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.
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