[Suse] – Good morning, we are in the homeland territories of the ancestral Hohokam and their descendants Akimel O’Odham, Tohono O’Odham,O’Odham. We extend our respects and gratitude to the many indigenous peoples who have rich histories here including the Piipaash and Quetan and to all the native communities who call what is today known as Arizona home. My name is Suse Anderson and I’m an assistant professor at George Washington University and I’m going to be one of your hosts today for this discussion about education inequity. I’d like to hand over to my cohost, Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, who is an education specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to introduce our topic for today and our wonderful guest speakers.
[Kayleigh] – Good morning, happy last conference day. Before we begin introductions, I would like to ask you to join me in recognizing and thanking the invisible labor that put together this incredible conference experience for us. Yes, thank you. From AAM, Dean Phelus, Veronica Mooney, Nicole Ivy, Arthur Affleck and Sage Morgan-Hubbard. From this space, this convention center, and our hotels and every space in between the tech crews and service staff and volunteers that have made this experience so wonderful, we thank you.
As a framework for digging in to today’s conversation on equity and education, we want everyone in this room to have equitable access to the elements of equity in education that we will unpack. We have systems of education in our communities, in our faith, and in our civic groups, in our cultural organizations, but today we are interrogating the state and federally regulated American education system. Just so that we’re all on the same page. So as a grounding question, our wonderful keynote speakers, Donovan Livingston and Frank Waln, have prepared a personal response to the American education system. What are your experiences of it? Where are we, and how did we get here? And later in our conversation we will set our intention towards questioning, in 2018, when we think of equity in education, where should we be? It is my pleasure to introduce our first keynote speaker.
Frank Waln is an award winning Lakota hip hop artist, producer, and performer from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. A recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship, Waln received a BA in audio arts and acoustics from Columbia College. His awards include three Native American music awards, a National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development 2014 Native American 40 Under 40 award, and the 2014 Chicago Mayor’s Award for civic engagement. Waln travels the word spreading hope and inspiration through performance and workshops, focusing on self empowerment. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. Yes, Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @FrankWaln. Please join me in welcoming Frank.
[Frank] – Hello relatives, I just introduced myself and my language, Lakota, and I said my Lakota name is Oyate Teca Obmani, which means walks with the young nation or walks with the new nation. And that name was given to me by elders in my community many years ago when I was younger. I also go by Frank Waln and I’m a Sicangu Lakota hip hop artist and performer and audio engineer. But I consider myself more of a storyteller. And as an indigenous person I believe I come from one of the strongest lines of storytellers in the world. Because we are living in a country built on stolen land and stolen labor, genocide and slavery, and our stories survived that genocide, over 500 years of it, some of them without ever being written down.
I truly believe our cultures, our languages, our songs survived that genocide because of, one of the reasons, the strength of our storytelling. And so what I do as an indigenous artist is just continuing that tradition of storytelling. And when I was thinking about the state of education I started thinking about my own perspective and a story came to my mind the first week I was in Chicago. I was born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and I’ll give you a little context. Our reservation is one of the top seven biggest reservations in the country, it’s about the size of the state of Rhode Island but it’s very rural and it also sits in one of the poorest counties in the whole country. And so that’s where I lived until I was 18, until I got a scholarship and it lead me to a few places but I finally landed in Chicago. And the first week I was there I had an experience that changed my life forever and, I think, kind of gives you an idea of the state of education as it pertains to indigenous people in this country. I was living in a dorm building in downtown Chicago with 3,000 students living in it and I got on the elevator and this girl got on the elevator with me.
She was a freshman and it was just her and I on the elevator and she said, “You have really pretty hair, what are you?” You know, she was non-native. And I said, “Thank you, I’m Lakota.” And she didn’t know what Lakota meant. So I said, “I’m Native American.” And she looked at me confused and she said, “You guys are still alive?” She said, “You guys still exist?” You know, we laughed, but let’s think about that. There’s college educated adults in this country that think we don’t even exist, you know? I never met someone that thought that before and I started meeting more people in Chicago that felt that way. And fast forward, my senior year I had to take a history course, and I ended up having to take a US history course. And I go in and the first week I’m there I see written on the board Wounded Knee Massacre, Crazy Horse, you know, things that pertain to my people, our history, and the first two weeks we talked about the Indian Wars. And the professor, he was the history professor there at my school, he was a nice guy, he was an older white man, he loved history, I could tell. He didn’t have bad intentions but I knew more about the history he was teaching than he did. For those first two weeks every time he would mention something he would look at me to make sure it was right. And I’m sitting there thinking, you know, I’m paying to be here, I’m here to learn like everyone else. And yet I’m having to check this guy who’s getting paid to teach what he isn’t even really sure of.
So I think that’ll kind of give you the state of education in this country in regards to indigenous people. Because around the same time I learned this term called symbolic annihilation as I was researching the way Native Americans are portrayed in the media. And symbolic annihilation means that if you only portray a people as a people of the past, you never show them as we are today, to a lot of people who never meet indigenous people, who never visit our communities, who never consume media or stories produced by us, they’re gonna think we don’t exist. They’re gonna think we only exist in the past. And so, you know, as I was having those experiences in Chicago and I was realizing that the state of education in this country in regards to the indigenous people is one or erasure, one of symbolic annihilation. Because when colonizers write the history, they’re always the heroes, they’re always the victors and colonizers wrote that history. And now I’m 28 years old, my art takes me all around the world, and I tell people that I believe the way the US history is taught in this country is nothing other than colonial propaganda masquerading as history. And so I started thinking about my role as an artist to push back against that and provide some balance. And I think, here today, I challenge you all as people working in a field that can educate people, what can you do in your capacity to provide some balance in that way? Because all of your museums are built on indigenous land.
Everywhere in this country is sitting on indigenous land. And so, you know, today I challenge you all. What can you do? And in our dialogue I’m gonna bring up some examples of things I’ve seen but also I think it’s up to you guys as educators and working in your field to come up with creative solutions for the future. And I’m gonna leave you guys with a creative solution I came up with. I’m going to perform a song for you guys acapella that I wrote in my language. And by doing this I want you to think about indigenous art and indigenous artists, because I believe that indigenous artists, we are culture bearers.
Our art is our way of life. The way we put up a teepee was art, the way my people hunted buffalo was art. You know, and I do the same thing with my music. And so I decided to write a song in my language because my great grandparents were the last people in my family to be fluent in Lakota because of the boarding school system. They were snatched out of our homes when they were kids and I don’t know what happened to them. I didn’t even know they were fluent in our language until they were long gone and I was in my 20s. It was that much of a secret.
They never talked about it, they never shared it, they felt so much shame about being indigenous. So I feel like by writing songs in my language I am helping heal those wounds of my great grandparents and my ancestors. And I want to also note that it was illegal for us to speak our languages and practice our cultures in this country until 1978. Until the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, because our religions are our culture, are our language, are our dances. We were literally banned until 1978 from practicing these things. So I need your guys’ help. Do you guys want to learn a little Lakota language here this morning? I know, you know, we’re kind of tired. Alright, so we have this word, oyate, it means nation or people. So in this song I need you guys to say that with me ’cause we need to say it together as a nation and as a people ’cause now we’re living on this land together. So when I put my hand up I need you guys to say oyate with me, okay, let’s practice.
Oyate, oyate, okay so this song is called and this phrase was given to me by a Dakota uncle back in South Dakota. I was visiting with him this fall and he said, “I’m gonna give you this phrase our people used to “always say to each other because it’s important “that we start filling our hearts and our minds “with our language again, the things that were taken “from us.” And so he gave it to me as an artist and I decided to write a song and this is the first time I wrote a song in my language and I’m gonna perform it for you all here today. So I need you guys to help me out. We’ll get started together and then I’ll take off and we’ll finish together, okay?
So I’ll start saying oyate and then you guys pick up, oyate. Thank you guys, I just want to translate real quickly what I said. Real quickly, what we were saying together was my nation, my people, now we thrive, now we prosper. And then in the verses I said which means, when you’re spirit speaks, listen carefully. Then I said, which means, the fire was relit. That cultural, spiritual fire. Now help each other, help each other. And we finish by saying it together, my nation, my people, now we thrive, now we prosper. And I wanna thank you guys because another thing about indigenous people is our ancestors are always with us. I’m not up here alone, I got hundreds of years of Lakota people and ancestors behind me and everywhere I go. And they speak Lakota so they heard you guys saying that with me, it was almost like we said a little prayer together and I think it’s really beautiful now that it’s no longer illegal and we can say these things together and we can figure out these creative solutions for the future. And so I just wanted to take that time to share some of my song and some of my history with you guys and I want to thank you all for coming out, and especially shout out to the native aunties in the building, thank you, so happy that you’re here. I am Frank Waln, thank you guys.
[Kayleigh] – That was great.
[Suse]- Frank, thank you so much for sharing that gift with us. We now get to have the gift of another performer. Donovan Livingston is an award winning educator, spoken word poet, and public speaker. In 2016 his Harvard Graduate School of Education convocation address Liftoff went viral, reaching over 13 million views and prompting Hillary Clinton to praise, “It’s young graduates like Livingston who make it clear that America’s best days are still ahead.” Since his pivotal speech, Livingston has been featured on CNN, NPR, BBC, Good Morning America, and in news outlets across Europe, Australia, India, and South Africa. His convocation address was published as a book by Spiegel and Grau in 2017 and he is now a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina in Greensborough. Please join me in welcoming Donovan to the stage.
[Donovan]- Good morning family, how y’all doing today? How all y’all doing today, family? I like that, cool, awesome, awesome. So again, my name is Donovan Livingston, I bring you greetings from the great state of North Carolina. Any North Carolina in the room? Yes, that’s what’s up, I see you fam. Word, so I won’t be before you long today, I’m gonna talk to you a little bit about some of my research, some of the things that I’ve been doing in terms of education and how that relates to some of the work you may be doing in museums.
But before I do that I want to warm us up a bit more. Thank you again, Frank, for blessing us with that talent and that gift. In the spirit of spoken word poetry, what we do up here is a mutual exchange. And so, anytime you hear something this morning that you vibe with, appreciate, enjoy, I’m gonna want you to snap, can y’all snap for me real quick? Yes, y’all sound like a babbling brook, I like it. So alright, real quick, I’m gonna test this theory. So if you have enjoyed the weather in Phoenix so far, snap. Okay, alright, bet, okay, so if you really enjoyed Frank’s remarks earlier, snap.
Yes, awesome, if you agree with Kanye West’s assertion that slavery was a choice, good, that was a test. Y’all with me, alright, so, y’all on the same page. So today I’m gonna be talking about museums, memory, and post modern marvels. Now, I will say there are some spoilers in here so if you haven’t seen Infinity War I apologize in advance but here we go. I wanna open with this quote from Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny. He says, “FascistS despised small truths of daily existence, “loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, “and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. “And now, as then, many people confused with faith “in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world “we all share. “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
One thing that really stood out to me in this quote is the fact that small truths, yeah, no, it’s definitely okay to snap, small truths of daily existence. I think about that every time I walk through a museum. You are responsible for conveying and communicating the truths that make our lives meaningful, that communicate our histories, that communicate the beauty of our lived experiences. And so with that in mind, I do ask you, what does it mean to be working for, with, and on behalf of museums in a post factual era in American and human history? So with that in mind, think about Thanos, right? Thanos is this titan, this guy in the Marvel universe and essentially what he’s doing is essentially what museums have been doing for a long time. It’s colonizing, collecting, and really what I want us to talk about today is how can we decolonize the way we preserve memory and meaning?
And so Lauren, my wife, and I, we were talking about some of our museum experiences in preparation for this and one museum experience that really stood out was the time we went to the Louvre a few years ago, actually, and we noticed that a lot of the characters and things that were collected in the Mesopotamia exhibit in the Louvre were desecrated, damaged, had not been taken care of. The faces of African humans had been marred and destroyed in some sort of way and we thought about this idea of conquest and how museums play a role in communicating that conquest. And in thinking about, once we have all power in our hands and all this information that we store, who do we not see represented in some of those collections, in some of those memories and some of those moments? And just with the simple snap of a finger, museums have the power to create and destroy histories in one fell swoop. And turning things to dust is something that happens a lot not just in museums but in classrooms all over the country. And in thinking about ways we can overcome that, a lot of my work focuses on hip hop and spoken word pedagogy, so how teachers, professors, folks that are educators can use hip hop and spoken word as a means for creating space for different types of communities, lived experiences, and cultural backgrounds. So if you think about the elements of hip hip, we have five core elements. We have DJ’ing, emceeing, breaking, graffiti, and knowledge of self. And I venture to think that curators, folks that are in charge of collections in museums, are DJs in a way. You collect songs the same way we collect materials, the same way we organize and sort exhibits around themes.
You all are DJs in that way and really reframing the way we look at our work as educators and folks that are in the museum industry. A lot of what you do can be mapped on to what happens when hip hip is performed live and in action. If you think about the role of emcees, you think about people like Frank who are expert and gifted storytellers. emceeing, rappers, lyricists throughout the generations of hip hop’s short history have been master communicators of those stories. And thinking about how you communicate stories in your museums across the country, you all are emcees in that way as well. If you think about breaking, or break dancing, we all have embodied experiences to certain memories and being cognizant of how we internalize and embody the sort of experiences that happen when we move through museum spaces really matters.
Education and learning is not just what happens auditorally or through speech and language but it’s also an internalized experience that manifests physiologically as well. But some of the other things we see, we need to learn how to situate students in communities that we’re speaking to as experts, how certain messages belong in public spaces needs to be powered by other voices in the room. So as you’re creating memories and creating moments, how are we inviting community members, co creators of these histories in space so that histories are collected and communicated in an inclusive sort of way?
Space is also constructed between students and educators through hip hop pedagogy so that’s where it certainly connects to that. Also I think it’s really important is this last bullet, is the way we confront oppression in a critical way through hip hop pedagogy. Through the work I do with my students, I’m really mindful of how can I train them to ask those tough questions, to ask why.
Thinking of another Marvel film, Black Panther, there’s this real critical scene where Killmonger is in a museum and he asks, right, he asks the curator, “How do you think your ancestors got these?” Like, that resonated with me, resonated with Lauren, it resonated with everybody in the theater, actually. Everybody was snapping and yelling, it was great. But in thinking about that, who is really in charge of encouraging us as educators to ask those tough questions and give our patrons a chance to voice their opinion in that way. Again, counter-narratives are a very important part of limiting the type of erasure that has happened over time.
Counter-narratives are simply these stories that native, indigenous, people of color, these histories that have been historically oppressed over time, these are their ways of communicating the value, the beauty, and meaning of their lived experiences and so museums can be curators of these counter-narratives by building community, challenging perceived stereotypes, creating hope, and helping folks reimagine a new world.
There’s a beautiful, it’s beautiful to understand our past as we think about how we can imagine a better future, a brighter future together in thinking about how can we elevate historically oppressed voices without, not necessarily erasing dominant narratives but really being mindful of this idea of just because you elevate a marginalized voice does not mean you’ve completely erased the history of dominant narratives over time. And in thinking about those dominant narratives, I do want to share an experience of mine from my undergraduate experience. So I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, class of 2009, go Tarheels. But I definitely had some experiences on campus that really made me question who I was in that particular space. And so we have a confederate monument on campus, in case you’ve seen the news confederate monuments are all the buzz in our neck of the woods. And so we still have confederate reminders around campus everywhere we go. And so I thought critically about a moment in my sophomore year when I was declared as a history major. I was taking an upper level history course and I had to write a paper on defending the institution of slavery. Now, not only was that violent in a way, it also reminded me that there are reminders that I didn’t belong all around me. There were buildings on campus that were named after professors who owned slaves themselves, there was a slave graveyard on campus where although there were bodies laid, they were unmarked graves and it wasn’t until 2016 that graveyard actually had a plaque, a historical marker saying that these were our unsung founders of campus because slaves played a big role in building the university from the ground up. And so, this piece that I’m gonna share with you is entitled Lux Libertas, it’s latin for Light and Liberty, it’s the motto that is on our seal and it really made me question how what we were doing was an extension of our liberty, of our freedom, and I hope you enjoy.
So without further ado. You are hovering over a laptop, it is midnight. Your assignment is due tomorrow. Well, technically today, your eyes are glazed, you crave donuts, a Red Bull, Monster, something stronger, hell, it’s all a familiar scene. You rest your fingers against the home row keys, A, S, D, you will be in Hinton James’ third floor kitchen staring at an unwritten thesis, wishing you had telekinesis because spoken words hardly convey how you feel in this moment. You’ve been in the margins so long you won’t know where to begin. You title your midterm In Defense of Slavery and want to crawl out of your own skin. You will bury yourself in the text, read between the lines until you see your own ghost. You will be haunted by a prompt depending definitions of apparitions past, Old Dixie, History 586, Professor say this paper ain’t gonna write itself. And you’re too terrified to ask for help. You will run through a laundry list of affirmations before concluding white supremacy is a stain that won’t be removed yet we wear it like Carolina blue. You will wonder who didn’t struggle with this assignment, who finds the economic model of the old South to be fit, frugal, and fiscally conservative then have the nerve to smile in your face, say you’re created equal and treat you as if microaggressions are a mere myth, like they don’t exist in times new roman 12 point double space five pages with annotations, you’ll wish they would’ve mentioned this at orientation. How your acceptance letter will soon feel like a bill of sale.
You will envision an institution through new eyes and not be surprised by what you see. You will wonder how many slaves it took to build Old East, how many bricks bear our blood. Today will feel like 1793, tomorrow will feel like yesterday, they’ll say you’re crazy for being offended as if defending slavery as your class’s only black student isn’t oddly necrophilic, like black bodies don’t fill up Chapel Hill Cemetary’s unmarked graves. You will avoid walking that way for the rest of the semester because you are ashamed. From now on the rustling magnolia leaves sound like broken bones. You will enroll in classes held in buildings bearing names of klansmen, every paper will feel like a ransom note when the university boasts about being the only southern institution to remain open during the Civil War. You alone will ask, for whom were our students fighting? You will see Zora Neale Hurston writing her way to freedom eyes watching God in the Carolina colored sky. You will know there’s nothing silent about a statue, that monuments espouse values without uttering a single word. You will bend under the mighty weight of history but you will not break.
You will write this paper beating your backspace button to oblivion, a billion sentences worth of sentiments you do not believe and for your trouble you will earn a B. In exchange for assigning the paper your professor will earn an undergraduate teaching award, the distinction of distinguished faculty. And you will laugh at the sadistic irony that is light and liberty. But you will study every day until you are five fifths human. Thank you. Thank you, so definitely appreciate that, really excited to start the conversation, thank you.
– Okay Donovan, thank you as well. So we’re gonna break in to some questions now and the first one, listening to both of you, listening, Donovan, to you and Frank, there were a couple of ideas that I found were coming out of both of your talks. One was this idea of erasure, one was an idea of shame. And I think this notion of symbolic annihilation, I think that was a really incredible phrase that you used to describe this, what has happened to so many voices and so many people in museums and in history. Thinking about this in an education space, if we were to look at a fully decolonized education system, we’ve been talking here at this conference a lot about decolonizing museums and the processes that that involves. What would a decolonized education system look like? And how different would the conversations we’d be having today be if we had all come through that system? Yeah, Frank I wanna throw it to you first just ’cause of that wow
– Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you know, decolonization, as an indigenous person is kind of a funny word for me. You can’t decolonize in English, you know? Like honestly, and it’s used a lot in academic spaces and I got my degree in and the majority of my gigs are in academic spaces but for me as an indigenous person coming from a reservation and coming from a community rooted in culture and language, for me most of the decolonial work happens in our communities, in these indigenous spaces and ceremony. And for me, I can’t imagine a completely decolonial future because I was socialized in a colonial world, in a country built on my genocide. But I do know that if it was going to be a decolonial education system for us, it would be hands off, leave us alone, settlers leave us alone. Give us back our land and let us figure it out for ourselves.
Because, you know, I just a gig with a sister of mine, her name’s Lila June and she did a lot of research for her master’s about Indian boarding schools and the education system and what they did. And she brought up a really amazing point, she was like, you guys had our kids for 500 years and it didn’t work, give us our kids back. You know, we want to start figuring it out for ourselves. So I don’t have all the answers of what that decolonial space looks like but I think I know what it would take to get us started and it would be settlers hands off and give us back our land and let us determine our own future.
Because for over 500 years we’ve had people not from our communities telling us what’s best for us, what works for us. They came in to our homes and took our kids, tried to assimilate them and educate them, you know, so I know what doesn’t work. And that’s what’s happening right now. And so I think, you know, in order to get started as indigenous people we need true sovereignty and that’s not political, that’s not, I mean, we need our land and we need our space and we need hands off so we can figure it our ourselves. Because we’ve got everything we need and it’s at home. But for me, those are the thoughts I had. And if we came up in a decolonial education system, like I said, I can’t even imagine because I came up in a colonial education system and I’m spending my time, a lot of time, trying to undo what I learned in these schools in regards to what it meant to be an indigenous person. So that’s kind of where I was just like, wow, because I couldn’t even imagine. I couldn’t even imagine. So those are the thoughts I have about that.
– That was beautiful. I think decolonizing, for me, certainly looks like an acceptance of wrongdoing on behalf of the colonizer. Which is a hard conversation to have, right? But the coming to terms with, you know, past wrong doings, being up front and honest about those histories of colonization, the idea that you know, our way of life is right and we’re imposing these things on your life to help improve the way you live. I think accepting the fact that that shouldn’t have happened but it did happen and we’re sorry, I think, is the start to healing and reconciliation. You look at universities like Georgetown that have come out and apologized for their history and culture of slavery and the ways in which black and brown bodies were treated and had been used over time to get the university off the ground, like that’s a good start. And then on top of that, students who are descendants of those slaves have received scholarships and a sort of monetary form of, not reparations, but it’s definitely, I believe you put your money where your mouth is and being able to actually say that this is how we choose to acknowledge our past, this is how we plan on moving forward, I think that first step on behalf of institutions like universities, like schools, like museums, can be a good way to start the healing process as well.
– [Suse] Great.
– I’d like to to unpack that question just a little bit further. You know, often in communities of color when we talk about education we talk about learning and we talk about opportunity. But often in the system of education that we have to force our children in to, it’s a one size fits all system, a hierarchical system that is moving in a way, on a path that is not necessarily equitable to all people, especially people of color. So I just thought if you could unpack that question a little bit more about where you see possibly museums, cultural organizations fulfilling the breadth of the rest of what education and learning can be outside of this one size fits all model.
– Well it’s really fortunate, the timing of this conference. Actually on Friday, I’m based out of Chicago, I got to visit the collections at the Field Museum. And I’m going to highlight some ways in which I see the Field providing some of that balance I talked about with collaborating with indigenous communities to figure out a creative future. So recently the Field had hired this indigenous woman, her name is Debra Yupupapan, she’s an artist. She’s not educated in this field but she was community based, she’s Hamas, Pueblo, and Korean. Born and raised in Chicago and she’s like an auntie to me. And she recently became their community engagement coordinator and right from the jump, because she’s rooted in that community, she knows people and she knows the native community in Chicago.
The first thing she started doing was getting native people in to collections to look at, to meet our ancestors, to look at these things that have been taken. And so we got to go in and I got to look at collections and it was really powerful. We started having conversations about equity, about things like gate keeping, and you know, what that act of even just allowing us in to see collections, just for me as an indigenous person, was a step towards a decolonial future because colonization and settler colonialism, and museums are rooted in this and established in this, are only about extraction. Taking, only taking. No reciprocation at all. Whereas indigenous cultures were about reciprocation. We took something, we gave it back, you know? So for me that was providing some sort of reciprocation. And some of those objects we couldn’t even touch because they had arsenic on them. But just to be able to go in to those collections and this was like, you know, they had a number of visits. So another thing Deb did was bring in multiple indigenous communities, youth, elders, educators, to have these visits and then to share with the Field in a very honest way, kind of like this dialogue, this is what we like, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is where you need to improve. And so by the time I had visited the collections it had been their seventh, eighth, ninth visit and we started out, they gave a land acknowledgement, they didn’t hover us when we were in collections. I got to actually look at these objects, take pictures, touch them, I got to actually converse with my ancestors, reciprocate with my ancestors and I think when we’re talking about a decolonial future you need to meet us halfway as indigenous people.
Our worldview is completely different from a Western one and even on that reciprocation, going in and looking at ancestral artifacts and art and bead work might not mean anything to you but to us we’re visiting our ancestors. We were down there, we were praying, we were laughing. They let us smudge afterwards. For the longest time, I lived in Chicago for five years, it always felt like the Field was a place not for us as indigenous people. And I would go in there and there’s the interview I did on YouTube where I talked about how they portrayed us as just the people of the past, symbolic annihilation. And I never in a million years thought I would see where it’s at now. And on Friday I also learned that the annual Chicago Powwow, which is every year Chicago has a rich history, a big, indigenous community because it was a relocation center for our people where they went to get jobs and opportunities. But 2018 Chicago Powwow is gonna be held on the Field Museum campus which is huge for us. It’s the 125th anniversary and they’re gonna do a land acknowledgement and they’re gonna let us have that space. I mean, they’re really doing things that I never thought I would see in my life as a native person in Chicago. And all it took was one native person rooted in community getting the job and people around her listening to her. People around her saying, we don’t understand but we’re going to meet you halfway. And so, I wanted to just highlight that as some ways I see things being done right in that thought of decolonizing and reciprocation.
– Yeah, no, I mean, in that same vein I think about this sort of mutual exchange, I think about ciphers, I think about free styling. I think about being in a circle and a community with someone, sharing these ideas and it’s not enough that somebody keeps a beat and I start rapping. I pass it to the next person, and I pass it to the next person, and we keep this conversation, we keep this dialogue, we keep this change happening over time. When I think about that I’m also mindful that students aren’t often awarded chances to see their ways of knowing celebrated in schools. So for me when I would take in information from my teachers or some of my best pneumonic devices were rhyming the lessons I was learning in school. In a lot of ways that sort of, that thing wasn’t celebrated, it was challenged, it was, why do you do that?
I remember I kind of prefaced this in my Liftoff speech at Harvard a couple years ago but when I was graduated from high school I had a chance to represent my class on stage and my English teacher, who was in charge of like, the graduation proceedings, heard that I wanted to do a poem or a rap as a part of my remarks. ‘Cause, you know, as a budding hip hop artist what better place to do it than on stage at graduation? And so, you know, when I wanted to use that space to use my authentic voice as a hip hop artist, it was shut down. She told me she would cut my mic if I started to rhyme, she wouldn’t let me finish my remarks, she would take me off stage or remove me from the program. I was like alright, bet, so I snuck a little acrostic poem in there so she wouldn’t catch it. But at the end of the day I internalized that. I didn’t know it at the time but I didn’t let it stop me from filtering the lessons I learned in school through the lens of a hip hop artist and someone who communicated his existence in that way. And so fast forward many years later and I’m graduating from Harvard and I’m like, I have another chance to do this. And I’m going to, I’m going to take this moment and I’m going to take this space for every spoken word poet, every rapper that may never make it to this stage and I’m gonna use it. And little did I know there were more people listening than were under the tent that day. But when I get invited places to speak, when I’m in front of students, I don’t want them to get caught up in this idea that you have to go to two Ivy League schools and do the speech at graduation to be deemed a success. We get caught up in this idea of only taking information seriously when it comes from certain institutions and students internalize those messages, too. So it’s like, oh, look at this Harvard graduate. But no, no, no, bro, I’m like, I’m more than that. We all are more than that. We’re more than the institutions we go to, the schools we’ve graduated from, the neighborhoods we’ve come from. Yes, they are part of us and our identity, but students, the people that we’re communicating to, whether they be students or patrons at a museum, they need to see that the way they understand the world and process the world matters and is represented on a much larger stage.
– Donovan you just were speaking about internalizing the message when you’re told that basically your voice was not a relevant voice. What happens if people don’t find themselves represented? What happens if their art form isn’t represented and their voice isn’t heard? How does that actually impact someone’s capacity to grow and to learn and actually to be fully recognized and fully functioning, even internally?
– Right, well you know, I’ve heard a lot of educators say if you can’t see it you can’t be it. And students need to see what they want to be modeled on a much larger stage. So if a student makes it through 13 years of school without knowing you can get a PhD in hip hop education, you know, they’ll never know that hey, there’s a space here for me and the way I process the world. We have to be able to create opportunities for students to see that the way they understand the world matters to other folks. And I don’t know, I always want to be mindful of that, I never know who’s in the room but because, you know, because I understand the world this way, the world matters to me in this way, when I communicate myself in this way I never know who else is listening. I talk about this all the time, my wife and I, we met because of our shared love for hip hop. She’s a rapper too, I ain’t gonna get her on stage or nothing but we had a hip hop themed wedding. Like, being responsible in how we insert our cultural ways of being in spaces where it’s not normally celebrated or appreciated is something I’m always mindful of. So you’ll always get a quote from a rapper, you’ll always get a poem, you’ll always get something from me, at least anytime I’m on stage, that reflects the way I exist in the world as a cultural being.
– [Suse] Right.
– Yeah well I come from a reservation where, statistically speaking, I’m not supposed to be sitting on this stage, quite honestly. The biggest high school on my res has a 75% dropout rate. Our reservation has an 80% unemployment rate and these are all results of laws put in place by the US government, these are not a testament to our abilities as a people. But if you never see anyone succeed, like you said, you gotta see it to be it, it’s really easy to internalize that you’re not worth anything and that you’re not good enough. And I did for the longest time. I’m gonna share a personal story just to kind of show you as indigenous people coming from these sort of communities the sort of path we have to transverse in higher education. So when I graduated from high school I was very fortunate to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship which was full ride wherever I wanted to go. But I didn’t even know I was gonna go to school until I got that scholarship because where I come from it was, you know, get a scholarship or join the military. That’s the only way out. And so, you know, I used that scholarship, I went on and got my Bachelor of Arts in audio arts and acoustics. But at the time when I graduated from high school I remember looking at schools to apply to and I didn’t even fill out an application for an Ivy League school because I didn’t have the test scores.
Like, I didn’t even have the test scores to put my name in the hat. Three years ago I got paid to speak at Harvard University. You know, and that’s showing you that these test scores and these things like that aren’t a testament to our abilities, especially as indigenous people. I think the fact, I often tell young indigenous kids when I speak to them that the fact that we survived genocide, the fact that I’m sitting here on this stage when 99.8% of indigenous people were slaughtered in this country, the fact that I’m sitting here on this stage is a miracle. The fact that I’m sitting here is a testament to our strength, a testament to our brilliance, our intelligence as a people. And so you know, one of the things I try to tell indigenous people, and you guys can take this ’cause you know, you guys are educators, too, don’t let these colonial education systems describe our values because we’re much more than that.
– Yes, let’s applaud that. So I’d like to take this and unpack it further, it’s what we’re gonna do today. We’re talking about disparities, and I’d like us to use the vocabulary and call it by its name because often in museum spaces we are uncomfortable with white supremacy and with the fact that all our museum system was founded by white supremacy. And it continues to perpetuate white supremacy. So I just want us to say the word that we’re talking about. But to unpack that further, in what ways do museums continue to perpetuate educational disparity? And what tools do we need to start moving in a path away from that?
– How long do we have? So I’ll just be brief. When I first moved to Chicago, and again I gave you guys where the Field’s at now but the first time I went in to the Field I felt sick, I felt sick. Seeing things that I know were stolen, seeing things that I know were stolen through blood, through genocide, and objects that we still use. Objects we still use, things that a family should own this, this is someone’s great, great grandparents’ like spiritual tool that they use to pray and to see that just put on display and to see it also portrayed just like I said, symbolic annihilation, a people of the past. I didn’t see anything in the Field the first time I went in there that portrayed us past probably 1840 at all. You know, and people from all over the world visit the Field and so I felt sick for that reason.
Seeing objects that I hold with the utmost respect put on display. Imagine, you know, imagine everyone you know and love were slaughtered and murdered and then everything that you held sacred was stolen and put on display by the people that murdered everyone you loved. How would that make you feel? How would that make you feel? That’s what I felt like in that museum. And I did an interview about it, it’s on YouTube, and it ended up getting a bunch of views and I think it’s part of the reason why I’m sitting on this stage, maybe. But you know, that is one way I see them portraying us as a people of the past and I’ll fast forward to now, that same exhibit, that same space in the Field. Because they’ve been working on it, they’ve got indigenous people working on their staff now and they’re collaborating with indigenous artists, contemporary indigenous artists.
They now fill that space with contemporary exhibits of indigenous artists. And like I said, if you do that, indigenous artists, we carry our past and our present and our future in our art. It’s our nature. You’re gonna learn about our history just by hearing about our art and consuming our stories and our art. You’re gonna learn about our present, you’re gonna get a look at our future. And so that’s what I talk about, creative solutions. You can work with indigenous artists to decolonize these spaces and to portray us as a people of the present. Because we are a people of the present, we are not a people of the past, you know? You can go up in the Field and see a ribbon shirt, I bet there’s ribbon shirts on display in some of your museums. But I’m sitting here wearing it, you know? So just thinking about that, how you can collaborate with indigenous communities, indigenous people, indigenous artists to decolonize your museum spaces to provide a look at our past, our present, and our future. Because I think you need that whole perspective. But indigenous artists can bring that in our art.
– Thank you Kayleigh for calling it by name, I think words tend to make people uncomfortable. Saying things like white supremacy and racism, by how it makes people feel, you need to interrogate why it makes you feel a type of way. Because although it may make you feel a type of way there’s actual consequences for those who are on the other side of white supremacy. So thank you for that. I think white supremacy also demands that you don’t ask why, or don’t ask the hard question. White supremacy would rather you accept the status quo, accept the way things are, not interrogate where certain artifacts or cultural items come from or how they were obtained and collected. I think students are often suppressed when they’re in school.
The ones that ask questions, the ones that don’t just accept what the teacher says, are labeled as trouble makers. And often times those are the students of color, more often than not. And I think, you know, museums can play a part in helping debunk those myths, really giving students a chance to feel like experts in something is important. And I come back to this scene of Black Panther where Michael B. Jordan was in the museum and talking to the curator, I know I showed the line that said how did you ancestors get these, but I’m thinking before that when he said, “I hear you’re the expert.” A white woman who’s over these exhibits or items from African nations and it was kind of sarcastic but it kind of resonated because, you know, how can you be an expert in something that I live every single day, or have a actual ancestral connection to? And I think being comfortable with this idea that we are all experts in our lived experience but just because you’ve studied something doesn’t make you an expert if you haven’t lived it or walked in these shoes. And so I think creating spaces where students feel like experts in their lived experience. I know I was never asked what would I make a museum out of when I was, you know, five or six. It would’ve been Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers or something but you know, kids need and students need a chance to feel like they own something, that they’re an expert in something and really being mindful to how you cocreate that space with the people around in the community that the museum seeks to uplift or help, I think is really important. So having meaningful relationships with the people that the museum hopes to reflect I think is really powerful.
– So one of the things that we’re talking about a lot in this is systems of value. Because white supremacy culture is really closely tied with capitalism and it’s something that Kayleigh and I were talking a lot about as we were preparing for this discussion, is it feels to us, and I’d like to get your perspectives on this, that we are reaching something of a crisis or a boiling point in the value of education in a capitalist society. Only last year we had a shift in the balance where for the first time public colleges and education, public colleges and universities are receiving more of their funding from tuition than from government funding. You know, we’re seeing a shift in the relationship of education as sort of public good and more towards something that’s commodified. If we’re talking, then, about value, if we’re talking about capitalism, if we’re talking about these things in relationship to education, are we at a point of crisis? And, you know, how does that then effect museums and people working in museums, but how does that also effect students and people who are learning today?
– When are we not at a point of crisis? But seriously, I think capitalism and the way education’s been privatized over time is really powerful. You look at the charter school movement and you see corporate entities sort of buying in to classrooms and classroom experiences. You can’t take two steps on a college campus and not be influenced or see how corporate America has manifested itself at our universities. Organizations are buying up space on campuses and hoping to train their future, you know, classes and cohorts of employees. And I think students get bogged down with this idea that I need to go to school to get a job. And that is the sole function or my purpose of being in the classroom. Now that is a small part, right, like you don’t want to go to school and not have any options or things to do next but I think when it’s paused at you go to school for the sole purpose of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a fill in the blank, right, I think we do the sort of moral things that kind of come from being a student. A student in a diverse community, a student in an inclusive community, we do that a disservice. And I think museums can play a role in humanizing education, humanizing those in between spaces that happen between your final exams and you having a nervous breakdown. You can ground students in a way that reminds them that there’s more to life than figuring out where your next paycheck is coming from. Although that is valuable, although that is a necessary part of what it means to exist in a capitalist society. We need to be reminded that that’s not the only thing. And I feel that way when I walked in certain spaces, museums, but students need to know that. And that could come from this community.
– Well I often think, you look at the history of this country and I mean, it’s glaring. Indigenous genocide has always been a money making business for this country. Like you know, we’re all sitting on this land and I often think, where’s our rent check? For hundreds and hundreds of years, you know? It’s pretty lucrative to build a country off of stolen land and free labor, you know? And so everything in this country stems from that and is rooted in that sort of capitalism. And you know, also to that degree, in regards to things like universities, a few years back I performed at Northwestern University in Evanston, you know, just north of Chicago. One of the best universities in the country. And I didn’t know this until I performed there but I spoke on it, that university was founded by a man who okayed the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. Which massacred hundreds of innocent indigenous people. He was the governor and that’s how he rose up and got his wealth and got his fame in this country was slaughtering natives, and then he founded Northwestern University. So you know, we’re dealing with those sorts of histories too so I think it’s important we unpack that. But speaking on capitalism in education, it’s a huge gate keeping wall for indigenous people. Like I said, where I come from you don’t go to college unless you get a scholarship and it’s still pretty much that way, but I think where museums fit in to that, for just not even indigenous people, is becoming a great source of education for anyone who can’t pay money to get in to these privileged universities and spaces that you’ve got to now shell out all this money to get in to and if you’re like me you’re getting in to these classrooms and sometimes you’ve gotta teach the class.
After you’ve paid and worked your whole life to get in to these spaces. And so you know, what I like about museums is you guys have the ability to collaborate and create these, like I keep saying, this creative future. When I was at the Field on Friday and we were speaking about the Chicago Powwow, one of the things we were saying like, imagine two days of a powwow here on the Field campus in downtown Chicago, how much people from around the world will learn about us as indigenous people. Just from those two days of giving us that space and allowing us to curate that space and educate people on our own terms. As opposed to trying to get in to university spaces and get in to these other places of education where there’s these huge walls built to keep us out. And a lot of it is rooted in capitalism and indigenous genocide. But I think museums kind of are sitting in a cool place where you guys can, like I said, provide some balance. But it all comes down to individuals and you know, where your mind is at and who you choose to collaborate with.
– So I’d like us to interrogate this idea of a values crisis a little further. I think we would be remiss not to recognize the Arizona and recent teacher strikes across the country. Are we headed to a boiling point in considering this really unbalanced value system in education?
– That’s me? Alright, yes, in short, but I think it’s interesting, right, you look at what students are expected to accomplish in a given academic year, in a given course of study, and very seldom do you see words like empathy or diversity or inclusion or these things that we hope, that we expect students to learn but don’t really teach. And I don’t have the answers on how to teach empathy, right, but you can create moments where empathy evolves and happens and unfolds. I think museums, again, can play a role in creating empathetic moments in a child’s development.
‘Cause moving through a museum, I remember my first time, Lauren and I, our first trip to the Holocaust museum. Although neither of us is white nor Jewish, that was a very resonant experience just given the fact that you see so much death all around you. And it’s something that you can relate to from stories from your own past, from your own parents, from your own grandparents. And I think until we’re able to create spaces where we can walk in someone else’s shoes, not appropriate those shoes, but definitely communicate the aftermath of something, I think, is a powerful way to create empathetic moments and create values that might not necessarily happen in the classroom. But just because it doesn’t happen in the classroom doesn’t mean education isn’t happening. Education transcends time and space. Students need to be reminded that you don’t just learn in a classroom setting.
– I’ll say, I agree with Donovan, you know, we’re definitely at a boiling point. And for indigenous people whether it’s education, healthcare, spirituality, it seems like we’ve been at a boiling point since colonial contact and we’re just trying to regather ourselves. But you know, I’m thinking about value and who subscribes to value. I want to, I keep coming back to the Field but like I said, I see great changes happening there. My auntie, the native woman who I said is now the community engagement coordinator, she’s not educated in this field, she’s an artist and she worked for Chicago’s Title Seven program before that. She’s working with kids in the school system. And so it was a really big deal that they let her have that job but she had to volunteer for I think a year, year and a half, there before they gave her that position. And when we were sitting there talking about the things that got planned, you know, them allowing us to visit collections and see our ancestors and you know, providing some reciprocation and talking about the Chicago Powwow. Me, you know, I think some of the people at that day might be here in the crowd. We were talking about how I’m gonna speak here on Tuesday.
I highlighted how neither me nor my auntie were educated in this field at all. And we started talking about gate keeping and how our knowledge is devalued as indigenous people. And that becomes a gate keeping tactic to keep us out of these fields so that things stay the way they are. So that colonialism keeps going because the system is built on colonialism, so if you don’t stop it it’s gonna keep perpetuating colonials without even thinking about it because that’s how the system is built. And so we joked but it was a pretty good point. We talked about, you need to decolonize that job description. If you’re going to be working with indigenous people you need to meet us halfway and understand that we may not have those degrees, we may not have that PhD but we know our culture, we know our people, we know our communities and if you want to make change you need to meet us halfway and maybe decolonize that job description, decolonize that volunteer description, whatever you’ve gotta do, but that’s up to you guys.
– That was definitely dope, bro, that resonated with me. And thinking about decolonizing job descriptions, like we put a lot of value on a four year college degree. Right, like students, you know, when I’m working with students, I do a lot of college access work and so when working with students they’re all, you know, beholden to this idea that I gotta go to a four year college or university. And while amazing and great and awesome, right, that’s not the only way. And I think we don’t put enough value on community colleges or two year degrees or trade schools, spaces where students can really feel empowered.
– [Kayleigh] A lived experience.
– Yeah, we have to check ourselves in making sure that we’re not being elitist in talking about, you know, or privileging a student that goes to a four year collge versus a two year college and what does that mean and what does that look like for museums to play a role in elevating those voices as well.
– We only have a couple of minutes left and so I’m going to take us to an envisioning space. But before I do, there’s one thing I want to say. Frank, I thought it was very interesting just now when you were talking about gate keeping that you still mentioned being allowed to see the objects that were your people’s objects. And I think that’s a very interesting idea that we still have this sense of gate keeping even within those community spaces. In an ideal world, thinking about what museums could be for each of you and how they might play a role in your life in a really positive way, I mean Frank you’ve been talking about what the Field is starting to do and how your experience is starting to shift, where would you like to see museums? What would an ideal museum experience be for each of you? And that’s both as educators but also as humans and as people and as thinking about what the institutions that we’re all in, what could be a really positive experience for you each going in.
– I’ll go first and I’ll be brief. Again, it’s hard for me to imagine but I’m gonna take bits and pieces from good experiences I’ve had at different museums. And for me it would definitely have to be spaces about, you know, regionally specific, too. Be spaceially aware of where your museums are at. If you’re in the Northwest, don’t do an exhibit about Plains people, do an exhibit the people where you’re from, you know? And you can include an exhibit about the Plains people but definitely educate about the land you’re on and the people whose land you’re living on. Let indigenous people help you curate the space. ‘Cause when we walk in to a space we can tell, you know, I can tell. One thing that I seen happen in Minneapolis, there’s this museum curator named Joe Horsecapture, he’s a native guy, and what he did with the space was instead of organizing it chronologically, which is kind of really colonial, a really settler way, he organized it by region.
So you got to see past art and contemporary art and see how it shifted and changed, rather than looking at us as a static people of the past. And for me that was a really cool way of reframing our art. And I would say, you know, collaborate with indigenous artists as much as you can, contemporary ones, because we’re all talking about that history that people are hungry to learn. We’re all talking about the present they need to know about, and we’re all imagining that future that we all need to start thinking about. So collaborate with indigenous artists as much as you can and reach out to indigenous people who are connected to community because our indigenous communities are about kinship ties. It’s not about degrees, it’s not about all these colonial ways of describing value. It’s about your family and who you know and what is your relationship to them. So I encourage you all to collaborate more with indigenous people and indigenous artists.