Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Indigenous Storytelling: Evaluative Opportunity for Cultural Regeneration and Resistance by Persephone Hooper Lewis

Persephone Hooper Lewis

First, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Persephone Hooper Lewis. I am a citizen of the Yomba Band of Shoshone Indians. The land that we now call home was historically our Springtime place. It is high in the mountains, nestled in the pines, smells of Behoveh (Great Basin Sagebrush) year-round, and is nourished by the sacred waters of the Reese River and winter snows. Some of the foods that we gather include buckberries, pine nuts, elderberries, chokecherries, and root vegetables. My families include the Kawich and Tutuwa Bands. I am married into the Lewis family from the Vah Ki district of the Gila River Indian Community. Second, I am also blessed to be invited by Drs. Rita S. Fierro and Kate McKegg, who generously and kindly organized and edited this series of blogs focused on decolonizing evaluation to ensure power structures are interrogated, researcher positionality is explicit, and the needs of marginalized communities are centered. 

I have been working in Native American youth programs and education for the past twenty years. In this time, U.S. federal and state agencies were most often the funders and within these funding contracts were evaluation requirements that required our after-school programs to demonstrate impacts based on colonial definitions of success. The definitions frequently required us to collect standardized tests scores, attendance data, and the grade point averages (GPA) of the students with whom we served. The expectation was that the program we developed and implemented would increase the test scores and GPA while decreasing the number of days students were absent from school. After three years with a tribal program and repeated reports that included data that failed to meet stated objectives, my conversations with our external evaluator began to include more questions than answers. I wanted to know why we were continuously reporting data that was telling a different story than the changes I was seeing within our students? Why was the data never information that we could use on the ground? Why were we rarely, if ever, a part of the evaluation process beyond gathering data? And why did the reports fail to tell a story that the community would want told?

Pueblo writer Simon Ortiz has always argued that storytelling reflects the belief system of Indigenous people. He writes, “ Oral tradition is inclusive; it is the actions, behaviors, relationships, practices throughout the whole social, economic, and spiritual life process of people. In this respect, the oral tradition is the consciousness of the people.” Because methodologies form the theoretical foundations and subsequent tools that are used to paint a picture of “truth” within the evaluation process, data gathering methods should have a storytelling function. We must push against tools that offer stories based in deficit perspectives that continue to pathologize us and funders need to see their role in perpetuating these disempowering stories. Evaluators must ensure that the story we are telling about our children, community members, and Elders includes the beauty of our existence like the ways we are resisting coloniality, regenerating our cultural practices, and healing from over five hundred years of domination.


Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Indigenous Storytelling: Evaluative Opportunity for Cultural Regeneration and Resistance by Persephone Hooper Lewis”

  1. Hi Persephone,

    My name is Emma Wilson and I am a secondary school teacher in Vancouver BC who is currently enrolled in a course on evaluation at Queen’s University as part of my Professional Masters of Education. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective with your readers! The way you describe your home was breathtaking, and I was deeply moved by your piece.

    I have often lamented the way our current educational system is organized to favour standardized testing and GPA scores. It has always seemed to me that this isn’t an accurate way to properly demonstrate learning, and it leaves behind so many people who do not fit into this educational mold which has been pushed on students for centuries. How can we properly demonstrate learning and growth when all we have to measure is memorized facts that will be forgotten the moment the book closes? It has been a question that I have been grappling with in my time as both a teacher and a student, and I expect I will continue to do so throughout my career.

    I have to admit that in my own ignorance I never attributed this system as being the product of colonialism, and reading you describe it as such caught me off guard. But it has all become so clear to me now that this is yet another way in which colonialism affects all aspects of life here in North America, and particularly in the lives of Indigenous people. It’s so unfair that the youth that you work with are being underrepresented because of these colonial systems. There is so much more to consider when evaluating a group to determine growth and the obsession that society places on test scores fails to consider the whole story. This is yet another way in which Indigenous people suffer at the hands of colonial practice. This generational trauma and subsequent journey towards healing is so rarely taken into account in these evaluations. You’re right in that the focus should be on how the communities are thriving and growing despite the immense pain and suffering that has occurred, and continues to occur because of colonial influence.

    This piece of writing was incredibly powerful and it allowed me to examine the ways in which evaluation is performed and how we need to do better. It’s so unfair to place so much emphasis on these arbitrary measures of learning when there is so much more to consider. I hope that this will change and that evaluators can make strides to rectify this.

    Thank you so much for sharing,
    Emma

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