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And Then I Went to School

Author: Joe Suina

And Then I Went to School (modified)

From the time I was 5 to 9 years old I lived with my grandmother. It was the beginning of the 1950’s and there was no electricity in our Pueblo homes

Transportation was simple. Two horses and a wagon wasall a person needed. Out of the 400 people that lived in our Pueblo, maybe 5 had automobiles. There wa s a truck that would take people into Sante Fe every Saturday.

During these years my grandmother and I lived in a one-room house. We had a fireplace, a cabinet, bowls, and a wooden crate to hold our containers for water. Two rolls of bedding were in the center of the room. They were made of thick quilts, sheepskin, and assorted blankets. A collection of colorful blankets hung on the walls. In one corner of the room there was a big metal trunk where we put our ceremonial wear. A dresser held our few articles of clothing and the “goody bag.” My grandmother had a goody bag that was made from an old flour sack. It had brown candy and store bought cookies inside. These items smelled like mothballs. We would eat them at night before we went to bed. My grandmother would tell me stories about her life while we would lie down to sleep. Her life seemed so old fashioned compared to life now. Sometimes she would sing songs from a ceremony. This is how I fell asleep every night.

We would always visit with family every night. If relatives did not come to our house, we would go to their house. The children would play together while the adults talked. 10 cent comic books started to be introduced into our homes and our lives.

This was our first link to life outside of the Pueblo. We enjoyed looking at them and role-playing our favorite hero or villain. My grandmother made me a cape to leap tall buildings with. Everyone wanted to be a cowboy because they were always victorious. These family gatherings were highlighted by refreshments of coffee, sweet bread, or fruit pies. During the winter months we would have piñon nuts and dried deer meat. As radios and televisions became more popular these gatherings and our sense of closeness would begin to fade.

It would never be the same again.

My fondest memories are from the winter months. A warm fire crackled and burned brightly in the fireplace. The smell of stew filled our one room house. To me the house was perfect. My grandmother’s affection completed the warmth and security I will always remember.

I was the only child at my grandmother’s house, and I received a lot of attention. As a young child I had the chores of chopping firewood and bringing in fresh water everyday.

After this “heavy work” I would show her my muscles. She would always tell me how wonderful I was, and how I would soon be a man. Her praise made me feel like Mr. Indian Universe of all time.

Even though my grandmother was very old, she was still very active in our community. She was a member of an important women’s society and attended every traditional function. She would take me along to a lot of them. I would wear a very colorful shirt that she handmade for me to wear to these occasions.

Grandmother taught me appropriate behavior. She showed me how to pray. I would walk outside barefoot and greet the sun with a handful of cornmeal. This is how we prayed. At night I would pray by saying a pray and looking up at the sky. She told me that when I met someone I should smile and greet them. She said to grunt if I had to, but do not pretend they are not there. She said that with food and material things, “There is enough for everyone to share; it all comes from above, my child.” I learned to appreciate and have cooperation in nature and with my fellow men early in life. I felt a part of the world with our way of life. I felt good about me.

And then I went to school. At 6, like the rest of the Cochiti 6 year olds, I had to go to school. It was a new and strange experience. An experience I will never forget. The new surroundings, new ideas of time and expectations, and the new language were very overwhelming for me and the other students. It took some effort to return to school the second day, and the days after.

The first thing, unlike my grandmother, the teacher did not have pretty brown skin and a colorful dress. She wasn’t plump and friendly. Her clothes were one color and dull. She was pale and skinny and this made me worry that she was sick. In our village, being more pale than usual was a sure sign of an oncoming fever or sickness. I thought that explained why she didn’t have time just for me and the disappointed looks and orders she seemed to always direct my way.

I did not think she was that smart because she did not understand my language. I thought that was why we had to “leave our Indian at home”. I did not feel so smart either. I could only say, “Yes teacher”, “My name is Joseph Henry”, and “When is lunch?” The way the teacher smelled also made me sick. I would later learn that this smell was her perfume.

The classroom was strange as well. It was very large and smelled like medicine. The room felt very cold, and the fluorescent light bulbs were very disturbing. This was very different to the fire and sunlight that was familiar with. I thought maybe I felt this way about the light because it was not natural. We also had to sit in our desks and could not move around.

School was a painful experience during those early years. The English language and the new set of values caused me much anxiety and embarrassment. I did not understand everything that was happening. I did understand, very well, when I messed up or wasn’t doing well. Negative messages were communicated very strongly and this made me very unsure of myself. I wish I could understand other things in school as well as the feeling of these negative messages.

This conflict that I felt was not only in school performance, but other areas as well. An example was head lice. We were told the reason we had lice was because of the “unsanitary conditions in our homes.” We were humiliated in front of our classmates because of this. This affected my self image in a very negative way. I no longer felt like the “super Indian” that I felt before.

My language was questioned from the beginning too. “Leave your Indian at home!” was their favorite thing to say. Speaking in Indian was punishable by a dirty look or whack with a ruler. This was very confusing to me because this was the language of my people. My grandmother spoke this language, we prayed from our hearts and sang in this language. As a child I could not understand why I had to separate from my language. At home I was encouraged to attend school so that I could have a better life.

As the weeks turned to months, I learned English more and more. It started to seem that comprehending English would be easier. English was easier to understand.

I started to understand that my life and my people was not as good as the white man’s. School was determined to undo everything I knew and had valued in my life. One day I fell asleep in class after a sacred all-night ceremony. I was startled awake by a sharp tug of my ear, and told, “That ought to teach you to attend ‘those things’ again.” Later, all alone I cried. I couldn’t understand why or what I was caught up in. I was receiving two very different messages.

The image of life and home that I was given in school was extremely different from what I had known. The books showed pictures of home that was so different of mine. I could not identify with them from my Pueblo world. The things I did have in my life obviously did not measure up in the eyes of the people around me. The messages I was receiving at school were making me feel that the life and things that I had were not right anymore. My life was no longer just right.

I was ashamed of who I was, and I wanted to change. I became critical of my life, even my dog. He was not perfect anymore. He was bony and had fleas. I loved my grandmother’s house, but now I imagined how better it could be. It needed a bed, a couch, and a clock. White kids were always chasing after a dog or kite. The only thing I did at home was go and get water, or pick up wood for the fire.

After sixth grade I had to leave my village of Cochiti. I left to attend a BIA boarding school thirty miles from home. I had to wear shined shoes and pressed shirts and pants. Adjusting to leaving my village was hard. The older I got, the more distance there was between the person that I was when I was little. Since my parents did not own an automobile, I saw them only once a month when they came with the community truck and brought me food from the village to eat.

It took me a long time to get accustomed to the food at school. I wanted to be near my grandmother and my younger brothers and sisters. I wanted to be in my home. I wanted to be free.

I came home for the four-day Thanksgiving break. At first, home did not feel right anymore. It was too small. There was no running water or bathroom, and that was inconvenient. Hardly anyone spoke English. At that moment I began to realize that I was taking on the Whiteman’s ways. The same ways that went against who I was. It didn’t take long to “get back with it.” When I reestablished my relationships with family, and friends, I knew who I was, I knew where I came from. I knew where I belonged.

Leaving for the boarding school the following Sunday evening was one of the saddest events in my entire life. Although I had enjoyed myself a lot the last few days, I realized that life would never be the same again. I could not turn back the time, and undo the things that had been done. The effort to make sense of both worlds together was painful, but I had to do it. The school, television, automobiles, and many other things had chipped away at the simple cooperative life I began to grow in. The people of Cochiti were changing. Our traditions were becoming a memory that people just talked about. Still the two worlds were very different. The Whiteman’s was flashy, less personal, but very comfortable. The Cochiti were both attracted and pushed toward these new ways. There was no choice left but to compete with the white man on his terms for survival. To do that I had to give up part of my life.

Determined not to cry, I left my home that dreadfully lonely night. As I made my way back to school, my right hand clutched tightly the mound of cornmeal grandmother placed there and my left hand brushed away a tear.

And Then I went to School (unmodified)

I lived with my grandmother when I was 5 through 9 years of age. It was the early 1950s when electricity had not yet entered our Pueblo homes. The village day school and health clinic were first to have it, and to the unsuspecting Cochiti, this was the approach of a new era in their uncomplicated lives.

Transportation was simple. Two good horses and a sturdy wagon met the daily needs of a villager. Only five, maybe six individuals possessed an automobile in the Pueblo of four hundred. A flatbed truck fixed with side rails and a canvas top made the usual Saturday morning trip to Santa Fe. It was always loaded beyond capacity with people and their wares headed for town for a few staples. The straining old truck with its escort of a dozen barking dogs made a noisy exit, northbound from the village.

A Sense of Closeness

During those years, grandmother and I lived beside the plaza in a one-room house. Inside, we had a traditional fireplace, a makeshift cabinet for our few tin cups and bowls, and a wooden crate carried our two buckets of all-purpose water. At the innermost part of the room were two rolls of bedding — thick quilts, sheepskin, and assorted — which we used as comfortable sitting couches by day and unrolled for sleeping by night. A wooden pole the length of one side of the room was suspended about ten inches from the vigas and draped with a modest collection of colorful shawls, blankets, and sashes, making this part of the room most interesting. In one corner sat a bulky metal trunk for our ceremonial wear and a few valuables. A dresser which was traded for her well-known pottery held the few articles of clothing we owned and the “goody bag”— an old flour sack Grandma always kept filled with brown candy, store-bought cookies, and Fig Newtons. These were saturated with a sharp odor of moth balls. Nevertheless, they made a fine snack with coffee before we turned in for the night. Tucked securely beneath my blankets, I listened to one of her stories about how it was when she was a little girl. These accounts appeared so old fashioned compared to the way we lived. Sometimes she softly sang a song from a ceremony. In this way, I went off to sleep each night.

Earlier in the evening we would make our way to a relative’s house if someone had not already come to visit us. There, I’d play with the children while the adults caught up on all the latest news. Ten-cent comic books were finding their way into the Pueblo homes. Exchanging “old” comics for “new” ones was a serious matter that involved adults as well. Adults favored mystery and romance stories. For us children these were the first links to the world beyond the Pueblo. We enjoyed looking at them and role-playing our favorite hero rounding up the villains. Grandmother once made me a cape to leap tall buildings with. It seems everyone preferred being a cowboy rather than an Indian since cowboys were always victorious. Sometimes stories were related to both children and adults at these get-togethers. They were highlighted by refreshments of coffee and sweet bread or fruit pies baked in the outdoor oven. Winter months would most likely include roasted piñon nuts and dried deer meat for all to share. These evening gatherings and the sense of closeness diminished as radios and televisions increased over the following years. It was never to be the same again.

The winter months are among my fondest memories. A warm fire crackled and danced brightly in the fireplace, and the aroma of delicious stew filled our one-room house. The thick adobe walls wrapped around the two of us protectingly during

the long freezing nights. To me, the house was just right. Grandmother’s affection completed the warmth and security I will always remember.

Being the only child at grandmother’s, I had lots of attention and plenty of reasons to feel good about myself. As a preschooler, I already had chores of chopping firewood and hauling in fresh water each day. After “heavy work” I would run to her and flex what I was convinced were my gigantic biceps. Grandmother would state that at the rate I was going I would soon attain the status of a man like the adult males in the village. Her shower of praise made me feel like the Mr. Indian Universe of all time. At age 5, I suppose I was as close to that concept of myself as anyone.

In spite of her many years, grandmother was highly active in the village ceremonial setting. She was a member of an important women’s society and attended every traditional function, taking me along to many of them. I’d wear one of my colorful shirts she made by hand for just such occasions. Grandmother taught me appropriate behavior at these events. Through modeling she showed me how to pray properly. Barefooted, I greeted the sun each morning with a handful of cornmeal. At night I’d look to the stars in wonderment and let a prayer slip through my lips. On meeting someone, grandmother would say, “Smile and greet. Grunt if you must, but don’t pretend they’re not there.” On food and material things, she would say, “There is enough for everyone to share and it all comes from above, my child.” I learned

to appreciate cooperation in nature and with my fellow men early in life. I felt very much a part of the world and our way of life. I knew I had a place in it, and I felt good about it.

And Then I Went to School

At age 6, like the rest of the Cochiti 6-year-olds that year, I had to begin my schooling. It was a new and bewildering experience — one I will not forget. The strange surrounding, new ideas about time and expectations, and the foreign tongue were at times overwhelming to us beginners. It took some effort to return the second day and many times thereafter.

To begin with, unlike my grandmother, the teacher did not have pretty brown skin and a colorful dress. She wasn’t plump and friendly. Her clothes were of one color and drab. Her pale and skinny form made me worry that she was very ill. In the village, being more pale than usual was a sure sign of an oncoming fever or some such disorder. I thought that explained why she didn’t have time just for me and the disappointed looks and orders she seemed always to direct my way. I didn’t think she was so smart since she couldn’t understand my language. “Surely that was why we had to leave our ‘Indian’ at home.” But then I didn’t feel so bright either. All I could say in her language was “Yes, teacher,” “My name is Joseph Henry,” and “When is lunch?” The teacher’s odor took some getting used to also. In fact, many times it made me sick right before lunch. Later I learned from the girls this smell was something she wore called perfume.

An Artificial Classroom

The classroom, too, had its odd characteristics. It was terribly huge and smelled of medicine like the village clinic I feared so much. The walls and ceiling were artificial and uncaring. They were too far from me and I felt naked. Those fluorescent light tubes made an eerie drone and blinked suspiciously over me, quite a contrast to the fire and sunlight my eyes were accustomed to. I thought maybe the lighting did not seem right because it was man-made, and it wasn’t natural. Our confinement to rows of desks was another unnatural demand made on our active little bodies. We had

to sit at these hard things for what seemed like forever before relief (recess) came midway through the morning and afternoon. Running carefree in the village and fields was but a sweet memory of days gone by. We all went home for lunch since we lived a short walk from school. It took coaxing, and sometimes bribing, to get me to return and complete the remainder of the school day.

School was a painful experience during those early years. The English language and the new set of values caused me much anxiety and embarrassment. I couldn’t comprehend everything that was happening, but I could understand very well when I messed up or wasn’t doing so well. Negative messages were communicated too effectively and I became more and more unsure of myself. How I wished I could understand other things in school just as well.

The conflict was not only in school performance but in many other areas of my life as well. For example, many of us students had a problem with head lice due to the “unsanitary conditions in our homes.” Consequently, we received a harsh

shampooing which was rough on both the scalp and the ego. Cleanliness was crucial, and a washing of this sort indicated to the class that one came from a home setting which was not healthy. I recall one such treatment and afterwards being humiliated before my peers with a statement that I had “She’na” (lice) so tough that I must have been born with them. Needless to say, my Super Indian self-image was no longer intact.

“Leave Your Indian at Home”

My language, too, was questioned right from the beginning of my school career. “Leave your Indian at home!” was like a school trademark. Speaking it accidentally or otherwise was punishable by a dirty look or a whack with a ruler. This reprimand was for speaking the language of my people which meant so much to me. It was the language of my grandmother, and I spoke it well. With it, I sang beautiful songs and prayed from my heart. At that young and tender age, it was most difficult for me to comprehend why I had to part with my language. And yet at home I was encouraged to attend school so that I might have a better life in the future. I knew I had a good village life already, but this awareness dwindled each day I was in school.

As the weeks turned to months, I learned English more and more. It may appear that comprehension would be easier. It got easier to understand, all right. I understood that everything I had, and was a part of, was not nearly as good as the whiteman’s. School was determined to undo me in everything from my sheepskin bedding to the dances and ceremonies which I had learned to have faith in and cherish. One day I dozed off in class after a sacred all-night ceremony. I was startled awake by a sharp jerk on my ear, and informed coldly, “That ought to teach you to attend ‘those things’ again.” Later, all alone, I cried. I couldn’t understand why or what I was caught up in. I was receiving two very different messages; both were intended for my welfare.

Values in lifestyle were dictated in various ways. The Dick and Jane reading series in the primary grades presented me pictures of a home with a pitched roof, straight walls, and sidewalks. I could not identify with these from my Pueblo world. However, it was clear I didn’t have these things, and what I did have did not measure up. At night, long after grandmother went to sleep, I would lie awake staring at our crooked adobe walls casting uneven shadows from the light of the fireplace. The walls were no longer just right for me. My life was no longer just right. I was ashamed of being who I was, and I wanted to change right then and there. Somehow it became very important to have straight walls, clean hair and teeth, and a spotted dog to chase after. I even became critical of, and hateful toward, my bony, fleabag of a dog. I loved the familiar and cozy environment at grandmother’s house, but now I imagined it could be a heck of a lot better if only I had a whiteman’s house with a bed, a nice couch, and a clock. In school books, all the child characters ever did was run at leisure after the dog or kite. They were always happy. As for me, all I seemed to do at home was go for buckets of water and cut up sticks for a lousy fire. Didn’t the teacher say drinking coffee would stunt my growth? Why couldn’t I have nice tall glasses of milk so I could have strong bones and white teeth like those kids in the books? Did my grandmother really care about my well-being?

Torn Away

I had to leave my beloved village of Cochiti for my education beyond 6. I left to attend a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school 30 miles from home. Shined shoes and pressed shirt and pants were the order of the day. I managed to adjust to this just as I had to most of the things the school shoved at me or took away from me. Adjusting to leaving home and the village was tough enough. It seemed the older I got, the further I got from the ways I was so much a part of. Since my parents did not own an automobile, I saw them only once a month when they came in the community truck. They never failed to come supplied with “eats” for me. I enjoyed the outdoor oven bread, dried meat, and tamales they usually brought. It took a while to get accustomed to the diet of the school. Being in town with strange tribes under one roof was frightening and often very lonely. I longed for my grandmother and my younger brothers and sisters. I longed for my house. I longed to take part in a Buffalo Dance. I longed to be free.

I came home for the four-day Thanksgiving break. At first, home did not feel right anymore. It was much too small and stuffy. The lack of running water and bathroom facilities was too inconvenient. Everything got dusty so quickly, and hardly anyone spoke English. It occurred to me then that I was beginning to take on the whiteman’s ways that belittled my own. However, it didn’t take long to “get back with it.” Once I reestablished my relationships with family, relatives, and friends, I knew I was where I came from. I knew where I belonged.

Leaving for the boarding school the following Sunday evening was one of the saddest events in my entire life. Although I had enjoyed myself immensely the last few days, I realized then that life would never be the same again. I could not turn back the time just as I could not do away with school and the ways of the whiteman. They were here to stay and would creep more and more into my life. The effort to make sense of both worlds together was painful, and I had no choice but to do so. The schools, television, automobiles, and many other outside ways and values had chipped away at the simple cooperative life I began to grow in. The people of Cochiti were changing. The winter evening gatherings, the exchanging of stories, and even the performing of certain ceremonies were already only a memory that someone commented about now and then. Still, the two worlds were very different and the demands of both were ever present. The whiteman’s was flashy, less personal, but very comfortable. The Cochiti were both attracted and pushed toward these new ways which they had little to say about. There was no choice left but to compete with the whiteman on his terms for survival. To do that I knew I had to give up part of my life.

Joseph Suina retired from the University of New Mexico faculty in 2006. He now devotes himself to farming, family, and the Cochiti tribal council. This article originally appeared in the New Mexico Journal of Reading, Winter 1985. Used by permission of the author.

DMU Timestamp: November 07, 2017 21:11





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