To speak in a clear voice

Volume 23, No. 3 - Spring 2012
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NO RUSH. Head of the American Indian Studies program at Aaniiih Nakoda College,Sean Chandler speaks in a clear voice, when the time is right. Photo by Anders Andersson

“When I was in elementary school the kids made fun of me because of my long braids. But I said nothing. I waited to speak. Because when I spoke, I knew it must be in a clear voice.”
– Sean Chandler

Sean Chandler (A’aniinen) has waited more than 20 years to speak about such struggles, about such thoughts. Today Chandler is the department head of the American Indian Studies program at Aaniiih Nakoda College (formerly Fort Belknap College) in Harlem, MT. Chandler teaches all of the language classes at the tribal college and volunteers at the college’s immersion school as well. And it is in his Gros Ventre home, Aaniiih Nakoda College, and the Fort Belknap Reservation, that he finally feels it is the right time to speak… in a clear voice.

During the summer of 2010, Swedish photographer Anders Andersson and I were racing around Montana to interview five tribal college presidents and their faculty and students for the Tribal College Journal. Like most in our current American society, we were rushing interviews, rushing photographs. We lacked patience.

When we interviewed Chandler, we were struck by his gentle, methodical speech. It was indeed refreshing. And it was only because of patience that Chandler can express himself clearly today, to profess the ancient wisdom and teachings of his A’aniinen (Gros Ventre) culture. A similar story concerns a former Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College Board of Regent’s member, Odawa White (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe). “In public school and college, teachers and professors expected our hands to be raised immediately concerning a question by the instructor,” recalls White. “I was quiet. And I was taught to be silent by my family and elders. So many teachers expected that I did not care, because I was not aggressive in answering. I had a difficult time following that rule.”

He pauses and then continues to explain. “I really wanted to think before answering. I was taught that it is disrespectful (to do otherwise),” he says. “I have never felt comfortable with that situation.” Today, White is the retention coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

In today’s dominant society, the educational experts might call it “wait time,” and usually the typical American teacher only waits about a second… and sometimes even less! Many times the impatient teachers will even answer the question themselves. This type of hurried activity sprouts and encourages a culture of haste and obviously gives students little time to process an appropriate answer. (M.B. Rowe discusses this in a 1974 article, “Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control,” in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching).

“Wait time” is another way to describe patience. And in the Ojibwe world, a patient response is synonymous with respect and humility.

Even I, a non-Indian, feel frustrated when forced to speak when I’m not ready, when the time is not right, or when I feel it is rude. I am grateful to learn that we have many other options to hurried and flashy responses in the classroom.

A few years ago, the chair of my department asked me why I rarely participate in committee meetings. I replied that I am listening. As I have learned from my American Indian friends, there are many good reasons not to speak. I am being respectful. I am contemplating what others are saying. I am honoring the speaker’s words. And by refusing to speak, I am giving someone else the floor.

I often imagine the hundreds of thousands of American Indian students who have been in the same situation either in yesterday’s boarding schools or today’s classrooms. Did they feel rushed? And today, do they still feel hurried in mainstream American classrooms that refuse to honor contemplative thought and deep reflection? Do they feel confused? Will the dominant society attempt to understand the perspective of waiting? After all, in some cases, this may mean a very long wait time. Sean Chandler refused to answer the bullies who taunted him and decided to speak only many years later.

Our standardized tests—the PSAT, the SAT, the GMAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT—are all based on speed, zeroing-in, and one correct answer. As D.H. Pink writes in his 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age, American tests are “linear, sequential, and bounded by time.”

In spectacular contradiction, American Indian worlds value methodical consideration, multiple approaches to problem solving, and a natural and spiritual universe that is multidimensional and interconnected with “all things.” This world cannot be divided. It cannot be severed and fractured down to one correct response. American Indian culture believes that life cannot be rushed into producing one single, isolated product—or answer.

As a faculty member in an education studies department, I feel we must study, as well as cherish, these important concepts that are being honored in our tribal colleges today. I feel we must respond in certain situations the way Sean Chandler did when he was tormented in elementary school. “I spoke at the right time for me—I wanted to speak in a clear voice.”

Dr. Jerry Worley is an associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

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