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Education or Indigenous Erasure?

By Gabrielle T. Langkilde, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

I come from a lineage of geniuses.

My Samoan ancestors were so intelligent that they figured out how to sail across the Pacific using only the stars as their guide. Can you imagine that? People nowadays can barely get from point A to point B without Google Maps dictating each and every step that they’re supposed to take.

The genius of my Samoan ancestors is still evident in the elders and the youth of my Samoan community. My cousins and I sit on the floor of the faleo’o and absorb the wisdom passed onto us by our grandfather, as he practices the sacred tradition of oral history and storytelling — tracing our family tree generations back and recounting memories that are not even his own. When it comes time to practice and perform the traditional dances of the siva, sasa, and fa’ataupati, the village youth perfect each careful movement with ease, naturally remaining in sync with each other to every beat of the pate.

Though I come from a lineage and community of geniuses, this secret was kept from me. In school, they did not teach me about the ingenuity of my Polynesian ancestors and their ancient art of navigation. Instead, they taught about great explorers like Christopher Columbus who sailed to what is now the Americas but initially thought he was in the East Indies. Oral history and storytelling was merely a fun hobby because my school taught me that in order to be considered valid and sophisticated storytelling had to follow a rigid five-paragraph structure with advanced English vocabulary. And with all of the stereotypes about our people as nothing more than “dumb jocks” because of our statistically low SAT/ACT scores but statistically high probability of making it into the NFL, I never considered the physically instinctive synchronization with my peers in our traditional dances as a form of intelligence.

The American school system, curriculum, and methodologies for measuring intelligence do not capture the genius of my community. Instead, they completely erase it and brainwash us into thinking that there exists only one way of knowing. American primary, secondary, and higher education systems are some of the strongest instruments of colonial domination to suppress indigenous ways of knowing.

American-style schools distort or more often than not completely refuse to teach our histories. This is evident in that history textbooks mention indigenous people as being “discovered” or that elite universities such as Harvard refuse to institute ethnic studies departments. Additionally, the American education system’s measurements for intelligence rely on so-called “objective” tests that disadvantage students whose first language is not English and whose imaginations cannot be contained by rigid processes taught in the classroom.

I realize the privilege and hypocrisy from which I speak, being a student at Harvard — the ivory tower of prestige and white-washed education. Every time I go home, it saddens me to see my own community put me on a pedestal because of my acceptance into this institution. The romanticization of Western education only further devalues our own ways of knowing and reifies white-washed education systems.

As my senior year approaches and I start thinking about my senior thesis, I continue to struggle with the idea that I must follow specific, concentration-approved methodologies and processes in order to produce valid knowledge about my own community. Is this not the ultimate betrayal of my community and my ingenious ancestors that came before me? Some say that my presence at an institution such as this is a positive sign of progress and increase of Pacific Islander representation on campus. But if that is the case, why do I feel like my presence here only reaffirms the erasure of my people?

I understand that sometimes an education is the best route, both for personal upward mobility and for greater representation and visibility of a community. But the best option for my community, as well as other indigenous communities, should not be something that simultaneously erases it.

Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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