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Spiritual and Practical

By Cynthia Dagnal-Myron — December 01, 1989 3 min read
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I could see the cheat sheet plain as day, sticking partly out of his desk in the back of the room. He’d fixed it so he could slip the paper in or out of his desk without using his hands.

But he blew his own cover. Every time he finished a question, he sat back, stretched, yawned, and sort of eased down in his seat a little too far. It was so artless a ruse that I joked about it when I approached him later in the hallway to “discuss’’ it with him.

“Hey, Slick,’' I said, shaking my head with mock disgust. “Were you actually back there trying to cheat today?’'

And do you know, that child looked me right in the eye, grinned, and said: “Yeah, I was. I was all into basketball last week and I really didn’t study. Do what you have to do. It’s cool. I deserve it.’'

I should have expected that answer. That guileless smile. I’m his mo wi, related to him by marriage. According to Hopi tribal tradition, I owe him both spiritual and physical nourishment. In return, he owes me hard work, honesty, and unconditional respect. So, the following week he aced two tests, scored a crucial basket in the second quarter of the big game, and made a big detour around the court to slip me a high five at half time.

He and the other Hopi students I teach have made it very clear to me that all those “Oh God, the poor Indians’’ articles in educational journals are wrong. They miss something very important about what’s happening to kids who live and learn on reservations.

Despite all its problems, a reservation is a repository of time-tested and valuable beliefs and practices where there is no division between spiritual and “practical’’ or “earthly’’ concerns. Here, religion teaches you how to survive on earth and beyond. It has answers to and a preparation for every crisis a tribe member faces from before his birth, when relatives are taught how to behave in the presence of an “incomplete’’ and fragile soul, to his death, when he is sent “home’’ with very specific instructions for the afterlife.

On the 20th day after my half-Hopi, half-AfricanAmerican daughter’s birth, she, like other children on the reservation, was introduced to the Sun by her grandmother, who made a speech detailing the responsibilities that came with clanship. She and her toddler friends now follow their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles to the cornfields to learn about discipline, dedication, and disappointment. The life of each child will revolve around fulfilling the obligations of clanship, with aunts, uncles, and godparents giving constant guidance. Hopi students have very little trouble finding their raison d’etre.

The reservation certainly has huge problems. Most of what you read and see in the media about Indian suicide, alcoholism, astronomical unemployment, and high drop-out rates is true. But it’s not the whole story. Anyone who has tried to teach in a city--where schools are terrorized by roving bands of boys searching for adulthood through violence, and students who lack parental guidance turn to drugs and crime--would understand what priceless lessons Hopi children learn from their religion and their clan. Those lessons have been lost in the big cities of America. And without them urban children are killing each other.

Here on the reservation, even the sad, confused students who spin out eventually return, gratefully, to their roots. Some of our most devout participants in religious ceremonies are former “incorrigibles.’' They’ve been through the fire. They know this stuff works.

In fact, when I hear that 85 percent of our Native American youth drop out of college because they are “unprepared,’' “unmotivated,’' and “culturally deprived,’' I have to laugh a little. Could it be that it’s the dominant society that’s really culturally deprived today? Could these kids be the mine canaries for an entire country?

That’s why I’m still here teaching “those poor Indians.’' Well, there is one other reason. On graduation day, they look you in the eyes and grin, and say, “I’m gonna miss you. You must stay here and not run away like these teachers always do. We need teachers like you.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Spiritual and Practical


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