“Don’t go to live with the Natives, you will just be socially abused. It is not that they will mean too, they just do not know anything else”
This opinion was expressed to me by an affluent Jewish politically active settler family. I told them I wanted to experience Native People to find out their opinion of my choice of lifestyle. This family were in the midst of attempting to convince me to alter my ways and become a documented person.
After six years of living life on my own terms in North America, looking for allies and sympathisers with my chosen point of self expression, I found my way to an Indigenous community. I was convinced they would be understanding and supportive of my way of being, after all I felt as though the way I lived was more in tune with their ways prior to the imposition of colonialism. Even though I had mostly only heard negativity about those people I wanted to go and experience them myself.
I started working with a non-profit Indigenous arts company as a volunteer in their cultural exchange program. I found it slightly confusing at first because my only interface with the community was through non-Native people in the company. I was housed and worked with other transient volunteers having little contact with the Native people. I felt very disrespected, as though I was only there to be used as labor and the other volunteers shared the perspective. Some of the negative stereotypes about Native people I heard previously began to be expressed among the other volunteers. I had signed up for a longer period of time than the others so had some patience to wait it out and look at it deeper.
At first I was only working in the gardens, with very little instruction and guidance from a seemingly impatient non-Native person who had no time to invest in me. I was a little older than the other volunteers so found they were looking to me for leadership. It was very difficult because I had no support or connection from the company and barely any idea what I was doing. Still though I worked through it and played a part in harvesting the seasons crops, turning them into preserves or cooking lunches for staff. It was hard to see what the company actually did and at times it appeared to me and the other volunteers that we were just there to serve the staff who didn’t seem very busy doing much of anything.
As the season drew to a close I started to develop some relationship with members of the company and saw that they were busier than it appeared on the surface, although many of them still seemed to have little interest in me or acknowledgement of my contribution. I saw a Christmas show being put together and I was involved in building the set for the show. The show was not pleasant, it was about a Native family who had one of their children taken away from them. I began to see how the art was a reflection of the predicament the people faced and a way to raise awareness of the issues. I also got to see that although things happened at a different pace than settler life in North America that actually these people are extremely hard working and dedicated, and that it would take a significant effort for me to gain any kind of recognition or acceptance from them.
Three months of my arranged year with the community had passed and I could see how I could best contribute, challenge myself, and have a positive experience. I offered to take responsibility for managing the volunteers and the gardening project, and to be an interface for the community helping other volunteers have a positive experience while ensuring the company got what it needed out of the exchange.
I was given this responsibility along with an endowment of the cultural knowledge and artistic practices not usually afforded to volunteers.
I figured that my lifestyle up until this point had saw me recognise my inherent privileges by living without the bureaucratic entitlements I was born into, but accepting this role saw me embark upon what I can only describe as “White Privilege Boot-camp”. It became a 24/7 role in which as my responsibility over others grew, and the amount of connection with the community expanded the more my accountability for myself and my unconscious entitlements were scrutinised in not so gentle ways by non-Native members of the company.
A big part of managing the volunteers was facilitating time for them with the companies spiritual leader, an oral knowledge keeper who shared thousands of years of indigenous histories and the story of colonialism which is far different from what settlers or Europeans are taught. This along with the challenges to privilege and vastly different way of working that most of the volunteers were used too often caused people to develop emotional conflicts and express those negative stereotypes of Native people I had encountered in the beginning and heard so much prior to this experience.
I found myself often facing the brunt of volunteers outbursts of frustration then interpreting the situation and helping them come to the understanding which I had gained. That these are actually hard working and honourable people who are subjugated by the system around them and not being given a free ride from tax payers money as many settlers believe. I could see how important it was to have a non-Native in this role because it seemed unfair to have Native people deal with that, or the humiliation of answering questions such as “How come they don’t live in tipis?” which I was asked numerous times.
Summer was coming around. The garden was planted, it was very hot and dry. A lot of work was needed just to keep the gardens watered so I came up with a DIY irrigation system. I had developed some strong relationships within the community and taken a lot of responsibility for managing the day to day upkeep of the multi million dollar arts facility, taking care of the weekly market we held and promoting the company. It was also at this time I had one of the most enriching aspects of the experience. I was given responsibility to manage the summer students in the garden, a group of school aged teenagers from the Reserve, mostly young girls. It was a great challenge at first because why should they listen to me? But after a few days working together we bonded and I was able to successfully lead them, achieve positive output and enjoy friendships.
Powwow season had begun, at my first experience of this I felt like a rabbit in headlights. In a complete state of shock at the beauty and dedication I saw around me, dazzled by the colors of the dresses and hypnotised by the sounds of the drums and singing. After going to a couple of these events and ceremonies I experienced a genetic activation in which I saw my history. I received visions of my bloodlines actions in the region, it was extremely violent and traumatising but also a great gift of healing and expansion of consciousness. It left me in a state of PTSD that for the most part I kept to myself. I knew I needed some support with it but the only people I could turn to for help were the Native people around me! I figured that whatever trauma I am dealing with because of this is insignificant compared to what they are going through. So I buried it and grieved it only at times when I was alone, in private, and used it as a source of strength and determination to keep getting up and working hard for these people.
I was fortunate though because around the same time I had built a very strong relationship with the best next door neighbor anybody could ever ask for. An elder Native lady who had done, and continued to do phenomenal amount of work in regards to emancipation of her people and cross cultural bridge building. I never told her what I was going through emotionally but did approach and ask her for support with the work I was doing which she gladly offered. Over the months to come we grew an increasingly mutually dependent relationship that I took a lot of strength and guidance from and offered a lot of physical support in the upkeep of her home.
By midsummer we were working on the companies main show. An outdoor spectacle that was set inside of a wigwam village that we built from materials we collected ourselves. It was a miracle that we were able to pull it off because the funding was not being received, nobody was being paid and yet everyone was working as hard as ever. It meant no difference to me as I was not being paid anyway, my housing was secure, I had no dependents on me and was eating mostly from the food I had planted. This meant I was able to be a consistent figure in the support of the show. Building the wigwams was an immense experience, not just the long hours of physical labor but the teachings that went along with it. I saw how important these teachings are for living in harmony with the planet and felt extremely honored to be part of preserving and promoting this tradition.
My arranged year of being with the company was coming to an end and I was heavily invested. A number of the Native people I was working with had expressed that they wished for me to stay and I had been invited to take part in fasting and sweat lodge ceremonies to become an honorary member of the Odawa Nation. However the administrator reminded me that I had to prepare to leave as it was not possible for me to remain part of the company as an undocumented person. It was very difficult to take and I said I wanted to stay in the region and find another way to live with the community. That idea was supported.
This happened at the beginning of the biggest weekend of the summer. The communities annual cultural festival, one of the biggest pow wows to happen and amid thousands of visitors descending. I realised if I was going to stay that I had to build more relationships outside of the immediate company so set about pushing my social limits of meeting new people this weekend.
However after the weekend was over the administrator told me she had thought of a way to keep me. She offered for the company to support me in making an application to immigration so I could become documented and work legally in the country.
My decision to live undocumented had in part been an ethical decision, but also a decision made from a place of personal trauma and disillusionment as a youth. I had been content living that way up until my experience with this Native community. After seeing them have to fight and struggle for an opportunity to have the same advantages I had been trying to separate myself from I knew I could no longer keep living in North America the same way. I recognised I had a duty to make the most of my heritage and the advantages it affords me in order to contribute to making the world a better place.
I knew at this point I wanted to continue working with Native Americans as a cross cultural interpretor but I could not do it while being dependent on them for my basic sustenance. Living that way meant no matter how hard I work, or how much dedication I put to the cause I would always be using their already severely limited resources and never be able to fully take care of myself, meaning I would never truly be effective helping them.
They are going through a great renaissance, their teachings and traditions are coming out to the present world, a world which is suffering under ecological degradation, and as more people come aware that they have kept hold of the caretaker knowledge, the knowledge to live harmoniously with the planet, more people are going to be coming looking for their help. They do not need me to help with their healing, but the need for people to be in between the cultural divide and interpret the values and situation to non Native people is clear. Without that the concern is that the racism will continue or history will repeat itself.
I accepted the offer and began taking steps towards gaining the documents to become registered and work legally, to administer my own affairs and take responsibility for my own financial destiny.
My duties to the community grew even larger, the relationships I developed became deeper and the emotional upheaval I was going through in private grew in intensity.
As I started to have closer relationships I would go out more in public places away from the community with my Native friends, I became witness to many acts of deplorable racism from settlers, be it at a restaurant, or at a hockey game, or in line of traffic. The treatment towards them I encountered was shocking. I couldn’t believe that these people who after so many generations of abuse and oppression by settlers in their home still received so much daily systemic and personal racism, yet remain gentle, peaceful and giving, never lowering their values and staying open to share their way of being.
The more of this I processed and became aware of the deeper my inner struggle to cope with it became, especially considering that they were helping me transform my life. They cared about me enough to make sacrifices and take huge risks with the organisation they had built from nothing to give me a platform to heal my own broken connection with my heritage, a heritage that directly affected them and their struggles.
I was dealing with an almost unbearable amount of emotion to process, being reduced to heavy floods of tears every time I was alone, regularly having to break away from my duties to purge in the bathroom and often coming close to bursting into tears in front of people.
However a big part of the role was to entertain, so I always ensured to present a positive pleasant figure, always ready to play the fool and act like a clown.
I was in a position of constant feed back and interpretation of the emotional conflict non-native people endured coming into the community and the cultural friction it caused yet I was neglecting to take care of my own needs or seek support for my emotions. Eventually it all became too much to take, I had a severe breakdown which created a situation that required intervention.
It hurt immensely! I had built so many positive relationships by this point that I was not going to allow it to stop me doing the work I was being asked to do though. I opened up about it and received the support I needed.
What I experienced I saw as a microcosm of what can happen when people make a genuine effort to live alongside and understand indigenous culture. I believe there will be a wave of people experiencing what I went through in North America and am now dedicated to do whatever it takes to be in between that, to help create a safe space for non-Native people to better understand and respect Native Americans while healthfully processing the emotions of guilt and shame of the situation.
Sadly in the end our efforts for me to become documented and work in North America officially failed and I was forced to leave the country. It caused me even more of an immense amount of grief. However, grieving is healing, so I processed it and left, knowing that the purging I did was inter generational and brought me closer to my family who I had been estranged from for seven years.
I am now back in Europe, reconnecting with my own family and heritage and becoming financially independent again.
I do not know how or when, but I know when the time is right I will be back in North America, working with indigenous people, supporting their renaissance and helping others to better understand and respect their way of being. A way of being which is so important to the Earth, to humanity, so essential for human survival and living the way nature intended.