One calm summer night, my friend Reynold and I were having a meal at a bar and grill on the banks of the beautiful Missouri River. I was finishing graduate school and preparing for my career as a college teacher. A Rosebud Sioux, Reynold is a highly educated medical professional who practices in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As we looked across the river, Reynold asked me, “When you are a college teacher someday, how are you going to teach the Indian students in your course?” One of my most trusted friends, Reynold always finds a way to make me think and look at things differently. I asked him why he asked this question. He told me a story, using the variety of boats on the Missouri River that evening as the metaphor, to illustrate different types of instructors that American Indian students encounter. This is what he said:
Indian students have experiences at college that white people sometimes don’t understand, like ignorance and racism. Some schools expect Indians to assimilate and become white. Plus, the Native way of knowing the world is very different from the way white people know the world. Instructors sometimes don’t fully understand our culture or the concepts of self-determination, sovereignty, and treaties. The Indian experience at college is complex.
A good way of thinking about it is to relate the journey of a college student to a journey down this river, where the teacher and the student are navigating the river, each in his or her own separate boat. The Native student chooses to navigate the river by using a canoe, which is a little bit different from non- Native students sailing downriver. The teacher is in his boat, leading the way.
Many times students encounter the “motorboat teacher.” This type of instructor has a huge motor and makes a lot of noise. This is what I relate to academic arrogance. The bigger the motor, the bigger the ego. That big motor obviously makes big waves, and in that wake it becomes very difficult to maneuver the canoe. Natives do not often relate to the motorboat teacher.
Other times at college we experience what could be called the “sailboat teacher.” This type of teacher needs air to fill his sails. In other words, this teacher’s students need to “kiss up” and agree with him or her to get good grades. I can tell you one thing; Natives are not good at the whole “kissing up” principle. We will certainly give respect but only when respect is earned and deserved.
Another type of teacher we find at the college is the “jet-ski teacher.” This is the teacher who, like a jet ski, is able to maneuver very quickly on the journey. This teacher is “all over the place,” and the student often has trouble “locating” this type of teacher. This type of teacher is known for inconsistency and unpredictability, and the student often has trouble on a journey led by the “jet-ski teacher.”
Teachers who work with Native students need to be able to think a bit differently. The best place for the teacher is to be in the student’s canoe.
If the teacher is so genuinely interested in the Native student’s educational adventure, he or she gets in the same boat and helps with the paddling—the teacher joins the journey. The student sits in the front of the canoe, since it is his journey after all, while the teacher sits in the back and supports the trip. They may take turns paddling.
They may paddle on the same side or different sides of the canoe, depending on the situation. Teacher and student can communicate because of their close proximity. Their canoe positions allow for different views of the river and landscape, and each will bring different ideas to the journey. They depend on each other for success. They will take turns leading the adventure, but they are in the same boat, on the same journey.
Tom Buckmiller recently received his Ph.D. from “Penn State” in Adult Education, and he is now a professor at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. His research is focused on the experiences of Native adult learners.