Professor wants to humanize schools, society

Jacquelyn Olson

Flute music fills a room lit only by natural light, and the cleansing ceremony begins as students breathe deeply the smoke from the burning sage blown toward them with a feather.
The music stops. Every eye is focused on Jerry Buckanaga, instructor of American Indian philosophies. For the next three hours that attention does not waver.
Buckanaga has been teaching American Indian studies classes at the University for the past two years. He says he uses the cleansing ceremony to help students relieve stress.
“I try to create a comfortable atmosphere where students feel they’re not intimidated, a setting where they can receive information and trade insights,” Buckanaga says.
Teaching is what Buckanaga has wanted to do since he was 14. He received a bachelor’s degree in education from Moorhead State University and his master’s degree in administration from Harvard University.
After his college graduation, Buckanaga fulfilled his dream of teaching Native American children by becoming the principal of Pine Point School, the same school he attended as a child, on the White Earth Reservation.
Buckanaga, a full-blooded Ojibwe, says it took hard work and long hours “to create community programs, create programs for the kids, get the parents involved and to try to build a community again.”
As the Pine Point principal, Buckanaga faced opposition from people in the American Indian community who didn’t want formal education for their children. He was also opposed by state legislators who tried to close the school because the Pine Point district did not offer a K-12 curriculum, but instead sent its high school students to neighboring districts.
Some residents of the Pine Point district threatened Buckanaga’s life and shot at his house. At the same time, state officials thought he was too radical to be a good educator. Buckanaga disagreed, saying he was teaching students that “they have a right to education, a right to a life of dignity. That they don’t have to live in poverty, that they don’t have to live in a shack. That there’s hope.”
A letter Buckanaga wrote to then-Senator Walter Mondale about the proposed Pine Point closure led to national attention and support from Mondale, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, each of whom pressured the Minnesota Legislature to keep the school open.
In the end, the state revised its law requiring all school districts to offer K-12 schooling, allowing Pine Point to stay open. It also rebuilt the school, Buckanaga says.
During his 28 years in education, Buckanaga has been a school administrator and a political leader, but he defines himself as a teacher.
“I think we as teachers are servants. I take great pride in being a teacher because we are affecting the future and can help shape what the future might be,” he says.
Buckanaga says that through his many roles in education and years of community service he has always worked against a violent society. “I’m so tired of the hate and the violence. I want it to stop, and I know we can do something about it.”
He says that making that commitment can be draining but he gets back some of that energy from the strength of his culture, his students and often from his wife. Still, he says, “sometimes I just go out in the woods and scream.”
That urge has come more often this year. On May 30, 1995, Buckanaga’s 32-year-old son Jerry was beaten by a man in Duluth, and died in the hospital six days later.
Jerry’s attacker was convicted last week of first-degree manslaughter.
“The trial was brutal. The witness told exactly what happened when (my son) was being beaten,” Buckanaga says.
His son’s death only strengthens his commitment to a lessviolent society, Buckanaga says. He will speak on that topic at a crime victims’ conference in Brainerd, Minn., on his birthday Thursday, which is also the one-year anniversary of the day his son was attacked.
“I don’t think the murder was racially motivated, but I do think it reflects a violent society,” he says.
Thinking of his daughter’s son, Justin, helps keep him going during tough times, Buckanaga says.
“Every day I look at a picture of a handsome little guy, 8 years old. I don’t want him to have to deal with the racism I had. I want him to live in a better world.”
Buckanaga sees this society as one that causes problems for students. Buckanaga says he told administrators 20 years ago that the problems of social dysfunction in Native American students would become the problems of all American students unless society dealt with them.
“Well, I don’t like to be right in those things, but look around and we’re in a lot of trouble. This hierarchical system we created — we don’t see students as people,” he says.
The reaction of his students to his “cleansing” style of teaching indicate that Buckanaga is having a positive impact.
Some of his students have brought their parents to class. Wandering eyes and shuffling feet are nonexistent in the classroom, as students give their full attention to Buckanaga and their fellow classmates.
Keena Fixsen, a senior, says that Buckanaga’s class is different from other University courses because “it’s not just people telling you something you don’t know. He brings everyone into the learning process. He cares. You can tell that you’re someone that matters in the class.”
Fixsen says she likes the class because “it’s not just teaching about Native American culture but an understanding and respect for all cultures, that everyone has something to offer.”
Buckanaga says, “We, as an institution, are supposed to get students to think about themselves as citizens in a global society.”
While he is committed to the University, he says he tires of the struggle for money and resources. “There’s just lip service from a University who says that they are committed to diversity. There’s no library, no resources in our department.”
Buckanaga says waiting lists for classes in his department grow longer every quarter. “It’s ironic that we have so much to offer as a department, but we have to tell students clamoring to get into classes that we can’t do anything.
“Given our (Native American) contributions to the world, you’d think that the University would want a first-class Native American department.”
He says American society separates people and, as a result, people don’t work together. “Departments should support each other. We are not a community at the University. We are autonomous little creations that have to fight each other for resources.”
Regent Hyon T. Kim says that she empathizes with Buckanaga, “but there is not a clear-cut answer.
“It is true that we are short on funds,” she says. “It’s not an excuse; it’s a real issue.”
Kim also says that since the University has set diversity as one of its goals, “We have to keep looking at our missions. We have to include everybody.”
Buckanaga agrees. “If we can humanize our schools, we will have made a great contribution. … So many of the young kids I meet give me hope. They get the message.”