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It isn’t as easy as it seems

April 7, 2012

I haven’t written about the rez for awhile, mostly because I’ve already recorded so many thoughts and experiences from Lame Deer that it seems reduntant to keep writing.  But I had a new experience yesterday that I feel compelled to write about.  This is a long entry, but if you have an interest in broadening your understanding of Native Americans in such a way that may soften your heart just a little, please read on…

The experience didn’t actually occur on the reservation but rather at the west-end Perkins in Billings.  I was enjoying breakfast with two wonderful ladies who had participated in the cursillo weekend with me at St. Anthony’s in March.  We meet every week to talk about the ways in which we are trying (and sometimes failing) to live our lives with the kind of love that Jesus shared.  At one point the conversation turned to Native Americans, with the question being raised as to why Native Americans can’t seem to be more successful in the modern world when so much seems to be handed to them.

This is a compelling question.  Why can’t tribes and tribal members pull themselves out of poverty when so much charity and federal money is at their disposal?  When so much grant money is offered to them to pay for school, for cultural preservation, for economic development?  Many white people who are aware of these “handouts” feel bitter towards Indians for accepting government handouts without seeming to put them to productive use–after all, it’s taxpayers money (interpretation: white people’s money) that supports government programs such as TANF and IHS.

There are so incredibly many reasons why tribal members have not been able to raise their standards of living to match that of non-Indians that it can’t possibly be explained with any blanket statements.  But I tried my best to give an honest and open perspective on the answer to this question.  Here is what I shared with my friends:

My reflection began where I think it ought to, with federal takeover of Indian lands.  Granted, this happened a long time ago and it is useless to use history as an excuse for current circumstances (as some do) but it is nevertheless a contributing factor.  Plains tribes were nomadic peoples and hunted grounds that extended for hundreds of miles across the north-central states of our country.  When they were placed on reservations, they lost a way of life that most probably would prefer not to still be living anyway (most Cheyennes I know wouldn’t want to still be living in teepees, for example) but that left them, at that time, without a means of self sustenance.  Reservation lands quickly became over-hunted and many men found themselves unable to provide for their families.  Having lost the life that they knew, I can’t imagine it was easy–or even entirely possible–to transition to a new way of life.  After all, there were no Wal-Marts or Micky D’s to run to for easy employment, and to this day there still aren’t many employment opportunities on the reservation.  So the option to work one’s ass off at a low-wage job to make ends meet didn’t even exist.

Because there is still a very small economy on the reservation, those who wish to further their education and pursue a career must leave. Many white youngsters leave their hometowns to go to college and/or get a job, so what’s the big deal?  Well, most white kids are going to schools and accepting jobs in which their culture dominates; non-whites, on the other hand, are typically leaving for a place where another culture dominates: white culture.

As white people, it’s often hard for us to realize that there really are several incredibly significant differences between our culture and the cultures of non-whites (and I’m not just talking about powwows).  Indians live in the same types of houses, watch the same television shows, drive the same cars, and so on that whites do, right?  So what’s the difference?  One of the biggest differences is this: the primary loyalty of most Indians I know is to their families while the primary loyalty of most whites I know is to their education and/or their careers.  Before any white readers become offended by this statement (after all, white people certainly love their families as much as Indian people love theirs), please read on to understand what I mean:

Imagine this scenario.  A student’s grandmother is in the hospital and is expected to die within the next several days.  If this student is white, it is perfectly acceptable to the family for the student to attend school as usual during the day and to visit the grandmother for an hour or two in the evenings before returning home to finish her homework assignments.  If this student is Indian, it is not acceptable to the family for the student to go about her days as usual.  This student has many family obligations she must attend to, including preparing food and give-away items for the impending funeral.  Quilts must be made for anyone and everyone who is helping the family during the grandmother’s final days and it is imperative that all able-bodied family members help with these preparations.  This student cannot attend school for at least a week, whereas a white student might only miss the day (or even just the afternoon) of the funeral.  Missing a week (or perhaps two weeks if the grandmother lives several days longer than expected) is a huge setback to a college student who is likely already struggling with classes due to the fact that her academic preparation at reservation-based schools was not as good as the academic preparation of a white student in a more affluent community, where the schools have more money to spend on better teachers and educational supplements. To compound matters, a white instructor is likely not to understand the full responsiblity that the Indian student owes to her family and may assume she is using the death of her grandmother as an excuse to slack off–which, indeed, some students might do, just as some white students make excuses.  But the cultural significance of supporting family whenever support is requested is huge here and should not be assumed to be an “excuse” for not meeting academic expectations.

Even less significant family events still demand a student’s presence.  Birthdays, less-severe illnesses, personal favors requested by family members, and so on are typically considered paramount to an individual’s “personal” needs such as attending class and going to work. And while family is of very significant importance to white persons as well–any white parent would drop everything for a son or daughter in serious need, for example–it is acceptable among most whites to miss family events for work or school because it is an acceptable part of our culture for individuals to work towards personal success.  It is also okay to deny the lazy relative in the family assistance, whereas in other cultures it is not necessarily okay to deny any family member assistance–even if they could be doing more for themselves.

I consider it a thing of beauty that many Native Americans are so fiercely devoted to family–but it does put them in a pickle when they are trying to get an education and/or pursue a career in a world dominated by whites, who are often not willing to accept so many late assignments, make-up exams, and/or missed days at work when family situations arise.  How does one live in the white world without missing so many family events that one becomes the “outsider” in her own family?  She doesn’t want that to happen because she is already an outsider in the white world in which she is trying to compete.  What to do?

The situation becomes especially difficult when the Indian student’s family doesn’t entirely support her education.  Why, you ask, would a family not support their daughter’s self improvement?  The answer to this question again requires us to take a step back in history, to the middle of the 20th century during the boarding school era.  For several decades, many Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools run by whites where they were forbidden to speak their languages, to dress in their customary ways, and in some cases to see their families.  Being completely cut off from everything a child knows is a traumatizing experience and one that stuck with any Indian child who was forced to attend a boarding school.  Many of these boarding-school children are now the grandparents of current students and they are wary of the motives of the schools that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren attend.  They don’t trust whites for an array of reasons, which makes it difficult to accept their grandchild’s participation in the white world.

None of what I have written is intended as a defense of Native Americans, a criticism of whites, or to present these cultural differences as attributes that I fully understand.  I am only trying to share a perspective I have gained as a teacher on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.  My hope is that by sharing what I have observed during my four years in Lame Deer, I can help white folks understand some of the dilemmas that Native Americans face when they do attempt to “make it” in the white world.  It’s not easy, and it’s not necessarily easy for all whites to make it in the current world either.  That’s why I am such an advocate for living life the way Jesus did, by loving our neighbors as ourselves; by giving our neighbors the same benefit-of-the-doubt we’d hope to be given when we make mistakes, when we appear less righteous, hard-working, or worthy than we would like to.  We all have our faults and it is not our place to judge one another; rather, it is our job, for those of us especially who call ourselves Christians, to love one another and to do our part to help make this world seem a little more like Heaven today than it did yesterday.

My interest in writing this entry is in fostering an understanding of the dynamics of racial relationships that have been strained for centuries so that we both (white and Indian) may be able to relax the strain and move forward together positively.  We need to rebuild trust between both races, and the only way to rebuild trust is to extend compassion and unconditional love.  We as whites need to forgive what we perceive as laziness because we have never been in an Indian’s shoes–and Indians need to forgive whites for the historical trauma that our ancestors inflicted on them.  Forgiveness is hard to do, but this Easter let us forgive one another as Jesus forgave us.

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