Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dancing my Dream: Book review and commentary of Warren Petoskey’s practical and poetic memoir

I was very pleased to find Native Americans represented in Read the Spirit’s interfaith and intercultural catalog. Warren Petoskey, an elder of the Waganakising Odawa and Minneconjou Lakotah tribes, was encouraged by friends and colleagues to compile his essays and other writings into a single book, that serves as a combination memoir, collection of spiritual poetry, and social commentary on his experience as both a member of his specific family and as a Native American who has walked in both worlds—contemporary mainstream America and traditional tribal communities—and is still trying to reconcile the interactions of the two in his own life.

What sticks out for me the most about Petoskey’s writing is the lack of victim mentality. I’ve heard so many people talk about “complaining Indians,” and say things like “Why don’t Indians just get over it already?—What’s in the past is in the past.”

What such people don’t realize is many of the injustices Native people speak out about are still very present. Some of the nastiest of Indian assimilation and / or extermination programs weren’t legally abolished until the 1970s—after the Civil Rights Movement. I know people who aren’t much older than me who were abducted from their Native families at very young ages and put in government-run boarding schools for Indian children, with brutal curriculums reminiscent of military boot camp and which carried inhumane penalties for practicing anything Indian—language, prayer, dress, or ways of relating to people.

Once you read Petoskey’s book, it’ll be much easier to understand why many Native people are still quite bitter and mistrusting, but that’s not Petoskey’s focus. Instead, he takes a refreshingly more dignified approach in how he tells the story of his family’s experiences with the Indian boarding school program, alcoholism, domestic violence, and struggling to be Indian when most of the people around them wished they weren’t.

Petoskey explains this situation concisely when describing his great-grandfather, whom the northern Michigan city of Petoskey was named after: “He had to develop the skills to live in one world—a world not of his choosing—while keeping his feet and heart centered in another in order to maintain his sanity. It is no different for us today” (24).

Petoskey’s pure heart and lack of bitterness come through in many quotable passages in his book, especially one from his chapter “Come Follow Me,” in which he describes how he and his wife Barb developed their Christian ministry: “I don’t believe any of these experiences hindered my efforts to fulfill my purpose on this Earth. My path continued to open like a fresh-cut trail—even if sometimes I had no choice but to step off that trail. I believe that what I longed and searched for would be fulfilled as long as I submitted to the Creator’s will” (113).

Much of the injustices Petoskey talks about in his book I knew of already, so I can only imagine how they’ll come across to readers for whom it’s all new information. No doubt, the first question will be, “Why have we never heard about this before?” What

I like about Petoskey’s tale is, he doesn’t feel the need to beat readers over the head with it, or rant about how our schools, government, and news media are full of omissions and lies—He simply states the facts, describes his and his family’s responses to them, and lets readers draw their own conclusions and have their own reactions.

His style is very simple, straightforward, but very deep, mixing straight prose with short chapters of poetry he’s written about his everyday spirituality. He shows that his life has been very hard, and admits without excuse that he himself made many of the mistakes Native people are stereotyped for (alcohol, a period of neglecting his family, and feeling despair and resentment about his situation), but he learned from them and chose to immerse himself in being a traditional Native rather than go into political protest mode.

There are others who have gone that route, and what Petoskey is doing instead is more subtle and possibly more effective. As a Christian minister he teaches Christianity in a way that’s compatible with Native American ways of relating to the Creator, and gives lectures about the Indian boarding school program to help change people’s attitudes through education rather than through adversarial methods.

Petoskey illustrates the value of his approach by giving the example of a psychology test he uses during his lectures about the historical trauma of the Indian boarding school system and its aftermath: He shows a piece of paper with a black dot in the center, then asks people what they see. Most respond with “a black dot,” and Petoskey then asks them “why they didn’t see all the white paper.”

He explains that people “have a tendency to focus on all that is wrong rather than all that is good. By encouraging bad feelings, we are enabling our disconnection from the Source and the Creator’s pronouncement that ‘It is good.’ Feeling bad is the root cause of anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, suspicion, anger and hatred” (124).

Another thing I appreciated about Petoskey’s book was he doesn’t talk about casinos, or devote time to overtly dispelling stereotypes. Through describing his life and spirituality, he demonstrates that not all Indians fit the negative stereotypes, and that Indian ways are still valuable in today’s world. He depicts himself and other Native people doing regular jobs, working hard to support their families in sometimes innovative ways (for a while he fed his family by hunting, which is probably a lot harder to do now than in the ancestors’ time), going to church or practicing their spirituality in more traditional ways, and striving to relate with non-Native people cooperatively rather than oppositionally.

While injustice and oppression naturally are strong themes in his book, Petoskey seems more interested in making the Indian’s case by describing valuable cultural traits he’s learned about Native Americans, particularly his own tribe. He describes the respect that traditional parents treat their children with, some of the rules of community etiquette and hospitality, the value that is placed on the wisdom and experience of Elders, how women are valued and cherished as life-givers rather than motherhood being seen as less prestigious than work men do, and not taking or accumulating more resources than we need.

Petoskey’s book is a beautiful read, especially his poetry. I’ve never been a fan of Western poetry—European and classical American—because the frequent themes of alienation, unrequited love, yearning, and tumultuous and conflicted emotions don’t make satisfying reading for me or stimulate my soul. Warren Petoskey ranks right up there with N. Scott Momaday in how his poetry blends the natural with the spiritual, seeing deep, peaceful emotions and being in nature as ways of feeling close to the Creator.

“Sunset One,” “Sunset Two,” and “Morning Prayer of an Odawa” are the kinds of meditations I like reading in daily devotional books, and I like how the latter depicts Creation like a mated pair: Father God, Mother Earth, rather than one primary force and everything else in a hierarchy below it. This mated pair view isn’t the same thing as polytheism, and I’m sure it will be difficult to reconcile with Christianity for some readers. Petoskey addresses this quandary by stating “Some might say that, as a Christian serving the Lord Jesus Christ, it should not matter whether I have an ethnic identity or not. I have tried to accept that, but still cannot” (114).

Another thing I was happy to see is that he is one of the increasing number of writers—of various backgrounds—writing about is energy, seeing the universe and everything in it as manifestations of constantly-changing energy rather than static material forms. “The Source I originate from is always creating,” Petoskey says. “We all have the ability to summon the power and energy that comes from the Source—or resist it. When we summon the Source-Spirit, we come under its influence and dormant forces come alive. In this relationship, nothing goes wrong” (125).

For people used to linear memoirs, Petoskey’s book will take some getting used to. His narrative jumps around, discussing his life out of chronological order, in a way that demonstrates the Native American view of life as cyclical rather than always progressing in a straight line. If I tried to focus on chronology when reading it, I would have lost the flow, and missed the points Petoskey is making.

Dancing My Dream is good practice for focusing on what’s more important in a memoir than the specific events: the insights and the lessons.

I strongly recommend Dancing My Dream for anyone who would like to see some examples of what contemporary Native Americans are like, and would like the chance to see them defined by positive characteristics rather than those of victimization. At the same time, it’s also a good source of information about the ongoing persecution and marginalization that traps so many Native Americans in victimization, without the more common confrontational or political approaches that alienate a lot of readers.

There are a few places in Petoskey’s book that do sound overly idealized about the past (making it sound two-dimensional and perfect), and almost ethnocentric in one chapter (describing how “no other people” have the hospitality and community ethic, artistic abilities, and emotional depth the Odawa do, when there are plenty of tribal cultures around the world that did or still do). When averaged in with the whole, however, these passages which were mildly offensive to me as someone born into a society other than the Odawa and who knows people as good as them aren’t significant enough to make Petoskey or his work lose any points with me.

Image: “Archetypal Dreams” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Sumi ink, Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic silver Sharpie marker, highlighter marker

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