Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Our Trickster, the School {part 3}

May 15th, 2014 by
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series "Our Trickster, The School" by Adrea Lawrence| May 2014


The following excerpt is Part 2 of a four-part essay “Our Trickster, The School,” published throughout May 2014. If this is your first time visiting our site, we encourage you to begin with Part I and Part II and continue on to Part IV. Subscribers to our site will also receive a complete version of “Our Trickster, The School” when the entire serial has been published.


“Stop!  Stop!  If I laugh any harder, I’m going to cry,” exclaimed the education historian to her source.

“He caught one by the tail and I clambered on its back and rode it about the pen.  It was great fun.  I felt better when I got off, and thought to myself that if my homesickness returned I would ride a pig again,” remarked Don Talayesva, a student at the Keams Canyon school in Arizona.1

“You and your friends rode pigs!”

“What else could we do?” Talayesva responded (in the education historian’s mind).

The School Chuckles

The school might well stimulate learning, but that learning does not always follow the content and form of the formalized curriculum.  For example, the school taught Talayesva that he was out of his home community and that in order to make it through his time at school and return home, he needed to remedy his homesickness.  His method was perhaps unconventional, but that is what the school provoked.  The comedic tonic of Talayesva’s episode is characteristic of the trickster.  Anthropologist Paul Radin writes of the Winnebago trickster, “[l]aughter, humour [sic] and irony permeate everything Trickster does.”2  These qualities are necessary as trickster is the fool and the wayfinder.

To be both the fool and the wayfinder, trickster has a plasticity that confounds and illuminates, sometimes simultaneously.  Hyde argues, “[h]aving no way, trickster can have many ways.”3  Trickster is a sort of blank slate and mirror.  Radin adds to this notion, writing that Trickster “wills nothing consciously.  At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control.  He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both.  He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.”4  Having “no way” and “no control” suggests that trickster is a conduit of sorts.  Trickster responds to externally set conditions and sanctions.  And because it does not know self-restraint, trickster is frequently overcome by its impulse to exaggerate and overreach.  It is at this moment when trickster reveals its “creative fabulation, feigning, and fibbing”;5 it is also at this moment that trickster reveals the absurdity of the situation.

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Araphaho or Shoshone Boy, Wind River, Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, October 11, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5516.

Araphaho or Shoshone Boy, Wind River, Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, October 11, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5516.

Spades

“It was soon reported to the superintendent that a new pupil had come. When the afternoon session opened and the pupils were seated, Little Tail was given a seat at one of the desks, but to our delight he slid down and sat on the floor. The teacher rapped the top of the desk with a ruler and cried, ‘Silence!’ and order was restored.”

“‘What is the name of the new boy?’ he asked.”

“‘Thin´-je-zhin-ga,’ answered one of the boys.”

“Gray-beard tried to repeat the name, but only set the whole school laughing. While this was going on, Little Tail reached down to his belt and drew out a roll of milkweed fibre. It was his ammunition. He tore off enough to make a bullet, chewed it, and, bringing the breach of the pop-gun to his mouth, inserted the ball, twisting the gun with his hands while he pressed the was in with his teeth, making many motions with his head. By pounding the butt of the rammer on the floor, he drove the ball to the firing point; then raising the gun he began forcing the ball with vigorous thrusts, aiming it at a mischievous boy who sat opposite making faces at him. Bang! Went the weapon; the bullet, instead of hitting the object aimed at, struck Gray-beard in the face, and made him throw his head back. We covered our faces to suppress the giggles that bubbled up at this mishap. The wounded man looked sharply at the young artillerist, who, seeing the mischief he had done, very slyly thrust his gun in his robe, and, keeping and eye on his victim, sat perfectly still.”

“The teacher looked serious, then we became scared. After a moment his face relaxed, and he said in a pleasant tone, ‘We must have the name of the new boy on the Register, but we cannot have any name that is unpronounceable. We shall have to give him an English name. Will you suggest one?’”

“A number of hands went up and as many historic names were offered and rejected. Finally it was determined to call him William T. Sherman and that name was entered upon the Register.”6

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The naming of Thin’-je-zhin-ga (William T. Sherman) illustrates such “feigning,” “fibbing,” and absurdity.  As the school’s teacher and agent, Gray-beard demonstrates how the school as trickster was the fool and thief.  As Thin’-je-zhin-ga slid from his chair to the floor upon his introduction to the class and Gray-beard, playful disorder ensued, prompting Gray-beard to yell in order to effect silence.  Upon attempting to pronounce Thin’-je-zhin-ga’s name, Gray-beard stumbles and becomes the object of students’ laughter.  And, after Thin’-je-zhin-ga shot a spitwad that accidentally hit Gray-beard’s face, students again quietly, but gleefully, giggled.  Gray-beard, as the school’s agent, was the fool.  But he was also the thief.  Gray-beard took Thin’-je-zhin-ga’s pop-gun, and he took Thin’-je-zhin-ga’s name, insisting that students assign another name to their peer.  They chose William T. Sherman, the name of the Union general whose “scorched earth” policy against the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War made him famous and whom, ironically, was named after the famed Shawnee leader, Tecumseh.  Had the thief again become the fool?
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Flathead Schoolchildren at Flag Raising Ceremony, September 19, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4421.

Flathead Schoolchildren at Flag Raising Ceremony, September 19, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4421.

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Having no compass, the school, our trickster, and its agents react to external forces and conditions in ways that overstep and make little sense.  The school drew children in to its “uncanny territory,” and required its charges to act as colonialist operatives by renaming Thin’-je-zhin-ga.  But the attempt at hegemony disintegrated as students gave Thin’-je-zhin-ga a Euroamerican name and an Indian name.  Trickster’s trick boomeranged.  Scholar Philip J. Deloria writes of the Lakota trickster, Iktomi, “At the moment he is tricking you, his trick backfires or reverses and become a trick on himself.  Everything happens simultaneously.”7  The school was duped as it attempted to dupe others.

In creating or acting in seemingly ludicrous situations, the school, in effect, creates or enacts contradictions; it lies.  Lies can damage, and they can also serve as portals through which we can glimpse other potentialities.  Hyde writes, “the problem is to make a ‘lie’ that cancels the opposition and so holds the possibility of new worlds.”8  It is at this juncture—the lie or contradiction that illuminates the trickster’s simultaneously appearing pinnacle and nadir—that the so-called pore opens.  It is at this moment when the lie and the trickster become unhinged and when the novel learning can commence. The trickster shifts its shape and flashes alternate chances and choices.  They are fleeting, ethereal, and real.  What to do?  If we miss the pore, the damage would seem to loom.  But if we recognize that a pore has opened, do we look through the aperture and pounce on another potentiality?  Can we counter the damage?


Donald Warren of Indiana University and Christopher J. Frey of Bowling Green State University served as peer reviewers for this essay.  We are grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this meditation.





 

Series Navigation<< Our Trickster, the School {part 2}Our Trickster, the School {part 4} >>

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