Listening over my shoulder

Last week I was in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where Neither Wolf nor Dog was the first annual selection for their “Community Reads” program. Their hope was to get 3000 people in the community to read and discuss the book. I was invited down to give several presentations.

It was a fine event and I was deeply moved, as well as energized, by the community’s interest in the book and subjects it raised. What I believe it did, at least for much of the reading population, was to open them to the difficulty of reaching out to the new immigrant groups that are moving into their community. What they had seen in Neither Wolf nor Dog was someone going to a community not his own, with different values and a different history, and trying to find a way to connect respectfully while holding onto his own identity.

That’s a bit of a cartoon version, but it moves in the right direction.

Among the various presentations I gave was one to a group of civic leaders — mayor, city manager, city council, school board, school administration, social service folk, etc. It was the only one I had actually prepared in a formal sense, so I thought I’d post it on the website so you could listen in your own mind to what I had to say.

A presentation to Community Leaders on 25 October 2004 as part of 2004 “Eden Prairie Reads” program
By Kent Nerburn, author of Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder


I was, as you might well imagine, very honored when your community chose a book of mine as the first selection for Eden Prairie reads. But I was also very curious. What did the people who chose that book see in it that made them choose it over all the other wonderful books out there?

For the last few months I’ve been asking that question of people in your community. And the answer is always the same – “You took us into a different world,” they say, “but you did not lose your sense of self. You made us see through different eyes, and we, as a community, want to learn to see through different eyes — need to learn to see through different eyes. We thought maybe your book could help us do that.”

It is a wonderful compliment. It would be my dream as a writer that it could have such an effect. And I cannot add a whit to the book in that regard. But perhaps I can talk to you a bit about what I have learned about entering into communities and cultures other than my own, and offer a few thoughts that will help you in your admirable efforts to open your community to the new cultures that are changing its face and shape.

And the best place to start is with my introduction to the Indian people of Red Lake when I first tried to enter into their community. It came at a place called “the tribal cultural center.” It was not what I had expected: a converted construction shack with a plywood ramp for an entryway. But the sign said, “Tribal Cultural Center,” and it was there that I was told I could find a woman who could help me with my new job as coordinator of an oral history program, so I put on my best, warm, “Hi, I’m glad to meet you,” smile and walked through the door.

Two women were sitting at a card table sorting through a shoebox full of multi-colored beads. The older woman was choosing beads, then handing them one by one to a round-faced younger woman, who was delicately stringing them on a transparent filament.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for Delores Cloud.” The young girl looked up furtively. I could sense the slightest shade of a glance toward the older woman, as if she were waiting for her to take the lead in making a response. The older woman said nothing, but just kept sorting beads.

“I was told to ask for Delores,” I continued. “I’m Kent Nerburn. I’ve been hired by the school to help the students collect the memories of the elders.”

Still, there was no response.

“This is the tribal cultural center, isn’t it?” I asked. “You’re Delores Cloud?”

The older woman slowed her sorting enough to let me know that, yes, she was Delores Cloud, and, yes, she was listening.

“I’m Kent Nerburn,” I repeated. “I’ve been hired to work on the oral history project with the students.” I reached out my hand in greeting. It hung there, unmet, until I slowly withdrew it and let it fall clumsily to my side. I continued with less brightness in my voice. “I was told that you could give me some guidance on which of the elders might be willing to talk to the students.”

The woman picked out a yellow bead and handed it to the girl, who was intently trying to avoid any involvement in the situation. I glanced from one to the other, but neither would look at me.

I backpedaled a bit. “I’m sorry. If you’re busy, or if there would be a better time. . . .”

“Look, sonny, “ the older woman said abruptly, still refusing to look at me. “If you think you’re going to come in here and do another one of those damn white anthropology projects, you can just get on your pony and ride.”

I was taken completely off guard. With cheeks burning, I backed out the door. What had I done wrong? I was there to seek help for the children. I had entered respectfully, offered my hand in friendship. There had been no arrogance in my manner, and I had come with no self-serving purpose. In fact, my only goal was to help give voice to the elders by crafting their stories into a book they could pass on and share with their children and grandchildren. How could I have done it better? How had I done it wrong?

Well, let me count the ways.

I had entered with a forcefulness of purpose rather than with humility.

I had stated my case rather than waiting to be asked to do so.

I had believed that the legitimacy of my task had justified my presence, and I had believed that my professional status and responsibility gave me entree to those who might be able to assist in that task.

Most of all, I had believed that my good intentions and forthright manner would be sufficient proof of the quality of my heart.

Only months later, after Delores and I had become friends, did I understand that what I had needed to do to gain her assistance was to serve silently, allowing myself to be observed, and waiting until I was approached.

I should have introduced myself and offered to help sort beads. If they had accepted my offer, I should have sat down and worked alongside them, asking nothing, demanding nothing. When they had wanted to talk to me, they would have. Perhaps it would have been that day. Perhaps it would have been after three weeks of silent beading. Perhaps it would have been never. But that was not my decision to make.

Instead, I had come into their world, like a noisy, clumsy, Christopher Columbus, convinced of the legitimacy of my mission, assuming the primacy of my point of view, and expecting acceptance under the terms and conditions of human interaction as I understood them. I was performing, as an Indian friend later explained it, an act of psychological colonialism.

Even today, it’s hard for me to see my actions on that occasion as aggressive or presumptive. I still believe I was just being civil, and deserved better than what I got. But now, at least, I understand what had happened. I had entered with my own value system, and presumed its legitimacy and correctness. I had, metaphorically speaking, splashed clumsily onto their shore, planted my flag, and told them I was there to help them, all with no thought of the way life was carried on in the world that I was entering.

We all do such things. Sometimes it’s socially, sometimes it’s culturally, where we misunderstand and, with good intentions, make mistakes that close the hearts of others to us.

What I would like to do is talk to you a bit about ways to keep those doors open, even open them when they are closed, and why it is good, even important, that we should do so.

Yours is a lucky community, and I don’t mean that simply financially, though luck does ride comfortably on the back of economic security and wealth. But, more importantly, yours is a lucky community because it is a community in a state of becoming. Its growth offers opportunities as great as its challenges. You get to shape this community, both physically and culturally, for generations to come.

I don’t wish to talk to you about shaping it physically. You all know all too well the balancing act that must be performed between providing for private opportunity and public good.

But I do wish to talk about shaping it culturally.

I would counsel you strongly to make sure that you excavate your native heritage, both physically and metaphorically. You distort the significance of your native past if you slot them in simply as a minority group, rather than seeing them as the fundament on which your community is built.

Knowing their experience here – knowing what the red rock of Red Rock Trail was, knowing how and where Little Crow and Shakopee and the other chiefs of the Minnesota River valley lived, knowing about the passage of the 1700 Sioux prisoners – mostly women and children — who were marched past here on their journey from southern Minnesota to Fort Snelling after the fighting in 1862, is as important as knowing about the Mitchell or Anderson families, or the other white settlers who are recognized as being so much a part of your community’s heritage .

These native people, too, are your community’s heritage, and you cheat yourselves and your children if you do not shine as bright a light on their experience as you do upon the homesteaders and the settlers who came in their wake.

But it is what you do with the new people and new cultures who are coming in to your community that will be your greatest legacy to the children and the future.

What I’d like to share with you is a little bit about how I believe you can best shape this legacy.

Let me go back to Delores for a moment. When I got over my embarrassment and anger and chagrin, what I realized was that Delores was teaching me a simple cultural lesson. “Show me your heart, not your resume. Offer yourself, then let me decide.”

Two weeks later I had a chance to put that into practice when I decided to drive out to the small village of Ponemah 40 miles from Red Lake. It is the most traditional of the Red Lake reservation towns, sitting on a point of land that reaches far out into the largest lake in Minnesota, and is accessible by only a single road cutting through deep pine forests. Some of my quietest, most reticent students came from there.

I had already been told by an Indian man who had become somewhat of a mentor that teachers were both revered and feared on the reservation – revered because it was to them that the children were entrusted, and feared because of what they could do to the children if they did not properly use that trust. So he advised me to go to the parents and show myself to them.

I drove out the long, lonely road to Ponemah, passing the battered clapboard houses, with their small, doghouse-like burial dwellings sitting in the side yards covered with plastic flowers. After almost an hour of lonely travel I came to the home of one of the students who had agreed to show me around her community.

But this time, I knew better — I did not go to the door. I waited outside. Curtains moved, faces appeared, then disappeared. Finally, the mother came out, along with her daughter and small son. I introduced myself and we talked a bit, then she said we could go. The little boy got in the car along with his sister. I was being trusted – after all, the mother was letting her daughter go off with a strange adult male – but I was being monitored: the young boy was sent along to serve as a witness and reporter.

This was no big thing, but it was a giant thing. From being rejected and shunted out a door by one reservation woman, I had moved to being trusted in a car with another woman’s teenaged daughter, and it was because I had followed the rules of encounter that I had learned, and because I had accepted, without questioning, the woman’s conditions for allowing her daughter to go with me.

Had I pushed, had I questioned, had I hesitated or even shown mild consternation or surprise at the presence of the little brother, I would have been rejected as surely as I had been rejected by Delores. And I know this is true, because the family later told me so.

What I am saying is that we enter into people’s lives only when we are asked into people’s lives, and we ask best when we acknowledge their ways and accord them the respect of wanting to learn and abide by those ways.

Now, this is where it becomes crucial. I was the person without power in that cultural situation, so I had no intelligent choice but to abide by the cultural standards of those I wished to meet.

But the same rules of encounter must apply when we are the people in power – when it is our culture that the other seeks to enter. We have a choice: we can say, “You are here. This is America. You’d better learn to do it our way, or you can get on your pony and ride.” Or, we can say, “Welcome. We have a way of doing things. But you have a way of doing things, too. I’d like to learn your way, because I want to know you and want to learn from you. Forgive me for making mistakes, but my intentions are good and my heart is pure.” This is especially significant when we DO have the power and have no need to reach out with an open heart and mind.

And why, you say, should we do that? Delores and my student’s mother didn’t do that. Dan, who I discuss in the book, didn’t do that. No, they didn’t, and perhaps they should have. But I was more than happy to go the extra mile, and it worked out for the good.

But we do that for three reasons.

First, because we allow people to open themselves to us more easily and more fully when we ask them who they are and what they believe. Many people from other cultures, especially the elders, will never reach out, but will live their lives in silent isolation, trying not to intrude, not to bother, not to even be noticed. It is, after all, not simply an issue of culture, but of language. They know they cannot communicate well, and they don’t feel valued. They will stay inside their world, living among us, but not being of us, unless we make the effort to come to that world, with patience, openness, and respect, and ask them, humbly, who they are, what they have to teach, and what the story is they have to tell.

Second, they have something unexpected and valuable to offer. There is not a culture in the world that does not do something, or express some human value, better than any other culture. If we find that something, our community is better and richer. And we will not find it unless we seek it and recognize it.

Third, it is only by knowing where a person comes from that we can meet them where they are. Let me tell you one last story that illustrates this.

One day when my stepson was younger, he had gone off to downtown Bemidji to ride his bike. When he returned several hours later, he was crying. “A kid stole my bike,” he explained.

I immediately got him in the car and we drove to the place where the confrontation had taken place. Not far away, we saw several boys riding in circles and doing wheelies on dirt bikes. One of those bikes was my stepson’s.

It was being ridden by a young Indian boy of about ten or twelve. “That’s the kid who stole my bike,” my stepson said.

“Are you sure?” I asked. He nodded his head.

So I got out of the car, went over to the boy. He saw me coming and grabbed onto the bike with an air of aggressive defiance.

“Is that your bike?” I asked.

He looked up at me and glowered. His face was hard as stone.

I tried again, less confrontationally, “You know, you can’t just take another kid’s bike. It’s not right and it’s going to get you into trouble.” Again, a cold face and a hard stare.

I took a deep breath and looked the boy straight in the eye. He looked back, neither blinking nor flinching.

“All right,” I said. “Who’s your grandmother?”

A look of panic and surprise came over the boy’s face. He quickly loosened his grip on the bike and pushed it toward me. He knew that if his grandmother found out he had taken another boy’s bike he would be in a world of trouble far greater than any that could come from any police or any white man. And he knew that I knew, too. He gave me the bike, I made him apologize to my stepson, and the two of them shook hands. It was a real moment, and, as far as I know, it worked. My stepson never had trouble with that boy again, and the boy always waved at me whenever I saw him on the street.

Once again, it was a simple moment, but it tells a tale. Because I knew the boy’s world, I knew it was his grandmother, and not his mother, who very likely was the disciplinarian in his life. And I was right. The mention of his grandmother was more than a threat, it was also a ratification. It told him I knew who he was and that he mattered. I had reached him, even in a moment of confrontation, because I had known the values he had come from, and that allowed me to talk to him from within the values he understood. It had told him that he was a person, and not just a crime

Now is not the time, and it is not my place, to tell you what the values are of the other cultures that are coming into your community. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. That is for you to find out, and for you to explore and cultivate and integrate into your personal and community lives.

But they are there, and they are the key to bringing these newcomers into your community life. It requires effort, and it requires an act of faith. It requires you to believe that these newcomers have something special to offer your community in terms of the values they bring. But if you make that effort, you will find that hearts will open and true sharing will take place.

Now, let me be clear about this: I’m not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is an empty value. It means, in its crassest sense, putting up with a lot of different people who do things in different ways from you. I tolerate bad traffic; I tolerate noisy neighbors. But it doesn’t mean I appreciate them or value them.

What I’m talking about is deeper than tolerance; I’m talking about learning. As I said, every culture has some value that it expresses with greater clarity than anyone else. There is something at their heart – whether it be the way they raise their children, the way they value their elders, the way they integrate music or art or spirituality or hospitality into their lives – that they do in a way that is unique to them and instructive and beneficial to the rest of us.

What we need to do is find that value that they express with unusual eloquence, and allow them to teach it to us. Now this does not happen of its own without effort.

You, as a community — we, as the dominant culture –– are in the same position as Delores. We can say to others who enter in a way that grates against us, “If you think you’re going to come in here and be another one of those people who does things differently from the way we do them, you can just get on your pony and ride.” Or we can reach out and say, “Welcome to our house. Please come in. Show us your heart, show us your ways. Show us what you love and show us what you dream.”

It is not enough to have ethnic days or to bring people into the schools to show off the artifacts of their traditional culture. It is not enough to get them together and ask them how about the difficulties they are experiencing in fitting into our community.
It is only enough when we get them to show their hearts, to reveal who they are and what they value – to tell us what it means to them to be a good human being – and to find a way to let them teach us what they know about a worthy way of living.

This is the challenge you face. It requires listening, patience, willingness to make mistakes, and willingness not to judge even when you are feeling judgmental. Most of all, it requires going to their door, both physically and metaphorically, and showing them your heart until they decide to let you in. For these people want to be part of Eden Prairie’s life. They, themselves, are standing at your community’s door, uncertain, asking to come in. But if you want them to come in honestly, openly, in the full richness of their beings, you need first to go to their doors. You need to go with the willing hearts of learners. For no one feels as valued as when they feel they have something to teach. In your case, it will be doubly valued, because you are the people who have the power, and you don’t HAVE to go to them. To grant them the power of their knowledge under these circumstances is to make a gesture that will never be forgotten and will be reap benefits a thousand fold.

So I ask you, as individuals and as a community, to grant that privilege to the new cultures that are beginning to change the face of your city. For the moment, and with open hearts, make them the teachers and you become the learners. Listen to their children. Ask them how they are being raised at home. Go to their houses, see how they relate to each other, how they laugh with each other, how they fight with each other, how they love each other. Go to their elders; ask them to mentor you in the ways of their culture. You do not have to accept everything they practice and believe. But you need to grant them the power to teach you. And if you do, you may find that pearl of great price that is unique to their culture, and which you can embrace in your community to make it a richer place for you and your children.

For we all, in the end, want the same thing — to love and be loved, to live without fear, and to see our children grow up healthy and whole and full of hope. Let the new people coming into your community tell you how they dream of doing this, and show you how the best of their people have done it in the past.

If you do, you will not only be opening your hearts to them, you will be allowing them to open their hearts to you. And when hearts are open, and ways are shared, you will truly be moving toward the vision that is contained in your community’s name. You will be becoming a little Eden on the prairie.

Thank you.

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