Teachers and Indians | Feature | Chicago Reader

Teachers and Indians 

Native American children face special problems in the public schools. At Audubon School, on the north side, the Board of Education offers a special solution.

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As the children file into the classroom, Cathy Gannon steps up to one little boy, takes his arm, and leads him to a chair that she has pushed over to face the blackboard. "If you want to be in your own tribe, you can be," she tells him. "But you should know that Harmony's tribe was here long before your people were, and they aren't telling you to go back to where you came from." Harmony, who is Sioux, sits down on the rugs in the middle of the floor with the rest of the third- and fourth-graders. Earlier, she had come crying to Gannon that the boy had told her she didn't belong here at Audubon School and ought to go back to where her tribe lived.

It's early September and the children's first official class of the year in the school's American Indian Program. Gannon sits down on a short stool with the children around her and asks them to tell what they learned the year before. Hands come up slowly as they remember stories they were told and drawings they made. The room is a soft, warm yellow, with animals and geometric Indian designs painted above the chalkboards. Gannon points to the different kinds of Indian homes painted high on one wall and asks the children where each would have been found and what that tells them about the materials that would have been used to build it. Prompted, a few of the children remember.

Gannon picks up a book and prepares to read the children a story. In the room upstairs a gym class is in session; the ceiling shudders and the aluminum slats in the light fixtures quiver. Gannon raises her voice above the pounding as she tells the children the story is about the Buffalo Woman, who was sneered at so long by the people of her husband's tribe that she went back to her parents' home. "There's a very special message in this story about how people are supposed to treat each other," she says. "Do we all look the same?"

Heads shake.

"Aren't we all different?"

Heads nod.

"Should we learn from each other about what each of us knows? Or should we be mean to each other because we're different?"

Heads shake vigorously.

Gannon starts to read, holding the book high so the children can see the pictures. The boy in the chair is still facing the wall, his shoulders hunched. Gannon turns to him. "Would you like to join our tribe now?"

He turns slowly around in his chair, nodding his head.

"Did you apologize to Harmony?"

Harmony shakes her head hard. The boy looks at his knees and softly says, "I'm sorry."

"All right," says Gannon. "You can come sit down."

His eyes on his feet, he walks to the edge of the group and slumps down onto the rug.

The American Indian Program began in December 1988 at Audubon Elementary School, which is on North Hoyne just south of Addison. All 600 or so students at the school--preschoolers through eighth-graders--come through Cathy Gannon's classroom for a weekly 40-minute period to learn about Native American culture. The 70 Indian children enrolled in the school also come to Gannon's room in small groups for two additional periods every week, which are spent on more detailed lessons and sometimes, as Gannon puts it, on "dumping."

Two years ago a small group of Indian parents, who were upset at how badly Indian children were being served by both the public schools and the city's two small federally funded programs for Indian children, began to push for a new program. The dropout rate of Indian children in Chicago in 1987 was, as it probably still is, the highest of any racial or ethnic group tracked--75 percent for boys, 66 percent for girls. At Senn High School, the site of one of the federal programs--Little Big Horn--the dropout rate had been around 100 percent for most of the early 80s. Indian students also had the city's lowest reading and math test scores.

The parents pursued administrators and school-board members, who admitted the system's neglect was shameful and eventually offered to fund a magnet program through the Chicago Public Schools' Department of Equal Educational Opportunity's Options for Knowledge plan. Administrators also helped the parents find Audubon School. The children there were doing relatively well academically, and the principal, Juris Graudins, who has a BA in anthropology, had a major interest in American Indians and was eager to have the program. Last fall Gannon, who is part Sioux, was hired to set it up, and Indian parents around the city were sent fliers encouraging them to transfer their children to Audubon.

The parents hoped that concentrating Indian students in a school where the teachers are known to be good would help the children stay in school later on. But they also knew the children needed more than just a good school, because the reasons for the extraordinary dropout rate were often subtle. Gannon agrees. She blames the high Indian dropout rate in part on the bad schools many of the children go to, but also on families that move often and therefore change schools a lot. She also blames teachers who label the children failures early on, or whose attitudes quietly erode the children's sense that school is a place they belong.

"A lot of parents of these children were in BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] schools--and BIA schools are horrible," she says. Outside the classroom she speaks quickly, sometimes so fast that she drops words. "They have all these messages about 'You can't even eat right. You're not clean enough. You're not this. You're not that. You're here to learn how to be white.' And 'You can't do it, so you might as well forget it.' So if a kid comes home and complains, 'School stinks,' the parent still has that memory. It did."

She says Indian children are often taught to be quiet at home--though she quickly adds that everything varies by tribe--and are therefore quiet in school. "Indian kids tend not to be the ones to volunteer answers, and teachers are always going, 'OK, who knows?' assuming that the one who doesn't raise their hand or open their mouth doesn't know." She also says that Indian children are less likely than other children to ask for help and are often taught at home not to do something until they know how. "No such thing as try. Watch; learn; do. But that 'watch' and 'learn' can take a long time. A lot of the kids won't do things until they can do it right, though usually by the time they end up doing it they are doing it right. But 'puts forth no effort' is something that gets checked on a report card.

"And there's a whole thing about not putting someone else to shame which is real important. And the way to put someone else to shame a lot of times is to say 'I know.' Because when you say 'I know,' you're saying 'You don't."' She pauses. "Even in college I'd sit there knowing answers to things and just never say. I had it written down, on the tip of my tongue, whatever--I just wouldn't say it until someone directly asked me." She laughs. "Unless I was getting real tired of waiting, and then I'd tell somebody else and let them answer. But it's the whole thing of standing up and saying 'Me first.' Because we're taught 'me first' means 'you second,' and who am I to say that I go before any other human being, creature, or plant life on this earth?"

So Gannon became a bridge between the children and their teachers--helping the teachers understand what the children weren't saying, and helping the children understand what the teachers expected of them. But she was also to help the children feel proud of being Indian and to teach them their own tribes' history and culture, something many Indian parents in Chicago can't do because they never knew much about it themselves. That may be one reason parents at their monthly meetings rarely question what Gannon teaches. "Most of the things that they ask me for are like, 'Make sure so-and-so gets their homework done' and 'Can you check on so-and-so?' and 'They're going to be going here this day and there the other day'--that kind of housekeeping stuff."

The program started last year with 30 Indian children; this year it has 70. (There are only an estimated 800 to 1,000 Indian children in Chicago.) Gannon says she's seen a change in the students in just one year. "Most of them aren't truant anymore--the older ones were in their other schools. One eighth-grader last year was late or absent every day at her old school; by the end of the year she graduated with a B average. Most of them are passing. Their skills are a lot better." Last year, she says, most of the students' test scores went up one and a half to two years, though it's hard to know how much of the credit for that is simply due to Audubon's being a better school than some of those the children transferred from.

Last year Gannon had a couple of Indian students who were angry, sullen, and for a long time difficult to handle. Because the program is a magnet program, she has the power to send transfer students back to their neighborhood schools, which she says she wouldn't hesitate to do if she had to. "If there was a child who would not cooperate, who would be jeopardizing the school community or the Indian school population, I would not have qualms about sending them back."

Gannon has become more than just a teacher to many of the Indian children. They catch her hand at recess and often drop by her room, sometimes to complain or ask for help, sometimes for no given reason. One afternoon at the beginning of the class for the older Indian students, Gannon took aside a girl who had been getting into fights. Two of the other girls stared at each other and wondered in whispers how Gannon had known. Gannon's voice boomed across the room. "Everything that happens in this school with an Indian child Miss Gannon knows."

Cathy Gannon, who is 28, grew up on the south side in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. Her father is Irish, her mother Sioux. Her mother's parents moved to Chicago after their daughter was born, having lived for years downstate, where Gannon's grandfather was a steelworker.

Gannon learned her Sioux traditions from her grandmother, but they sometimes conflicted with what she learned at Catholic grammar school. "For me, Great Spirit and God were interchangeable. But some of the things my grandmother would do--if I'd talk about them in school, they weren't accepted, they weren't right. Indians most of the time don't have any problem accepting other religions, their basic truths. But the other, more orderly religions tend to look at what we do as kind of barbaric or paganistic."

Gannon's face is her mother's; her hair, pale blond and falling almost to her knees, is her father's. People have always assumed she is white. When she was young, she became aware that whites were often racist toward her grandmother. "I was really surprised at the prejudice. Not that Indians aren't prejudiced, but obviously in my family we couldn't afford to be. 'That can't be your grandmother. That's the lady who takes care of you.'" She laughs. "She was stopped for her passport coming back from Mexico. 'I don't even speak Spanish.' 'Yeah, sure. Where are your papers?' 'I don't have any.'"

Much of the prejudice that was directed at Gannon came from other Indians. "If I ever decided to throw my tradition aside, the first thing I'd do is dye my hair black," she says jokingly. "I'm not allowed to dye it. But I've been tempted. Because a lot of people--I look just like my mother, and nobody has any problem believing my mother's Indian. But just by the color alone--people can't get past that. It's not as bad as it used to be. Here in the city, when I hear people saying stuff like--whatever it is they say, it upsets me a little bit. But then I've been told since I was little that it's their problem." Gannon still gets subtle hints from a few Indians that her coloring makes her a questionable choice for teacher of the Audubon program.

Gannon, who has been teaching for six years, graduated from Mundelein College with a certificate in bilingual, bicultural elementary education, then took additional classes in Indian education at the Native American Educational Services College on West Peterson. She speaks Spanish fluently, and often uses it in her classes at Audubon, where many of the children are Hispanic. She also speaks a little Sioux, which she learned at religious ceremonies and on trips back to her grandparents' reservation in South Dakota. She taught first on the south side, then for two years on the north side at Inter-American School, which emphasizes the culture and history of peoples of the Americas, including Indians.

In search of better credentials for teaching Indian children, she went in the fall of 1987 to teach at a BIA boarding school on the Navaho reservation in Arizona. She lasted six months. Shortly after she arrived, she says, she realized that someone somewhere was stealing money intended for the school. The 500 children were badly fed and didn't have enough blankets or books. A number of classes were being taught by student teachers on their own. In addition, a dorm aide who had been accused several times of sexually abusing children was not only not suspended, but put on the night shift. Furious, Gannon began calling officials in the BIA, most of whom told her little more than that she had to go through her supervisor. Nothing changed at the school. "The Navaho people who worked there were afraid. They live there, and they have to live there. Me, I'm from Chicago--I can get out of there just as fast as I walked in. A lot of them would get mad at me. 'Urban Indian, causing all this trouble.' A lot of them would just laugh."

Gannon didn't stop. "I kept asking and inquiring and calling and writing and documenting--and no one would answer." She finally wrote Paul Simon, who was then a presidential candidate. He pressured the Department of the Interior, which pressured the BIA. Writing that letter, she says, "wasn't a real popular move. After that my house was broken into a couple of times. They'd go through my desk periodically, looking for things that were documented. Things I sent off at the post office wouldn't go. They started deducting money from my pay for an imaginary loan--a couple hundred dollars at a crack. I resigned. And I'm not going to say that anything would have happened, but anything could have happened." After she left, there was an investigation of the school. A new supervisor was hired, and several people were fired, though Gannon isn't sure they were the ones who should have been.

Gannon moved back to Chicago and later that year was hired to set up the program at Audubon.

Late in September the third- and fourth-graders are sitting on the floor of Gannon's room, listening to a cassette recording of a traditional Indian song and singing along as soon as they know the words. At first only a few sing diffidently, but by the time they've heard the song a couple of times, most are willing to sing loud. The words are not simple, but a week later most of the children still remember them. Gannon hasn't written the words out, because she has found the children learn them faster if they simply listen. Little of the work her students do is written, in part because the Indian tradition is oral, in part because trying to correct papers from 600 students would be absurd.

While Gannon is rewinding the tape, a little girl tells her that her grandfather often goes to the Indian center on Wilson. "Is he Indian?" Gannon asks.

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

The little girl pauses. "Grandpa."

One child, then another, jumps in saying that someone in his family is part Indian too. Later Gannon says lots of kids tell her that. She laughs. "Sometimes I ask them if they know what tribe, and they say, 'I don't know.' I say, 'Is it the wannabes?' They say, 'Yeah. That's it.'"

When they have finished singing three different songs, Gannon slips into the VCR a video she helped make the weekend before of a powwow at the American Indian Center on Wilson. Gannon tells the class that several Audubon students were at the powwow, and that they should say "Yeah, Audubon" whenever they see one.

"There's Harmony!" several shout together.

"Yeah, Audubon," says Gannon.

"Yeah, Audubon!" they cheer when Harmony passes again.

The classroom faces south, and though the shades are drawn to darken the room, sunlight flies in around their sides, making it hard to see. The children push closer to the television screen. Gannon fast-forwards the tape to show a long line of dancers doing a snake dance, coiling tight and then unwinding. "Do you think you could do that dance?" she asks.

"It's easy. It's easy," says Aaron, who's Choctaw and Oneida, raising himself up to his knees.

"Maybe you can teach the other kids," Gannon tells him.

The American Indian Program might have been designed just for the Indian students, but the parents group understood there isn't much point in teaching the Indian students they have a fascinating history and something to offer other cultures if no one else in the school knows it. And there isn't much point in telling the Indian students that the stereotypes about Indians aren't true--which most of them already know--if the other children still believe they are.

Many children come to Audubon with misconceptions about Indians. "A lot of them," says Gannon, "think in order to be Indian you have to be Sioux and you have to live in Arizona--because all the movies were made in Arizona, and you ride horses in the desert." A young child recently told her that Indians don't live in Chicago anymore, something she's heard many times.

Elementary history and social-studies books, including those used at Audubon, often do little to fill in the history of Indians. "It's in a nutshell. 'They were here. We arrived. We had Thanksgiving dinner. The Boston Tea Party.' And then we're gone," says Gannon. This fall a woman tried to sell her an "Oregon Trail" computer program. The woman enthusiastically explained how many skills the children would learn as they overcame obstacles on their way across the country to California. "I looked at her and said, 'Do you have to kill Indians?' And she said, 'As a matter of fact you do. I didn't think about it, but you do.'"

At some schools it's the teachers who perpetuate a negative image of Indians. Gannon says her cousin's just-out-of-college history teacher at a west-suburban high school told her class this September that Indians were barbarians and savages, and that whites had brought them Christianity and civilization. Then she asked the students what European country their families had come from. Gannon's cousin, who is also Sioux, said nothing. "She was just humiliated. Because she knows it's not true, but at the same time she's going to a school with all white kids and maybe two or three Mexicans. She said, 'All the kids in my school think that's true. That's what they think, and that's what they teach.'"

Yet Gannon hopes she's advocating something more than just a corrected version of Indian history and culture in her classroom. "With the little kids, it's just the lessons, and the stories, and the discipline--and their self-esteem is the most important part. And with the bigger kids, that's important, but it's also to get them to look at things and to make them able to look at other cultures without saying 'Different. Ugly.' 'Different. Bad.' You want to get them to say 'Different. Interesting. What can I learn from them?' I'm not teaching them that Indian is best. But if they know how to look at Indian with open eyes, then they can look at Asian, black, anything, knowing that they're going to get something out of it."

So Gannon's lessons often have an underlying theme of respect--her favorite word, she frequently reminds the children. Respect for animals, the environment, each other, the collective group. There are no grades given in the program, though the older students use the program's large library to write reports that will be given to their social-studies or history teachers for credit. "The whole purpose of the program is they're not competing. They're not being judged individually in that room and in that program. It's the whole group. And if they don't want to participate, usually the only punishment is separation and isolation. The reward is to come back."

Teaching an attitude--or anything else--is not easy when classes are short and meet only once a week, when the beginning of each class is lost to tardy children and quieting down, and the end to lining up and quieting down. Those on the outside of the cluster of children on Gannon's floor whisper, push each other, and check their hair in compact mirrors. Gannon punctuates her lessons with "Sit up," and "Shut the mouths," and "Get rid of the gum."

Still, Gannon thinks she sees progress. "Last year when I came to Audubon, it was 'You Indian!' 'You hick!' 'You redneck!' 'You nigger!' 'You spick!'--from fourth grade on up. Constantly. Now it's not so much--in a year I can tell. They learn that at home, but they're unlearning it at school."

At the beginning of class in early October, the third- and fourth-graders are standing in groups, talking and laughing. Their regular classroom teacher, who usually sits in the back of the room, has left to find a girl who never came back to class after recess. They grow louder and louder, and Gannon, who has been talking to one student, suddenly turns around and shouts, "Five, four, three, two, one"--her way of warning them they're about to get in trouble. Some of the children giggle and count along with her. "Miss Gannon knows how to count," she says sternly. "She doesn't need your help. She needs you to sit down and be quiet."

They start the period by singing a traditional morning song they learned the week before, then ask to sing another. Gannon is surprised they remember a song they sang only once before, and winds the cassette to it. "One more song, and then we'll start to learn to dance so you're ready for the powwow." They cheer. She has promised every class they'll have an evening powwow at the school that they can bring their parents to.

After Gannon turns off the tape, she directs the children to form a large circle. With a little pushing and squeezing, they quickly do. Then they stand facing each other self-consciously.

"First I want you to stay in your place and just bend your knees," says Gannon, demonstrating. The children bob gently up and down with her. Then she shows them the basic toe-heel step. Moving slowly around in the circle, they try it for a few minutes. Some of them can't figure it out.

Gannon walks over to the cassette player and turns on a traditional powwow song. A steady, pounding drumbeat and high-pitched chanting fills the room. "If I say you can fancy dance, I want only the children who know how to fancy dance to do it," she says. "But not until I say you can."

The children start moving forward again. Some of them simply walk, others quickly match their toe-heel motions to the rhythm of the drums. One little boy starts flailing his arms about. "Darling, we don't do that," Gannon calls across to him.

Finally she says the children who know how to fancy dance may. Aaron, the only Indian boy in the class, steps into the center of the circle and begins to dance alone, his feet skillfully pounding the floor in a quick cadence. Suddenly he stops, steps back into the circle of his classmates, and starts moving in rhythm with them.

Francine, who is Menominee and Oneida, and Ilia, who is Winnebago, have moved outside the circle. Their knees lift fast as they move in perfect rhythm with the drums. Then Harmony steps out of the larger circle to join them, and the three girls spin elegantly in their own small circle, their heads thrown back laughing, until the music stops.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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