Seeing the World Through the Eyes of Others

August 18, 2017

Native American children at an Indian School

It was 1974, and we had moved from a small rural town in Arizona (Mayer) to the “large” city of Flagstaff. I had spent most of my growing-up years in small agricultural towns and was confronted for the first time with a more complex and diverse culture. My brother and I attended Flagstaff High School with about 1,300 students. There were many aspects of our new high school that were different from the past: the number of students, the general diversity of the student body, and the presence of a large group of Native American students.

Unlike the other students who attended Flagstaff High, the Native American students lived in a dormitory about a half mile from the site of the high school. At the time, I have to admit in my own ignorance I thought very little about the presence of the Native American dorm and how it impacted the lives of students who lived there. I took classes and played on sports teams with Native American students, and it never dawned on me to ask about how their lives might differ from my own.

Some years later, I went to the Heard Museum (one of the finest Native American museums in the country) and happened on an exhibit on the Indian School movement in the United States. Begun in the 1880s by the U.S. government, it took young Native Americans, removed them from their families and attempted to reeducate them. At the time they believed it would make assimilation into American culture more effective. Captain R. H. Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian School, stated it this way:

“We can end their existence among us as such separate people by a broad and generous system of English education and training, which will reach all the 50,000 children and in a few years remove all our trouble from them as a separate people and as separate tribes among us, and instead of feeding, clothing and caring for them from year to year, put them in condition to feed clothe and care for themselves. Our experiences in many individual cases in the last few years make it evident that not only may we fit him to go and come and abide in the land where ever he may choose, and so lose his identity.”

Captain Pratt probably believed he was making a noble statement. He reasoned that the technologically superior European culture had transcended its primitive heritage and, in order to bring Native American people into the same broader success of the movement of history, their people had to be remade to fit the new model. And the only way to do this, in the mind of the U.S. leaders at the time, was to remove their children from their homes and reeducate them. Even in 1974, the government was still trying to accomplish that task. What Captain Pratt did not note in his statement was the devastating impact on the communities of Native Americans living across the United States.

As I walked through the exhibit, which was primarily the physical reconstruction of an Indian School, I came across a notebook. In the notebook was a series of letters from Native American children expressing feelings about what had happened to them. This short note, by Zitkala Sa, was characteristic of many of the letters:

“Late in the morning, my friend Judewin gave me a terrible warning. Judewin knew a few words of English; and she had overheard the paleface woman talk about cutting our long, heavy hair. Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mouners, and shingled hair by cowards! ... I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.”

Letter after letter carried the same sentiment. Ripped from their homes, families and culture, the students were isolated and lonely. After reading these letters one comes to understand the pain and grief wrought on the Native American communities for the past 150 years by the force of U.S. policy. I am sure that no parent could read similar letters written by their children and not put themselves in their shoes and feel similar grief.

Human communities are fraught with conflict. The center of that conflict in the United States has often been a racial divide. The recent incident in Charlottesville is the latest example of the racial conflict playing itself out in the streets of our country. White supremacists angrily portrayed a future picture of our country based on false narratives of the past and a vision for a future that excludes people on the basis of race and ethnicity. At George Fox University, we reject that vision and the hate that drives it.

I am a part of an educational institution that is committed to a vision of an inclusive future based on the Christian gospel. Christ is not the God of Europeans and their descendants but the God of all creation and all people. The Christian community draws into it a diverse group of people from all races and nationalities. We are called to model an inclusive community in a fallen world. This is hard work.

It is hard work because for many, our experience is not inclusive; it is often isolating and monocultural. I was awakened to the pain of Native Americans only when I was able to enter into their experience and see the world through their eyes. As a university, one of our most significant challenges is to help our community, both students and staff, to see the world through the eyes of others. As I finished reading this evening Joseph Marshall’s recent book, The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was an alternative end to the story that could have placed a greater value on Native American culture.

The decisions we make personally and culturally each day have a direct impact on the communities and lives of others. What we are committed to at George Fox is developing people who will listen and experience the stories of others and help model a future that is based not on cultural hegemony but on transformation. Christ called us to redeem the world in his name, and so in that direction we are called to work.