Updated: Aug 27, 2020
My mother dedicated her life to teaching. Not just teaching, but reaching out to those left behind in America’s broad educational system. She taught junior high! Wait, it gets better: she taught juvenile delinquents of junior high age!
However, even she reached her limit, and when they started posting armed guards in the hallways of her Chicagoland school, she quit. Unfortunately, this born teacher discovered too late that no other school system was willing to take on her pension so close to retirement age, and she wound up working odd jobs, until I opened my big mouth and told her that out here in the wilds of South Dakota the reservations are always in need of teachers. And an added bonus: there was no mandatory retirement age. She applied, and of course, was accepted immediately.
That’s when I started to worry. This gifted educator had spent her entire life working her way toward her life’s goal of living in her favorite city, and now she was going to end her career on the second-largest Indian Reservation in the country (Pine Ridge, located 75 miles from the nearest city) coupled with the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate. WHAT WAS I THINKING??
She actually thrived there – even enjoying the 150 mile weekly roundtrip to “town” to buy groceries (which were prohibitively expensive at the reservation’s single convenience store), putting a few pounds on her habitually spare frame, and glorying in the Native culture which she had previously only observed from afar. She even learned to recognize the Reservation’s national anthem (sung in Lakota).
That is not to say that she didn’t have a period of adjustment from big city life to the isolation of an unfamiliar indigenous culture. She must have entertained some doubts on her first day, when she initiated a typical question and answer classroom exercise. She asked a question, but not a single hand went up. She struggled with this for many weeks, until she realized that her students were not particularly shy (though this is often the case in interactions with non-Indians). Nor were they stupid, or just didn’t know the answer. Native Americans are as a whole, a very polite society, and conscious of many things that escape the wider general society. Raising their hands to answer a question would be implying that no one else in the room knew the answer, and would therefore cause embarrassment – or even be an implied insult. [She found other ways to involve her students in learning experiences.]
This same reasoning applies to the traditional custom of Natives avoiding eye contact with the person or persons they are talking to. In the white culture, eye contact is considered essential to clear communication, but to Natives it is tantamount to rudeness.
I heard a better explanation recently (at a history conference, of course) which gets to the heart of the matter. If you are not looking directly at the person speaking, it allows you to listen, or in Native parlance, “opens your ears” to the message.
Here’s another example: the Lakota believe that you can only claim ownership of something you made yourself. Therefore it is impossible to own the earth, air, or water because you hadn’t made it. (The contrast with EuroAmericans on this subject is mind-boggling.)
The buffalo, of course, were central to the traditional Plains Indians culture. As long as buffalo herds roamed the northern plains, the people and the culture thrived. The people appreciated their good fortune, and built elaborate rituals surrounding buffalo hunts, praying for a successful hunt before, and offering thanks and sacrifices following. It was an exchange. The buffalo gave their lives “that the people might live”.
Unfortunately, non-Indians saw only their dependence on the buffalo, and decided that the only way to clear the land of “predatory” Indians was to kill all the buffalo.
Coupled with government boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian, save the child”, they very nearly succeeded. But today the buffalo are no longer on the endangered species list, and Native American populations are out-pacing growth in every other demographic. And they are young: 42% of the American Indian population is 24 years or younger. (Source: American Indian College Fund)
The “bloodthirsty” Sioux – the most populous tribe on the northern plains – have miraculously survived broken treaties, genocide, the slaughter of their most important source of sustenance, egregious Bureau of Indian Affairs policies, and government boarding schools.
And watch out, world. These proud indigenous survivors just may become that brown “threat” to old white men who so fear losing their dominance in America!
A more recent example: The current coronavirus pandemic has hit the Navajo Reservation (covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah) especially hard. As the media has slowly discovered this unusual enclave, they have also managed to communicate the very different way that Natives view their elders. The white culture (to our ever-lasting shame) seems to believe that old people are expendable, as if their years of learning, of building and preserving the culture are over anyway, so save yourselves!
The Navajo however, treasure their Elders because they have the knowledge. If they die, the culture will be lost. Despite poverty, lack of running water, and many other obstacles in their lives, what they most fear is losing the Elders.