The Last Lecture of My First Semester: My Daughter, Pocahontas

Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library

For the past semester, I’ve taught California Studies, a course primarily designed for non-history majors and future K-6 teachers.

I ended our time together by sharing the following story:

Every other Thursday, I bring my five-year-old to campus. Her mother drops her off, we play in my office for a bit and eventually we make our way to the Madden Library. We’ve done this so much that she knows the exact floor and location of her favorite author: Mo Willems. She carefully selects four, sometimes five books from the stacks and then insists that we read each and every single story about Piggie and Geraldo the Elephant…She is only allowed to take two books home, but I tend to concede to her desire for books.

A few weeks ago, right before the Thanksgiving break, she came to my office. During that week, her teacher must have covered a lesson about Native Americans and pilgrims because she wore a headdress to campus. She was proud of what she made it and wore it all day. Now, on campus, as we walked to the library she proceeded to tell me that she was an “Indian.”

“No, Auri,” I tried, “You are Mexican-American.”

Ever the feisty child, she confidently stood her ground,

“Yes, I am. I am Pocahontas.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t want her to think that she wasn’t Indigenous, but I also didn’t know how to discuss Mexico’s long and complicated history with its indigenous peoples. But, I also knew that she was not Pocahontas. So, I waited until we were just outside the library. I pointed up, toward the four-story LCD display of a Yokut woman weaving a basket. “Look Aura, you see that awesome lady. She is a Yokut. Her people have been here for a long, long time, and they are still here. They are the Indians, the Native Americans of this place.”

She looked up and then turned to me and said. “Yeah, but I am an Indian. My teacher told me.”

At that moment my PhD from Columbia or the fact that I teach history at Fresno State was irrelevant. I was just her dad. Whatever she learned in school that day, that week, was the absolute truth.

In the not-to-distant future all of you will be teachers. I hope that what we’ve done throughout the semester will help you think about California’s multiethnic history. About the original peoples of this land as well as the many many migrants that arrived after. Whether it was Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese, or Americans. About how these people treated it each other. About who lost land and how. About all the injustices as well as efforts to resist the status quo, whether that was the Spanish empire, the Mexican or U.S. State. I hope that when you encounter old lesson plans or curriculum that what you’ve learned here will help you produce alternative narratives. And that you’ll actively continue to research and learn about our collective past.

And, I hope, that you will also think about what it means to teach in a majority-minority and multilingual classroom. If you have Spanish-speakers how will you make them feel welcome and how will you demonstrate to the rest of the class that their language skills are an asset to everyone? Something to be celebrated. And, if my child happens to be in your classroom, I hope that I will have the opportunity to be part of the learning process. That, I, as well as other parents, grandparents, and caregivers will be seen as valuable partners in the ever challenging and essential task of educating our children.