By Glenn C. Zaring
“We just don’t know how to talk to Indians! How do you do it?”
These words came from a respected, high-powered attorney, following a recent hospital board meeting where the subject was, “How can we improve the interaction of the hospital system with the needs of our tribal community?”
He continued, “We have presented many proposals to the tribes and nothing happened.” This particular attorney is well educated in the law and works with many governments and non-profits in our state. Generally, he is viewed as a good man. What was amusing, is that this lawyer is known for not getting flustered…however, this time, he was very, very close! The look in his eyes told it all.
Upon first hearing the question, teachings began to come to mind. Teachings that could be shared to help him understand us. The Seven Grandfathers, Talking Circles and many others came unbidden to me. However, they were shelved as his question was examined. What did this attorney want? Did he truly want to learn about ‘talking to Indians,’ was this merely a ploy to get business and what did he want to do with the information?
As this article is being written, a Talking Feather and a Talking Stick hang on the wall above my monitor. They serve as reminders to be respectful, to listen intently and to consider the words of others before speaking. There is more, but those come first.
This lawyer’s question is relevant to all of us in Indian Country. Unfortunately, the answer demands a shift in thinking from non-tribal members. When the outsiders see a tree, do they bother to offer up a prayer of thanks for the shade the tree has shared with us? Or do they make a quick calculation on number of board feet available if the tree is harvested? You know how we look at it.
When the outsiders sit down with a tribal council, do they actively listen to what the council is saying before they make their PowerPoint presentation and present their slick proposal? Or do they just listen long enough to pick up some points, which they can build into their sales presentation?
The other side of the coin is, “Do we really want to be able to communicate on deeper levels with those outside our tribal families?” Do we even care if they learn about us or do we just want to be left alone?
The answers are for each of the tribes and their people to consider. We are in a ‘connected’ world and as much as we might wish to live apart from it, it is there and it will intrude whether we want it or not. From cell phones and tablets to GPS markers and GIS mapping, the interconnectedness of the world is real. It is there and we need to consider our actions and reactions to it. We also need to be ready and able to grasp opportunities the ‘connected’ world brings us.
A thought on how to do this is to first spend time on the vision you have for your tribe, your nation and your people. Don’t just say that, “We need to practice the old ways.” Or, “We must return to the land, to Mother Earth.” Ask yourself why we need to practice the old ways or why we must return to our Mother. Just using the phrase because it is popular or because it is a habit doesn’t accomplish anything. Form the answer into something that you truly understand and something that you truly want. Make this ‘vision’ yours! Make it a vision that can be shared among your people. Make this vision your message.
By clarifying this tribal ‘message’ we can more effectively answer the question when fancy lawyers try to talk to us. If we cannot adequately present our beliefs and desires to outsiders, in terms that both of us can understand, we will never be able to peacefully coexist.
And that will rob us of opportunities that we desperately need. Opportunities that usually come with fancy lawyers attached.
We must be able to communicate with outsiders or we will become nothing more than quaint footnotes in a few history books. It is truly that important! ♦