New Year, New Challenges

The change of seasons is a progression, a gradual process reflected in the amount of precipitation, the state of vegetation, and the way the wind and sun feel on our skin. My animal body is more aware of these changes than my mind, which has been busy with the pressures and anxieties of relocating my entire household with a six-month-old infant. In the chaos of moving into a new apartment in a new town, of prepping for the start of a new quarter, I have been distracted from the inevitable course of moving into autumn. This is why I was surprised while driving through town last week when I finally noticed that the dry leaves are turning yellow, and the early ones have already begun to fall. These periods of transition and change are something I really love to experience.

I have started what I hope will be my final year at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) in pursuit of my Bachelor of Science degree. After much deliberation, my husband I elected to relocate our entire family to Washington to support this effort. It feels good to be back on campus. Remote learning is a vital tool; one that has enabled access to higher learning for me and other students who cannot travel or relocate for in-person classes, and I am grateful for that. For those of us disconnected from our original tribal communities, however, it matters to connect with other Native people. A tribal college provides a unique opportunity to do just that.

Last week I attended a gala for the NWIC Foundation, which supports the college and our students. It was lovely to meet people and see fellow classmates. A Lummi elder, who I would later learn is also a carver who generously donates his art to raise funds for the college, stood quietly with his arms folded across his chest, hat pulled low over his brow. Our eyes met a few times as I strolled around the venue, eyeing the gorgeous earrings and textiles that were part of the silent auction. Finally, he asked, “Where are you from?”

“I’m Potawatomi,” I answered, “but I just moved back to Bellingham.”

“You’re far from home,” he replied. “How’d you get here?”

I laughed; it’s so true. “Yes,” I said. “How I got here is a long story, but I attend NWIC.”

“Good,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed.

It’s been more than two years since I traveled back to Oklahoma to participate in my tribal community’s annual family reunion festival. My mother and I had also made plans this year to attend the Potawatomi Gathering of the Nations, which brings together all of the Potawatomi tribes for a week of culture-sharing and connection. Between COVID and my pregnancies, the timing hasn’t been right. I long to connect with more of my relatives, especially to listen to elders who are knowledgeable of our language and culture. While I make plans to travel in the coming year, I am grateful for the opportunities I have to spend time with the Lummi community and its elders.

This term I am taking a political science class that examines the state of tribal fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest. Leading the course is another Lummi elder who lived and harvested through the “fish wars” of the 1960s and 1970s. He teaches us in the way that only Native elders can—with story, non-linear discussion, pointed questions, and humor. I consider myself a “good student,” by-and-large. I am a good reader; I am generally disciplined to meet deadlines; I have excelled at the Western notions of study and learning. But being in this course is teaching me that I know nothing about Native pedagogy. I feel awkward and uncomfortable, and most of all, extremely vulnerable. After all, I am a guest! I feel as though I know nothing. And who am I to think I have anything of value to share in this place, with this community?

The elder asked us whether the gift of the Salmon People, who travel up the rivers and offer themselves as food to the people and other animals, is an expression of humility or sovereignty. Why do the questions asked by elders feel like trick questions? Perhaps it is because I am trained to “know” the “right” answer to something, and I strive in my own personality to perform well, to meet or exceed expectations, to please others. What I’m trying to say is this: all of my usual patterns for engaging with instructors seem, from the outset of this course, to be wildly ineffective. I wonder what would happen if I could let go of the practice of being a “good student” in order to please others, and could find myself in the same conversation this instructor is attempting to have?

As we made introductions in his class, I mentioned that I am considering the work of teaching. I participate in the AISES Lighting the Pathway program, which connects Native students with Native faculty mentors who can support us in pursuit of the graduate degrees required for teaching in higher education. Yesterday, he reminded me that I had said this.

“You know,” he said, “You have to be careful of what you say. If you say you are going to do something, we expect you to do it.”

“I know!” I laughed nervously. “This is why I haven’t said anything about it to anyone!” Yet here I am, repeating it again.

At last week’s gala, I spoke with a member of the college’s leadership and shared my uncertainty about the future and my career plans, something folks like to discuss when you’re in your final year of a degree program. I am grateful to this person for his words of wisdom. He said, “Don’t worry about the next step. The Creator doesn’t make mistakes. Just do what is in front of you.”

Despite all of my awkwardness, I am beyond grateful to be here now. So, as I start the beginning of the end of my time as an undergraduate student, I am going to do my best to learn from the elders in this community, to be open and humble to new ways of learning and listening, and to focus on what is in front of me, even while I juggle the effort of future planning. Somehow, I find time to unpack all of the moving boxes. There’s no guarantee I won’t feel awkward in this process, but hopefully I will learn something.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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