Wednesday, July 17, 2013
In a previous post I promised that I would eventually give more attention to the nature of trauma itself. Events that can precipitate the development of PTSD can come in many forms including attempted murder, abduction, traffic accidents and ongoing physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Then there are events that can cause harm to whole populations including natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. And then there are the massive traumas that humans have perpetuated upon each other throughout history. I had the unique experience of developing an appreciation of this particular form of trauma when I was a mere twenty-three years old. At that time in my life I was sent to live and work on the Rosebud reservation, a reservation of the Lakota people located in south central South Dakota. It was a memorable time that left a lasting impression upon me.
There is a specialized body of literature you can lose yourself in for hours, days, months and even years that focuses specifically on the history of colonial conquest and the consequences such history ultimately produced for the world's many cultures. Throughout my diverse academic education I have taken coursework that spanned a large number of disciplines including philosophy, theology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, cultural studies, history and environmental policy. This variety has given me the capacity to appreciate many aspects of our world according to a number of perspectives. And yet no book learning could easily substitute for that which I learned by living on a reservation for nearly four months.
To understand more fully what it is like to be a member of a culture that was on the losing end of history it is indeed vital to leave the books behind and complement your learning with tangible, fleshy, in-your-face experience. Before I proceed further let me be clear with my language. There is a saying that history is written by the winners. I agree. Only those who have the power, namely the winners, will ultimately be able to tell the stories on a sufficiently large scale and with such efficiency and conviction that the history they present will be accepted as Truth. The "losing side" may also share its version of history but because it was disempowered, minimized, relocated, etc. its capacity to effectively disseminate an objective version of history that will reach the world at large will be small in comparison.
While living in South Dakota and working amidst the Lakota people I witnessed firsthand the legacy of what happens when two cultures clash and one overpowers the other. The hybrid cultures that arise from the clash of previously distinct ones is truly fascinating (and often mortifying) to behold. I can still recall living on the reservation and being able to watch American television sitcoms that were frequently based in New York City. And I can recall what began to happen after I had lived on the reservation long enough to ultimately begin seeing American mainstream culture from the outside looking in. It was a very disorienting feeling as my perception began to shift. More than once when I saw such television programs I would ask myself "What self-respecting Lakota person would find this interesting or of any relevance to his own culture?" And the answer I often came up with was that few would find it relevant. Cultural imperialism comes to us through many media; television is but one means of dissemination.
I ultimately lived on the Rosebud reservation a total of approximately fourteen weeks. In that time I witnessed both the hardship and the beauty the Lakota people know each and every day of their lives. I saw the ravages of alcoholism, obscenely high unemployment, cultural appropriation and despair. I still vividly recall the night I stood on the single major road leading south out of St. Francis (one of the main communities on the reservation) and read through a funeral announcement for a young Lakota boy who was killed when his inebriated father crashed his car. I recall how the beauty of the sunset on that day evoked feelings in me that stood in such stark contrast to the sadness I felt that this boy's life had been cut short by the burden of alcoholism as manifest in his father's poor judgment.
And yet for all the darkness I was also impressed by the resilience and beauty of many of the Lakota I met. Several of the people I worked with as a tutor were very kind to me. The local masses held on Sundays offered an interesting hybrid blend of Catholicism and Lakota spirituality; in the lightest and best moments the beauty of both acted in a synergy such that the fusion of the two was more beautiful than either standing alone. I can also recall feeling awe as spring came and the hills became carpeted in green.
I often think of this particular time in my life when I have the displeasure of hearing some of my fellow American citizens (and even elected officials) opine with copious amounts of intolerance (and even hatred) about the impacts of immigration upon this nation. All too often I sense in their words and actions a person who has never been able (or wanted to) to stand outside of his own culture and look inwards. Your own family may have lived on this continent for many generations but unless you have native blood in your heritage you are no more indigenous to North America than the immigrants who move here now. And it is for this reason that I often laugh (and moan) when I hear people who portray minimal if any awareness of their own familial history wax on about the evils of all these immigrants coming to 'steal' all those low paying jobs that Americans supposedly want and yet for some reason don't actually universally apply to.
I believe it also important to state here that I nurse no nostalgia for times long ago when most everyone on the planet lived in a way similar to how some of the last tribal peoples live now. Never in human history have there been so many people and never have we possessed so much knowledge about ourselves and our planet. Some of the overarching questions must then be: What do we do with all this knowledge? How can we respect the beauty, vibrancy and contribution that each culture offers to the human family as a whole?
I have shared these thoughts about what could be called "collective trauma" as a means of giving you a greater understanding of my own perspective. Hopefully this additional insight will help you to better appreciate what informs my own perspective as I continue to write in this blog. I believe each and every one of us are special creations with a purpose completely unique to our own life journey. In a similar way all the cultures of our planet offer unique value that enriches all of us. I believe we could create a better world if we could cultivate such an appreciation of what each and every one of us has to offer.