Why Patricia A. Dixon Never Stops Learning
Native American Heritage Month: 2012 Honoree
This Thanksgiving, Professor Patricia A. Dixon has much to be thankful for. “I think I was lucky. I had great parents, and good teachers throughout my life. I had far more good teachers than bad teachers. I was encouraged to read and to dream and I was taught to work hard.”
And, though she does plan on celebrating Thanksgiving with her family this week, there’s one aspect about the holiday that’s off the table. “We celebrate like everyone else,” she says. “It’s a chance to bring families together, but when you start talking about pilgrims, then forget it.”
For Dixon is a member of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, a band that has called the San Diego region home since time immemorial. Long before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.
Dixon, who lives on the reservation, serves as Department Chair of the American Indian Studies/American Studies Department at Palomar College, where she’s been for more than 40 years. She’s also a 2012 Local Hero honoree for Native American Heritage Month.
According to Dixon, the history of the Pauma people is one that is steeped in pride. “I think we, as the Pauma people, have a great love for our traditional homeland and we simply want to live on our land freely and openly and try to be open and gracious to people who visit.”
Her passion for her people, and all American Indians, led her to become instrumental in the development of the American Indian departments at Palomar, USD and California State University, San Marcos. She has taught thousands of students who have rated her as “a marvelous wealth of knowledge” with a “passion for what she is talking about.” The students typically use words like “sweet” and “nice” to describe her.
Her mission in developing these programs is clear: to tell the story of the American Indian, and ensure that their contribution isn’t forgotten. And, to dispel some inaccuracies, noting how she’s met people who are astonished to learn that Indians still exist, and others who assume that American Indians are all wealthy because of the casinos.
“Teaching American Indian Studies is an opportunity to expose non-native students, and show that Indians are just like everyone else,” explains Dixon. “There is a complexity and diversity of the Indian people. They have a sense of pride of their culture, and value in their history.”
For Dixon, everything she is today she owes to two people who greatly impacted her childhood: her grandmother and her grandfather.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, sometimes I was left with her for weeks at a time. She taught me the value of reading. My grandfather, whose formal education didn’t get past third grade, stressed that education was key. He saw it as a primary tool to help protect our tribal government, our land, our identity, and cultural practices. That was something that had to be done, and my parents concurred.”
Dixon, who describes herself as “friendly, honest, reflective and shy,” attended the Pauma mission school. But, when she was ready for high school, her parents decided to register her in a public school in Fallbrook. They soon learned that the school administration intended to place Dixon in home economics classes, assuming that, as an American Indian student, she’d remain on the reservation after high school and not go on to college. Her parents decided against public school and instead enrolled Dixon in Academy of the Little Flower, an all-girls’ Catholic school, where the nuns expected every pupil to continue their education after high school whether through college or vocational school.
“The rigor and expectation of the curriculum didn’t allow for anything but success,” says Dixon, who upon graduation was accepted into the University of San Diego (USD).
During her time at USD, she was the only enrolled student recognized as American Indian. “I was used to it,” she admits. “In high school, I was the only one. I had resentment toward my parents because I didn’t like being taken out of my comfort zone. There were times it felt lonely, not having folks who could relate to me.”
She’ll never forget the moment though, when she finally encountered another American Indian at school. “I was in line to register for graduate school and I looked across at the line of undergraduates. I had to do a double take when I spotted an American Indian standing there. He saw me, too, and we smiled.”
She later learned he was a Cherokee from Oklahoma, enrolled on the GI Bill after returning from the Vietnam War.
Education remains a priority in Dixon’s life. “What’s most important is to never stop learning. I tell my nephews (who she has been raising since her brother died 18 years ago), if they don’t want to go to college that’s their choice, but they have to continue to learn. It’s how to open your mind, to dream, to value, to marvel at so many different ways people live, laugh and talk. Learning is the doorway to life and school can help you keep your mind open and learn.”
She’s lived her life based on these words and is thankful for all that she’s been able to accomplish. To her, winning the Local Hero award is an achievement for the greater good.
“I was a pioneer in the field of education because I had high visibility as member of a tribe, and I accept this award because I owe it to my people and to all who aspire to know it can be done, and for all who need to know we can achieve our goals if we work hard enough.”