The Gift of Other

When my sister wrote this post, it got me thinking about a family I haven’t talked to in far too long. She has her own memories of them, and that Thanksgiving food fight was epic, but there was so much more than that. Being reminded of them in the context of a bigger world made me realize that they had given me a gift I think many people never have.

The mother and her son, the one I was friends with at least, were both very proud of their Native American heritage. The son and I met in preschool and remained friends even after they moved to another city before middle school. Part of being friends was spending time at each other’s houses and with each other’s families. It was running around in the back yard and playing by the river and pond. It was playing house and eating what the hosting mother was making for lunch. I distinctly remember launching G.I. Joes off the ceiling fan at his house since we could reach the blades from the stairs.

For me, at least, it was also learning about a world that wasn’t my own. My biggest memories of that were the annual dances at Indian Steps Museum. I was always invited, but I was always invited as a guest. There was no doubt in my mind that they wanted me there, but it was also very clear that there were things that I wouldn’t be able to participate in. I was, as they put it, a white girl, not a red girl. So I would always look at all of the wonderful crafts for sale by the Natives from their own cultures and imaginations and I would join the dances that were open to everyone. Well, I would be coaxed into joining, since I was shy. But I also learned to sit outside the circle and simply observe the dances that weren’t open for everyone. I learned to share in something from a respectful distance.

Native American cultures have always fascinated me, no doubt starting from this early introduction. It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that I realized I might not approach wanting to learn from them in quite the same way as others do.

When I was living in Colorado, I met a woman who was working on convincing the local school to let her teach brain-tanning of hides to elementary students the way she had taught her daughters. I was dearly hoping she would expand this past just the school children because I wanted to learn from her. This wasn’t a wilderness school that took basic information and made it accessible, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This was someone who was teaching what her parents had taught her and their parents had taught them. This was not just a practical skill, but a culturally specific way of doing it that had the weight of generations behind it.

When the protests against DAPL were going strong, I had given some thought to going out to Standing Rock to offer my services. I was willing to be told to peel potatoes, write blog posts, or stand in front of the cops. The leaders would know where I would be of the most use to the people trying to protect a water source. I never went, but I did hear that a lot of white people did show up. No few of them treated this fight for basic rights like it was a Burning Man festival.

When I moved to Colorado and realized I wanted to start growing there, I knew that the best place to go for information were the people that had been there for generations upon generations. (The oldest white family I came across was one whose great-grandfather had been a mountain man.) I was living in a high desert, a place totally unlike the East Coast where my recent family had come from and totally unlike Western Europe where my ancestral roots have been traced to. Water was in my bones, water to excess. Dryness, the ability to thrive when water was limited, that was in the bones of the local Native Americans. I didn’t study them. Somehow, I never really made time for it. I learned how to make raised beds, a very European/East Coast piece of knowledge. I never did try out the lowered beds I saw in the Native exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In a place where water was scarce, I learned what was being taught. That was how to get water out of the area I wanted to plant, not to keep it in. But when you look at who’s teaching the bulk of gardening courses and doing the gardening research, it’s people with water in their bones, not desert. Most of us just never see that as a problem.

What that family gave me all those years ago was the ability to understand that what I know, what I see as normal, is just one way of seeing things. And it’s not a given that it’s the right way. By sitting and watching these other cultures be themselves, I was exposed to other ways of viewing the world. By being asked to sit outside the circle sometimes, I was given the chance to be the outsider, the token, the minority.

I forget this lesson on a regular basis. I get so caught up in just getting by, just being “normal,” that I forget normal is entirely relative. Much of it stemming from your own relatives, at that. There are other normals out there. We’re losing them at a remarkable pace as the Western, white, consumerist culture devours them, picking out the best pieces to keep and destroying the rest. They aren’t dead yet, though, and I think it would benefit all of us to remember/learn that all of those others exist(ed) for a reason. Just because it’s not my culture, not in my bones, doesn’t make it any less valid. It is in someones bones, and they are the people to ask about it.

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