The Tribal College Journal has just published podcast 7 of Christine Reidhead’s sessions with me about tribal college and university history. This podcast is primarily about Verna Fowler and I founding the College of the Menominee Nation in Northern Wisconsin. The link:
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I just signed a contract with Tribal College Press (TCP) for the publication of a book of poetry titled, Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings. In 1972 I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and found a teaching position at an alternative school, Menominee County Community School, which was one of the first seven school of the Indian controlled schools movement in this country. It was through my association with Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, the greatest American Indian leader in Indian education during my lifetime, that I found out about the tribal colleges.
When Dr. Verna Fowler asked me to help her found what became College of the Menominee Nation in 1993, I started writing poems about the tribal college movement and its founding. I have written a substantial number of poems over the decades, celebrating, mourning, living the tribal college dream of creating a new form of higher education driven by American Indian cultures and languages throughout the United States.
Most of the early poems were written during American Indian Higher Education conferences, or later, World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium conferences, in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. I usually wrote them on scrap paper or napkins and then promptly gave them to whomever I was with at the time. Luckily for me, Marjane Ambler, then Editor of the Tribal College Journal, prevailed upon person after person to save them and send them to her. Later on, once a handful of the poems appeared in print, I stated saving them myself.
The poems tell a different kind of history about the tribal college and university and World Indigenous controlled institutions of higher education movements in the United States and worldwide. I am grateful that Bradley Shreve and Rachael Marchbanks at TCP unexpectedly offered to publish the book.
This has been quite a year! In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, my Washington Island historical novel about the black fisherman community that settled on the island before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the Civil War, should be coming out in the near future. Now Meditation on the Ceremonies of Beginnings. I’m really going to have to do some marketing work. I hope some of you might consider buying either one or both works. I’ve certainly worked hard enough on both of them.
by Thomas Davis
She was different suddenly.
Not in the way she looked:
Young woman, small, black eyes intense,
Her mouth used to smiling
Even when she did not feel like smiling–
But the tone of her voice had changed.
Always, before, she’d had a touch of whining
In the way she used words,
The way she thought about herself.
You could always tell she had an inner fire.
She was going to make something of herself
In spite of all the burdens she’d faced:
She had a child when she was too young,
And an uncle who liked to cut her down
When she was most vulnerable,
The reservation woes that went on and on
With family and addictions and anger
So deep it seared the spirit
With a flame too intense to be seen.
You could tell that she’d end up with a degree
In spite of the whine in her voice,
And in spite of the edges of not-good-enough
In the way she approached everybody at school,
The problems that beat her down
And held her back from who she was.
“I’ve found out something,” she said.
She waited, looking at me.
“I’m glad you came to see me,” I answered.
“It’s always good to see you.”
“I found out that I internalize oppression,”
She continued. “I gather up wrong
Everywhere I find it, and then I use it
To beat up on myself and everyone around me.
It’s made me needy in a way
That demands everyone help me all the time,
Even when I should help myself.”
I leaned back in the big black chair
That I’ll only occupy for a short while
As a new president for the college
Is being sought.
I felt stunned, as if suddenly blackbirds
Were surrounding me and singing in
A spring rainstorm and a field of wildflowers.
I had always liked her,
Watching her grow toward maturity
While she fought ferociously for a place in life
She could feel comfortable with.
But this new insight into herself seemed unlikely,
A step too far away for her to reach.
“That’s pretty insightful,” I said.
“You’ve started to grow.”
“I feel awkward seeing that,” she said.
“I keep listening to myself,
And I see what happens when I start telling myself
That I’m not good enough
Or somebody tells me that I shouldn’t be having
The problems I’m having,
And then I don’t know how to act or even think.
I want to blame somebody, anybody.
But I don’t want to blame myself
While I’m really blaming myself,
And even though I see the oppression
Building and building inside me,
I still can’t stop it from making me do things
Or say things
Or even be things that I know aren’t good for me.”
“Wisdom begins in the discovery of self,” I said.
“You’ve made a huge breakthrough.
I’m proud of you.”
“I’ve had so many people close to me die,”
She said. “Classes have been too hard
This semester, and all I’ve done is cry.
I’ve wanted to drop out of school
So many times I don’t understand why I’m here.”
“You’re here because here you can make discoveries
About yourself, your life, and everything you need to learn,”
I said. “I don’t even want to hear
About you thinking about dropping out.
I have faith in you and who you are.”
“My uncle yelled at me the other day
And told me that my problems were my fault,”
She said. “I believed him
Until I told him that it didn’t matter what he thought.
What mattered was that I am going
To keep on going on until I’m the first one
In my family or his family going back forever
Who walks across the stage at graduation
And gets a college diploma in her hot little hand.”
Getting up and going out the door,
Looking over her shoulder, grinning.
“I guess I’m learning something here after all,”
She said, then quickly walked away.
Note: Originally published in the Tribal College Journal.