What I Learned From an Elder About Coping With Racism
As a researcher, I talk to other Native people about shared social issues. Sometimes we discuss the history and impact of federal Indian law, tribal politics, or the “real Indian” meme. We almost always talk about dealing with racism—about how Americans seem to have no problem with media’s distorted images and painful stereotypes of us. Recent studies show experiencing perceived racism produces substantial stress that requires people of color to use coping strategies. Story-sharing and gift-giving are common coping themes throughout the 150-plus conversations I’ve had with Natives.
It’s particularly hard listening to elders’ tales of discrimination and ugly behavior that has been directed at them from non-Natives, but rewarding to learn how they cope with the stress of being indigenous in a still-racist America. I provide a vignette about one such conversation I had in the summer of 2009 because it represents much of the research I’ve collected with other elders.
Will (not his real name) is a tall Chickasaw elder (early 70s) with black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin, who spent time in prison when he was younger. I meet him at his humble mobile home on a dirt road. It’s a wonderfully sunny day with a nice breeze. Will invites me into his home, and as I step in, I see iced tea, cornbread, and a beautifully beaded feather waiting. Over the years, I’ve found this generosity is not uncommon for most Native Elders with whom I speak, even though our meetings are for research purposes. I’m humbled every time because many are impoverished, yet so very traditionally, culturally, and spiritually rich. I give Will a small gift in reciprocity and as a sign of respect for his wisdom.
Time flies by as we sit and talk for two hours about different issues that affect us as indigenous peoples in America—boarding schools, tribal disenrollment, CDIB cards, and sports mascots. The last question I ask is how he thinks the rest of American society sees Indians. Will seems to grow larger in his chair as he speaks adamantly about the injustice:
We are considered drunks. Lazy, dirty drunks. They look at the reservations and they see all the old cars just broke down and the shanty shacks. And a lot of people feel that Indians get money all the time, [but] live in poverty because they take their money and drink all the time. There’s some truth to it. There are a lot of people that will spend their last dime on booze. But then there are also a lot of people that have family and kids that don’t. And they are trying to make it the best they can. That’s being Indian. Being Indian means believing in the culture, in the ancestors, and the old ancestors’ ways—something that we can keep and believe in for ourselves.
Will’s strong voice conveys his desire to be understood. He willingly admits that alcoholism and poverty plague Natives, but expresses great frustration about non-Natives thinking that those conditions speak for all Indians. Will wishes that American society would recognize that Indians are people—“just ordinary people.”
Suddenly, Will gets up and asks if I would like to see his garden. I’m delighted. We walk outdoors and around to the backyard where I see tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, squash, okra, green beans, and jalapeno peper plants. He bends over to pull a weed. I bend over with him to help.
For another hour or so, we talk easily as we weed and prune any overgrowth. I talk about the gardens of my youth and summers with my grandmothers, grandfathers, and more cousins than I can count. I reminisce about digging up potatoes, picking green beans, and fishing at the river. He talks about his mother and how she taught him to be a gentle gardener, planting in a way that gives nutrition back to the dirt. He tells me about the first time he participated in a sweat ceremony and the healing powers of it. We talk about his time in prison and my time as a teenage mother.
When I say I have to be getting back before it gets too late, Will fills a paper bag full of fresh vegetables for my family. His gesture humbles me again. My mind floods with memories of my youth when people always dropped by to eat at our table and no one left our home empty-handed.
On the two-hour drive back, I think about what I learned from Will that day—about the healing and peace that comes with simple acts, like kindness, gardening, story-sharing, and gift-giving. Will coped/copes with this contemporary, often hostile world by returning to the old ways of generosity and community. I haven’t stop thinking or teaching about his lessons, ever since.
Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist. Her article, “A Necessary Evil: Framing an American Indian Legal Identity” will be published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in December 2013.
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