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Waking Up to the Value of Indigenous Cultures

Waking Up to the Value of Indigenous Cultures

Charlie Laurel

For multiple tens-of-thousands of years (if not longer) the Dine' people (as the Navajo people refer to themselves), have inhabited a vast area, spanning over lands renamed by colonizers as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Their present sovereign Nation is a fraction of their original territory and still they are the largest, most populous tribal Nation in the borders of the United States. Coded within the Dine' language is tens of thousands of years of culture: ecological knowledge, ceremonial knowledge, teachings of beauty and balance, peace-making practices. These ways have been passed down, generation to generation, despite efforts of colonizers over the past centuries to displace and eradicate the people and the culture. To this day, the Dine' strive to keep their language and culture alive. Of great importance are the Elders and Medicine People who carry the deepest cultural memory.

I met my partner, Miriam Dror, sixteen years ago out on the windswept landscape of the Painted Desert. We we both working on the Reservation, she as a school counselor in a small, remote community, me as a builder working on community self-sufficiency projects. Neither of us are Native and we both were deeply inspired by what little we had learned of Dine' culture and it's guidance for “walking in Beauty.” Miriam had developed many close relationships during her years working with Dine' people, and those connections have remained strong over the past 14 years since we moved to Vermont. Miriam has traveled back and forth once or twice a year to work at the Little Singer Community School and she has facilitated frequent visits of Dine' people to Vermont to share their culture in a variety of contexts, notably annual participation in the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (CONTACT) program at the School for International Training.

I offer all this as background to the current situation on the Dine' Nation and the up-swelling of compassionate response we have witnessed amongst our friends, relatives, and increasingly, folks we have not yet met. As many people who follow the news are aware, Coronavirus has hit the Navajo Nation harder than any other region on the continent. The challenge is fearsome and there are many factors contributing to their vulnerabilities, including a long history of oppression by US policy. But rather than detailing that (important as that information is), what prompts me to write today is what Miriam and I have experienced over the past two months. Miriam called her friend Sharon, living in Kaibeto, a remote community on the Nation, to find out how she and her community were faring. Not well, it turned out. Sharon and her family were well, but there was a lot of illness and death in the community, especially among the Elders. No aid was coming in from anywhere—none of the promised Federal funds and Navajo government funds stretched way too thin. Sharon and a few of her friends had organized a local volunteer relief effort, started a Gofundme, and managed to get a start on bringing food boxes to people. Personal protective equipment and proper cleaning supplies were impossible to obtain. “What do you need?” Miriam asked. Sharon gave us a list. Miriam and I contacted our local friends, thinking that if a bunch of us purchased what we could of Clorox wipes, masks, diapers and such that we could ship a few boxes and be of some help.

As it turned out, our friends and families wanted to give much more than a few purchased items. They wanted to write checks. We checked in with Sharon and her team and decided to use our little local nonprofit (Alliance for Building Community) to send 100% of proceeds to her team (whereas Gofundme takes a cut). We quickly raised fourteen thousand dollars, just from friends and family, enabling the Kaibeto Covid Relief Team to drive their trucks and horse trailers down to Phoenix to make bulk purchases of food and supplies. We were delighted when the Kaibeto folks sent us a video slide show of their trip to Navajo Mountain, a very rugged, remote community, to deliver supplies that would enable people to stay home more and minimize contact with the virus. To see the pictures of the Elders, in their traditional dress, receiving from us what might actually save lives and help preserve culture, moved us to tears.

Compassion is sometimes talked about as a one-way experience: one feels the distress of another and is motivated to do something about it. But it seems there is something more going on here. Many of our friends have had chances to meet our Dine' friends during their visits over these past 14 years. They have heard, more importantly, felt something of the Dine' spirit and culture. Could it be that this compassionate outpouring of donations is motivated by something bigger than alleviating the suffering wrought by COVID 19? Could it be that we, non-indigenous people, are starting to understand the value of cultural ways that actually co-evolved with the landscapes inhabited? Are we motivated to act compassionately not only for the sake of the vulnerable, but also for the sake of keeping alive cultures that carry wisdom and ways of surviving, and thriving, in balance? Perhaps our compassion also carries a seed of reciprocity, a growing receptivity to listening to our Indigenous Elders, making more possible a compassionate future for all of us and future generations.

We are still accepting donations through our nonprofit, with all proceeds going to the Kaibeto Covid Relief Team. The pandemic is not over, not by a long shot. We can make a difference. Make checks payable to Alliance for Building Community and Mail to: Miriam Dror, 24-East West Rd., East Dummerston, VT 05346. Email contact: charlie@charlielaurel.com. Please include your email if you want a receipt and updates.

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