Scott Lyons: “American Indian Writers and the Question of “Assimilation”

Scott Lyons began by confessing that he does not consider himself an expert in Basic Writing. Interestingly, his work seemed absolutely crucial to the conversations we’ve been having all day on teaching basic writing students.

He writes about his experience teaching at a tribal college in Minnesota. He was the first PhD to be hired at the college to teach writing. There were four full-time instructors. There were three Ojibwe teachers and one white teacher. Because of his degree (and not his experience, he assures us), Lyons quickly became the head of the department. One day, the white teacher, one of the best at the school, came to him in tears. She said that she felt like a bad person. She wanted students “to be themselves.” She wanted them to be “the sovereign people that they are.” The teacher said she “did not want to be a part of their assimilation.”

Lyons acknowledges this teacher’s concerns and does so by showing some of the black and white images of assimilation that many of us are familiar with. Lyons included a “before and after” picture of American Indians in schools of assimilation. The “after” photo has been noticeably lightened. The clear message is that assimilated students actually have lighter skin.

The whole story is not just about assimilation though. There were prominent arguments for annihilation as well. Lyons shared newspaper excerpts from notable writers, like author L. Frank Baum (writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), who wrote that it was “better that they die.” Lyons demonstrates that these writers seemed to simultaneously revere the American Indian culture, while they depicted them as vanishing tragically *but necessarily.*

Lyons makes the distinction between cultural assimilation and economic assimilation. Cultural assimilation usually includes religious assimilation to Christianity. However, economic assimilation is a crucial part of the story too. When it comes to economic assimilation, American Indians have been historically exiled. Lyons argues that progressive pedagogy understands economic assimilation and the role education plays in that process.

Lyons ends this talk by returning to the image of the teacher crying in his office, the teacher who does not want to be complacent in the assimilation of her students. Lyons ends by making the following points. If you want to help Indians engage “settler culture,” you need to not see yourself as a bad person. “Rez English” is not useful because the market that we share does not use that language. Lyons states that teachers should point out that English is an American Indian language now. Finally, he encouraged teachers to emphasize the importance of studying the writing of American Indians.

from the panel “Race, Language, and Access: Possible Futures of Basic Writing”

Moderators: Steve Lamos & Wendy Olson

Featuring: Scott Lyons, Beatrice Mendez-Newman, Min-Zhan Lu, & Shirley Faulker-Springfield

~ Sheri Rysdam, UVU

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Filed under CCCC 2013, Politics of Remediation, Race, Scholarship of Basic Writing, What's New in Basic Writing

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