Penumbra Theater hosts an annual civic engagement campaign, sponsored by MPR, that invites stories about what America looks, feels, and sounds like — and what we dream it can become. The personal narratives reveal fears, losses, and desires. One of the women who stood out among the 2018 storytellers was Isabella Star LaBlanc, who wrote and read this.
My classmates sound like streams. They take turns reciting textbook quotations. Their words are garbled and they sound like a river current, swift and monotonous. I envy how easy this is for them, how light their voices sound. Because for me this class is heavy, covered like thick smoke on water. I’m the only Native kid in this school and I am reminded that school, to my grandmother, was boarding school — education that stole you from home and told you to forget your headwaters. Why do I feel that legacy in this classroom?
American History class felt like reliving a thousand of my old lives.
I was 17 but I felt 500 years older.
I already knew I was history incarnated, treaties and massacres made flesh.
I knew that being indigenous in America means carrying history no one else wants to hold.
And that’s why the concrete textbook felt hollow.
Because for every single leaded page glued into its spine,
there were ten, twenty, thirty more that had been omitted,
discarded in mass graves and prison cells,
kept out of view in museum archives.
I was tired of searching for these forgotten pages alone,
of carrying my trauma like a secret.
So I told my teacher
And then my principal
And then the Head of School
I told them that American history takes bodies like mine
and eats them whole.
But instead of open ears and open palms
the Head of School hid behind a textbook and a big wooden
table and said
I don’t understand the problem.
This is an American history class,
not a Native history class.
When I was 17 I chose silence.
I held my truths close to my heart,
I sealed them in glass so as not to crush them.
But I am no longer 17, and with every year that passes
and every time this country breaks my heart,
I am a little less willing to accept what they wanted to teach me,
that this history is not my history,
this country not my country.
Because I am no longer 17,
but I am reminded of those who are.
Those who are sitting quietly in classrooms,
who hope there is a country out there
with a spot for them at the table,
a choir to sing with their voice.
I am reminded that if we are teaching them anything
other than the fact that this country is their birthright,
we are failing them.
So maybe I’ll write a letter
And I’ll title it Proposed Adjustments to American History Curriculum.
And I’ll send it to the head of school.
In it I will describe the American history class I wish I’d been in.
That every kid deserves to be in.
In my class no one would feel small,
No one would feel like this country’s history means they are not part of its future,
because my class would be a Native history class
And it would be a Black history class
And an Asian history class
And a Latino history class
And a women’s history class.
Because that is my America.
It is Native and Black and Brown,
Christian and Muslim and Jewish.
My America is queer and disabled and poor,
and you can never separate those parts.
Because my America is time immemorial.
Its trees are tall enough to see the future,
to see that we are stronger than the last 500 years of trauma combined.
My America is knowing that this land has known love longer than it has known hate.
My America is learning to remember.