“There were two Indians who were asked to speak on a panel. One was a man who decorated himself with beadwork, wore a fringed leather jacket had his hair in braids. He talked a lot about all the good he had done and all the noteworthy things about himself. The second Indian was a woman. She wore a skirt and suit coat and had her hair done nicely. She talked about the struggles and the triumphs of her community, she praised the people who had made a difference in it and acknowledged her elders who helped her along the way. Now, most of the white people in the audience thought the man had done a better job in his presentation, but the Indian people in the audience all knew the woman was the one who lived her values as an Indian person. She dressed to respect her audience, didn’t place demands on them by being the center of attention and spoke about her community, not herself, because Indian people who are raised in the culture understand they’re only part of a part of the community, not the center of it.”
I’d first heard that story when from an elderly Dakota man who spoke to my class at the Oscar Howe Native American Summer Art Institute over 15 years ago. While the man’s name has faded from my memory, the story remains. It’s the first time I’d ever heard the values, by which, I was raised be communicated so succinctly. While I’m sure every Native who’s ventured out into the world can imagine examples of those kinds of people and may even be tempted to name them, the principles are universal for us. We’ve run across the self-important and the grandiose who like to make themselves the embodiment of all things Native, but for every one of those people, we know someone who may fit our own stereotype of who we’re supposed to look like as Native people, but their behavior and conduct tells us all we need to know about their upbringing.
After two days in a work retreat, the common theme of values, both individual and shared came up and played an important part in the work we do. In my personal assessment, my top five values were: spirituality/faith, helpfulness, ethics, knowledge and creativity. Anyone who knows me would be not be surprised that spirituality and faith were my top value. I express it, at this point in my life and going forward, through Catholicism. It’s a philosophical framework that helps me not to understand god – because god is too immense for my human mind to comprehend – but to direct myself in a helpful way to making life just a little more bearable for others.
I write a great deal about my mother because she was the first witness to faith that I remember. She, too, was able to reconcile her Catholic faith with Wolakota as expressions of the same faith in a higher power that saw her, and our ancestors, through some of the worst times in our personal and collective histories. Within two generations, our way of life was wiped out, our relatives killed and our children taken and assimilated into white American culture. What her father, my grandfather, and she were able to do was to see what good could be applied in such a tumultuous and genocidal time.
What I don’t often talk about is the culture, in which, I grew up. It’s not out of shame or remorse or lack of understanding but out of respect. The story about the two Indian speakers reminds me that it’s not enough simply to talk about one’s culture; one has to demonstrate and illustrate the knowledge of that culture. I grew up in a conservative worldview, not in terms of policing other peoples’ behavior, but in guiding our own behavior in the world.
We don’t boast about our accomplishments, we don’t present ourselves disingenuously to the world for the sake of appearance, we don’t wear our identity on our sleeve for attention and we don’t share what others are unwilling to hear. We protect what is precious to us and we demonstrate our values by how we conduct ourselves through our virtues: generosity, wisdom, fortitude and courage.
There are days I miss the stories and the lessons that I grew up with, there are days I miss my aunties and my uncles who sat around the dinner table or the fire pit, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and reminiscing. That is what grounded me in my culture, hearing Lakota not just in the language but in the poetry of the thought and philosophy of my people; men poked fun at the proud, women gasped and sighed at the selfishness of the assimilated and we kids argued and chased one another around.
The genuine joy we have now is that our wisdom, our stories and our ethics carry on because we live in an age where what wisdom one generation has remembered and gathered can be passed to each successive generation without the fading of memory or dimming of detail. When times get hard, I watch the interview with my mother that my relatives at Sinte Gleska University gathered before she died. And when I need to remember the full perspective on my culture, I get to hear my late Uncle Albert White Hat talk once more.
In revisiting these loved ones, the longing to be with them again is replaced with the gratitude for how they demonstrated how to live, how to conduct ourselves and how to make manifest our virtues and to live our values.
(My dad and mom at Chief Iron Shell’s grave in St. Francis, S.D. in May of 2007.)