Something that I have noticed over the length of this class—and especially during our trip to Pine Ridge—is the difference between the way in which we (we meaning myself first of all and than our class) treat our own culture and how we treat the Lakota (and other indigenous) culture(s). This may sound like a pretty obvious thing to notice, we respond to different things, cultures and otherwise, differently—but I am referring to ways in which we treat indigenous cultures differently than our own that are symptomatic less of cultural differences than of how we see ourselves in relation to their culture. I want to talk about these ways in which we approach indigenous cultures and explain how, upon reflecting on this topic, I find myself questioning the role that tradition plays (or does not play) within my own culture.
As a white person, particularly as a white male, I find it difficult to know exactly what my place is in relation to indigenous cultures. The atrocities of the past: the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee, etc. are far from forgotten, and the injustices done by the American Government (a government composed of mostly white males) to the indigenous tribes of America extend far beyond several dramatic historical events—indeed the treatment of the indigenous peoples of America by our government today is nothing to be proud of. So I navigate my ambiguous relationship by attempting to show respect and tact when interacting with these cultures. It is the respect of one who recognizes that he understands nothing (and may never understand anything) about the culture but is at the same time determined gain an appreciation for it.
It would take a remarkable degree of self-denial to not recognize the role that racial and socioeconomic guilt plays in all of this. Even though my relatives were far away (many were in Russia at this point) from the American frontier when most of the atrocities and acts of violence against indigenous tribes took place, I represent a race and a culture that has oppressed, and in many cases exterminated, the indigenous peoples of America. It is difficult to know how to interact with a culture that one has the desire to learn about and appreciate while being a symbol of racial oppression towards that culture. And when I walked around the Pine Ridge Reservation (the most impoverished reservation in the U.S.), surrounded by 20 other white 20-somethings that all attend a small expensive private college, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel some embarrassment and a sense of not belonging due to my heritage, culture, and socioeconomic status. This sense of guilt and shame colored many of my actions and thoughts at Pine Ridge, and instilled in me a desire to be respectful of their culture to a fault. I say “to a fault” because many Americans and myself would consider it erroneous to approach our own culture with the same unerring and reverent respect with which I tried to approach the Lakota culture while on Pine Ridge. Where is the room for criticism and accountability when one is so concerned with not offending, not being obtrusive or rude? Now, it was not our place on this trip to judge anything we saw, we were there as guests to simply observe and learn, but I cannot escape the disconnect between how we approached the Lakota traditions and how we approach our own.
I do not want to attempt speak for our whole class, but I can speak for myself (and I would wager that a significant portion of our class could be included in this statement) and say that my political philosophy is fairly liberal. When I say “liberal” what I mean is that I am in favor of questioning and criticizing our traditional cultural values and social structures and changing them if it seems that they need to be changed. To me there is little value in a tradition if the tradition appears to undermine my beliefs about how society should function and be organized. This is opposed to “conservative” which I would define as meaning that one sees inherent value in traditions and traditional cultural structures simply because they are traditional. A conservative approach to traditions claims they provide us with a cultural continuity and identity that is hard to hold onto in a culture where traditions and beliefs are constantly changing. What I found to be interesting was how conservative our approach to the Lakota culture—meaning our belief in the importance of the continuing existence of the traditional Lakota culture and beliefs—and our liberal views regarding our own culture—meaning our willingness to move away from and change many of our own traditional beliefs.
To frame what I am trying to say within a more concrete example I’ll talk about my thoughts when confronted with the gender roles within traditional Lakota way. When I saw the patriarchal structure of the Lakota tradition, the prominence of traditional gender roles that any young liberal would refuse to placidly accept if he/she saw them in the classroom or workplace, I certainly felt uncomfortable, but I did not feel the same sense of urgency or duty to change them that I might have felt if I were somewhere else. Why was this? Why was I so willing to accept the existence of, the necessity of, these practices that I would never support in my day-to-day life? After some self-examination I have come to the conclusion that at least part this reaction stems from the aforementioned racial guilt and part comes from a sense of cultural security.
As I said, I represent (or at least feel like I represent) cultural, racial, and religious oppression by the American Government towards the Indigenous Peoples of what is now the U.S. Many indigenous cultures were completely exterminated, and if more cultures were to disappear I would feel like a complacent witness—I would feel a degree of responsibility and certainly guilt. Thus, I cannot avoid the fact that I want the Lakota way to continue to exist in its unfiltered traditional form because it is testament to the fact that the American Government did not destroy every indigenous culture, and that makes me feel a little less guilty.
And I don’t have much of a problem challenging and changing my own culture’s traditional beliefs and structures in part because I don’t feel the same sense of guilt when our traditions change and disappear, but also because I feel a sense of cultural security, a sense that my culture is strong enough and stable enough to retain continuity and identity despite the changes. I am by no means trying to say that the Lakota culture is weak (just the opposite in fact), but the reality is that life on the reservation is difficult. It is a place plagued by poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, the continued oppression by the government, and other challenges. The rich cultural heritage of the Lakota people is a resource, a resource that helps so many of them find strength and sense of character and unity in what can often seem a bleak situation. I was lucky enough to get to experience a small part of their culture and see how many find strength and guidance in their traditional beliefs. And beyond simply being a rich and valuable resource, it is an integral part of the lives and identity of so many Lakota that I would never feel comfortable criticizing it in the same way I might criticize my own culture.
When I was at Pine Ridge I witnessed a culture in which tradition and religion are an integral and interconnected part of daily life in a way that I don’t think exists in the rest of America. It forced me to confront the reality of tradition and religion as a source of strength and continuity in a way that I had never done. It also highlighted the different role that tradition plays (or at least seems to me to play) within our own culture. I do not feel the same sense of connection and continuity with my ancestors, my culture’s past, or my cultural heritage that I observed within many we met on Pine Ridge, and I think that this is indicative of how many within the larger American culture feel. Some would say that our culture’s ability to function and maintain a sense of continuity without strict traditions and structures is a strength and others would say it is a weakness. Normally, I would say it is a strength, but after visiting Pine Ridge and being a part (however briefly) of a culture in which tradition and religions play such a vital role; after seeing the complicated and beautiful web of connections between culture, tradition, religion, and daily life I am not so sure anymore.