Challenge What You Learn, Challenge What You Teach

By Talon Ducheneaux

I remember being in third grade at a Nebraska school where I was probably one of two children of color, let alone children who were Native. I hated school at that point. I was bullied and outcasted quite often by the entire class, and I remember praying to Creator nearly every day for either an early-dismissal or a reason for me to leave early. This day was no different.

I wasn’t a troublemaker in the least, and it’s not like I didn’t pay attention. I did my work and always finished early so I could scribble in my notebook and dream about being somewhere else. But as I droned through a lecture my teacher was giving, I heard something that made my ears stand higher than they ever had before, “Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.”

I got excited, because every day my teacher would write math problems on the board and would almost always make a mistake. This was to see if a student would correct her and she’d say, “See, class! Eric is paying attention!” This was finally my chance!

I raised my hand, and even though I was nervous, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is the moment where I stop being the weird kid, here!” She called on me, “Yes, Talon?”

“Teacher, but weren’t the Native Americans here first?”

But, I didn’t get that pat on the back platitude from the teacher. Instead, I got weird looks from the other students, and a stuttering teacher who just lost her lesson plan for the day. “Uh… uh… yes! Talon is right, Native Americans were here first, but then Columbus said-”

It went on. Even as my family moved back to the reservation, I never really got an education on my own identity’s history. And that’s the sad part, that my people’s history has been normalized into being regarded as being just our history. Not the primary history that fostered a Nation, which never seemed to quench its thirst for power with the killing and injustices brought upon so many. Not the even the secondary history that fueled a Nation, the same history which explains so much historical trauma and issues of various capacities around the Nation today.

I hope that with some of what I say today, I can convince those of you in attendance, that whatever sepia-toned pictures are being normalized in educating others on Indigeneity SURELY exists in the HD 1080p world of today. I promise you, that whatever wrongs that there were for us to apathetically cry about as a Nation from history, are still here today.

But let’s jump back to my education. It was finally one day in a 7th grade class that I was introduced to the film “Incident at Oglala”. For those of you who don’t know, this documentary basically uncovers the innocence of the still incarcerated Leonard Peltier. You can go and watch it for yourself, but it’s safe to summarize that in the eyes of this Nation, the morale is still insured to ensure that Indigenous peoples forever get the least popular, least reported, and least cared about horrific injustices presented to date. In some way, shape, or form the savage that no longer exists becomes the widely accepted belief of any non-Native who treats any Native they meet for the first time like an ancient relic that can talk.

As I grew older, I became more and more attracted to Indigenous Hip Hop. I looked up to people like NightShield of the Rosebud tribe back in South Dakota like he was a God. For me, seeing people like him, Maniac (who was from my reservation), and other Native peoples performing in that medium made me feel like I had place in this world. I hadn’t felt that comforted as a kid until then. For the really dark times in my life as an adolescent, dealing with my parents’ divorce and then spiral into alcoholism and addiction, I was able to combat the depression and neglect I felt with the sympathies presented by these artists. Artists who would actually say things that I knew. You see, someone like Tupac Shakur will always be my top rapper who I’ve studied and looked up to, but with these artists back home, I didn’t have to translate a single thing to fit the lifestyle on the reservations I grew up on. Many of their words were my reality and the reality around me.

The unfortunate thing about getting to this part in the story, is that EDUCATION OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES IS SO PROBLEMATIC THAT IN MY SAYING THESE THINGS THERE IS A FEAR OF PRODUCING FURTHER POVERTY PORN FOR PEOPLE TO GENERALIZE NATIVE PEOPLE. But, as I tell you this, I hope you understand that there is so much good about where I come from, it would just be an injustice to not tell you some of the unjustifiable struggles that so many youth have to persevere through while growing up where I grew up.

When I turned 23, me and my dad were joking around on the phone, saying, “You’re over the hump, now!” Because the expectancy of life was so low. I would grow up hearing about a young kid eating ketchup sandwiches because his mom was on a binge again and that was all he knew to make. I would grow up watching some of my friends and family die early and young, with the non-dramatic thought of “who’s next” and “will it be me?”.

As I grew up, I became so fond of that idea of becoming a recording artist. A rapper. But it seemed impossible. Never would I have that money or resource. Until one day, I heard my cousin Zane Azure on a CD that my mom and aunties gossiped about. They were gasping about it! “Oh, he said this and he said that!” and my excitement grew. I listened to the CD he had made and there was this part that always stuck out to me. In one song, Zane is rapping, and he suddenly says, “fuck it, I’m done.” the beat stops… and he comes back in saying, “Nah, I’m 51!” and the beat comes back in. It was so low quality, but I loved every bit of it. It looked legit in my eyes.

You see, 51 was the jersey number of a relative and friend of my older cousins. They would tell me stories about him. He wanted to be a teacher. He was a good ballplayer. He was a cool guy. I never got to meet him, as he died in a car accident. By saying 51, you not only remembered him, but you remembered all of those we lost too fast and that we were now living for them too. These were the older cousins who helped raise me and treated me right from wrong. They encouraged me to do good in school and everything. They had my back. When I say 51, it’s also a thank you to Emilio for his memory and in the cousins who called him friend that taught me how to be what I am today.

I approached Zane one day back when I was in 8th grade. I told him that I wanted to rap too, and as we bummed it through the streets of Rapid City with little to no money he’d do anything he could to try to get us recorded together. He’d rewire headphones and plug them into the microphone jack of his mom’s computer. Nothing worked, but he implanted this idea in my head that no matter what I needed to try and work at it. He taught me resilience.

By 9th grade I was elsewhere, going to a high school at Saint Francis that I found out had a gifted and talented room. In this room, they said they’d let kids like me record if we wanted to. I got up in there, and I was lucky enough to get access to start recording. I wrote things as quickly as I could every day and plastered them onto whatever beat I could find or try to make. Soon, I had my first collaborative mix-tape of about 16 songs. At this point, it meant everything to me that I go and show Zane that I took his motivation he instilled in me and made it something. I finally recorded.

Then I got a phone call. It was my little brother. He was sniffling. I learned that night that I would not be able to show Zane any music that I had made. He died in a car accident.

It was at this time that I turned to hip hop the most. And rappers like Asharri The Vagabond wordsmithed songs that not only kept me sane and emotionally stable, but educated me. From these songs I learned the trials of the American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, concepts like genocide in the present time, sources of depression and suicide, anything negative brought by colonial assimilation from invaders and settlers. Because that’s part of what history books and colonial teaching fails at, is making the past tangible with the present. We pretend as a Nation that whatever happened 50 years ago is null and void of direct effect to today’s issues and problems, tensions.

It was great, and I still love and respect those people in media today exposing truths in their art, but therein lies a problem. You see, it’s a strange and painful feeling to have a truth of the world that directly involves injustice and later suffering of your family and those you love, be treated with the same sentiment as the statement of, “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”. It’s an evil feeling, that anyone – on or off reservation – who speaks these truths, be treated like paranoid embellishers imagining extremes of what never was.

The state of non-extensive, rushed miseducation of Indigenous peoples as it is today (especially as it only seems to occur one month out of the year at MOST), is thusly one that nurtures dehumanization, which then results in the country’s mass neglect that we see today. EVEN WHEN the consequences at hand will affect the rest of the country and world as well.

Which brings me to probably the most prevalent example today: the Dakota Access Pipeline. For those who don’t know, the DAPL is a black snake made of oil which is set to run from the top of North Dakota, on through South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, at which point it will then be met up with other pipelines. Not only does this pipeline endanger and destroy tribal lands and clearly distinguished sacred burial sites, it has great potential to also endanger multiple water sources and rivers as well. It breaks treaty rights, which is essentially also breaking federal law, and yet mass media and the news has yet to take it seriously. Even though it is things like these that endanger the Earth as a whole, not just the land Indigenous people live off of, contrary to popular belief.

If you take a look at an earlier piece shot by Amy Goodman and Democracy Now, you’ll see an instance where men, women, and children who are peacefully protesting the pipeline and praying – protecting Grandmother Earth – Unci Maka, met with independently hired security from DAPL sic-ing what appears to be untrained dogs on the crowd with leashes that are meant to incite violence from the dogs (a form of abuse, quite frankly), and shotgun sprays of mace towards crowds that include elders and children. I was put to tears and helpless anger as I saw in that piece dogs dripping with blood still being pushed into other crowds.

Some ignorantly say, “Well, why did we have our kids and elders there in the first place?” To a peaceful protest, where prayer is observed. Which I then again must reiterate the state of lunacy and historically repeated victim blame that this country has so nestled itself in. Remember Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance – where men, women, children, elders, were mass shot by the United States Cavalry in one of the largest massacres ever. Remember Sand Creek massacre, again a time of peaceful prayer and survival. In all these instances, do we continue to say, “Oh, the kids shouldn’t have been there?” Or do we rather question the violence incited by those who hold the triggers, those who hold the dogs, those who spray the mace? Do we continue to victim blame? Do we just continue to unleash the riled up pitbulls and k-9s and say “Welp, they shouldn’t have been here anyway”?

In that crowd of people held my cousin Tasina Sapa Win, someone who has supported me and my music since the beginning (se even made me my first graphic so long ago). In an interview on Youtube you can see her talk of all that she has sacrificed to be at the camp and fight for water and civil rights, and you can also see the bite mark she has on her chest, one that teeth broke skin. She’s a mother.

As I watched that same Democracy Now vid, while I felt the pain and anger rise up in me, I broke into a proud and worried tear as I saw my other cousin Talon Voice with other riders from Bad Nation – after the bulldozers had been chased away for the day. I’ve known him since he was young. And I’m proud of him and proud to call him my cousin, but that same pride is met with worry.

Just this week and weeks previous, you can see now the National Guard and police officers in riot suits, assault rifles, huge vehicles, come to “protect” the pipeline workers. With terrorist threats, you can see clear video and pictures of police officers loading shotguns in front of the faces of elders and children who have only come to pray. The bloody dogs now seem so far away that it seems to be forgotten what lawsuits can be filed against them. And yet, one of the young men, Mason Redwing – a protector on horseback along with my other cousins, has had a warrant with two felonies issued for his arrest. For terrorizing with his horse and causing what they call “reckless endangerment”? So what of the dogs?

I encourage you all to go and search for yourself, the disgusting threat that is the Dakota Access Pipeline. See the federal laws it breaks. See the threat that it poses. And see people literally giving up their livelihoods to protect this Earth and ultimately ALL OF US.

It’s clear that, with the lack of proper education of Indigenous peoples, apathy overwhelms those of us sharing relentlessly on social media, since appointed media seems to not care so much. Videos showing everything and exposing so much radical injustice are met with “Oh, my prayers. Let me know if there is anything I can do.” – a rather tokenizing comment, and one that attempts to transfer responsibility onto Indigenous peoples. Just like the old stereotypical commercial of the Indian shedding a single tear from seeing trash on the ground, it is oddly our appointment and responsibility to fight big oil ourselves. Those of us who cannot go due to funds and responsibilities of our own, ironically feel guilt amongst seas of people around us who have the means, but who limit themselves with the excuse of “I just don’t know if it’s my place. I don’t know that much about Natives.”

Imagine how far we would be as a country if the future generations, Native and non-Native, were properly educated with the real history of America. Imagine, if the intelligences of youth were not offended by the contradiction of “Nazi Germany is okay to show explicitly, but not our own mass graves and massacres”. Imagine the compassion and sympathy that would be so much more prevalent, if lessons about Indigenous people didn’t just occur during Fuck Columbus day and Thanksgiving? If it didn’t just cover the “Great Sioux Nation” and “Navajo” people, because information on those two nations are somehow the easiest for non-Natives to find?

With this, I invite you all to search everything. Look for hip hop videos, pop videos, pow wow videos, comedy videos, live videos from the camps going on as we speak. Grasp anything you can get your hands on. But with this, I invite you to question everything not only for yourselves, but to invite your students to do the same.

During my freshmen year of college, I took a seminar called “Sociology of Religion”. In it, I probably received the longest readings I’ve ever had to do before. The seminar was one 3 hour class per week, where we would talk about what we had just read. And it seemed like nobody could get a word in for the first few weeks except for the professor, and it was never rants on how the reading was correct. Then one week, he presented us with a reading by Sigmund Freud. Of course, that scholar having the reputation he has, we all read it, and as we went through class our professor was going in on him! “He was a coke-head, and he was wrong,” etc. etc. etc.

Then my professor stopped and said, “And I bet you’re all wondering why I’ve been giving you these incredibly long readings just for you to hear me bash it for 3 hours…. It’s because you have to question everything. It is essential to question who is teaching you, what they are teaching you, where what they are teaching you has come from. If we do not challenge education as we go along, there is no growth. There is no real learning or progression. There are no new theories without question.”

With that, I invite you to teach your students early, something that I hold to be the best thing I learned in college, and in life. Question everything. Don’t settle for what the text books tell you about Indigenous peoples. Move beyond it. Maybe when this occurs, we as humans won’t be held to such an apathetic standard due to our collective ignorances of the basics.