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What I learned at Peace and Justice Week

Gettysburg College’s 6th annual Peace and Justice Week was held last week. The event, which had the theme of “decolonization,” was attended by students and faculty from the college’s Peace and Justice Studies minor.

According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary decolonization means to “free from the dominating influence of a colonizing power.”

On the second day of the program I attended, along with about 25 students and their professor, a discussion titled “‘Un-Educate’ – Indigenous Rights in Popular American Education.” A short video was first shown about a concerned parent who asked her school district to provide a more complete history curriculum after discovering her elementary school child’s history book contained only one paragraph on Native American history.

The overarching sentiment at the discussion that followed the film was that history and contributions of Native/Indigenous Americans as taught in the US schools (and those around the world) is not just blatantly deficient, but unconscionably misleading. Student participants said that although many of us may regard Native Americans as something of the past, and believe that their story belongs in history books, there is much to be said about them in the present. The students said Native Americans are living today with rich traditions and making important contributions to society including environmental activism.  

Personally, I remembered my high school history education in the 1970s in Zambia described American Indians as ‘savages,’ and another student in the discussion said the same was true in some high schools today.

Stereotypes about Native Americans were not limited to history books but include TV shows and movies. And the portrayal has not much improved over the decades. Millions around the world saw and still see “good” and “bad” indigenous characters. We did not see anything objectionable when in the television series “Little House on the Prairie,” Pa Ingalls says “That’s one good Indian!” To be considered “good” characters, Native Americans were expected to put the colonists’ needs above those of their own community; any behavior outside of this was portrayed as “evil,” “savage,” or “backward.” Ingalls later says, “When settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on.”

Stereotypes, when reinforced often enough, have been shown to affect how we view others, how we view ourselves, and what we think we know about other cultures.

While it appears that we are living in a time of great division and fear of the ‘other’, we are also moving toward an awakening of the spirit, recognizing that our world can only survive and thrive if all of us are counted. It is also evident that each and every one of us must take individual responsibility to work towards this end goal, to ensure that everyone has the dignity they deserve. Together, we can do this through listening to and supporting each other. When the conversation involves intergenerational collaboration, that is icing on the cake. 

Class members were asked to contribute to the Carlisle Indian School Project (Honoring the Children, Giving Voice to the Legacy) via Venmo. I had never tried before, but I stepped out of my comfort zone to start ‘Venmo-ing’. 

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Having moved a lot growing up, when Rukhsana and her husband Athar moved from New York to Gettysburg in 1986, they didn’t know they would be settling here. She grew up in England, Pakistan, and Zambia but is proud to call Gettysburg home. She and Athar love living here and have raised 3 children. Rukhsana volunteers at local organizations including the YWCA where she serves on the board.

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  • Much appreciate this sharing about a speech I wished I could have attended! Even just knowing the term “decolonization” is helpful in growing our perspective. It is astonishing how much of the world has suffered from colonization. This session reminds me of the insights available from modern Native Americans, such as in “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes as a biologist who also honors her Native American heritage. Great that this opportunity to learn more existed locally, and that you shared it with us. Thanks Rukhsana!

  • Thank you for your words of wisdom Rukhsana Rahman. We need more understanding of the perspective of others who are not in our own “tribe”. Otherwise, peace shall always elude us, as we cannot have Strategic Empathy for those who we do not know or understand. Without empathy we act in ways that are, intentionally or not, undermining justice. Without justice, there is no peace. We are one humanity. Great humanitarians remind us – when one suffers, we all suffer. When everyone thrives, we all thrive!

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