Isskootsik (Before Here Was Here) is Gyasi Ross’s latest work. It’s up for pre-sale now on iTunes and officially releases May 12. I’ve reviewed Ross’s other works and was excited to get my hands on his first album. Usually when I review a literary work, I read it, write about it, and move on with my day. This time though, I opened the files and started listening with my husband. It sparked a great conversation, one so great we decided to co-write the “review.”
Ross is an author, speaker, lawyer and storyteller; he graduated from Columbia Law, but these things don’t tell you who Ross is. Ross is a father, a doer, a pusher and, most of all, a thinker. He has written two books – you may have seen him on the Ed Show or heard him on a number of different radio stations, or you may have never heard of him at all. If the latter is the case, I urge you to familiarize yourself with his work.
Personally speaking, Ross’s work is consistently solid, and always pushing new horizons, but this time he did something amazing. Something we feel must be pointed out, because utilized the correct way, could completely change the way we view, and apply, education as Natives. And, as we all know, the education system (for everyone) is in desperate need of change.
So if you’re looking for an article to tell you about the album, this isn’t it. (It’s great. As always. Go buy it.) If you’re looking to restore / adapt / revolutionize the way we approach education as Natives, please keep reading.
Before we explain what we saw in this album that is so wonderful, let’s see what Ross had in mind. What was his goal?
“My family has been involved in the storytelling business for hundreds, if not thousands of years for survival – I just try to do my little part to carry on tradition and show that our stories can be adapted through time and through different styles. We’re the best storytellers in the world and this is just another manifestation of that innate gift that is within all Native people.
This obviously has some hip-hop style to it, some spoken word poetry flavor and some hot production… We can do that too. As John Mohawk said, ‘Culture is a learned means of survival in an environment.’ As those environments change, so do our means of survival – we gave stories and lineages orally and through weaving and petroglyphs, and then we went to books in ADDITION TO those more ancient means, and now we use all of those ancient styles of storytelling PLUS music and apps and computers and whatever to survive as Native people in this environment.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Restoration, adaptation, revolution. It’s how we not only survive as Natives, but as humans. It’s about restoring our ways, adapting them for today and revolutionizing them.
So, what? He released an album, how is that new? How is that restoring? How is that adapting? How is that revolutionizing? It’s been done before, so why are we intrigued?
Natives learn differently than others, and we have for thousands of years. The written word, albeit grand, was not our thing. Books have really only been in our immediate surroundings, in our homes, for less than 100 years. 100 years. That’s all.
We’ve been learning orally for thousands of years, we simply cannot switch to another style and thrive in the given time period. Native children deal with the brunt of the comprehension struggle as the current education system doesn’t necessarily cater to all learning styles and until they are properly recognized, children (and adults) will continue to struggle.
In terms of historical / generational trauma, education in Indian country is often viewed negatively. Although the Catholic residential schools are abolished, we still have up and running historical residential schools, only now they’re called Indian schools. So the stigma with literature is still a very fresh wound for a lot of families. Books were not given to us, they were forced upon us as a way to save us from our “heathen” ways. Just like anything else, when you’re forced to accept something, rather than have it bestowed as a gift, your reaction is going to be negative to whatever it was for a long while.
Another problem is the education system on reservations. It’s often difficult to find ANY teachers, let alone the best teachers. The majority of communities are rural, making it difficult to find committed teachers. The teachers often get burnt out from travel, plus a heavy workload, or they’re there for other reasons. With that said, there are many amazing teachers who work in Indian country, yet with those bad seeds in there, our children fall through the cracks in the world of literacy.
The love of books starts in the home, which is a well-known fact in the education community. Many of our communities are broken, and books don’t hold much value. For a family struggling to eat on a daily basis, the next Stephen King thriller isn’t going to be something they’re excited about.
If we look historically at our people, we are a linguistic culture. Across Indian country, our teachings, our history, our medicines, our entire way of life was not taught through a book. We learned through hands-on, oral instruction and it was decided for us that this way of learning was incorrect.
If we were to implement visual and auditory media into our educational system, it is theorized that the retention of knowledge would increase. Native children are put into an educational system that is not cohesive to their home life. If we expect them to thrive, shouldn’t their education match their home life? Which is easier to change? If we want our households to change we need to remove the disparities within the communities. If we want education to change, it means a revamp of the entire system, including the BIA. Neither of these tasks are easily accomplished. With that being said, the work going on within Indian country is gaining momentum every year. As far as poetry goes, for all the reasons said, this art form is not exactly attractive to Native youth because most poetry is written. Ross has found a medium which suites not only our historical learning, but opens avenues to new art forms, ones that haven’t yet been seen in Indian country. This revolutionary work could change the way we utilize media in Indian country if the value is seen.
Dereck’s professional and educational abilities have been recognized with fellowships awarded from the North Dakota EPSCoR program at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) in 2011; of which had only been awarded to one other Native American in its history prior to Derecks award. Dereck is presently working on his PhD in Natural Resource Management at NDSU and is aspiring to obtain a Masters of Public Health degree in the future.
“We must attempt to bridge the gap of any and all differences when working within Indian Country. We need to stop working in crisis mode putting out fires constantly and rebuild with an Indigenous view and direction, one that our people understand, rebuild what makes sense to us rather than conform”