Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where Real Indians Trade

Introductory Bio

Resa Crane Bizzaro is a member and Co-Chair of the CCCC Native American Caucus, and her research focuses on Native American identity. Bizzaro studies the rhetorics of unenrolled Native Americans in this country, focusing on exclusions determined by both U.S. and tribal governments. In particular, her work comments on the loss of rhetorical power and sovereignty indigenous nations in this country face by refusing membership to those people who cannot demonstrate an appropriate blood quantum. Among a variety of research interests, Bizzaro is currently at work on a project that looks at indigenous peoples and their treatment by the established medical profession, more specifically in the field of psychiatry and psychotherapy. In 2008, Bizzaro joined the faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she is a member of the IUP Native American Awareness Council. Bizzaro is also one of the founders of "Blankets for the Elders," a non-profit organization that collects blankets, coats, warm clothing, and heaters for distribution at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Resa's work has appeared in College English, College Composition and Communication, and a number of edited collections.

Blog Entry

Just before we entered the station in central New Mexico, an old building appeared on my left. I moved to the train’s window to get a better look—block walls crumbling, iron bars rusting over empty windows, and letters fading but still decipherable:

Trading Station
Once white with red letters, the walls had collapsed on either side, making many of the letters near the margins illegible. I sat stunned at the scene outside my window. Too late, I reached for my camera, but the train slid past leaving the small station empty. I vowed to be ready on the return trip that afternoon

As I think back on that experience, I am reminded of my own "real Indian" heritage. Although many people mistake me for a descendant of European immigrants, I am a real Indian (Cherokee and Meherrin, to be exact), and it’s unsettling to see reminders in New Mexico of the hardships and accommodations made by my family in Georgia and North Carolina. When I was about ten, I found out that my paternal great grandmother was Cherokee. What I didn’t find out until nearly thirty-five years later—while looking through the Dawes Roll—was that my paternal grandmother (the daughter-in-law) was Cherokee, as well. When I was in college, I was told by a researcher that my mother’s family was most likely Meherrin, a small indigenous nation that had initially been thought to have “washed out” into the dominant population of eastern North Carolina.

Over the years, this knowledge has explained many things to me about my life, and it has brought me closer to those who are more like me. Most often, I feel more comfortable with indigenous peoples, who tend to share the same values I was taught growing up. While my parents may have been ashamed of their ancestry, and made every effort to “pass” as part of the dominant culture, I am not. I claim my heritage because it is my birthright. I feel obligated to speak out for those who are unenrolled but feel tied to these communities whose ways we have learned, albeit unwittingly.

My commitment to my culture and my overt practice of its ways have influenced how I approach life, teaching, and interactions in my communities. I do not separate these areas, for one thing, and I find that my life is like a spiral which incorporates and accommodates all these areas. I share this notion not only with indigenous peoples but also with Rebecca Dingo, who discusses ways in which we are all interconnected.

Alma Villanueva says “diversity is a way of seeing and being in the world,” and it seems to me that I have followed such a path my entire life. My grandparents and parents impressed upon me that I should respect all people, since I can’t always understand what prompts their ways. I was also taught that there is more than one “correct” way to achieve the same end—a lesson that I try to impart to my students, particularly in our use of language.

In the classroom, I make an effort to talk about language use and its consequences. Although I see it as my responsibility to discuss Standard Written English (SWE), I support the use of World Englishes. I have recently signed my name to a call for perceiving English from a world perspective—with multiple appearances, uses, and functions and variable meanings. Since I teach in a program that includes many international students, I see the necessity of such an approach. If English is to colonize the world—as it inevitably will, as it becomes the lingua franca among nations—then we must be amenable to the changes that will inevitably appear in its usage. These changes will occur even if we restrict our use of English to native speakers.

But the consequences of non-standard usage are played out at many levels. In teaching at several universities, I have seen placement “tests” which marginalize speakers of non-standard forms or those whose first language is not English. Typically, at places I have taught, students who use non-standard dialects are placed into low-level, non-credit courses in which they must demonstrate their abilities to use edited American English prior to their release into mainstream writing classes. These students’ struggles remind me of my own experiences in high school, where a teacher predicted that I would “flunk out ... [of college] before the end of the first semester” due to my “poor language abilities.”

In reading other blog entries here, I find that I agree with Malea Powell (and others) who maintain that they do not “add” diversity to their classrooms. Honoring all cultures and communication approaches is something I strive to achieve in my classroom, no matter the student or text. I do, however, feel the necessity of pointing out what values the dominant culture places upon written communication—being careful to design assignments that accommodate personal, regional, and cultural dialects, alongside standard written English (SWE). The use of SWE is an area in which my students demand instruction, as they have seen the direct consequences of an inability to communicate using the language of the dominant culture.

My research adds to my understanding of the importance of an ability to use and understand this language. Like Victor Villanueva, I believe there are serious aesthetic, social, political, and rhetorical consequences for others when the language of the dominant culture marginalizes groups of citizens. My research demonstrates the effects of the historical and contemporary language that denies acknowledgement of unenrolled indigenous peoples in their respective nations. Not only does this lack of acceptance affect those who are unenrolled, it also affects indigenous nations whose rhetorical power would swell as their numbers increase if we are all counted.

While I could go on about how my research is impacted by language and issues of “diversity,” I think it’s more important to return to where my insights and actions have been most useful (to my way of thinking) and most directly beneficial. Based on research into language used to describe indigenous peoples, I began looking at living conditions on reservated lands—sovereign ground belonging to indigenous nations such as the pueblo where Kewa Station is located.

During a conversation with my Lakota-Cheyenne friend, Marji, in 2003, I discovered that Native Americans in South Dakota endured severe winter conditions with little protection; however, one blanket might keep a person from freezing to death. Together we established Blankets for the Elders, a non-profit group which collects blankets to ship to a distribution point in Pine Ridge. Although Blankets for the Elders has now fallen under the umbrella of a larger non-profit organization, our group's efforts have continued, despite my move to Pennsylvania in 2008. Currently, we're considering opening "Blankets North," so I can manage donations of warm clothing for children. I feel called to this work because of my interests in diversity and the need for my life to reflect that interest in helping people move out of poverty.

Three hours later, we approached the Kewa Station again. I had my camera in my hand, prepared to press the on button, when I heard the conductor over the loudspeaker: “Kewa Station; please gather your belongings and move to the lower levels of the train cars. And as a reminder, you are now on indigenous lands. You are not permitted to take pictures while the train passes through this area.” I was confused; no one earlier had announced our location or the prohibition on photography. Some people cared; some people didn't. But I understood that I could not capture a picture of a relic of what must surely be the long-gone past.

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