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Indigenous Knowledge on Trial: Defending and Defining Mexican-American Studies

The legal fight over Mexican-American studies in Arizona schools is a culture war waged against indigenous knowledge.

Tom Horne, the former state school's superintendent and author of HB 2281. He has said that he was only interested in ensuring that Arizona students were learning Greco-Roman values, as opposed to knowledge "outside of Western civilization." (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The legal fight over Mexican-American studies in Tucson, Arizona, schools is a culture war, waged by proponents of education rooted in Greco-Roman values and Western civilization against supporters of ethnic studies and MAS, which is anchored by an Indigenous-maíz-based ethos.

By all rights, the plaintiffs in the Mexican-American studies (MAS) trial, known as Arce v. Huppenthal, argued on January 12, should prevail. This trumped-up controversy belongs more in the 15th century, before an inquisition, as opposed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This case stems from a 2010 lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the anti-ethnic studies HB 2281, which was signed in 2010 by former Arizona governor, Jan Brewer. Under the threat of losing millions of dollars in state funding, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) capitulated to the state and eliminated the highly successful MAS department in 2012.

Their school of thought believes that the right of peoples to their culture, history, identity, language and education is not subject to approval by any court, nor any government body.

While a decision should come within weeks, MAS supporters across the country are not waiting; the battle to expand ethnic studies is intensifying. Though the truth is, this battle has actually been a war, waged since 2006 by the state of Arizona. The former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne, who was also the “intellectual” author of HB 2281, has led that war, asserting often that he could care less if MAS, which is anchored in an Indigenous-maíz-based ethos, was successful or not. The only thing he was interested in, he said, was ensuring that Arizona students were learning Greco-Roman values, as opposed to knowledge “outside of Western civilization.”

As a caveat, in a January 2, 2015, letter, the immediate former state schools’ superintendent, John Huppenthal, widened that war by again attacking what succeeded MAS: the culturally relevant courses at TUSD, mandated by a 40-plus year federal desegregation case. He also attacked African-American studies. He focused on the Indigenous component of these classes, In Lak Ech-Tu Eres mi Otro Yo, and the Four Tezcatlipocas, which function as the philosophical foundation for MAS. He also singled out lyrics from KRS-1 and Rage Against the Machine.

HB 2281, which has become ARS-15-112 reads:

A. A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following: 1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government; 2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people; 3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; 4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

In the original 2010 Acosta v. Huppenthal lawsuit, Federal Judge Wallace Tashima affirmed three of the provisions, yet struck down the third one, ruling it unconstitutional. He also ruled that the original plaintiffs did not have standing.

Despite that, everything points to a victory for Arce (Maya), including the facts (The Cabrera Report) and a program that solved the dropout crisis, greatly increased high school graduation rates (90th percentile) and also sent its graduates on to college at unprecedented rates (70th percentile).

The only thing our side does not “enjoy” are the “benefits” of a system of jurisprudence, created specifically to maintain and justify genocide, land theft, slavery, segregation, state-sponsored discrimination, exploitation and inequality.

That is precisely why MAS supporters are moving forward with their own vision. Their school of thought fully supports MAS – and the discipline – and believes that the right of peoples to their culture, history, identity, language and education (CHILE) is not subject to approval by any court, nor any government body. These rights are embedded within international human rights law, including at least nine international treaties, conventions and declarations, including the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A careful reading of HB 2281 reveals that it violates these treaties. When the student group UNIDOS took over the Tucson school board in 2011, they specifically invoked the 2007 UN declaration, which guarantees the right of Indigenous peoples to their own culture and education.

And yet, these rights exist, not because they are enumerated in treaties, but rather, because all peoples are born with them; they are inherent and inalienable. And yet, throughout history, these rights have had to be fought for and defended, every step of the way.

In this case, beyond the court battle, there is also a need to defend and define the discipline itself. To be sure, Horne and his state apparatus attacked the program and legitimacy of the discipline itself, but also, the people themselves [Mexican-Americans], their culture and their worldview (In Lak Ech).

The worldview that he attacked also includes the Four Tezcatlipocas, as developed by MAS-TUSD, in collaboration with Tupac Enrique Acosta of Tonatierra Nahuacalli in Phoenix, Arizona. Both are rooted in Maya-Nahua-Maiz culture, which can also be found in the United States.

Important to understand here is that the very concept of Western civilization is rooted in the notion that everyone that is not part of Western civilization is uncivilized. Accordingly, historically, Mexicans in this country have been viewed as inassimilable and un-American.

On the North American continent since 1492, this dehumanizing notion has also connoted something even more insidious: that Indigenous peoples were pagan, ungodly, demonic and subhuman. That is the basis on which indigenous knowledge was similarly attacked during that era, including the burning of their books and libraries.

The thrust of the state’s primary attack, embedded within HB 2281, is the notion that students need to be treated as individuals as opposed to groups. This has always invoked a false dichotomy, as if being part of a (Indigenous) culture and being an individual were mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, it has always been a direct attack on the indigenous character of both the people and the worldview promoted by MAS, which ironically is indigenous to this continent, whereas Greco-Roman values are derived from Europe.

In this long struggle, this broader defense has been present, though muted, in the courtroom and in the media, although the defense of MAS’s Indigenous foundation has always been public.

This broader defense is critical because the attacks against this knowledge, philosophy and worldview actually go back to 1492. There is an unbroken line of attacks that continue to this day. The best evidence is that Tucson was the exception; it was the only public school system in the United States that was teaching this knowledge. Nowhere else. The only exceptions were charter schools, such as Semillas in Los Angeles.

When that assault on indigenous knowledge culminated with the demise of MAS, included were the widely publicized banning of its books, though in reality, what was actually banned was the curriculum and worldview represented by In Lak Ech. This included forcing MAS teacher, Norma Gonzalez, to take down the Aztec calendar, preventing her from teaching from it.

Interestingly, in the Ninth Circuit case, the subject of indigenous knowledge was not raised, despite the fact that Huppenthal’s letter was brought up. However, Horne’s allusions to that civilizational war were present. It was in his veiled reply, in his defense of the third provision, which had been stricken by Judge Tashima.

In that defense, dated July 21, 2014, he made his usual, though incredible, claim regarding MAS: “It complements those provisions by assuring that the State’s goal of reducing racism in schools is met by preventing districts from implementing curriculum that balkanizes schools.” This Orwellian formulation conveniently fails to mention that it was HB 2281 and the racial profiling SB 1070, both passed in 2010, that raised the level of hate to the extreme, as evidenced in the media coverage and letters to the editor in Arizona’s leading newspapers.

Next, in the same reply, he invoked another decision in which the court affirmed the right of communities to “promote respect for authority and traditional values.” Here, Horne appears to take digs at the critical thinking taught to MAS students, including the Indigenous-maíz-based ethos.

Because Horne and Huppenthal have waged their “civilizational war” against La Raza in a very public way, including the use of military strategy to combat Raza studies, when this court battle concludes, the need to contest their trumped-up assertions will remain (The MAS struggle included police brutality against the community on May 3, 2011).

In an ironic twist of history, MAS is spreading nationwide, such as at El Rancho Unified School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District. Moreover, an ethnic studies bill was introduced into the California State Legislature earlier this year. It has also spread to Texas. It is precisely because of this explosion that there is an urgent need to also define what should be created.

At the moment, there is no clarity. Counterintuitively, the discipline has not always been centered on indigenous knowledge. In fact, at times, the discipline itself has been hostile to indigenous knowledge, casting it as reactionary, sexist, homophobic and even as a romantic relic of an invented past. Some of that critique has also been Eurocentric.

There is merit to that critique of individuals, though not of the knowledge itself. And truthfully, some of that critique continues to be valid, not excluding this particular struggle, though in general, the discipline and its supporters no longer politically exist in the 1970s. How to move forward?

In 2012, UNIDOS put forth a Declaration of Intellectual Warriors document calling for the establishment of a Mexican-American-Indigenous studies (MAIS) department that would replace the destroyed MAS department. It also called for the establishment of American Indian, African-American, Asian-American and Middle Eastern studies, including LGBT and women’s studies, and it called for studying all those disciplines within MAIS. It is their belief that knowing each other’s histories would bring about a better understanding among all peoples.

Another approach is acknowledging that adopting indigenous knowledge is not simply about reciting poems, disconnected from political struggle. The youth and community of Tucson courageously displayed that understanding during their historic struggle. Consistently, students didn’t simply keep searching for answers, but also put their lives on the line many times, whether it was running through the desert from Tucson to Phoenix in 115-degree heat in 2009 (and again in 2011), walking out and taking over buildings and getting arrested in 2010, after the governor signed HB 2281, or taking over the school board in 2012. Students showed that they would not be bullied and understood their power before the school board and the state, knowing full well that Indigenous studies cannot ever be destroyed as long as there is even but one student breathing.

Part of it includes understanding that by invoking indigeneity, Mexicans and Chicanas/os become part of a larger struggle that is connected to both the North American continent and the other original peoples of the continent. An indigenous-based curriculum that includes challenges to the doctrine of discovery – teaching MAS students that the history of this continent did not begin with the arrival of three ships – will de-facilitate colonialism in North America. That precisely is what the state does not want students to learn: panche be or the root of the truth.

Acosta from Tonatierra states, “In our defense, our defenses were dropped,” arguing that indigenous knowledge should have been defended explicitly in the courtroom, precisely because of the state’s belief that indigenous knowledge is not knowledge at all, and that it should not be taught in US schools.

Sean Arce, former director of MAS, agrees that the entire premise of MAS was indigenous knowledge. While he also argues that indigenous knowledge was defended in the courtroom via the administrative law hearings of 2012, both agree that the discipline itself needs to continue to be defended and defined in the public realm.

In Tucson, two decisions loom. The state is again entering Tucson classrooms, and is expected to decide whether TUSD is in compliance with HB 2281 by March 6, even as the Ninth Circuit Court deliberates.

While those decisions are important, more important are the decisions that are being made in each of the communities where ethnic-Raza-Indigenous studies are being introduced. Summits, forums, tlahtokans or consultas, as the Zapatistas refer to them, which feature “leading by obeying,” are being held nationwide. Tucson, more than anywhere else, needs one. Each community must initiate the next step, regardless of what the courts decide. Each community will decide its own path and must create its own curriculum, a curriculum that hopefully honors those who have always been here.

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