Two Things Part Two: Tessie Naranjo on Western Education

To continue my post from yesterday about the two things that struck me as I was reading Nancy Marie Mithlo’s Our Indian Princess: Subverting the Stereotype, I wanted to also share a quote from an interview Mithlo had with Dr. Tessie Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) who earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of New Mexico:

“I had a real difficulty doing it, and it’s amazing that I got as far in my education as I did. I had a real struggle with it because, you know, you need discipline. I think I had persistence, but without discipline. And other things that are very Western-like. . .playing up to the teachers or raising my hand. It was my Pueblo nature or Pueblo personality that didn’t know how to compete, so that my grades were very mediocre. I don’t value competition. I don’t value individualism. I value the communal sort of thing. I really value the communal, collective sort of thing. So I felt unsuccessful with my Western education, and very slowly I was able to. . .in my own way, I guess. . .able to work it so that I would get as far as I did.”

This quote is significant to me, although I was raised by white parents and didn’t grow up with her type of cultural emphasis on collective, communal living. However, my experiences pursuing my bachelor’s degree at Cornish reflected a similar mentality. I recall one instructor in particular who put great emphasis on competition as a driving factor in being a successful designer. And yet, the one student of hers who I saw in person who attributed his success entirely to following her teachings, struck me as callous and rude.

He came to one of our critiques and had very little, if nothing at all, positive to say about anybody’s work. I understand constructive criticism, but that particular crit stands out to me because when he talked about how influential she was and how he had followed everything she told him to do, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be like this man.”

This doesn’t mean I didn’t value what I learned from her. She is definitely full of information and certainly helped to shape me. But I think it shows that sometimes we learn what not to do from our teachers, as well as what to do. And this can vary from person to person. I graduated with three other students in our Interior Design program in 2010 and really valued how the four of us complemented one another. We each had individual, unique perspectives. I would say we took a communal approach, especially in developing our BFA thesis projects when we successfully petitioned to be able to display our work in a small, separate gallery from the mass of Visual Communications and Motion Design students. (Apparently this was upsetting to some of the other staff and students, although I don’t really know any details. But I followed my favorite teacher’s advice to really make this show our own, and I am glad that I did.)

Naranjo’s quote relates beyond my college experiences to my current life as well. For reasons related to the state of the economy and personal events in my life when I graduated in 2010, I took the first decent job I was offered, which was not in an art or design field. I’m still working for the same company, although in a different position/department than when I had started. I’m grateful to be there, to be working, to earn a generous amount for the type of work that I do. But I also have found myself ready for more challenge. And yet, in exploring the possibility of finding work in more creative fields, I continually run into the fact that my background doesn’t align with what the employer is seeking for a position.

This is frustrating, because I know myself and my abilities. I’m a motivated, positive, and hard worker; especially when I’m working for a company or on a project that I really believe in. If there is something I don’t know how to do, I can usually pick it up really quickly. And yet… that somehow doesn’t seem to be enough. Not even with over fifteen years of work experience. Or a four year degree.

I’ll share one story to illustrate this before I stop. In my current position I interact with members of our program on a regular basis. A while back, one of them mentioned in passing that she thought I would be a good executive assistant for her husband, who is a VP at a well-known international company headquartered in Seattle. I let her know that I would be open to the opportunity if it arose. Several months later, she let me know that he was looking for someone to fill that role. I forwarded my resume and cover letter, which she sent to her husband, and he forwarded to a recruiter for the company. And I was told that, “Unfortunately, your background is not a match for this role,” which didn’t surprise me.

I know the people I interact with on a regular basis are aware of my abilities and potential. But I do feel that the status quo of the larger system I must operate in every day doesn’t recognize this. It’s frustrating, but I take heart that, like Naranjo, I may be able to, in my own way, work it out.

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2 thoughts on “Two Things Part Two: Tessie Naranjo on Western Education

  1. I have a question for you. I just finished “The Mesa Verde World” by David Grant Noble, which incl:udes one of your essays. On page 54, there is a quote about sacred places: “A kiva is a sacred place and so is a tay (the Douglas fir, which grows only at elevations of 9500 ft or higher.” My question is: “Are you talking about a different tree than the Douglas fir I know? Or are you saying they grow only in the colder climates of higher elevations? Because where I grew upi, in the Pacific Northwest, the Douglas fir grows prolifically, all over the place, even at sea level…so I’m confused. 🙂

  2. Found this on the National Park Service site for Mesa Verde:
    “The Gambel oak-Douglas-fir woodland is found at higher elevations along the north rim and in sheltered areas in some canyons. A few relic stands of quaking aspen occur at higher elevations. Before the wildfires of the past decade, Ponderosa pines grew in areas of acidic soil in 45 localities throughout the park. The recent fires have heavily impacted both Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pines at Mesa Verde.”
    That does seem odd considering that here in the Pacific NW they grow right up to the water’s edge!

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