By Glenn C. Zaring
Visions of the biblical Tower of Babel have been floating through my mind as those of us in Indian Country think about just how we are going to be communicating with President Donald Trump. We’re not even sure we are speaking the same language, so just how are we going to communicate?
Let’s break this down a bit. When you meet another group of people, you first have to determine which language you will use for communication. If you don’t do this, just walk on by because you will be wasting your time.
In Europe during the Cold War, one of the first things we had to do when encountering folks was to decide which language we were going to use. Was it German, French, Spanish, English, Italian or some version of these? Sometimes, it would be a mixture of several different tongues.
Imagine President Trump walking into a community center or chapterhouse of one of our tribal nations, where the main language spoken was the language of that tribe? For me, the chances that he speaks Anishinaabemowin (Ottawa) are quite poor. Without a knowledge and respect of our language, he will not have any understanding of our whole being as American Indians. You know what this means. Next are the cultural differences that can get in the way of communication. The first that comes to my mind is Dbaadendiziwin (humility). When we sit in the Circle, we are supposed to be humble. We are supposed to honor the words of those in the Circle and listen respectfully.
Not to be judgmental, but I have a problem envisioning President Trump sitting in the Circle, with humility while speaking with respect to our elders. Would he listen patiently while Aunt Katie spoke of her childhood? Or would he honor the words of a tribal leader that was trying to get water out to his people on the reservation? Would he heed the lessons of the pipe carriers or would he be tweeting on his iPhone?
We have a challenge in Indian Country right now. From the very beginning, we need to establish a positive relationship with the new administration and common ground for communication. Think of the challenges.
First, we look at treaties as commitments to be upheld. Heavens knows we spend enough time correctly complaining about how treaties (with the politicians) have been broken with us over the years. We entered them with the intent to honor them and they entered them with an eye to how soon could they break them.
President Trump is purportedly a good businessman. He brokers deals. Part of business activity is that once negotiations have concluded and a deal has been reached, the deal agreed to is respected. He might bargain hard but he does reach deals which usually end up working well.
Isn’t that something that we’ve been looking for all along? Someone with whom we could honestly negotiate? Someone who would respect our treaties once they are reached?
We can expect President Trump to bargain hard! But we can bargain just as hard?
Which brings us to the next level. What do we bring to the table as tribal sovereign nations? What would President Trump value from the tribes?
Fortunately, this type of questioning is good for us as well. We need to look within ourselves and see what we really are, what we need and what we do. This questioning could lead us to some good new paths.
For an example, look at the rest of the world, including Europe, South America and Asia. For many of these nations, a prime industry is tourism. People pay to tour temples, listen to educational lectures about the past, eat native foods and meet real people from the area. It is called cultural tourism.
When doing these tourist things, naturally the visitors are not shown or told everything. … We must have some secrets! However, the visitors are taught enough to have an appreciation of the culture. This appreciation goes home with the visitors and they will talk about it to their friends and what is important, they will think differently about the “Natives” that they visited. This can translate into more tourists and even more opportunity.
From our side, one of our biggest challenges is keeping our culture alive. Through cultural tourism, we can actually end up enlisting the help of visitors to keep our culture vibrant and appreciated.
In Indian Country, we complain about the “Pretendians” and how they give the wrong impression of our culture. So why not do something about it and share the beauty in such a way that it supports our true culture and provides funding for us as well.
Bringing a potential growth industry with benefits for all to President Trump just might start us on a good path with his new administration. The old path has been trod … and found wanting. It is time for a new way. ♦