Not long ago, a Diné (Navajo) friend of mine, Lyla June Johnston, sent me a one-line email: “I am not going to Harvard… I am going to plant corn.”
Her statement signals a profound divergence from the path she’d set out on when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is choosing instead to learn the lifeways of her culture, to become fluent in her language, to relearn traditional skills, to be intimate with the land. The dominant American culture does not encourage such a path.
We’d talked about it before, her decision to take a prestigious graduate course at Harvard. The usual themes came up: the doors that might be opened, the credibility that might be turned towards a good cause. I remember observing how common it is to adopt the values and mindsets of the environment in which one is immersed – to become a creature of the very system one sets out to subvert. We appreciated the toxicity of the story, “See, a Native American woman can make it big too and go to Harvard.” Toxic, because it celebrates the very same system of status and privilege that has marginalized the worldview, culture and value system she comes from.
It is often said that people like Lyla are role models for others of like background. Role models for what, though? For being bribed into complicity with the oppressor? For joining the world-devouring machine? For sacrificing local relationships and culture to the melting pot? Certainly, Lyla could rise high in the world symbolized by Harvard; she could become a professor herself one day, teaching young people anti-colonialist thinking. Nonetheless, all that instruction would be happening within a container – a classroom inside a course inside an elite university inside a system of higher education – that implicitly contradicts all she would want to teach. Her students would be thinking, “Sure, but in the end she is benefiting from the system too.”
It originally appeared in Resurgence Magazine. Read the full article there.