Learning about human rights

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, October 8, 2008

“How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right. “ — Black Hawk

I along with three other Human Rights Commissioners from Austin recently attended the Human Rights Conference celebrating 60 years of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Strategies to Strengthen and Invigorate Our Communities in the basement of the Kahler Grand Hotel in Rochester. This is where I gathered the quote, from a book I purchased there: The Wisdom of the Native Americans edited by Kent Nerburn.

Years ago I was teaching sixth grade at a school in Riverside, Cali. We were discussing Christopher Columbus’s voyage. I was talking about the courage it must have taken for Columbus with his discovery of America when Lenard Dallas’s hand went up. Leonard was very artistic, but seldom spoke. He was from the reservation. I called on him. He said: “Columbus didn’t discover America, we did.” It changed the tone.

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During the afternoon there was a breakout session on American Indian Curriculum by two Native Americans, a brother and sister as well as a ‘white’ woman I was looking forward to. Dave Larson, the assistant director for American Indian Affairs at Mankato State University, spoke first. He began by telling of himself. He was a Vietnam veteran and said we are all teachers in one sense—relatives, neighbors then added “talking is not teaching” but there are oral histories and that is what he presented until one of the program leaders come into the room saying they had to shorten their talk.

David left. He left upset. It was hard few a minutes for all of us. His sister Jackie and Marion went ahead but a strong feeling remained in the room, not a good feeling, a sad feeling for me.

Earlier I had looked at the book in the book corner, but I didn’t want to spend the money. I had written down the title and had hoped to find it through the library. I went back and bought it after David left. His sister passed by in the basement hallway later saying to her friend that she was going to look for him.

I was hoping to see David myself and thank him and find out where he served in Vietnam and how he felt about that time in his life.

Another quote from the book: the ways of learning reads: “Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library…” by Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux and another: “We send our little Indian boys and girls to school, and when they come back talking English, they come back swearing. There is no swear word in the Indian languages, and I haven’t yet learned to swear.” Gertrude S. Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) Yankton Sioux.

Another man spoke after lunch, Pete Feigal, a national speaker, artist and actor, on “A gift to be opened, not a problem to be solved” before the breakouts. Peter had about everything possible go wrong with him, including mental illness, depression, suicidal ideation, a crippling disease and now he is loosing his sight but he still goes out once and a while to his garage and climbs aboard his Harley just to get the feeling of being there. Unfortunately his talk ran long and the initial morning business meeting ran long, which “forced” the shortening of Dave’s presentation.

The last session I had trouble listening to because my thoughts was someplace else. The session was entitled, “Can human rights education be a vehicle to ‘Close the Gap’ on race, class and place disparities?”

What struck me most was a statement that public schools literally kill our Indian students.

I did get two good handouts on American Indian History, Culture and Language. One is on “Sovereignty” and the other on “Harmony and Balance.” If you are interested in them, let me know.

Another small book I picked up, hoping it would be my only one besides the 30-cent Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 35-cent The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child was The Umbrella of U.S. Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky cuts through official political rhetoric to examine how the United States not only violates the Universal Declaration, but at times uses it as a weapon to wield selectively against designated enemies.

A few commissioners also attended the Friday night sessions as did an Austin citizen who attends Human Rights Commission meetings regularly.