Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Please do not assume anything about the Native experience -- Even innocent assumptions can be incredibly harmful to disenfranchised communities that are struggling to have their real voices heard

Most of the mainstream attention on issues of race today revolves around immigrants and the African-American experience. While this is obviously understandable and necessary, there is still a great need for bringing the concerns, history, and voices of Native Americans into the current public discourse about race-related social justice in North America.

Previously, I explained what I learned from Sue and Chris Franklin about why Native people are still for the most part under the mainstream radar. After that, I described in more detail some of what these two community leaders shared about the contemporary traumatic experiences of Native people, as well as some basics regarding Native American culture, spirituality and worldviews.

Following up on that, the logical next point to make is that the plight of contemporary Native people is not as simple as just “blaming” mainstream North American society for what it did to them.

For twenty years, in many if not most of the social, faith, and work groups I’ve been part of, I have been the most Native person in the entire group. I thus became the “token” who was looked to for any answer I could give to their questions about Native Americans—ranging from the most respectfully innocent to the most stereotypically insulting.

While I appreciate that people want to know answers about Native people, and obviously not all such people are bigots who intentionally keep Native people out of their communities, I’ve always found this situation uncomfortable. It really says a lot about the social disenfranchisement of Native people that an ethnically mostly-white person, who was raised white, and who has ancestry and an affinity for Native culture that she has to date only explored through connection with the local Native community consisting of tribes that her ancestors did not come from, is the most exposure that these people have had to anything or anyone with any direct and authentic Native American influence in their life.

For anything other than the most basic inquiries, I have been transparent with such people that I am not actually the best or most appropriate person to answer such questions. That being the case, they then naturally ask, What about books?

There are a lot of books out there about Native Americans, most of which are written from outsider perspectives. One of the biggest challenges for learning about Native American teachings from authentic sources is that most of the social, cultural, and spiritual wisdom has been passed down orally, not compiled into books that would serve as the Native American equivalents of Scripture. The languages, too, are oral: most of them have never been written down in any form. 

This being the case, I tell people that the best way to learn about Native Americans and their cultures is and always has been from Native Americans themselves—through forming authentic friendships with Native people, through attending events hosted by tribal members that are open to visitors, and through programming such as the Interfaith Leadership Council’s “Ask A…” series event that Sue and Chris Franklin presented at in April.

In the absence of any immediate opportunities for such first-hand experiences, my advice to such information-seekers is to please not assume anything about the Native experience. Even innocent misconceptions can be incredibly harmful to disenfranchised communities that are struggling to have their real voices heard, and whose attempts are frequently strangled by people who think they are being inclusive or helpful simply because their “intentions are good.”

I wrote previously that, when it comes to removing obstacles to true diversity-and-inclusion-supporting dialogue, our intentions are often irrelevant compared with the impact our words and actions have on the people we think we are accommodating

Previously I stated that this was going to be a three-post series, and now I realize I do still have one more. Now that I’ve shared with you about some of the biggest challenges to social justice that Native Americans still face today, in my fourth and final post I’ll describe some examples of how Native culture is still very much alive and thriving today in many ways that predate (or have only been somewhat altered since) the influence of the dominant society that evolved out of the cultures of European settlers. 

Image: "Fancy Shawl Dancer #9" by Karla Joy Huber, early 2000s; Marker, crayon, colored pencil

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