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Dr. Grauer's Column - Becoming Indigenous on Our Land

Becoming Indigenous on Our Land

Dr. Grauer delivered this speech in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day to the student body at The Grauer School during the school's weekly assembly on Tuesday, October 12, 2021.

Háawak [“haaw-ke”]. Hello, from the Kumeyaay land now called Grauer School.  

Yesterday was Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly only Columbus Day. And I have a question I want to leave you with about this day.

We still celebrate some aspects of Columbus’s 1492 voyage: his courage, his big vision, and his Italian heritage.

Dr. Grauer speaks about Indigenous Peoples Day to the student body at The Grauer School - October 12, 2021

But most people back then, 500 years ago, did not understand the integrity and value of other cultures. This is called ethnocentrism: stick to your own kind. Our god is better than your god. Our truth is the real truth. All cultures, however “civilized,” think this to some extent and none are innocent. When we are not at our best, this occurs on our own campus as our students form “cliques.” Clique behavior is not much different than ethnocentrism on a small group level.

Of course, the human mind is capable of very much more, and I think developing the capability to gain a wider, more inclusive perspective is the essential work of a school. There is much to honor and explore.

Since the explorers and colonialists were ethnocentric, it has become ultimately almost impossible to celebrate even their greatest voyages without honoring the people whose cultures they sometimes destroyed. Those were indigenous cultures, often perfectly adapted to their ecosystems. Their indigenous practices had enormous value we are still discovering. This discovery is evidence of the evolution of the human mind, I think.

I would like to think that we can be indigenous here—indigenous to this land and to a sustainable school culture which we have nurtured over decades of slowly adapting to the natural bowl our school rests in. Understanding and respecting our land might be the best way to celebrate this holiday. Let's celebrate the scrub oaks that host 80 species in a micro-ecosystem, the white sage used to purify, the deerweed that fertilizes our soil, and the cactus that bears fruit and makes medicine. We are creating a sustainable ecosystem on our land, though we have a long way to go.

It is a terrible thing to think that when we learn from indigenous peoples and lands, it is “cultural appropriation” or some kind of fraud or thievery. Learning well from the indigenous is the greatest respect we can possibly show them, and show the earth, as long as we express that respect and gratitude. There is something indigenous about every one of us, if we can discover it. Simple and profound ideas like reconceiving the whole idea of “trash”—reusing, recycling, composting, and a reliance on organic (non-plastic) material—can make us more indigenous. Situating our students in circles rather than rows for discussions and projects removes hierarchies and invites sharing and storytelling—we are in a community. 

Luke L. '26 displaying carrots that were harvested from The Grauer School's garden - October 12, 2021

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we pause to show respect to the Native Nations who for thousands of years and today steward the lands, air and waters we know and enjoy. Today we must do this stewarding on our campus and so we must study their ways. At school, we gather daily not only on Grauer School land, but on Kumeyaay land.

We have the land deed now, but we will always share this heritage. Native Americans have provided leadership in so many fights to protect and restore the earth, and this inspires us. We remain in solidarity with indigenous, native communities and commit to doing our part to understand their ways as we put real thought into saving our home planet—as we let go of thoughts of our own, smaller needs, our ethnocentrism, our daily “needs,” and thank our land as they did.

Indians lived mainly in concert with their ecosystems. These indigenous have also watched for five centuries on our continent, which they call Turtle Island, as people have come from other lands to destroy that culture or to be takers more than givers.

We as a school can listen and learn how to be more indigenous in preserving not only land but culture. Today I have news that Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, passed away just a few days ago on September 25. She was 88 years old. Marie was committed to the Wukchumni people, and to the Native language revitalization movement. [1]

Wukchumni originated around the Tule River of Central California. According to Emergence Magazine, Marie spent twenty years documenting her language—word by word—in the form of a written and spoken dictionary, the first work of its kind in the Wukchumni language. [2] And then she died, its only native speaker. Thanks to her inspiration, Wukchumni classes are being offered at the local tribal community center.

Grauer 7th Grade students helping to remove corn plants from a garden bed in the Grauer Garden - October 1, 2021

Cultures can become extinct. In the US, in one of the cruelest actions I know was that for well over 100 years, native kids were literally forced into distant boarding schools for their entire education, where they could be whipped (and yes, oftentimes killed) for speaking anything other than the King’s English, and while back home all their native stories and skills decayed, and their cultures and languages were starving. Now, right here in California, Marie Wilcox’s dictionary has become an inspiration to other Native communities working to revitalize their own languages and to get over the trauma of “reeducation.”

Studying our own native or indigenous language and ways adds creativity and self-awareness, and hopefully self-esteem. I have seen native languages and ecological practices being taught on various Indian reservations, but also in Ireland, the middle east, Korea and around the world. I have shared news of indigenous language revitalization with most of our foreign language teachers. I want these to be studies as a part of our foreign language curricula, because all over the US, South America, Canada, and all around Asia, native languages are at risk just like plant and animal species. The long-billed woodpecker and the native languages have both faced extinctions.

Marie said before she died, “My dream is to hear the family talking to each other and talking to me in Wukchumni.”

My dream is to see this land that our school rests on lush with native plants that belong here and that our students and teachers study; to see our land grow crops and orchards and flowers and indigenous plants that enable our students and teachers to understand what this land means; to be proud when we have Kumeyaay visitors on campus; to nurture this land as it nurtures us every day; and to become more indigenous on our school land, if that is possible.

“For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

I am a white man whose ancestors all immigrated from Europe. I am aware of some of them who suffered abuses from dominant cultures, but maybe some of my ancestors were on the other side, as well—I am willing to have that conversation, but I don’t know much about it. I want to go forward. Can I live on our campus as though my life depended upon it? Can I know my campus neighbors more intimately: the plants, the four-legged animals, the ancestors, the people? Can I become indigenous, or live more that way?

Grauer Physical Education students eating carrots that were harvested from The Grauer School's garden - October 12, 2021

Becoming indigenous means developing intimate knowledge of a place—our campus—our impact on it, its impact on us. Our school land speaks to us. The Kumeyaay were masters at hearing bird songs and in singing those songs. They got messages from eagles, and from red-tailed hawks we still see overhead on our campus every day. They cleansed with white sage. They had sophisticated growing practices which fed them but kept the land balanced and productive. Now I wonder: What messages am I getting and observing from our campus that have been here long before and will last long after I’m gone?

Happy Indigenous People’s Day, everyone. Thank you for reading.

[1] Marie Wilcox, Who Saved Her Native Language From Extinction, Dies at 87, New York Times, October 6, 2021.

[2] Language Keepers, Chapter 2: Wukchumni, Emergence Magazine.

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Dr. Grauer speaks about Indigenous Peoples Day to the student body at The Grauer School - October 12, 2021

Dr. Grauer speaks about Indigenous Peoples Day to the student body at The Grauer School - October 12, 2021

Luke L. '26 displaying carrots that were harvested from The Grauer School's garden - October 12, 2021

Grauer 7th Grade students helping to remove corn plants from a garden bed in the Grauer Garden - October 1, 2021

Grauer Physical Education students eating carrots that were harvested from The Grauer School's garden - October 12, 2021

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