The November 2 Middle School assembly focused on celebrating Native American Heritage Month (November), and was led by Middle School Spanish Humanities teacher, Angélica Guerrero, and her Grade 8 classes, and Middle School science teacher, Amy Tong. Both teachers identify as indigenous; Angélica is from the Muisca (Myska) culture in Colombia, and Amy is from the Polynesian culture in Hawai'i. 

After acknowledging and honoring the Piscataway and Nacotchtank people who were the original caretakers of the land where WIS is located, a group of students presented the “Origin Story of the Inka,” which explains the origins of Cusco, the former capital of the Inka Empire, and the peoples’ deep respect for the earth. After this retelling, Angélica asked the audience “to take a minute to consider: what does land mean to you? Go deep in your mind and your heart and think about what land means to you, and what space it holds in your life.” After a pause for the audience to think, Angélica continued, “And with that, we would like to invite the audience to share with us: what is the word in your native tongue, or your family tongue, for ‘land’?” It was wonderful to hear over twenty-five different languages shared among the Middle School community.

Next, both teachers shared what land means to them. Amy began: “I am Native Hawaiian, which makes me indigenous. Though I am not native to the Americas, there are a lot of commonalities between Native Hawaiians and Native Americans. In my native Hawaiian language (‘Ōlelo Hawai’i), ‘āina is the word for land. There is a phrase that we say in Hawai’i: ‘aloha ‘āina.’ It means love the land, love for the land. Land is actually a sacred thing. It’s part of your family, it’s where you’re from. In Hawai’i, we respect it greatly. It’s something we would give our lives for. Ancient Hawaiians were stewards of the land; they would look at ecosystems from the mountain to the ocean, and there was a lot of sustainability involved. They believed that what you give to the land you get back, so we have to take care of it.” 

Angélica added, “For me, my connection with land runs really deep. Not only my ancestral land, the land of the Guane, in Colombia, but also this land in which I live today. It nourishes me and in return I look after her with love, just as I would any of my loved ones.”

She continued, “Now we are going to think about what happens when we lose our connection to land and we forget that she is not a resource to exploit.” Two students spoke about the DreamWorks movie The Road to El Dorado, which contains several problematic stereotypes and misrepresentations of the Myska people. The movie is based on the legend of El Dorado, which holds that the ancient Myska king would cover himself with gold dust during an important ritual, after which he would dive into Lake Guatavita from a raft and his people would throw precious jewels at him to appease the underwater gods. When Spanish conquistadors heard about this legend, they wanted to find this magical lake full of riches. This caused the exploitation of the lake and the land. The movie depicts the native people in a negative way, both in their appearance and the clothing they wear. It also misrepresents what the Myska people were known for, which is their gold and metal working, not their architecture (like other ancient cultures nearby).

Angélica added, “Just as clarifying myths is really important, it’s also important to acknowledge the history of indigenous people — a history told in their own voices. Part of this is making sure that we are using the appropriate terminology. As you may have heard, we are referring to the Muisca people as the Myska people.”

“I would like to invite our next group to share about another example in which we have mistakenly been calling a group of people different names.” This group of students educated the audience about the history of the Mexica people. Many many years ago, in the area of southwestern United States that runs from Texas to California, there was a group of people called the Aztlán, which was made up of seven different cultures or tribes. No one is sure what exactly happened to them, but one group, the Mexica, traveled south from these lands and eventually settled in Tenochtitlan, which is now known as Mexico City. Many people call the original Mexica people Aztekahs because of where they came from (Aztlán), but this is not correct, because they are only one of these seven original cultures. Calling them Aztekahs is discrediting the six other cultures. 

A final group of students talked about certain Mexica and Myska deities, before the assembly ended with a sacred blessing from the Myska culture. Angélica explained, “There were many bodies of water near Bogotá, ancient home of Inkas, and they were sacred spaces. This is a blessing for a lake called La Laguna de Tota.” Angélica shared the blessing in Myska, while two other students shared it in Spanish and English.

Thank you to Amy, Angélica, and the Grade 8 Spanish Humanities students for this wonderful assembly and for sharing your cultures, research, and learning with us!