Written by Heather Watts
“The single story creates stereotypes…They make one story become the only story”. When I heard these powerful words spoken by renowned author Chimamanda Adichie, it brought me back to a day in my twelfth grade Canadian Politics class. It seemed as if it was just another day. The same students. The same teacher. The same posters celebrating the “cultural mosaic” that is Canada lining the walls. But something would happen during these seventy-five minutes that would change the way I saw myself, forever.
Throughout my elementary school years, I attended five different schools in cities throughout Canada and the United States. In each of those settings, I knew what it felt like to be a minority. There aren’t many Indigenous kids attending school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in the suburbs of various Canadian cities. My parents worked their hardest to provide me with every opportunity possible so that I would not feel the disadvantages of being a minority. What I learned on that day in twelfth grade is that being a minority doesn’t simply mean you are disadvantaged. Being a minority means you have a responsibility. A responsibility to your culture; a responsibility to your people.
I was challenged that day. All of the piano lessons, modeling classes, and basketball practices, that made me feel on a level-playing field with my fellow students who were white didn’t matter. That day, the fact that I was elected to student council didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I was a straight-A student. That day, I was seen as less. As the “other”. As inferior. That day, my classmates shifted their pronouns from “We” and “Us” to “You” and “They”. When tensions run high because your reservation is involved in a land claim issue that has turned violent, your credentials don’t matter. You’re just another “Indian”.
Recently, I attended a workshop on diversity, and engaged in a TED Talk featuring Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie. In her TED Talk, Adichie recalls her elementary school days in Nigeria. She candidly describes her memories of reading book after book filled with solely white characters. When she began exploring her own voice through writing, she, too, included only white characters in her stories. You see, she had only been provided with a single story of how books were written.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Chimananda Adichie). Growing up on Six Nations Reservation while attending a predominantly white school in a nearby town, I encountered many people who had a single story about Indigenous people; my people. Their single stories varied from the pregnant teen who wouldn’t finish high school, to the drunken Indian, to the Indian family living off of welfare. Are there Indigenous teens who are pregnant? Yes. Are there Indigenous who struggle with alcoholism? Certainly. Are there Indigenous families receiving government assistance? Absolutely. While all of these instances may hold some truth, they are not the complete story of our people. If these single stories were all you knew of our people, you’d be ill-informed of a beautiful, resilient culture.
When I graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Arts degree, I held the belief that teachers with similar educational backgrounds as I, serving the same population as I, would hold the same beliefs about the importance of teaching diverse perspectives in this country. I was very wrong. I vividly recall a conversation where a teacher remarked, “Can you imagine if we had a White History Month?” (in response to a Black History Month assembly that occurred earlier that day). I was flabbergasted. Working at a school where 95% of our students are African American, and 99% of our students are living in poverty, the need to celebrate such a rich history of people who have contributed so much to this world was in my eyes, essential. It could have been easy, in this moment, to harbor ill feelings toward that educator. It could have been easy to throw my hands in the air and lose faith in the teachers around me. Instead, this prompted to me to pilot a Diversity Working Group at the charter school I was employed at in Upstate New York.
I am reminiscing to one specific event situated in Indigenous Heritage Month, that we called ‘Spirit of the People’. We began our work by asking students to participate in a pre-assessment by drawing or writing what came to mind when they heard “Native American”, “Indigenous” or “American Indian”. Approximately 90% of the pre-assessments revealed a very historic and romanticized knowledge base of Indigenous folx, rooted in Disney movies and depictions of the first Thanksgiving. We saw images of braids, loin cloths, teepees, bows and arrows. The other 10% of pre-assessments were either blank, or had “I don’t know” written on them.
There was much work to be done to begin to combat the stereotypes many of our students believed about Native American people. We opened our Spirit of the People event with a traditional Thanksgiving Address delivered in the Mohawk language. All students engaged in a Native American Dance workshop where they learned about the history of our dances and the significance of certain instruments in music making. The Rochester Knighthawks, a professional lacrosse team, also held a workshop to teach students about lacrosse, also known as “The Creator’s Game”, and its roots in Iroquoian culture. Students also learned about the history of the Iroquois through myths and legends told by traditional storytellers from the Ganondagan Historic Site. Elizabeth Doxtater, a well-known Indigenous artist and author, joined us through video to explain the meaning of the Two-Row Wampum belt. She delivered the Two Row’s teachings of equality and the importance of positive relationships. We ended our incredible day of learning by creating Two-Row Wampum bracelets, symbolizing our commitment to caring for another, and indulging in Native American cuisine.
As we visited classrooms, we noticed a light in our students’ eyes as they shared their favourite moment from the day. “The dancers taught me about why dance is important to their people”, “The wampum belt taught me about peace”, and “Learning about lacrosse makes me want to go to a reservation and play lacrosse with them” were just a few student responses. I still beam with pride as I recall students walking the hallways wearing their bracelets, as a reminder of the commitment they made during Spirit of the People. I still have one of these bracelets tied to the zipper on my backpack as a constant reminder that we can be change agents even if we do not hold a leadership title in a work setting.
I feel that I have a responsibility to my culture; a responsibility to my people. It is my responsibility to ensure there are multiple stories to represent the history and ever-growing modern culture of Indigenous people, in the spaces that I occupy. It is my responsibility to ensure that others seek out these stories, too, and hear them for their depth, complexity, and beauty. When my son begins learning about his ancestors at school, there won’t be a single story. There will be multiple stories. Stories that, when combined, create a more holistic representation of Indigenous people.
Heather Watts (Mohawk & Anishinaabe) is a doctoral student in the Social Justice Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. As a student parent herself, Heather is passionate about reimagining higher education experiences through a lens of equity and inclusion for students with family responsibilities.
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