A Native American Voice: George Fence Speaks, Part 1.

Several years ago, I  had the opportunity of talking with Native American activist George Fence.  George was a Cherokee who had come to Southern Oregon where he was adopted by the Takelma Tribe.  Education was the topic and George was eager to express his views as a Native American.

GF:  The connotations of education are broad, but in today’s world it means several things.  There is a kind of duality of learning that still occurs amongst many Native American people.  Historically, there are the oral traditions, the histories, the legends and the identification with sites.  Scenic overlooks, rivers and prominent landscape features were elements of this traditional education.  When Indian education was altered through the assimilation policies, education for Indians took on a dual perspective.  When the Indian students had achieved or essentially matriculated out of the institutions and returned to their tribe, they were still held to an older standard.  In many cases, the elders within the tribe saw that rather than increasing the students knowledge, they had somehow diminished it. Their native language was imperfect.  Their skills in the hunt or the chase or even identifying plants and animals, had been completely neglected.  So, the elders saw that in many respects the Indian students were no longer of use to their tribes.  So, they made certain recommendations and suggested that the European descendants, who sometimes were the people teaching at these colleges, send their children to live among the Indians and that they would provide them with an education.  Perhaps, they believed that an amalgamation could occur between the children of the Europeans and the children of the Indians if both were educated in each other’s camps.  I guess, having said that story, there was a time when native people thought thought the kinds of education the children were learning was pushing out the knowledge they thought to be the most important.  And that it was being replaced by an artificial view of the world that didn’t apply, at least, within their own paradigm.  Then there was a point in time when there were more products of the western education system among the Indians than those that carried on the traditional ways.  This happened after about three hundred years of war, coupled with the discriminate policy of isolating and separating the leaders from the followers, amongst the native communities.  Some of the policies were well-meaning.  The Indian Reorganization Act is one such policy that occurred in the thirties, right after the onset of the Roosevelt years.  The result was a real shift in modeling, and developing a tribal hierarchy that essentially mirrored the ruling class.  It transferred the authority from the old men and women of the tribe to a more, as seen from the outside, progressive or liberal form of leadership.  Today, of course, we would have to say that what survives of traditional culture has been fractionalized.  There are fewer and fewer carriers of the culture that have the tools or possess the knowledge and accompanying wisdom to transfer this information.  The stability within the social group has been altered to a large degree, whereas in times past, the elders and others could identify young people within the community who excelled at certain skills and who could be trained from early childhood.  Today, without the backdrop or the patterning of these wisdom keepers, it is difficult for many young native people to know which of these multitude of talents they particularly possess. I would say that there is a tremendous amount of traditional education still available for native people, but that it is one of the most difficult things to access.