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On the road again


View from my casino hotel room on Umatilla Reservation, near Pendleton, OR.

(I’ve come back to the U.S. to spend a few weeks in a Native American community I first visited with my father and daughter several years ago. I was so impressed by the books I read, bought at their museum store then, that I never stopped wondering how they had managed to create such a unique community. I wrote a paper for the International Studies Association last year, based on preliminary research and interviews done over the phone, and it was so well received, I thought it would be worthwhile to come back and meet people in person to try to understand more. So here I am–looking into youth, voice, agency, and a unique governance style. What follows was posted on fb, as well.)

Spent 9 hours driving from Vancouver, B.C. to the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon yesterday. Temps around 100 (38 C) in some places. So hot it hurt. I listened to the radio a lot and learned there’s such a thing as New Country music. And I heard pro-gun arguments. I sang along to the Classic Rock station (yay James Brown, Led Zeppelin, and Stones songs!). And I listened to preaching and tunes on several Christian stations. I listened closely, and heard something subtle and disturbing, a scurrying down the slippery slope. To my not-been-in-America-for-a-couple-of-years ears, it sounded like sexism and racism and homophobia–sometimes blatant, but mostly systemic–so engrained in the way of thinking and talking it could not even see, let alone hear, how hurtful the statements might be from a position outside of white privilege. A clear line-drawing in the sand of them vs. us. Who are they? I wondered. And why are “we” so afraid, so ignorant?

Then today when I interviewed a wise man of the Tribes, the Communication director and sort-of gatekeeper to the Elders, he asked if I noticed changes in the U.S. I said yes, and without his knowing I felt as I’ve described above, he told me about a retired congressman from Oregon he knows, who said instead of trying to improve the country, we have become only interested in protecting our own interests. Me. And at the political and many other levels, that means no longer saying I understand you and I disagree, or even help me understand you, it means give me what I feel I’m entitled to. Protect my interests. Me.

I sometimes say to my students, you’re probably wondering where we’re going with this. Something about the most powerful country in the world feeling so misunderstood and persecuted that its people have to lash out at others. See, and that didn’t make sense, until I read a blog entry by someone else (see bottom of this post), shared by my wise friend Howie. The victim rhetoric described here, and repeated on the radio stations I listened to yesterday is crippling for our society; it prevents people from entering into what is a sign of civilization: public debate. It blocks a society from growing and flourishing. When a discourse lashes out at others, alarm bells should go off because it’s time to start searching our own hearts. Referring to people with verbs used for animals, denigrating groups with a single story of being evil, is a path that ultimately ends in human rights violations and sometimes, horribly, in genocide. The alternative? Listen to others’ stories without judgment, try to see, hope to hear, and strive to understand. Realize we all share a common vulnerability.

(Hmm, so much for not lecturing during the summer….)

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