A typical meeting between two Native people for the first time goes something like this:
“What tribe you from?”
“I’m a Blackfeet from Brownin’.”
“Aaahhh, my uncle is from up that way.”
“Oh yeah, he went to Chemawa with my Dad. I pow-wowed with his kids.”
And so on.
It happens everywhere: Walmart, college campuses, pow wows and in Washington, D.C. We want to know who you are rather than what you do. The first line of questioning establishes relationship. “Where you from? What tribe are you? Who’s your Grandma?” Later, we might ask for whom you work and what you do. Academic credentials and job titles are important, but they are not who you are.
It is said that each human being is a mere six degrees of separation from every other person in the world. In Indian country, it’s more like two degrees, where it doesn’t take long for us to find something or someone that connects us.
Historically, Native people valued relationships. Today in tribal communities, we have hundreds of relatives related by blood and not. Some we know well; others, we know only by name; and many, we don’t know at all.
Some people we know too well. With them, we are champion grudge-holders. Ask yourself, “Have I been holding this grudge since 1975? 1998?” Even holding a grudge from last week is too long. What happened to creating and maintaining strong, healthy relationships with our relatives and community members?
Our ancestors lived by values of generosity and compassion. Certainly, they got angry at one another, but they then practiced forgiveness. When letting go of resentments was hard, they talked to someone or were doctored in a ceremony. Forgiveness heals but resentment morphs into hateful attitudes and actions. Grudges kill relationships. They kill families. So, too, they kill good community efforts for social change.
When invited to attend a community meeting on dealing with prescription drug abuse or domestic violence, we hesitate. Because of negative experiences in the past, we show up with suspicion and uncertainty. We drag our reluctance, judgments, and grudges with us. Principles of acceptance and respect are out the window. We are just plain mad and someone is going to get it!
When asked to volunteer time to community change efforts, we say, “Well, if she is going to be involved, I want no part of it,” or “I had better get involved because these people don't know what the heck they’re doing.” A negative attitude can stop an effort before it starts and alienate people even further.
The problem is not them, it is our attitudes about them. Only we can fix our attitudes.
We lean over and whisper to our neighbor, “Just look at him up there talking about preventing drug abuse and domestic violence. I hear he uses pills and beats his wife.” Maybe he is or isn’t the best person to lead, but do our own negative actions and attitudes help matters any?
Gossip and judgment do absolutely no good. Until we learn to keep an open mind and say only positive things, let us keep our mouths shut. If we continue the negativity, not only do we lose; so do our families, communities, and tribes. Does this mean we should not confront ill behavior? No, but let us do it with safety and without promoting grudges.
We do not have to like everyone, but we need to get along well enough to break down the walls of disease, community violence, and apathy. We need to stop pointing fingers and take a good hard look in the mirror. Where were we wrong? What is our part in the matter? The answers will come when we are open to them. This is true humility.
Like our ancestors, let us put our differences aside and forgive one another. When all else fails, simply take the higher road and be kind. A positive attitude starts with each of us. Let us greet all of our relatives with a warm handshake and say, “It’s good to see you.” This is the first step in melting away long-standing resentments and barriers. Then, and only then, will we finally be able to work together for wellness and the greater good of our people.
Forgiveness is a Native trait. We are all relatives in the eyes of our ancestors and our Creator. Everybody wins when we remember who we are.
Jay LaPlante, Blackfeet and Cree, has dedicated his career to tribal wellness. He is a consultant for Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.