Guest Post by Kim Shuck
I raised three mixed race Cherokee/Polish kids in San Francisco; I didn’t steal the children, they were my own. As much as I love and respect teachers in this beautiful and variegated city I have to say that certain times of the year repeatedly snuck up on me leaving behind a haze of frustration.
There is a time of year that I like to call the Silly Season. The beginning of the Silly Season is marked by what I call Lost Italian Day on October 12th and continues until Gluttony Day in the last week of November. It is a time marked by images of chubby little scantily clad brown people wearing a feather, a headband and braids. Some of the little brown people wear more clothing, some have more feathers, hair length can vary. When I was a child and this season would roll around I would frown and compare these little folk to my father, sometimes at the dinner table. I would compare them to my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, cousins… other people I’d met who I knew to be like us. I knew that Cherokee fell within the category ‘Indian’ and I had been told that these little brown folk were meant to represent us, but I could never quite see it. As a child I would comment or not, if I did I was often told that I wasn’t ‘really’ Indian… this is technically true but I am Cherokee and we are often called ‘Indian’. My dad worked in telecommunications when I was a child and never wore feathers to work. In my memory he either wore his Navy Uniform or a business suit. I think that my fug of confusion started in my own school days.
My children were taught some of the same material I was: in 1492, met on the beach, brought medicine, ownership of property, rational thought and linked the hemispheres of the globe and now we all must applaud. I imagine this meeting in a very different way, a way that describes men who’d been eating bug infested hardtack, were somewhat chewed by insects themselves, likely suffering malnutrition and, oh yes, very very lost. Once a year each child would bounce cheerfully up to where I was waiting, carrying a hand made Spanish flag, some requisite little brown cutouts and more than once a small construction paper ‘ship’ with the word ‘Nina’ printed carefully towards the prow.
I am not anti-construction paper. I like ships. I never quite figured out why we wound up with so many Ninas but it may be because the father of my children has a name that begins with a D, and they are therefore in the first third of the alphabet. Perhaps more mysterious was the lone Santa Maria holding down the last third of the alphabet on its own. The first year that my oldest met me with his ship held proudly in front of him I can only hope I didn’t actually say what I was thinking; my childhood came rushing back and I have to confess that I was surprised at how upset it made me. Reviews of my parenting skills vary, sometimes dramatically, but rather than have my own breakdown with or without commentary, I took my son home, got out a globe and showed him that India and Watling Island aren’t even close to each other. If I try to take a trip to Japan and end up in France I have failed, even if I find a good bakery and interesting architecture, and I’m unlikely to get a holiday named after me in the process.
At various points I offered the teachers reading material in a range of age appropriate forms. I offered to come speak to classes as a, then, University Lecturer. I offered humor, accurate history and handouts… none were accepted. I never expected anyone to change the history books that they reprint year after year without correction. As I writer I know how tricky it is to change the glossaries and the tables of contents, it’s fiddly work and no one enjoys that part of publishing. I suppose that I did hope for a small window of acknowledgement that there are differing versions of the Columbus story. Once, and sometimes a person must draw a line, one teacher had students construct ‘Native clothing’ out of crumpled paper sacks and enacted what I can only call a red face minstrel show. That year I did complain and write letters and enlist other Indigenous folk to make noise with me, but generally mythology is a stubborn thing and difficult to shift. We don’t have to start with the whole slavery, biohazard, mutilation and dare I say entitlement part of the Columbus myth, but just maybe we could notice the part where he didn’t land in India.
One year, I believe it was my daughter this time, surprised me with another Nina and I know that I said, ‘Not again.’ She wasn’t offended because by this time all three children were well aware of my love/hate relationship with the harvest season: love pumpkins and dressing up, long orange days and apple crumble, not so thrilled with most of the holidays. Another parent at the school heard me and asked me when ‘my people’ would just get over it. You don’t hear this sort of thing very often in San Francisco. I was almost impressed, considered offering that parent a reading list or perhaps a witty quip. I can’t remember what I did offer. Until the schools start teaching this material in a more sensitive way nothing I say can have a useful effect.
We took the ship home and united it with its sister Ninas and the one Santa Maria. We filled the turtle shaped wading pool in the back yard with water and we launched our little flotilla. Gradually the color drained brown into the water as each ship individually sank and then came to pieces. I think that it made us all feel much better. I know that it worked for me.
Guest Contributor Kim Shuck is a poet, weaver, beadwork master artist and fellow traveler. Her ancestors were and are Tsalagi, Sauk and Fox and Polish, for the most part. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in weaving in 1998 from San Francisco State University, her hometown. Her work generally touches on poetry, art, math, storytelling, humor, and whatever else seems useful at the time. AND she publishes RABBIT AND ROSE, an online journal.
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