Monday, March 15, 2010


So far, I have clocked over 60 hours at the Hawk Clan’s home. A fourth girl joined in (the only one who didn’t need help 60 visits ago, has gone from straight A’s to straight F’s) and I seem to spend my off-the-clock hours looking for material to keep them interested. (How does one teach fractions, word problems, mixed numbers and percent, in a fun-let’s-do-it-again way?)

While I work at the table with one girl, the other sisters play together.
I see their reflection in the TV screen, which they turn off so that I can teach. They lay on the floor, tickling each other. I hear them. I see them making shadow puppets that eat each other’s heads and behinds. They laugh a universal laugh. A laughter that is not Indian, or dark or wealthy. It’s the purest laughter I have heard in a long time.
They roll on a purple carpet that has never been vacuumed , right over the stale pizza slice that goes unnoticed, over dirty blankets and sweaty socks, over Burger King wrappings and squashed KFC cartons. They laugh with abandon and they don’t care that one of their sisters is trying to learn how to divide fractions. Laughing comes first. Education comes second. So they laugh some more.
They crack jokes that I hear from the table. Jokes that are lame and hysterical and have an infectious pull that makes me want to forget who I am and ask if I could please play too. Who needs fractions when a family is this whole.
Sometimes their mother joins in and those seem to be the times when their glee reaches its peak. Even the dogs seem ready to provide free entertainment. They dress them up, put bows on their tails or bandanas around their furry heads. And they laugh. With togetherness, with complicity, with gusto.

I wonder if I should simply realize that they already figured things out. Which is to say, that they already figured what’s really important and that education is not on the list. I wonder why we put so much emphasis on formal education when what really matters is never learnt in a classroom.

The girls want to go back to the reservation up in North Dakota. They want to go back where they sleep under the stars and no alarm clock chimes at 6 in the morning. Where they can play with chickens and hear stories from the elders who have never gone to school but know well how to feed a family, to cure the body by soothing the soul, to hunt a deer without upsetting its creator, to choose their names and to scratch their arms when the time comes.

And while on the scratching subject. Who does it to whom and why? An elder, always a man, scratches the girl to celebrate her menarche: her female relatives get scratched along with her so that the blood unifies and cleanses them simultaneously. It’s a ritual celebrated a few times a year and about which, schools have to be notified so not to mistake the marking with the signs of abuse. Some other clans, I have also learned, do it only to the males, some of whom are as young as six. They do it in an annual ceremony celebrated each spring deep in the Florida woods. I know this, because after the Hawk Clan girls, I was asked to work with their cousins: the Wolf Clan boys.

I work right now with members of four different clans, ages ranging from five to twenty five. Some of them, I know in my heart of hearts, will become productive human beings in their culture or the mainstream culture or both. The rest, will probably fall into the cycle of addictions, jail, rehab, only to re-emerge from years of stupor, hopefully, reclaiming the spiritual freedom of their Indian ancestors, galloping their white horses in the north Dakota plains, giving back to their souls what was lost along the way, the ferocity of the wolf and the wings of the hawk.

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