This image was taken right after my grandson and I had finished his class project for his homework titled, “The First Americans.” He and I had traversed the yard in search of the perfect stick that would make for the handle of the tomahawk he was to make as the final part of his assignment. He then spent the evening painting this carefully chosen stick, leaving it to dry overnight.
In the morning, we searched in my flower gardens for the perfect stone that could be used for the hatchet portion of the tomahawk. We both were disappointed that gardens’ stones provide little in the way of tomahawk material. But we settled on this one, and I set out to show him how to criss-cross the hemp rope to secure the stone to the stick. Not recalling how I knew to do this technique, I can only surmise that somewhere in my own educational indoctrination is a tomahawk assignment that was part of my experience.
And there it was, all ready to be packed securely into the backpack so that a lunchbox and random books could not damage it on the way to school. After all, that hemp anchor was clearly more decorative than functional, and his grade was contingent upon a completed tomahawk making it to his classroom.
That could be the end of the story -- a grandmother spending quality time with a grandchild, bonding over a school project.
But the truth is, I had to bite my tongue when I heard the phrase “the first Americans.” After seeing the study guides for this class project, it was clearly an educational piece to teach students about the Native Indigenous people who were here long before America received its name in the 16th century. While an argument could be made that at least having a study dedicated to Native Indigenous people is a starting point, calling it “the first Americans” positions their history through the lens of colonization.
Let’s be honest here. That’s what we do. We, the keepers of our history are masters at smoke and mirrors that give the vibe of inclusion, when in reality it’s a not-so subtle grab at switching the narrative to focus on the endgame -- all is fair in love, war and colonization when the end result is America the beautiful -- the land of the free and home of the brave.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll pause here to say I get it. It seems white people can’t catch a break from being nudged on the arm and be reminded, “Hey. There’s more to the story here.” I mean come on. Who doesn’t miss those images of the Native Indigenous people and pilgrims sitting down to a table set with turkey and dumplings, many of these images mass-copied on paper and offered to me in my own grade school years to dutifully color which effectively ingrained these images into my being.
No, Beloved, it isn’t about catching a break. It’s about waking up to the hi-jacking of an entire people’s history and stop insisting it be told using words with which we are comfortable. It’s about listening to the Native Indigenous Nations and understanding that colonization continues when we appropriate their customs, dismiss their cries for justice, and refuse to honor their heritage.
For my part, I discussed with my grandson that “the first Americans” were not American at all and did not know these lands by that name. He paused to ponder my words. It was as if you could see his mind stretching beyond the restrictive language of this assignment to understand how much more there was to understand.
That was enough for today. The adults in his life plant these seeds of wisdom in him daily, and he’ll return to our conversation some day and explore the outer edges of what our established educational system didn’t -- or even refuses -- to teach him.
The tomahawk made it safely to school.
He received a perfect grade for the entire project.
But the most important thing from all of this is that one American child understood the importance of context and the sacredness of honoring another’s humanity.
It was small and subtle, but it mattered.
It all matters.
Happy Native American Heritage day.