Native spirit

A season of films celebrates the struggles of indigenous peoples

Coming on the heels of the glamour this month of the London Film Festival, the third Native Spirit Festival, presented by Native Spirit Foundation, offered a quieter, more serious programme. Hidden away from Southbank and the buzz of Leicester Square, the programme location was divided between the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, the 16mm Cafe in Soho, and Fitzrovia's Bolivar Hall.

The Native Spirit Festival aims "to promote cultural exchange, self-respect, social and environmental awareness" by showcasing films and performances about and by indigenous peoples from across the globe, from the Navajos to the Maoris.

The backdrop to most of the films in the programme was the struggle to control the way indigenous people's stories are told to the outside world. Also prominent were the more tangible aims of economic development, education and compensation. For example, Wiek Lenssens's Pidislan's Gold and Nicolas Defosse's La Yerbabuena: a Community in Resistance tell all-too-familiar tales of communities facing eviction from their land and grappling with pollution from industrial development. Pidislan's Gold focuses on the pollution by mining of the north Philippines pastures of the Igorot people. La Yerbabuena celebrates the peasant communities of Colima in Mexico, a town at the foot of a huge active volcano, who are resisting eviction with the aid of the Zapatistas.

Central to the preservation of a people's identity is language. Lena Ellsworth's striking documentary Ulummi is told from the point of view of young Inuit people from Nunavik and Nunavu, in the far north of Canada. Isolated not only by the harsh weather but also by the unresolved battle between Inuit tradition and the ravages of capitalism, the Inuit also suffer higher-than-average suicide rates, as well as devastating levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Decades ago, forcible re-education of Inuit children resulted in a huge decline in the use of the native Inuktitut language. Today, the teaching of Inuktitut (or lack of it) in schools is at the centre of the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. Many parents worry that Inuktituk will fade out in a few generations and are working to reverse the tide.

Bennie Klain's Weaving Worlds, which is focused on the Navajo, shows how hard it is to strike a balance between the preservation of an old culture and survival in a modern economy. Klain is interested in the relationship between the Navajo rug-weavers of New Mexico and Arizona and the traders who helped export their now-famous and expensive rugs (an original antique rug can fetch up to half a million dollars at auction) around the world. Are the white traders -- some of whom have even taken the trouble to learn Navajo -- helping the nation by offering Navajos a way into the global economy, as some of them claim, or are they exploiting the people by paying far less than the rugs are worth?

Although it doesn't enjoy the LFF's crowd pull or its column inches in the press, the Native Spirit Festival's mix of short films and lengthier documentaries offers an illuminating and important alternative. And it reminds us that indigenous peoples across the world continue to struggle with the legacy of five centuries of invasion and colonisation.

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times