura: Eli Parker was the adjutant to Ulysses S. Grant. He wrote up the conditions of surrender that Robert E. Lee had to sign. He was an engineer that they would not allow into the engineering societies and so forth. At the time he was probably the highest-ranking Indian in the U.S. Interestingly enough, he thought that the best answer was to do away with the reservations. Of course it was a different perspective back then. Reservations were a prison. Now the reservations are a resource and a homeland. He believed that we were going to be held prisoners.

Diane: What haven’t we asked you that you’d like to share?

Laura: I really admire the fact that Migizi has taken media with education to a whole other level. From the very beginning of looking at radio, I believed that was the magic that would help Indian kids. We wrote our first federal proposal in 1982. We went to schools, South High and other schools, and asked what was the best thing. Teachers, predictably, wanted kids to do better and knuckle down. Parents wanted culture. The kids wanted people they could trust. Migizi became the place where they had people they could trust. It’s the fact that they’re using media, there’s great capacity for learning when you combine education with technology.

Diane: But literally giving these kids a voice by putting them on the radio.

Joe: And the videos that they’ve done have been so good. The relocation video and the other one on Fort Snelling. They’ve been really well done. I guess we bump fists.

Laura: I would really like to see Fort Snelling returned to Dakota people.

Joe: Get rid of the military presence and return it to what used to be.

Laura: The memory of that camp and the starvation and the forced march out to South Dakota. The stoning of people along the way. It would be very nice to see that honorably concluded with the return of Fort Snelling.