Klas Mamfok

Ever since we created the Chamorro Studies Program at UOG, there has been an expected tension within the university over what should or should not constitute the program offerings. While there isn't much debate over whether the Chamorro Studies program should offer courses in Chamoru language, Chamoru history or that discuss Chamoru culture from a theoretical perspective, there are regular disagreements over whether or not the program should offer "culture" courses. As someone who went off to grad school with the intent of helping to "decolonize" the University of Guam, a place where I had received my BA and my first MA, this conflict is usually very personal.

Most everyone can agree that academia should make room for "indigenous knowledge" in a trendy or fad-like sense. In the same way in which everyone might want to connect something about climate change to their work to be aligned with prevailing intellectual currents, we find something similar in talking about recovering or promoting indigenous knowledge in a modern context. But while there may be much agreement about indigenous knowledge in an abstract sense, as more of a series of exotic anecdotes or native trivia to supplement the real source of truth and knowledge, a more traditional Western academic core, going beyond this will usually create problems.

At UOG for example we've tried to regularly offer weaving courses, and a handful of other "culture" courses, where students can experience in a more hands-on way, certain parts of Chamoru culture. The offering of these courses can often be a pain however, as faculty and administrators constantly have to be put at ease that offering a class which foregrounds and privileges indigenous ways of knowing doesn't mean the end of the world. It doesn't mean the end of educational possibility.

It is so laughable when this moments inevitably arrive each semester. In the ways in which scholars seem overcome with anxiety that a class is being offered which doesn't revolve around writing a paper following some ridiculous citational system, in order to proper up a variety of Western forms of knowledge and power dynamics. It is a reminder that the establishment of any system, whether it be of governance, relations or knowledge, necessarily requires expulsions, displacements. Something or a set of somethings have to be expelled for the system to emanate cohesion and order.

Indigenous possibility and viability is one of those very things that was expelled to make the modern modern. The make the modern work, to make it capable of carrying meaning. When the indigenous push goes too far, you can see people react in this way, as if the return of some long banished zombie, bearing the virus of a new epistemological order is at hand.

This is one my mind, as for several years I have been working with a Chamoru teacher, Jose Babauta, on developing a standardized weaving curriculum and textbook for the Guam public school system. This past semester we were analyzing different curricula that are being used in Asia, the Pacific, North and South America, which are indigenous focused. One of the models we are using is based around weaving within the Navajo tribes, which was piloted in the 1990s. An article about it is below.


Elders weave Navajo teens a math lesson
by The Associated Press
July 11, 1994

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – Monument Valley High School’s principal hopes an innovative new class will help raise students’ below-average math scores through weaving and beadwork.

The program is an experimental partnership between Navajo elders, the high school and the University of Utah Institute for Theory and Application of Mathematics.

It also marks the first time Navajo elders have been paid to come into the classroom to help teach skills like geometry.

“We have a hard time motivating kids here because something like geometry has no relevance to them,’ Principal Pat Seltzer says.

“You don’t really learn unless you’re putting the information in your own terms, your own perspective.’

She is quoted in Monday’s Salt Lake Tribune.

The high school in Monument Valley, which is located along the southeastern Utah border on the Navajo Reservation, has a predominantly Navajo student body.

Most math books and math teachers in the United States teach linear methods common to non-Indian cultures. But in schools like Monument Valley, teachers are finding that such methods don’t work.

“We are trying not to use books and chalk as much,’ says Seltzer. “We are trying to fuse the traditional life with modern technologies.’

The three-week “dual-understanding’ math education program was developed by Claudette Bradley, a Harvard scholar, University of Alaska mathematics educator and American Indian. Bradley has published research on the use of the educational computer-graphic-design program LOGO to design Navajo rugs and beadwork.

Under the program, six Navajo elders teach weaving, beadwork and basket-making to volunteer students, explaining the symbolism of the design and the folklore that surrounds the crafts. Students are simultaneously introduced to computer-aided geometric design.

They learn to create a traditional craft design on the computer and then produce the rug, basket or beadwork. In the process, the students learn math.

The program was supported with donations from Kerr-McGee Corp., Richard D. Harrison, Quaker Oats Corp. and the Herbert I. and Elsa B. Michael Foundation.

At first, Navajo elders were uneasy about weaving a rug or basket from a design planned on a computer.

“They don’t use blueprints,’ explains Larry Holiday, a Navajo translator who helped administer the program. “They were puzzled why we would do this, draw it on a computer first.
“For them, it comes from in here,’ he says, pointing to his head.

But Navajo elders concluded that the program was a good way to blend new techniques with tradition. They also saw the class as a means to help them preserve their culture by teaching new generations.

“Among the young people, we are losing the language,’ says Don Mose, the high school’s liason counselor. “We hang our culture on the walls, we walk on it, but so many young people do not know these baskets and rugs have a meaning, it’s not just a pretty design.’

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