Mac’s 2010 Civic Forum: Reflections for Dakota Birthright

Hi everyone,

My name is Terence Steinberg and I’m a recipient of the 2010 Live It! Fund. For the next few months I’m going to be posting about my project, Dakota Birthright. I’ll share my reflections on various events related to civic engagement and leadership, and take you along on a canoe trip that traces the reverse route of the Dakota exile from Minnesota.

Here are my thoughts after attending the 2010 Maclester Civic Forum

The Civic Forum utterly blew me way.  Not only was the quality of intellectual debate and presentation stimulating and factually robust, but more importantly the passion and consciousness shared by the speakers and audience resonated throughout the night.  Too often academia dwells in a contextual vacuum.  For example, in my discipline, Economics, we’re instructed (indoctrinated, may I say?) to remain invariably positive about our subject.  But these are normative issues!  Economics is a social science – it’s not biology!  Our educations are nothing without implementing them in our communities.  As the evening developed, the abundance of opinions at the Civic Forum strengthened the purpose of our gathering.  I, for one, felt a renewed and compelling urge to do something for my community, whether in Saint Paul or the greater United States.

Among the range of topics related to “Civic Leadership in the Age of Obama,” the Forum’s title this year, was inertial racism, a broad description of what some call institutionalized racism.  We focused largely on how this relates to African Americans, but it is the central narrative of so many other groups as well.  Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, a Dakota and Nakota community of a few thousand, composes the poorest county in the United States.  A mean annual income of less than $5,300 per capita, unemployment of 58%, and a high school graduation rate of one in three: these statistics only begin to tell the story.  Babies die at a rate nearly twice that of a decade ago, and suicide rates are several times those of the rest of our nation.  A similar reality exists for the Dakota of Santee Reservation, Nebraska.  Can this trajectory be described as anything but inertial racism?  Does the meritocracy of the United States justify condemning these communities to compounding suffering?

In the words of Sekou Sundiata, as quoted by Callie Thuma, senior Macalester student and presenter at the Forum:

Why don’t we get our hopes up too high?
What don’t we get our hopes up too high?

Last week in my EXCO class, The Indigenous Imperative, the instructor asked if I would feel comfortable sharing the parable of the two-headed snake with Dakota Birthright participants.  In the story, a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) canoeing in search of food during a famine encounter a pathetic, sickly snake with heads of gold and silver resting on a lily pad.  They take pity, bring him home and nurture its needs.  As they feed the snake, it grows exponentially, demanding ever more resources and ever more space. It eats their game, causes social rifts and leads the community into a period of unparalleled trauma.  Finally, the snake swallows people whole.  They slash its belly and retrieve their family members. In the end, the snake dies, and the Haudenosaunee heal. What is the snake? The United States and Canada.

I told the instructor I did not know if I would be comfortable telling this story.  I said I aim to be a facilitator during Dakota Birthright, not a ‘teacher,’ that the true leaders of the voyage would be the elders.  As Professor and Keynote Speaker Ian Haney-Lopez urged, however, progressives should not simply aim to facilitate. We all need to overcome ‘colorblindness.’  We must discuss racism in open terms.  Then, we lead.  As a white citizen of the United States piloting a canoe trip of Dakota natives from Crow Creek to Santee Reservations, I will continue to revisit this principle

The Linchpin

1 – War versus Peace

2 – Humans versus Natural World – Sustainability

3 – Growth versus Distribution

4 – Diversity versus Commonality

These four areas, Professor Ahmed Samatar argued yesterday to me and my Live It! colleagues, constitute all realms of great human issues.  In this epoch of global citizenship, where “intensive and extensive encounters between the immediate and the distant [create] multiple contradictions that are pregnant with opportunities and dangers” (Samatar’s description), our actions will consistently take root in at least one of these four zones of tension.

He urged us to reflect and think critically about our roles with these issues as we embark on our projects. It might seem excessively elementary to begin a lecture by reminding us that action is subject to thinking.  I for one consider myself much more pragmatic than many of the theory-obsessed academics in this collegiate sphere.  But I did learn a new word: praxis, the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is embodied, enacted or realized.

So what theory do we realize? First, let me note I root my theories in ideals.  Yesterday I realized my ideals root themselves into the four realms of conflict mentioned above. This summer’s work, Dakota Birthright, will focus primarily on Zone 3, growth versus distribution. It will also dig into sustainability – cultural, environmental and economic (note ‘growth versus distribution’) – and reflect on the state of these Dakota communities since their periods of war with the U.S. government. And as I have mentioned in my previous posts, we will also explore issues of diversity versus commonality.

Some of my peers will work to improve education in Cambodia. One student will produce a video to improve access to the college application process. Another will research the struggles of migrant farm workers and advocate for basic standards of respect for health, dignity and working wages on the farms in California and ultimately around the world.  Me?  I’m leading a canoe trip to bring exiled individuals back to their homeland and reconnect them with a cultural heritage that’s continually diluted, both on reservations and in the urban cityscape.  This geographic and cultural exile that the Dakota live with today is a manifestation of ‘zones of exclusion.’ Professor Samatar argued (and it’s hard to disagree) these zones are examples of tension between mainstream culture and economics and struggle to maintain identity and individuality. (I have spent time in some Dakota reservations in Minnesota, but they have issues far different from those facing Santee and Crow Creek, which are virtually isolated and have no sparkling Casino to attract revenue to their communities.).

So when I visit this summer and find myself in the poorest place in North America (aside from Chiapas and Oaxaca, which are indigenous as well), I wonder if I will encounter the same “global citizen” identity I am supposed to bear.  I doubt that most people I meet on Dakota Birthright will have an identity that supercedes (or even complements) their immediate, local identity of the “invaded, exploited and forgotten.”  And that is the linchpin of colonialism: when the oppressed perpetuate the victimized identity. Like the liquor stores they build in the ghetto, certain elements continue the trajectory of a colonization and subjugation.  It’s my hope that the canoe trip can start to build the bridge between “us” and “them,” to welcome these people back to their own lands and start to reverse the legacy of exile.

Reflections on Ways of Knowing and Being Wise

Imagine a calm voice guiding you through the next few minutes. Softly, the voice tells you:
Close your eyes. Take deep breaths and listen to your heart. Ask yourself, how does my skin feel? Am I warm or cool? Slowly inhale, then while exhaling, push any residual thoughts out of your realm. Blow them away.  Now imagine yourself surrounded by friends, by family, by comforts. Does this change your breathing? Your temperature?

After helping you imagine your casual, celebratory gathering, the voice alters the scene:
Now, imagine the faces around you change. They become something you are not – a different race, or nationality, or gender. Now you are an outsider.  Again, check your breath, your heart, your temperature. As you explore potential discussions with this new crowd, how do you react? Do you want to stay, or would you like to run?

The voice above was that of Tommy Woon, Dean of Multicultural Life at Macalester.  At a meeting for Live It recipients and other community members interested in reflecting on ways of knowing, Tommy led a session of somatic inquiry.  I found the first portion where I imagined my family and friends challenging.  Would everyone get along? Probably not. Would there be some undercurrents? Most likely.  Putting myself in a hypothetical picnic with all my favorite people seemed too far-fetched for me to fathom.  But I could quickly turn the proverbial table when he asked us to become “the other.” I have played this role many times – for example, at the United World College, and volunteering in Thailand where I was the only foreigner and the only English speaker in certain villages – and I will be this person again during Dakota Birthright.

I admit the envisioned situation where I became the minority was slightly tense. I don’t remember exactly, but I expect my breathing became shallower.  As I sat there, eyes closed, imagining this scene, I thought of what I wrote about in my last post – whether I would share the parable of the two-headed snake.  Again, I noticed I might not be at perfect ease imagining myself as an outsider taking a leadership (rather than facilitator’s) position in a community I don’t belong to. Nonetheless. I have enough intimacy with the circumstance that I know I won’t run. I’ll stay, start a discussion, and maybe even lead some somatic inquiry.