Susanna Kemp/Sagamore Staff
Samuel Zimmerman is the Deputy Superintendent of Student Services. He moved here last year from the New York school system to work in a smaller, more community-oriented environment. We recently spoke with him about his Native American identity and education.
What motivated you to go to college?
I didn’t want to live my whole life on a reservation. That’s what I think — there’s no future on reservations. And that’s a powerful statement. I’ve gotten into arguments with people; my friends used to live on reservations. I have family members that still live on a reservation. I’ve gotten into really interesting discussions with the tribal leaders about the outcomes for kids on reservations, because when you graduate from high school, you turn 18 and you get a check. Most tribes do that. You get some kind of big, financial check because you’re Native American. It’s part of our treaty money from the government, saying “Sorry, we really screwed up your entire culture.” And you get a check, and then you get free housing, and you get a free car. So think about it. If you’re an 18, 19-year-old kid, you’re like, “Wait a minute, my house is free, my car is free, I get checks from the tribe every month.” Why leave? And then on top of that, there are very limited employment opportunities, so they start drinking, or they just hang out at the casino all day if your tribe is rich enough to have a casino. And your mom or dad haven’t been to college, and your grandparents didn’t go to college, so why should you go to college? And let’s say that you did try to go to college. You go to a college that’s so radically different and you’re like, “I’m not happy, I don’t know anyone,” and you get homesick and you go back home.
What was it like going to college and being around White people all the time after thinking that they were hostile?
I’m one of multiple siblings, and I’m the only one that could pass for White. My sister’s really dark. All my sisters are dark. My mother’s not even Native American, she’s Italian, but she’s dark. I’m this weird person in my family because I’m so fair. And the only Native features I have in terms of physicality are my nose and my cheek bones. And it was funny thinking about being hostile to Whites and things like that. If White people came on the reservation, we were raised not to talk to them. And then being in college and being around so many White people, and their upbringings were so different from mine. When you think about all the college movies you watch, what are they doing the in movies? They’re drinking and partying. Native American kids are raised at a very young age to understand the dangers of alcohol, that we are genetically at risk for alcoholism. We’re not European in our genetics. We can’t handle it, just like we can’t handle a lot of foods because we don’t metabolize foods the same way. So that’s why a lot of Native Americans get diabetes or they get alcoholism, because we’re just not used to it. And I remember being in college and my father sitting me down and being like, “Listen, it’s not if you become an alcoholic. You will become an alcoholic, because biologically we can’t handle alcohol.” And almost all male men who are in my family have been alcoholics. So growing up hearing that, but then being in college, and all my friends are like, “We’re gonna go out and get a case of beer and we’re gonna get wasted!” And I was raised, we’re not drinkers. Even now I’m not.
What are the differences between Native American schools and American schools?
Education is designed from culture backwards. So what’s culture? It’s language, it’s customs, it’s spirituality, it’s food, it’s dance. And that’s very much evident every day on a reservation. Growing up on a reservation, there’s always some place to celebrate your culture. Someone’s cooking, someone’s having a party, someone’s singing. Whatever it is, there’s always somebody’s family doing something, so you’re always learning. It’s always embedded in your culture. In school, the culture. The curriculum, for example, instead of having football or basketball, we had lacrosse. In my science class we learned about hunting and gathering. In earth science, instead of spending a month talking about, “what are volcanoes,” we were talking about what plants are poisonous, what plants aren’t poisonous. So it’s more about the customs. Not to say that we don’t learn math, science, history, English, things like that. But instead of writing poetry and reading Robert Frost, we read Native stories. We created our own mythology based on our belief system.
Do you think the curriculum should be changed at all to include Native Americans more or are you content with the way it is?
I think we want all of our curriculum to be inclusive. Inclusive, but also one of depth. To show both sides. Because that’s where learning happens, when you’re faced with opposing views and you get to exercise your own judgment. The purpose of American education is to create well-informed citizens that can lead and invent, discover better society. And I think we lose opportunities by not presenting both sides of every argument. And this is where students get to understand, get to push themselves. And so when I think about the viewpoint of Christopher Columbus — we’ll use him because everyone knows about Christopher Columbus from 1st grade — we learn about his ships, and those little songs, we all know Christopher Columbus. Okay, well should a 1st grader know about the truth of Christopher Columbus? Probably not, because it’s pretty gruesome. But what about an eighth grader? You know what, you learned all this about Christopher Columbus, but here’s the truth. His soldiers killed people too. Thousands of people. Why do you think we celebrate him so much? What are the questions that we ask? Let’s be open to multiple ideas.
Can you speak about Standing Rock?
I have family that has been there, sending me pictures and text messages, you know. It was the first time that multiple groups of tribes came together to stand up to White people again. We haven’t done it since the 1800s. Standing Rock and the Dakotas pipeline, that was the first time we’ve stood up to Whites in 50 years. Especially the fact that multiple tribes who hate each other, hate each other, came together. Like Chippewas don’t like Lakotas. Lakotas don’t like Black Foot. Black Foot doesn’t like Sioux. Cheyenne doesn’t like anybody. But the fact that we’ve put all our history aside to go hang out in the frozen wastelands of Dakota to protest oil was huge. They raised a million dollars in four days just to fly more people in and protect them. I think we’re experiencing — a lot of Native people have been talking about it — we’re experiencing a resurgence of Native American culture in this country.
What advice do you have for high schoolers?
Give yourself a time to enjoy high school. You’ll always have time for a job or taking another course, learning something. But really spend time enjoying that experience and asking people the right questions and being absolutely okay with failing. Not, like, academically, but you know what, you don’t always succeed in your first attempt. I think this is where it gets you ready for life after that door. Because once you walk across that stage with your diploma and you’re outside the bubble of school, and the more questions you ask and the better you pace yourself in high school, and the more challenges you take? I feel like that really gets you ready for that first September where you’re not walking into a school. And you’ll be fine, you’ll be great. And you’ll be ready for the next adventure. Whatever you want to study, you want to take a study abroad, you want to go backpacking for the summer after high school, whatever it is that you want to do and that interests you and drives your curiosity, just give yourself time to get ready for it. Because once you’re out of high school, then you’re on a completely different speed.
The one thing I’ve seen continually across all those ages of learning, plus my own learning, is it is absolutely okay to fail. The words mean one thing. Because you’re like, “Well, no, we can’t fail. I need a 97 average and I need to get first place.” But no, failure’s where you learn, and it’s okay. It’s more than okay. What’s the worst-case scenario if you fail? You what? Your grade could get hurt or impacted, or you and your friend could have a fight about something or you might not get into the college that you wanted to get into. Everything happens for a reason. And it changes and it colors you. That’s the part that I think kids sometimes lose sight of because of all the pressures and different things that are going on with you guys. But it’s absolutely okay to fail as long as you get back up. And as long as you get back up and you’re ready to ask different questions, try a different approach, ask for help, you really can move. If you stay down, or you get so overwhelmed, if you’re so scared of failure — and I learned this from my grandfather, who, well, he was a smart Indian, but he was a smart man, he was like, “If you become so paralyzed by fear of failure, you’ll never try anything.”