Imagine being 5 years old and taken from the arms of family to live in a boarding school far away, and forced to learn a new language and way of life entirely different than that of your ancestors.
How does a child maintain a sense of cultural value in the face of such oppression?
What role do cultural values play in developing resilience?
Sixth-graders in Maeta Kaplan’s language arts class at C.S Porter Middle School tackled these big issues Wednesday with the help of Dorothea Susag, a presenter with the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau Program “Introducing Native American Literature.”
So riveting was the 90-minute morning session filled with poetry, video clips, drawing, reading and discussion, not one of the students asked for a break.
“The children were all, every single one of them, exceptionally engaged and taking in what we were doing today,” said Susag, a retired Fairfield educator, and author of “Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature Themes, Lessons and Bibliographies.”
The students watched a boarding school clip from the documentary video “Taken From My Home,” and then were asked: What disturbed, interested, confused and enlightened you?
Heads bent in concentration; the only sound in the room of young thinkers intensely at work was the tapping of pencils on paper.
When it came time to share, thoughts were expressed in rapid fire.
“It disturbed me that children would be taken from their families,” said Hannah Silva.
“It is interesting to me that the police would hide and snatch the children. I never heard of people doing that,” said Kole Lugidihl.
“It disturbed me that kids were taken at a very young age,” said Arica Fuss.
And so the discussion went, with Susag chiming in to explain the history of Native American tribes has not been fully told – and that it is important to learn that history.
“Not too long ago, I was in a high school in Montana working with educators who had never heard about Indian boarding schools,” Susag said, “and there were teachers who didn’t know.
“What we don’t know about each other is part of the oppression of the people who are oppressed.”
Listening intently, the students heard several poems read aloud, all written by Native authors, including Joy Harjo’s “Remember,” Jennifer Greene’s “I Take My Home” and Lois Red Elk’s “Our Blood Remembers.”
Soleil Bryant said the morning’s lessons gave her a lot to think about.
The poetry readings, the 12-year-old said, were memorable.
As she bundled up her books to get to her next class, Bryant said: “I’m going to be thinking about how we can make a change to bring back Indian culture.”
“The poems were a really powerful way to learn about Native American people,” said Sam Bucy, 12. “What I will remember from this is that Native American culture is really important and it is not good that it was taken away.”
After praising the thoughtful and diligent students, Susag said she was thrilled by the experience.
Although the lesson plan was specifically about Native American history in Montana, the themes are universal.
“Every one of our children has experienced some level of oppression,” Susag said. “We want our children to be survivors, and they survive best when they keep in mind the community that brought them to where they are.”
Kaplan said the class is just beginning studies on Asian literature and will continue to ponder the same questions of culture, oppression and resilience as they move forward.
“Culture is a pretty abstract concept for sixth-graders,” Kaplan said. “But they are getting it, and special programs like today deepen their thinking and help make connections in new ways.”