Culture, race and the classroom


First as a student, then as a teacher, and now as a teacher of teachers, Dr. Glenabah Martinez has spent much of her life reflecting on the nature of education - what it is, who it serves, and how it happens.

Now, she helps others deconstruct and reconstruct the educational models used in grade-school settings and beyond.

"History & Identity: Perspectives of a Native Teacher" is the title of Martinez's lecture planned Wednesday (Nov. 9), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. This is the final talk in the Southern Methodist University in Taos/University of New Mexico-Taos Fall Lecture Series for 2011. Admission is free and the public is invited.

Martinez is of Taos Pueblo and Diné ancestry. She began school in Albuquerque, then moved to Taos Pueblo where she attended Taos Day School beginning in second grade. From there, she attended Taos High School, spent a year at a boarding school in Navajo country, and then returned to Taos High for her last two years before graduation.

Now an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico (UNM), she works to understand the complexities of our modern educational system and how it does - or doesn't - support the older, educational models used within tribal communities.

Martinez said she remembers enjoying her time as a student at the Pueblo's Day School because "it was an extension of our own community."

When she started attending school in the town of Taos as a freshman, it was different. "I didn't have the language for what I was feeling, but now I know what it was," Martinez reflected. "I felt the culture of our Pueblo people at Taos was not honored."

Martinez said she remembers several teachers who helped her to make sense of what she was experiencing. They recommended books by authors Rudolfo Anaya and Stan Steiner. Looking back, Martinez said she realized these teachers were probably part of the Chicano movement of the time. Martinez said that what she and her teachers discussed together, now has a term. Among educators it is known as "cultural discontinuity."

As a teenager, Martinez said she read about the civil rights movement and the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee, S.D. (1973). During her time in Gallup, she heard stories of the injustices that were a part of "border town existence."

"It was a totally different form of education," Martinez attested, reflecting that she saw both the good parts of merging Native and white cultures, and the bad - including racism and alcoholism.

Martinez' experiences prompted her to receive her bachelors and masters degrees from the University of New Mexico in education. She became a social studies teacher for a dozen years, and developed curriculum. Eventually, she returned to school to receive a doctorate so that she could teach teachers. Martinez said she chose to become an educator because she wanted children to have a positive experience of school.

After earning her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Martinez took a position with UNM as interim director of Native American Studies. Today, in addition to serving as a UNM faculty member, Martinez works with Native communities on curriculum development, including youth projects with Red Willow Education Center at Taos Pueblo. She is working with Pueblo educators across the state on New Mexico history curriculum.

Martinez recently published a book titled "Native Pride: The Politics of Curriculum and Instruction in an Urban Public School" that examines the daily experiences of tribal youth in an urban, public high school settings in the Southwest. "The major point I want to make in the lecture is that we shouldn't assume that education only takes place in a K-12 classroom setting. Education takes place at multiple sites in many different ways."

She adds, "Prior to the first contact with Europeans in the 16th century, native people were engaged in education all the time. We've always engaged in learning skills and knowledge and imparting skills and knowledge, and applying skills and knowledge and assessing skills and knowledge.

"We are educated, and we educate on, sustainability," Martinez commented. "We are educated about how to hunt, gather, fish, all those things. And that's just the basic survival skills. And, then, as you move on, there's learning about cultural traditions and worldviews. It's not just a matter of saying today we're corn dancing. But, it's understanding the purpose of the ceremonies that we do. It's also understanding oral history - how we came here, and where we're going."

She says there was an assumption built into the contemporary educational system, which few saw worth correcting, that Native kids "didn't have any knowledge, that they were ignorant." Martinez asserted that these children "had vast floods of knowledge ... but that knowledge wasn't recognized, and it certainly wasn't honored in curriculum instruction and assessment and policy."

To change it, Martinez said, "I think it's crucial as educators and members of this community that we recognize the integrity of our cultures in imparting knowledge. We use the ideas of cultural proficiency and cultural competency. It's a type of thinking in which we ask teachers to really think of themselves as cultured, gendered, social-classed, racialized individuals themselves first ... In that recognition of one's own identity as a teacher you can then understand, or try to make sense of, the multiple identities that students bring to the classroom."

People talk about the idea of a "colorblind society," Martinez continued. "I'd worry if a teacher said that she or he doesn't see race. Because you have to see race. Race is something that does determine, sometimes, how somebody experiences walking into school, or into a bank, or any public setting ... I talk with teachers about how it's important to know about the cultures of the students that you're serving in your classroom ... It's the teacher who helps to interpret and negotiate with the student what's written in the text. Oftentimes, as we know, text books are sometimes just the dominant narrative of the dominant society. When you have students who do not see their culture in the books, or it's a stereotypical representation of that particular group, the teacher should find a way to enhance that, to make it culturally relevant to the students who he or she is teaching."

For example, Martinez explained that as we approach the centennial of New Mexico's statehood, educators might consider teaching about the multitude of federal policy events that affected the indigenous people of New Mexico.

"A teacher operating under the cultural proficiency framework, would say, ‘Let's look at this 100-year period, and let's take a look at these political events and let's study them. Let's look at the primary documents, public documents, and counter narratives to the Pueblo Lands Act or the Citizenship Act. Native Americans in New Mexico didn't have the right to vote until 1948."

While Martinez advocates for teachers to include multiple narratives that include indigenous experiences, she cautioned against including what is considered to be sacred knowledge in school curriculum. As an example, she said some Native students who are absent from school due to ceremonial duties have been asked to write about their ceremonial activities by their teachers - activities they are forbidden to discuss by their tribal communities. Such assignments place students in awkward positions, no matter how well intentioned, and can negatively affect the relationship to their teachers and school.

"When it comes to sacred knowledge, knowledge a community has deemed as private knowledge, as sovereign entities we have the right to determine what we want in curriculum," Martinez asserted. She stated that with 22 separate sovereign tribes in New Mexico it is important for educators to be aware that each community has its own value system and regulations regarding knowledge sharing.

"It's a sovereign right for each community to determine what knowledge they want to be imparted in public settings," Martinez said.

Martinez summarized, "To be a teacher in Taos, you really have to sit back and learn about the community ... knowing about the culture and history of the community makes you a better teacher."

For more on future lecture series, visit or call (575) 758-4677.


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