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Cultivating Understanding and Compassion in Challenging Times

Once again, I have been stunned by all of the recent information that is coming out about Indian Schools, much of it really unthinkable, yet it happened. I have a very difficult time wrapping my head around what happened to so many; the unmarked graves, and lives altered irrevocably and forever. It makes me really sad and quite uncomfortable. It has been kind of swept under the rug in our history.

Not to be negative, but there is also history that has not been taught about Black America, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre, and so very much more. I never even heard of this event until two years ago. Nope, not in history books I was taught from. What also makes me even uncomfortable is the local resistance to any type of Critical Race Theory being taught in the classroom. Just what exactly is so terrifying about truth?

Until just last week, I was pretty ignorant of that phrase, Critical Race Theory (CRT). Please come with me for a moment as I wax political and examine just exactly what that phrase means. According to Scott Hancock, who is associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College, and many other scholars, the basic definition is that it’s a body of thought that tries to understand the extent which race and racism and racial ideologies have shaped the United States. The undeniable fact is that it has. You can try and hide from it but it only grows, we really must face it head on to really make the change that is so necessary.

According to Sharif El-Mekki, the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, CRT ’s “primary aim is really thinking about how law and policy and the ways in which they are not addressing discrimination, inequality, unequal process, economic systems and government policy.”

You can not speak of or teach American history without taking about race. I was not understanding why culturally responsive teaching could become such a hot topic. There seems to be a lot of lack of understanding or misunderstanding around the subject. I did not truly grasp the core of the issue until a friend who is much wiser than I am shared some information.

While it is true we must make changes, stop suppressing the other half of history, stop saying things are fine, because they are not, we also need context before we go off on a tangent, as I am apt to do around this subject.

I’ve been a bit ignorant of the facts. Clarity is important so we can truly understand and not spread misinformation or foster attitudes that spring from it. Lack of clarity is dangerous because then we are misinformed and may operate from a place of ignorance and fear. Let’s shed some light.

We have a definition of CRT, now let’s look at why it isn’t taught in our schools. An awesome article from the Montrose school district superintendent, Dr. Carrie Stephenson, helped me to grasp what has been a difficult concept for me. Teachers follow standards that have been adopted by the State that ensure that students have learned what they need to at the end of an academic year. These standards are clearly outlined at the State of Colorado website under CDE Standards - I was enlightened. Topics are approached at a developmental and age appropriate level for students. Dr. Stephenson uses the example that in grades K-12 that electrical engineering is not taught to elementary school children. The basics of electricity, however are taught. CRT, while necessary, is not appropriate for K-12 and there is much inaccurate information circulating as well as great angst.

Hopefully, we can put this issue to rest while bringing these basic concepts into our lives and bind the community together rather than divide it. Let’s join together and be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Alice Charley (Stu Yat) went into hiding for the first 18 years of her life in order to escape boarding schools . She was born in 1909 and lived with two grand aunts in Spearfish which is a small community on the Columbia River. She never enrolled in the tribe as a child. This may have been what saved her from boarding schools. Lacking tribal identification she was able to elude agents as they ruthlessly swept homes and took children to boarding schools, against their wishes and those of their families.

While not “school” educated she was very bright and immersed herself in her culture and language, learning many necessary skills. Learning came easily to her and she enjoyed it. The Columbia River ( “Nch'i-Wana,") was called the “Great River” and its salmon continue to be important in Native American culture in that region. They were skilled fisher people. Their diet was comprised of salmon and steelhead from the river, deer, elk, roots, elderberry, salmonberry and sisal berries. Because of their proximity tot he river they were master navigators of the Columbia and its tributaries. They used long, carved cedar canoes as their main form of transportation.

“My mother was a weaver and a bead worker and she was very proficient with taking care of salmon in every way,” says daughter Vivian Harrison. “By that I mean cleaning it, cutting it, drying it and preparing it.”

Charley herself was known for her exceptional beadwork, weaving and comprehensive knowledge of Columbia River Cultures, speaking five indigenous languages.

Hazel Pete (Tsi-Stah-Ble) was born in 1914. She was a member of the Chelais tribe and lived on Chehalis Indian Reservation in Grays Harbor County in the State of Washington. Her love of learning was evident at a very young age. At four years of age, even though she could not attend, she would follow her siblings to the school three miles from her home.

She was very young when she heard drumming and chanting as the war canoe landed near her home in Tulalip Bay. In the 1920’s many children were taken to be enrolled in boarding schools. This system of boarding schools, was meant to help improve the life chances of Pete and those like her by introducing the mainstream lifestyle, it also resulted in a systematic dismantling of their ancestral traditions.The cry went up from them all that day, pleading with the crew of the canoe and her family, “don’t let me go!” But those pleas were unheeded. On the day the canoe landed on the shore by her home 40 Makah children were taken. They cut their hair, dressed them in white clothing and punished them brutally for speaking their own language.

Later in her life Hazel said that “Learning was always at the door open to me. I did not know that Indians were assumed to be shy, dumb and dropouts. Fir a good student, the door was always open for a great opportunity.” This was a much different outlook and perspective than many of the students who were ripped unceremoniously from their homes and forced into boarding schools and an entirely different way of life. Boarding schools stripped them of their names and their culture. Hazel managed to find a way to exist and actually thrive. Her’s is a much happier story.

She finished her high school in 1932 and went on to become a nurse. She married and raised 13 children. Her excitement and dedication to education never waned. When her children were out of the home she attended several art programs at the Santa Fe Indian School. Hazel was also proficient in beading and leatherwork. She revived the Native basket weaving of her tribe. Her art has received major national acclaim and her work is in several major galleries.

In 1974, she earned a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and in 1978 she earned a Master of Arts in Native American Studies from the University of Washington. She was in her sixties.

In 1970 she received the prestigious Governor’s Heritage Award, bestowed by Governor Gary Locke.

The State of Washington and the Washington Historical Society both have much more information about these two women as well as many more Indigenous women/people.


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