Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thoughts From My Heart

I once had a "boyfriend" for about 3 days. I am a white American girl of Scottish, Irish, English descent. He is/was a Native American, Anishinabe tribe (not sure I spelled that correctly). I met him on a church trip, going across country via bus to a Big City. I stole him from another girl. All my life I was always intrigued by the history and culture and languages and current lives of American Indians. That's why I stole him. (Give me a break-- I was a dorky teenager.)

When I got to college, I majored in French. Then, when I finally had time during my senior year to "play," I took as many anthropology courses as I could. Most of them were on the history and culture of Plains Indians. I absolutely loved those courses and wished I had discovered anthropology long before the end of my senior year.

Oh, well.. my life has turned out fine despite my silly major which never led me anywhere, except indirectly.

Turns out I married a partially Native guy, though he doesn't identify culturally with his heritage. My husband's grandmother was a Tlingit Indian from S.E. Alaska. The story I always heard is that she grew up in a Catholic orphanage. At one point it had burned down, so any records of her life and lineage went up in smoke!

Just in the last few years I discovered that she was not an orphan... she used to go home to visit her mother. So I surmised that she was of the generation of children who were taken/sent to boarding schools where they were taught to "be white." (Most children were either forced to go, or their parents realized they had no choice, so they sent the kids to these schools, far far from home.) Hubby's grandmother died when my husband was a kid, so there is no way I could ever have met her. But in retrospect she fascinates me, makes me a little sad, and I'm proud of her all at once.

She married an Irish miner and moved to Minnesota and raised a huge family here. They all knew about her heritage, but I don't think much of the culture was passed on, unfortunately.

summer school at Rosebud - adorable!

I have always tried to learn (mostly through reading) about Indian cultures. It's an interest of mine, but I am far from an expert. Please remember that I am speaking as a non-native person, as I see things from my white-girl life experience.

Anyway, in 2008 my church started sending small groups to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to help with the relief work that is done there through a group called Tree of Life. Tree of Life is doing excellent work, and it is always a very meaningful experience to volunteer there. This year's trip is the 5th annual trip!

The people on the Rosebud Reservation are Dakota people. You may know them as the Sioux, but that's not their real name. There are three groups of "Sioux" -- Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. I'm not an expert on this at all, but I do know some of the history.. in my partial knowledge and with apologies for my ignorance, I'll just generically use the term Dakota. The Dakota people inhabited Minnesota in the old days. And, as every other tribe experienced, they also were pushed away by force and by tricks. At the end, there was a war... the Dakota people rose up in their last, desperate attempts to save their homes and culture. (Again, just about every tribe has a similar event.) After that war the Dakota people were forcibly removed from Minnesota, and our governor declared that henceforth Minnesota shall be free of all "Sioux" people.

In our work at Rosebud (and one year at Crow Creek) we have worked with descendants of those people who were kicked out of Minnesota. Humbling. Ironic. Sad. Nice.. to be able to form friendly alliances after all of that sad history.

What I see around me is the need for much more work. For some reason, Indians are still "the hated minority." No one would ever say that out loud, but from our behavior, that is the conclusion to draw. It's obvious.

Just try being a person who goes on these trips to Rosebud, and picture yourself talking about it to any old shmo on the street. Go into a bar, for example. Sit down and start talking about Indians to whoever is there. Guess what. It probably won't be a complimentary, favorable discussion. One has to tread lightly when deciding with whom to share the meaningful experiences of such a trip, and the hopes one has for further bridging of the enormous chasm that still exists between our people.

Here in Minnesota, just about every year, I hear grumbling and fussing about Indians who have fishing rights promised to them in a long-ago treaty.. giving them spearing rights and fishing rights at times outside of the Minnesota fishing season. Emotions can really get riled up over this. It always makes the news, and the coverage makes me cringe.

Then, try to talk about casinos. Expect to hear more grumblings and stories about Indians who have become rich off casino profits but "don't know how to deal with their money"! There's going to be more negative talk, I can just about guarantee it. For some reason, we will never let Indians succeed. That started way back. When white people first came here, we told Indians to learn English, learn to farm, learn our ways, and you'll be just fine. Many of them did just that, only to be lied to and forcibly removed, education and accomplishments be damned. That is STILL the attitude that one can find in our society -- easily. As I said, just start a conversation with any old shmo on the street. You'll find it.

Why is that? It seems it has never become politically incorrect to speak disrespectfully of Indians. It's still a group that it's "OK to hate." That really bothers and puzzles me.

To all of this, I know there are exceptions, but overall, this is the sense one gets in our white-dominated culture.

Now let me talk a bit about the work we do when we go to Rosebud. Believe me, almost every volunteer will question the work they are doing. Step back and look at the big picture: we come to a country which to us is new, but there are people who have lived here for thousands of years. To them, we are outsiders. Yet we decide it all should be ours, and we kill them, starve them, make them march thousands of miles through the snow, and force them onto reservations. Time passes, and most of us become rich. Then, out of the goodness of our hearts, we go to the reservation one week out of the year and help them paint their decrepit house. Oh, how heart-warming it is for us!

See? It's a struggle. And that issue is definitely present, in varying degrees, when we are working at Rosebud. One reason we love going there is because Tree of Life, the agency through which we work, has faced those issues head-on. They don't try to hide from the big questions. Instead, they have learned and grown and adapted to the needs of the people they serve, all the while learning about the culture and respecting it. The work is making a difference! We who have gone on the trips have seen progress with our own eyes! We can see and feel hope and friendly ties being forged, and can see the difference from year to year. It is palpable. It truly is heart-warming!

Well.. these are the thoughts from my heart. And it has been brought fresh to the forefront of my mind by watching a series on Netflix: "American Experience: We Shall Remain," a 5-part series on American history as seen from Native eyes. It is fascinating, heart-breaking, and very well done. I have watched the first 3 episodes and will probably finsih the last 2 in the next couple of days.

If you have stuck by me and read this whole post, I ask you: if you live in the USA, have you seen or felt the attitudes I talk about? Have you heard people grumbling or making sick jokes about Indians and casinos? Indians and alcholism? Do you agree that our over-all attitude here in America (in the white-dominated society) is still anti-Indian? Have you ever tried to speak up in defense of Indian people, tried to confront those attitudes? Tried to learn for yourself what modern day life is like for Indians? For many people, Indians are easy to ignore.

So.. I challenge you to learn something. Maybe start by watching this 5-part series of "American Experience: We Shall Remain." It's easily found at Netflix streaming. If you'd rather read a book, here's a great one: Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn (a Minnesota author). Fabulous, fabulous book that hopefully will open up a part of your heart and mind that you didn't know was closed. If you do either of these things, I want to hear about it and your thoughts!! We can help each other learn.

a cultural lesson at Rosebud


Sextant said...

During the second World War, my father was on a troop train that went through Minnesota. They stopped in a town somewhere along the way and had some time on their hands. My father and his buddies found a bar and it had a sign on the door:

"No Fins or Indians Allowed"

We don't have a strong native American presence in our area, having performed our theft 50 to 100 years prior to yours. Our area was notably involved with George Washington and the French and Indian War. We have an amusement park called Kennywood that sits on the cliff above where General Braddock came marching in with his red coats and drums. The "savages" attacked them from behind trees rather than fighting a proper gentlemanly war on an open field of battle.

At the end of that particular war, King George III drew a line in the sand called the Proclamation Line of 1763 which is probably about 75 miles east of here. After promising land to the Colonists who helped in the fight, the Brits then informed the Colonists that the proclamation line was as far west as they could go, and BTW we will be keeping a permanent garrison of the British Army on hand to protect you from the Indians and any French intrigues from the west, and to make sure you don't cross over and stir up trouble. Oh yeah, we want you to pay part of the costs. Well there you have perhaps chapter 3 of the Manifest Destiny. Columbus being chapter 1.

Human beings have much to be ashamed of. Territorial acquisition at the cost of other species or ethnic groups have been a hallmark of the murderous homo sapiens. You don't think so? Ask any Neanderthal. Yet we slowly improve. For instance slavery has for the most part disappeared, yet sex trafficking of women and young girls has not. We have a long way to go.

For an excellent read on the reasons and technology for the European domination of the undeveloped world read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. It won't justify the theft but does explain how it happened.

One of the finest books I ever read was Kent Nerburn's Letters To My Son. I will have to check out the title you mentioned. Also another author who has some sensitivity to Native Americans is William Least Heat Moon.

Somewhere I read a few years ago that many (not all) of the Indian casinos were ran by professional gambling administration companies and the bulk of the profits was pocketed by those companies with a small portion going to the tribe.

Excellent post.

Michele Bilyeu said...

Much to think about, of course! Having grown up in Southeast Alaska, I saw an incredible poverty level as well as one of great discrimination among aimed at the general Tlingit and Haida populations. In my memory, orphanages were known as intensely Christian and aimed at primarily conversion and reformation of native belief systems from a natural, world view to a Christ centered one which unfortunately meant taking away any at all contact with their heritage in order to transplant a new one. By the time I was in jr high and high school, native teens were just beginning to be helped by an amazing man named Zach Gordon who started a teen club, a radio show (which I was proud to be part of) and so forth to help integrate earlier identities and pride..this was the 60's. Our star athletes etc. by then were highly acclaimed native youth and dated our prom queens. However, that being said, the discrimination for those trapped in the cycles of poverty not being helped by their natural abilities to rise above the segregation and discrimination...stayed trapped and it was severely and intensely unfair and obvious as to the difference...just as we see the have and have nots of today. Some excelled, some plummeted. Now, special programs and grants have Tlingit laugage teachers for entire classrooms of all cultures, celebration in all ways of their arts, history etc. Yet, in the villages...where I have relatives who teach, are nurses, etc. it is still much the same...severe poverty, alchoholism etc. Just the same patterns as of the American Indians and what happened/is happening.

Carol E. said...

Oh, that is so interesting to hear your Alaskan experience!Thanks for sharing. Yes, it is similar at Rosebud, with deep poverty and hopelessness.. yet some people excell. I try to keep my heart on the hopeful side of things. Thanks for writing.

Carol E. said...

And Sextant, thanks again for your thoughtful response as well. (Readers: I usually respond to him at another site as his email is a no-reply one.)

Sextant said...

Don't know what the story is with the email. I just checked my setting again and they are OK. It should work. But the other works too!

Unknown said...

Nice post... You know much more than I do...I am learning tho. Interestingly Lydia and I were talking yesterday about her future...her most immediate goals are to work for someplace like Tree of Life..she was so taken by Rosebud last warms my heart but also makes me shudder as a mom...and I know I need to let her do what she needs and wants to do... I will look into that series...sounds interesting. You should go Rosebud...

Sharon said...

Very interesting post. I too have seen the discrimination against the native peoples of this country. And in a number of states, mostly in the west. The poverty on the reservations is so sad to see. I have hope for the future that programs like you're involved in will help heal this problem. I commend you for your work.