An Indigenous perspective on the economic crisis
I initially submitted a portion of this essay for a contest that wanted insight from Native people. The title of the contest and the ensuing description read, “Native Insight: Thoughts on Recession, Recovery and Opportunity is a writing competition crafted to tap the wisdom and ingenuity of our Native communities, and encourage Native thinkers to go public with their perspectives on the current economic and political landscape.”
The contest made me reflect upon how words conjure up images, ideas, and assumptions about reality and the world around us. My attention was especially drawn to the words “recession, recovery and opportunity.” This made me think of how language is crucial in depicting a story or conveying an idea. I was reminded of the distinct limitations of only operating in one language, and/or thinking that there is an evolutionary distinction or link between modern economic behavior and the tribal cultures of this hemisphere that did not necessarily dive head-first into embracing the assimilating global economy that is now in severe crisis. Funny how the folks I considered at the root of exploiting Natives now wanted to seize some “Indigenous knowledge” on how to fix their global catastrophe.
At times we all take the words we read for granted, not realizing how complicated meaning and interpretation can be across different cultures and languages. One of my colleagues just wrote an article on “literacy” versus “multiple literacies.” What I gleaned from the article was that to be “literate” is more than just knowing how to read in one language. It involves knowing how to be aware and knowledgeable of how to negotiate the environment in which one lives. It is to be conscious that the language, words, and ways of speaking and referring to reality are all intertwined.
If I take a well-read, literate, English-speaking highly educated economist and drop him off in the rural parts of the Pine Ridge Reservation, would he still be considered literate? Would he possess the literacy of the community or would he have to revert back to a study? What type of insight would he want to garner from people who are not the folks who constructed the “crisis” in the first place, but have been living in a crisis since their economic mode of production was supplanted by the externally imposed system in the first place.
Let me relay a pertinent story involving my late grandmother Ramona Moves Camp Meat Randall, who passed away in September 2002. My grandma had a way of saying things that always stuck in my head. You see, my grandmother’s second language was English, as was my mother’s. Their first tongue is Lakota. It is neither a romance language nor a language with roots to Greek or Latin—which constitute the linguistic foundation of the discussions that surround the current economic crisis. I say this not to “exoticize” Lakota; rather, I am emphasizing that when people discuss what they consider to be common knowledge, it is actually embedded within a linguistic paradigm of reality that is not always congruent to the lives of people living outside of the popular conversations concerning the “crisis.”
To grow up with a worldview and cosmology rooted in tribal stories and a notion of reality embedded in a traditional language was a common theme that linked both my grandma and mom’s beginnings as Lakota people. The financial realities of Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation are often described by journalists who travel there to attest to the tremendous discrepancies of wealth within the United States. I know that the road leading into town didn’t get paved until 1968. Horseback was still a major means for travel, and the idea of what I take for granted as a product of being an “iyeska” (half-breed) exposed to many languages and forms of media and the term “globalized industrial capitalism” are as far removed from their upbringing as mine is to walking on the moon naked.
I remember one time my grandma was passing by the room where my cousins and I were watching TV. We were watching a movie that I was considering using for my class at the Crazy Horse School in Wanblee, South Dakota. The school is made up of predominantly Lakota students, the vast majority of us all being related through our Lakota kinship by being of the same tiyospaye (extended family). The film was a documentary about the Netsilik Inuit, describing their life as a “hunting and gathering” cultural group. My grandma walked by the TV and said, “They say those people lived like us.” She never really sat and paid much attention to the TV because it functioned like the radio to her: she would leave it on for background noise while doing other tasks.
This particular moment comes to mind because the entire idea of how people learn or come to know about others and their economic reality was embodied in her statement. How news is disseminated usually occurs by way of trusted sources of information. One of my aunties lives on a remote area in the Pribilof Islands and has been married to an Aleut for quite some time. I knew she had shared stories with my grandma about the fishing culture of her husband’s people. While my grandma could read English on a basic level, her abilities did not encompass many of the words in the vast lexicon of globalization, including terms that are not easily translated between Lakota and English. Terms like “culture,” “nomadic hunting and gathering,” “paradigms,” “recession,” “recovery,” and “opportunity,” are not terms I am familiar with in the Lakota language. This point underscores that the words “recession,” “recovery,” and “opportunity” are not words I can imagine her articulating. Receiving “commodities” from U.S.D.A. or getting some money for working horses and cattle for a nearby rancher, or maybe working as a clerk or a teacher’s aide were more realistic terms to discuss with her.
Both my grandma and mother grew up in a time when TV was not available. Grandma’s childhood predated the technology, and after she had my mom she did not have the financial means for such a luxury. The TV she had was an item she got for her grandkids later on in life. It was a constant source of noise but never really a source of trusted truth.
While the road that I have traveled in American history allows me to sit here at a coffee shop on my laptop with wi-fi, a good portion of this hemisphere’s Indigenous people exist in spaces that are not as blind to socio-economic class disparities as we seem to be here in the United States. To come from a collective identity within a community is very different from becoming a career-oriented person trying to carve out a piece of the American dream and seeking to fulfill the rugged-individualist rewards embodied by the illusory concept of “opportunity.”
What my grandma uttered while passing by, “they say those people lived like us,” resonates in my mind. The film depicted people who relied upon one another to survive. From clothing production to food and shelter, the entanglement of being a social animal living inside of the natural environment and trying to balance resources is at the core of being part of a nomadic hunting and gathering cultural group. The ideas of sharing and kinship obligations and responsibilities are part and parcel of nomadic hunting and gathering groups. The words that often get associated with Lakota are mitakuye oyasin. A good rough translation is “we are all related.” At a larger level it signifies that all things in the universe are interrelated such that the animate and inanimate world co-exist and require a balanced and reciprocal relationship.
I understand my grandma’s words to reflect that being tribal or a true Lakota is to come from a cultural reality where homelessness and poverty don’t exist; where siblings don’t compare their stocks and investments in a secretive manner; where there is no real preoccupation in being a Republican versus a Democrat; where people don’t worry about binaries like heaven and hell. This is not to say that to be a tribally oriented person is to be living in a utopia. I am suggesting that as social beings, the individual economic units of each tiyospaye—as well as the larger notions of being humans and Lakota—are about understanding that we are inherently socialists.
I use this term here intentionally to reappropriate the negative connotations that have evolved with the Cold War and McCarthyism. If being a socialist means caring more for the well-being of a larger unit of economic production than one’s nuclear family, well I think my grandma was all for it.
As I thought about her life and what she meant to me, I figured I would respond to this call for “Native Insight” on the economy. I wanted to dedicate this writing to her, wondering what she would have had to say. On my grandma’s behalf, her younger sister responded to my step-dad’s question this past summer about how the economy has affected the Lakota by proclaiming, “It’s no different than it’s ever been, jobs have always been hard to find around here.”
Dr. Richard Meyers is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation. He teaches at American University.
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