Carol A. Hand
“Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You may think of this social web of life as an “ethnosphere,” a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all we are and all we, as a wildly inquisitive and astoundingly adaptive species, have created.” (Davis, p. 2).
What is culture, and does it matter? These are central questions to consider for all of us, not just those who grow up on the margins of “mixed.” Culture is a complex and contested concept with many competing definitions. For this discussion, here’s a common view often used.
“Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” (Culture, Texas A & M University)
Our culture is not often obvious to us. We take our beliefs and institutions for granted – as normal. When we encounter different cultures, we often fail to see that there are so many other ways of making sense of the world. Sometimes we think our culture and institutions are the only ones that makes sense – the best. Sometimes we only see others as lucky because they have a culture. I have often heard this at the end of one of my presentations about Native American issues. “You’re so lucky you have a culture. White people don’t have one.” The reality is that all of us have a culture, but not all of us need to be prepared to walk in multiple worlds every day.
“… the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.” (Davis, pp. 1-2)
Throughout history, a myriad of unique cultures evolved in the context of specific environments – islands, mountainous terrain, rainforests, deserts, and arctic tundra. Each had its own cosmology, social structure, and relationship with the environment. Ojibwe people learned to adapt to the climate of the north Atlantic, and then the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes – the northern tier of the US and the southern tier of Canada. They relied on hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening in their northern woodlands. There were no large mammals to domesticate to do work. Instead, they developed sophisticated social technologies to unite clans and communities to work together for collective survival (Diamond, 1997; Weatherford, 1988). The cultural clashes that accompanied the first encounters with Europeans were significant and in some sense, are still ongoing. No aspect of Ojibwe culture was spared from the forces of external European hegemony, although this is not meant to imply that colonial oppression was necessarily successful.
Graphic Credit: An Ojibwe Perspective … (Hand, 2003, p. 18)
There are two particular authors who helped me make sense of the importance of cultural differences in framing worldviews and the social institutions that different societies create. Ruppert Ross (1992) helped me begin to understand the contrast between Native American and Euro-Canadian beliefs about “right” living and dispute resolution. Starnes (2006) helped me begin to understand how these different worldviews continue to affect education and learning, a powerful tool for reproducing oppression from one generation to the next. Of course, like all simplistic either/or contrasts, how people think and behave is far more nuanced and multidimensional. Nonetheless, models such as these can be used to encourage inter-cultural dialogue.
Ross, in his work as an Assistant Crown Attorney in northwestern Ontario in 1985, was responsible for handling cases in the courts recently established on remote reserves, primarily Cree and Ojibway (Ojibwe). He struggled to understand the profound cultural differences he observed and developed a comparative framework to make sense of what he learned.
Graphic Credit: Ojibwe/Cree and Euro-Canadian Cultural Contrasts (Based on Ross’s 1992 work)
It’s not easy for people to articulate taken-for-granted assumptions about life and behavior. Ross’s work provides an important starting point to discuss differences that may otherwise seem incomprehensible. For example, Euro-Americans are often annoyed by what they refer to as “Indian time” – showing up at least half an hour late for scheduled meetings. With the best of intentions, this has often happened to me. A phone call or chance encounter would occur, leaving me with the difficult choice of taking time to listen and help – “acting only when the time is right,” or rudely rushing off because of the need to adhere to a rather arbitrary social convention. (I knew the meeting would usually start late any way regardless of when I arrived.)
Dispute resolution is another fascinating example. I remember watching as a Euro-American professor tried to resolve conflict with an Ojibwe professional she treated with serious disregard and disrespect. The offended party would never answer her calls when she tried to apologize. After months of trying to reach him, she decided to drive seven hours to show up at his office without an appointment. She felt this was the only way to resolve the conflict. When the professor arrived, the professional’s secretary told her he was too busy to meet with her that day or the next. But she barged into his office any way, demanding that he listen to her apology. He stood up saying he didn’t want to talk to her, but she walked toward him with her steady gaze riveted on his face. He backed away, and she drew closer. He backed up some more, and again she drew closer. Finally, as this dance continued, he was out of space to back up further and was forced to turn to face the wall with his back to her. (It’s crucial for community cohesiveness to never openly show strong emotion, and in this case, he had extremely good reasons to be very angry.) At some point, she finally realized that she wasn’t going to succeed. The dispute, still unresolved decades later, could have been prevented so easily had she taken the time to learn a little about Ojibwe culture. The cost of her disrespect? It meant that the tribal community the Ojibwe professional represented would have nothing to do with her or a new project that may have benefited youth and local schools.
“To acknowledge the wonder of other cultures is not to denigrate our way of life but rather to recognize with some humility that other peoples, flawed as they too may be, nevertheless contribute to our collective heritage, the human repertoire of ideas, beliefs, and adaptations that have allowed us as a species to thrive. To appreciate this truth is to sense viscerally the tragedy inherent in the loss of a language of a people. To lose a culture is to lose something of ourselves” (Davis, pp. 201-202).
It’s true that learning the value of understanding and respecting other cultures isn’t something most children have access to in US public schools. Even if diversity subjects are covered, the way these subjects are taught and tested often reinforces cultural (and class) hegemony. When Bobby Ann Starnes, an award-winning teacher with 18 years of experience, began teaching at the Rocky Boy Elementary School on the Chippewa-Cree reservation in Montana in 2001, she discovered how little she knew about teaching Native children. She also learned that effective teachers in this context need to know the ways Native children learn, as well as something about their histories, cultures, and communities. She set out to help other educators understand the contrasts between the principles and assumptions embedded in the current public education system dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act and effective teaching from Native American cultural perspectives. Like Indian boarding schools, NCLB’s “standardized” (assimilative) curriculum “alienated children and communities” (p. 388). In order to help teachers from doing further harm, she developed a framework that contrasts best practices for working with Native students, and the approaches that NCLB programs actually require.
Graphic Credit: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Them (Starnes, 2006, p. 389).
Clearly the judicial system Ross described and the educational system Starnes observed are examples of continued ethnocide. One culture that developed from the experiences of immigrant European cultures has continued to be used to assimilate or alienate those whose cultures are based on other worldviews. This disrespect for other ways of being and making sense of life has serious consequences. Yes, large mammals and newer machines can often accomplish difficult work much more quickly and efficiently than groups of people working together, but often we lose what is most important in the process – a sense of community connections. As John McKnight (1995) observes, it is not just the natural environment that is sometimes destroyed in the process, and the habitats of many other species, the very connections that create community cohesiveness are destroyed as well. McKnight describes how the invention of the steel plow opened up the prairie lands to farmers, and how new social technologies like bereavement counsellors destroy community connections. Steel plows, unlike previous tools, could cut through the thick, interwoven root systems of prairie grasses. Soon, the rich soil that was once protected by the grasses began to disappear with wind and weather, creating a desert until new generations of farmers leaned how to protect and replenish the soil. So too, professional “experts” cut through the invisible interwoven threads of caring that characterize vibrant communities.
It is precisely these interwoven roots of connection with people and environments that many of the cultures that have disappeared knew so well. Some of these insights still guide how some cultures live, but these are the communities most at risk of disappearing as corporate interest displace peoples around the globe in their quest to exploit the earth’s resources for profit. What is lost is not only land and animal species. We lose the accumulated wisdom of peoples who learned to live in balance with each other and their environments over the course of millennia.
“To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of collective suicide. To deny or exclude from the calculus of governance the costs of violating the biological support systems is the logic of delusion. These voices matter because they can still be heard to remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space” (Davis, p. 217).
I wish I had answers, but I only have questions and concerns…
“One question lurking behind all of this is whether in fact all practice, everything everyone does, embodies and hence reproduces the assumptions of the system. There is actually a profound philosophical issue here: how, if actors are fully cultural beings, they could ever do anything that does not in some way carry forward core cultural assumptions.” (Dirks, Eley, & Ortner, p. 398)
Wade Davis (2009). The wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Toronto, ON, Canada: House of Anansi Press, Inc.
Jared Diamond (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York, NYW. W. Norton & Company.
Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, & Sherry B. Ortner (Eds.)(1994). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Carol A. Hand (2003). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? (Doctoral dissertation). Available from UMI Dissertation Services, ProQuest Company: Ann Arbor, MI.
John McKnight (1995). John Deere and the bereavement counselor. In The careless society: Community and its counterfeits (pp. 3-15). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ruppert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group.
Bobby Ann Starnes (2006). What we don’t know can hurt them: White teachers, Indian children. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (5), 384-392.
Jack Weatherford (1988). Indian givers: How Indians of the Americas transformed the world. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc.