Carol A. Hand
I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers. (Kahlil Gibran)
Yesterday’s Reiki session was intriguing. The Reiki Master told me she sometimes sees images, but yesterday she saw more than usual during our session, while I remembered two teachers from my past – the kind Gibran refers to. One I have mentioned in a previous post – The Clicker, and another who inspired my research on Indian child welfare. The second teacher I shall refer to as Makwa – the bear. Perhaps these two came to mind because I have begun working on rereading and editing the preface and first two chapters of a book on Indian child welfare I began last winter. Or perhaps the memory of the lessons is important as I face the challenge of sharing the stories entrusted to me by those who hoped that their accounts of suffering and resilience would help others.
Although these two teachers never met, the lesson they taught was the same – why it is essential to be kind and why it is not only compassionate and ethical, but also effective, to look for the strengths and gifts of individuals and communities rather than focus on their deficiencies. Both insisted that others accept and adopt their worldview and the only “right way” (theirs) to deal with clients (the Clicker) or communities (Makwa). Both occupied positions of power and used it skillfully to vanquish any questions or threats to their positions or points of view. The Clicker was a skilled public speaker and used his gift to publicly ridicule others and undermine the confidence and credibility of anyone who disagreed with him. Makwa was a large, forceful woman whose presence and volume easily dwarfed and drowned out any critics. As I look back on these encounters now, I can’t help feeling they were preordained. Neither knew how to deal with the small, introverted, but tenacious woman who stood in their way.
Makwa recruited me aggressively to work with tribes on child welfare. Initially I resisted because I had never worked in child welfare – I was educated as a gerontologist and had primarily worked in policy development and administration, but I finally agreed knowing I faced a steep learning curve. The task involved designing a curriculum for tribal child welfare workers, but first, tribes had to agree to partner with a university on the project. My first task was to build those partnerships. I decided to visit the child welfare staff for all of the tribes in the state to get a better idea about the issues they faced and the types of skills and information they felt would be helpful. After each visit, I would feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. “Training” for tribal staff would do nothing to address the challenges they faced in a state and federal child welfare system that gave them little power or funding to address serious multidimensional issues.
When I shared these observations with Makwa, I was told two things. First, the project really wasn’t designed to work with all of the tribes in the state, but only those in a particular region. My response was honest. I didn’t appreciate not being told this at the beginning. I told her that I would never have agreed to be part of a university’s attempt to divide and conquer. She relented and promised to make sure this change was approved by state and federal funders. And she did follow through. The second concern about developing a relevant curriculum for tribal workers would come a year later, after I had an opportunity to learn more about the child welfare system imposed on tribes. Although tribes in the U.S. and Canada had developed innovative culturally appropriate alternatives to help families heal rather than merely remove children, I was told that the trainings would focus on teaching about child welfare legislation and professional (Euro-American) evidence-based skills. We could make a few minor changes for tribes – put a few “eagle feathers” on the county curriculum – and call it done.
Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures
I couldn’t agree with this, of course. From my perspective, the project offered an invaluable opportunity to bring tribal staff together to dialogue about the systems they would like to see in place for their respective (sovereign) communities. Workshops could then be built around helping staff gain the skills that they would need to create these systems. Makwa and I parted ways on this disagreement, but I wrote a lengthy letter to tribal staff outlining the issues they had mentioned during our time together, listing the strengths and innovations they shared, and ending with suggestions of things they might want to hold the state and university accountable for in the future of the project.
I don’t mean to imply at all that it was easy to stand my ground before a forceful, intimidating, and politically powerful adversary. It made me physically ill. I questioned whether my observations, conclusions, and actions were appropriate. But I felt I had an obligation to represent the voices of people who trusted me with their stories, their challenges, and their dreams for a better future – an obligation to speak the truth from my perspective. The opportunity did exist to begin to correct a brutally repressive history and integrity demanded that I present that perspective as forcefully as I could.
I didn’t encounter the Clicker until many years later to again learn the lesson of respecting the strengths and dignity of people without power. During those intervening years, I had developed more nuanced skills as an advocate. A good thing, because the Clicker had more sophisticated skills than Makwa to discredit anyone who threated his privilege. He was skilled as a behind-the-scenes puppet master. At first, he presented himself as my mentor, letting me know he watched me in my interactions with others on campus and talked to my students in private to check on my ability to teach. It seemed creepy to me, so I began avoiding him and just tried to do my job. Then, he orchestrated an opportunity for me to co-teach his organization and management class. The texts and assignments were his choice, and poorly conceptualized from my perspective, but I kept those views to myself and merely added what I was asked to contribute. After one lecture (“History, Hierarchy and Hegemony”) and one facilitated discussion that excited students, I was told there was no need for me to show up for class again.
I was able to retreat and just do my own teaching and research until I was asked to serve as an advocate by a Native American student who was being discriminated against by the Clicker. It was a legitimate and serious claim that impugned not only the student’s academic ability but also his character. It was then that I discovered the intractability of anti-Native prejudice among my tenured colleagues. They closed ranks despite my best efforts. I was willing to take the issues outside the department, but the student chose to withdraw – a tragic loss of a young man who had overcome many challenges in his life in order to be able to help youth on his reservation. Still, I was able to successfully buffer other students who were targeted because of their differences. The price for my success would mean the loss of my job, and like the students I advocated for, I had to deal with assaults on my competence and character. Yet I learned to neither fight nor flee. Through agonizing self-reflection, I learned how to speak my truth with clarity and kindness, standing my ground and refuting each untruth with empirical evidence. The Clicker and those he influenced could only have power over me if I wanted what they controlled – a tenured position in an institution that was demeaning and oppressive to those with the least power. It was an easy choice for me, although a painful time to live through. During my Reiki session yesterday, I saw these two teachers so clearly, and I saw how these experiences and the choices I made played out in both positive and negative ways during the years that followed.
I wonder what the symbols my Reiki Master might add to my understanding of these past lessons. Below is my rendition based on the sketches she drew.
Photo Credit: What might these symbols mean?
The only sense I can make of the lower symbol is that I’m the dot, protected on three sides from Makwa’s forcefulness without being totally closed off from the world. I wasn’t able to find anything like it when I googled hieroglyphics. The upper symbol does include the two wavy lines that stand for water in Egyptian hieroglyphics and the astrological sign for Aquarius, but I have no idea what the curved addition above the line might mean. I do remember often contemplating the Tao verse about water to help me deal with the Clicker and his colleagues.
“The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.”
(as cited in Dreher, 1991, p. 139)
The passage did help me stay focused. But what about the image of the “bearded man in the rainbow colored hat” my Reiki Master saw? The first thing that came to mind when she mentioned the image was the trickster (or Wavy Gravy). Perhaps the trickster protected me although I was unaware of it at the time, granting me the fluidity, humor, quickness of wit, and tenacity to deal with adversity.
Photo Credit: The Man in the Rainbow Colored Hat – the Trickster?
I may never know what these symbols and image mean. And truly, I welcome your ideas on their meaning.
Regardless of the meaning of the symbols though, the Reiki session helped my back continue healing and gave me an opportunity to remember and be grateful for past lessons. Although I can honestly say that I wish my teachers well, I would have preferred learning from a teacher like the one I became as a result of the lessons they taught me. It’s possible, though, that I needed to suffer to learn. I can only hope that the others who suffered from their actions can look back and be grateful as well. And maybe – just maybe – I was able to teach Makwa and the Clicker something as well…
Diane Dreher (1991). The Tao of inner peace. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
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