The mascot at RHAM High School is a Sachem, or tribal chief, in association with local tribes near Hebron, CT, and that’s about all the exposure Margaret Clifton’s students (95% white/0% Native American) had to this demographic’s history or culture. Their lack of awareness also hindered their interaction with Senior English texts, including Sherman Alexie‘s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
“Our literature and history classes were largely about Native American people of the past, not as people with a present and a future,” said Meg. “Their knowledge rested largely in stereotypes and misinformation, believing that Native Americans get lots of money from casinos and the government, for example. As a white teacher who also received a largely Anglo-American education, my own knowledge and awareness of issues facing historical and contemporary Native Americans was lacking.”
Meg designed a fellowship to spend ten days experiencing Native American tribes, memorials, parks, and historic sites addressed in the works of Sherman Alexie to provide students with first-person narratives and authentic information. She interviewed Native students, tour guides, park rangers and tribe members on their culture, beliefs and historical events significant to their lives and discussed in Alexie’s works, such as Vilify and Another Proclamation, Indian Education and That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump.
A few of her “A Ha” moments:
- “I had been focusing too much on the negative experiences and issues that many tribes face today. Having been on my fellowship, I will now incorporate much more of the tribes’ stories of survival, growth and forward movement.”
- “After receiving recommendations from Native students I met on my fellowship, I incorporated these books, stories and first-person narratives into our English classes.”
- “Now that I’ve actually visited reservations and had many one-on-one conversations with people from various tribes, I am expanding students’ exposure to and interest in 21st century indigenous communities and issues.”
Most recently, that exposure took the form of self-directed research projects stemming from artifacts and resources Meg collected on her 10-day fellowship. Students sought out and presented topics from the perspective of indigenous people, including the fact that indigenous women are much more likely to go missing or be murdered without justice (represented in this screenshot of social media hashtags #MMIW for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) from one student’s presentation).
“After a presentation about the effects and potential effects of oil pipelines on or near reservation lands, one student commented that he could see why Native Americans living on reservations would be so angry about a pipeline that has the potential to pollute their only sources of drinking water,” said Meg. “Another group’s presentation happened the day after midterm elections, and one student in the group talked about the Indigenous women who are now members of Congress. They never really paid attention to any of this before, but now that they have more of an awareness, they’re seeing information about Native Americans everywhere in the news.”
A serendipitous encounter right in Hebron last week will further Meg’s students’ learning. She ran into a history teacher at the high school she attended. This now peer is of the Mohegan tribe, so Meg told her about the fellowship and her students’ projects; impressed with their new awareness, the teacher asked to some speak to the class of her experiences as a Native American.
“My fellowship was one time in my 13-year teaching career where I felt fully trusted to determine what I need to grow as an educator and what my students need to grow as learners and people,” said Meg. “I love books and online resources, but face-to-face conversations with new people and physical experiences in new places are so much more powerful. I want my students to have similar experiences, and I will encourage and provide them with opportunities to feel that same transformative rush I felt this summer.”
Meg Clifton has taught at RHAM High School in Hebron, CT for the past 13 years. She teaches 10th and 12th grade English, as well as drama and journalism electives. She believes in the power of telling stories and listening to the stories of others. Outside of school, she sings, dances, and acts in community theater productions. Enjoy images from her fellowship on Instagram at @mscliftonrham. (Above image is with three recent grads from Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota who discussed their lives on the reservation, college, future plans, racism, identity, and Lakota culture.)