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Point of messages missed
by Ted A. Wright


December 19, 2004

I guess I'm not surprised that Ed Thomas has attacked me personally and viciously for statements I made about tribal governments and Native corporations, since he is deeply embedded in both. But to have missed the point of my messages so miserably, I guess that was unexpected. For this reason I'll attempt a more direct statement of my points, and also address Mr. Thomas' attacks.

I'll start with his last sentence and work backward. President Thomas says that my most recent column is poorly written and bazaar (sic). I suggest that he just doesn't get it, as evidenced by his email in which he interprets my story as saying that "our kids need not get an education because they'll be black cod fishermen and deer hunters."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, I was using a story style to put the reader into the head of a potential Native dropout, to see through his eyes. The boy in the column, Jimmy, sees the relevance of his grandfather's teachings because they are connected to community and to the life he is living and wants to live. What he learns in school is not sufficiently or intimately connected to community and culture. And so he is pulled by the lure of quick money so he can do what our television culture wants him and all teenagers to do, focus primary attention on what he can buy. But thanks to his family, Jimmy is also deeply influenced by the traditions and impulses of his people. The reader is meant to think about these choices from an adolescent's point of view.

If Mr. Thomas were to read between the lines and consider some of the other things I have said and written, he would understand what I am saying, and that is this:

If we had our own schools the curriculum would make the connections to community and culture that are largely ignored in the public schools. (This is through no fault of the public school system, which must focus on all students and not on one group more than another).

If we had our own schools, traditional values would override the consumer impulses of capitalist society, or at least provide a balance so that the personal decisions of our young people include family, community, clan and culture.

I am absolutely not saying that our kids do not need to get an education. I am saying that they need to get a radically different kind of education in schools that only we can create. I am not saying that we should remove all our kids from public schools. I am saying that we can work with local districts to reinvent education for many of our children, in schools that we design and manage. If we were to do this, Jimmy would stay in school because school would make sense.

This style of message may seem bizarre to some, but I learned it from my elders in Sitka and Juneau, from people like A. P. Johnson, John Hope, Jim Walton, and many others. I would listen to my elders talk and they would tell a story, and usually I would not get the point unless I thought deeply about things they or others said, about the context in which the story was told, and about the history of related events, and even then I sometimes wouldn't get it until much later. I don't claim to be good at this kind of storytelling, but I made the attempt to honor those who came before, and because it was the right thing to do.

Mr. Thomas correctly observes that I am not a "former Juneau teacher." Since I don't read the columns as they appear in the paper, I did not realize this was part of the byline. I didn't provide this information to the Empire, and presume that it was taken from presentations this past summer in one of our Native education forums. During that time I mentioned that I had been a teacher, but don't believe I said it was in Juneau. I have contacted the Empire and corrected this error, for the record.

Now to the substance of the attacks...

To start, Mr. Thomas says that I have "questionable credibility; have failed to gain the trust and confidence of our Southeast Alaska Native community; did not complete the simplest of the goals and objectives of the (tribal college) project and did not produce acceptable reports to the funding agencies in a timely manner" and having failed at those endeavors (including management of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation and Sitka Tribe of Alaska) I find "solace in criticizing those who work hard at retaining at least college scholarships for our young people."

No wonder I left the state, I mean with such a miserable record of failure. Not so. Let me set the record straight. I left the state because of tribal politics, because I constantly ran into bureaucratic and political roadblocks thrown up by people whose sole goal in life seemed to be to keep their positions of power and block progress on projects like the tribal college. For my sanity and health, I had to leave. The constant politics, patronage and barriers to even the simplest goals were making me physically ill. If I failed to produce a timely report or complete appropriate goals, this is the first I have heard of it. I would ask Mr. Thomas to produce something in writing that substantiates this claim; something dated at the time of my employment. As I said, my receipt of such a document would be a first.

As to Mr. Thomas' other accusations...

First, I have never criticized those who actually provide scholarships on the front lines. I have, however, questioned the wisdom of the policymakers, the "leaders," who have rarely considered the educational systems within which our scholars are credentialed. I was trying to make the point that we spend millions so that our people receive an education, a credential, but do not consider the nature of that education. I think it is critical that we do so. The ultimate point is that we should have our own schools so we can ensure the "success" of our students, or at least some of them. Seems like a modest proposal in some respects.

Second, my accuser knows nothing about why I asked to leave my position with the Sealaska Heritage Foundation or why I was asked to leave my position with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. In the first case, I disagreed with the direction of the organization and could no longer serve in good faith. So the board of trustees and I negotiated my departure. In the second, I made some political mistakes while accomplishing a great deal for the tribe, and have nothing about which to be ashamed. As I am notoriously apolitical, my departure after three years in Sitka was somewhat inevitable. Ask a tribal council member or a trustee of either organization if I ever came to them individually and lobbied for my view or tried to sway their opinion. Didn't happen. Not once. Politically naïve? Probably. Not a good way to survive as an executive? Certainly. But I have always operated on principal, and not politicking my bosses individually was and is a principal to which I hold firm.
By the way, I still greatly respect and personally like the leadership of both organizations.

This brings me to my last point. When I say that tribal governments and Native corporations are illegitimate, please, please consider the context and the fundamental point, (which is not contradictory as my accuser states). I am not saying that people in those organizations do not work hard and do an awful lot of good. I am saying that corporations and governments are not the kinds of institutions upon which we can pin our hopes for a better future. I am saying that schools are such institutions.

In an ideal world teachers would be our most esteemed professionals, schools would be the primary focus of our best and brightest, their time and attention, and curriculum would be debated by all in the community. In an ideal world our corporate and governmental leaders would understand that, while their work is important and can provide financial support to our families and communities - it is our schools that should be the primary means to our most powerfully imagined ends.

If nothing else comes of this debate, I hope it is this last realization, that we need our own schools, and that everything else, while important and valuable, is secondary. That is all I was trying to say. I'm sorry if I offended anyone working in a tribe or corporation, or anyone else. It was not my intention.

Thanks for hearing my point of view.

Ted A. Wright
Seattle/Sitka - USA


Related Viewpoint:

Divisiveness by Edward K. Thomas - AK - USA

Related Articles:

An abundance of facts, a shortage of useful ones. by Ted Wright...
Juneau Empire - November 21, 2004

We need to get educated, seize the day before it's too late by Ted Wright...
Juneau Empire - October 31, 2004


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