The Legacy of Biochemical Warfare in “Pedagogy”

Qwo-Li Driskills’ poem Pedagogy, describes the impact of medical abuse endured by Native Americans in our modern age. The history between the United States government and biochemical warfare enacted against Native people is a long one, beginning with intentionally placed smallpox blankets to poverty-induced carbon monoxide poisoning. Redlining and genocide have forced Native Americans to live on reservations that often have restricted access to grocery stores, hospitals, and schools. Reservations began as prisoner camps and now house millions of Native Americans in mostly dilapidated and crowded homes. Driskill writes about these experiences in Pedagogy, while also describing their simultaneous dismissal and usage of higher education.

I worry about the cancer cells on my little sister’s cervix

My oldest sister’s gallstones

The hepatitis C in my father’s liver

The most recent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning that put my mother in bed for days

I am worrying about my friend who can’t leave the house because of toxic air

my partner’s depression and HIV

Through the listing of their loved one’s ailments, Driskill addresses a wide array of commonly experienced illnesses that befall Native communities. Carbon monoxide poisoning and toxic air can both be attributed to poor housing/living conditions on reservations. Native people are often forced to live in overly crowded multi-generational homes that would sometimes be considered inhabitable. The line regarding depression is also a sweeping issue on reservations as mental healthcare, and healthcare, in general, is extremely hard to come by.  This segment of the poem is extremely powerful- Driskill points to the lack of medical care and deplorable living conditions that are literally killing millions of Native Americans.

What does this classroom have to do with you anyway?

What does it have to do with any of us?

You are here because Dad said

or to finally get out of that damn town

or to survive a country whose tongue yearns for your blood

This class will not save you

This class will not save any of us

I pray you take some words with you

like sharpened spoons ferry them away up your sleeves

under your tongues

Throughout their segments regarding education, Driskill describes college as useless but also as a tool for survival. They feel out of place in academic settings, feeling as though their time spent in class has nothing to do with them or their incredibly complicated life. Education will not solve all of Driskill’s very real problems, but as the last line reads, can be used as a tool against the violent oppression that consistently tries to silence Native voices.

This poem powerfully articulates the struggles of young Native Americans who strain under the weight of generational trauma and the pressures of success. Qwo-Li Driskill’s poem highlights this constant battle in a way that poignantly describes Native peoples’ pain through art.


One thought on “The Legacy of Biochemical Warfare in “Pedagogy””

  1. I thought this poem was incredibly powerful, and although my struggles and place in life are no where near as pressuring and crushing as those mentioned in the poem, I to, have been questioning the value and actual applications of my education. Driskill’s only nod to the education system is in lines, “I pray you take some words with you…like sharpened spoons ferry them away up your sleeves”, insinuating that the only valuable aspect of school, are words. Considering he is both a professor and a poet, I find this fitting, but also in the context of the work itself, it highlights the essentiality and power of communication and writing. Also, when you mention in the first part of your analysis about the illness retained by the family members, you could also mention how these illnesses perpetuate further systemic health problems within the native community. The largest one that I thought of was the common association with native people and drinking problems, which you can easily connect to the pain present within this specific poem, and the atrocities described in all of the other poems we’ve read this week.

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