Reflections – Respecting Diversity Matters

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.

colonial domination

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.

ross table

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.

nclb

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)

Works Cited:

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.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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25 Responses to Reflections – Respecting Diversity Matters

  1. desilef says:

    These are wonderful graphics. Laid out in this manner, how could any Euro-influenced teacher or justice worker want to continue in the Euro way! Being culturally sensitive also means learning from other cultures which have much better ideas than those that now predominate in US/Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I so appreciate your thoughtful comments, Diane. I agree that there are so many other alternatives that can be explored – but it takes a willingness to think critically and admit that the way we’ve been doing things doesn’t work!

      Like

  2. Until reading this I hadn’t thought that bereavement counsellors could be a detriment to a local society. But I can see the point. The “professionalization” of everything often ends up fragmenting the social sphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to hear from you, Sean! Thank you for raising an important issue.

      I think you would enjoy McKnight’s essay (There’s a link embedded in the post to an online source.) He made a compelling point about how families, neighbors, and communities have many ways to reach out to others in times of grief. Yet when we create professional experts, informal helpers are hesitant to interfere because there are experts who know better what is needed in times of grief. So the myriad of caring gestures that interweave a sense of community begin to wither, replaced imperfectly by formalized services. It reminds me of the posts you did awhile ago about how the community where you live came to help families when their children died. The sense of community concern and support was so clear in your posts.

      Like

  3. smilecalm says:

    thanks for detailed reflections, Carol!
    brings some sanity & understanding
    for appreciating & respecting differences
    while recognizing our common oneness 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nicciattfield says:

    This post feels like a wonderful gift, and adds to my learning and exploring. Thank you so much for writing it, Carol. As I have been learning about ways of being, and about rhizomes of connection, right times for agency through small acts and cultural epistemicide as people were disconnected from land, you summed it up in such a beautiful way…thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comments are a wonderful gift, Nicci 🙂

      This was a difficult post to write and I wasn’t sure if anyone would find it interesting or useful. I’m grateful to know that it made sense to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nicciattfield says:

        Yes, it made a lot of sense, and particularly around the role of a community’s ecology, as symbolized by the grasses and rhizomes. There is some work by Guattari and Deleuze which looks at rhizomes or connections within a community. They explore an expanded conception of art, which works towards forming these connections. Art is about emotion and connection rather than about object…and the question is about affect, or what we are inspired to do/become.

        Learning this week about rhizomes, and then seeing you explain this concept in such a lovely way was coincidental and inspiring. It helped me to see deeper connections, even as I was reading and learning.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Lovely insights about the roots and rhizomes beneath the surface of communities, Nicci, the everyday exchanges that build and maintain connections. I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts as your studies of this fascinating topic continue 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  5. mandy smith says:

    This was very thought provoking, Carol. I think our society has gone so overboard with the “need” for professionals–most are just book-learned and serve no useful purpose. (Am I too judgmental?) It seems to me that, without passion for what you are doing, it’s just a job.) As a parent, I watched programs for children come and go, the teachers unquestioning. Throw the old program out and begin anew–with no regard to the confusion to the children. As I learn more about kids in the system, I see they are housed while waiting for the professionals to find time for them–which can be never. And they rarely take the child’s race/culture into account. It can make it an easier excuse to neglect them if there are language barriers. I feel we’ve completely lost the real purpose of family and community. (My blogging family has done more for me in a year and a half than the decades of therapists I tried.) I hope my rambling isn’t too off track, lol. [p.s. I hope your vision is improving and the healing going well for you, Carol!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mandy, these are such important insights about the role “professionals” can play in discouraging families, friends, and neighbors from reaching out to others in times of need. As you point out, there are never enough resources to hire sufficient professionals (especially those with skills), so all too often, children in need go without the care and comfort informal networks could (and should) provide.

      I don’t think you’re alone in mourning the absence of an elusive community of caring and connection. It’s something that has only existed in small enclaves in the US, but it is something we may still be able to learn how to build from other cultures here and globally. But it won’t be easy…

      I agree with you – the blogging community does also offer an example of a virtual community of caring and connection 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the PR and propaganda artists employed by the global elite have created a phony culture of individualism and competition for people of European origin. Prior to the Enclosure Acts, when Europeans still lived on communal land, there was a genuine culture of cooperation and mutual dependence. After our ancestors were driven off their lands, this was replaced by a cheating culture where the ultimate aim of life was to get something for nothing.

    Frank Neuman writes about European cultural genocide in The Traumatized Society: How to Outlaw Cheating and Save our Civilization: http://stuartjeannebramhall.com/2013/12/31/the-trauma-of-cultural-genocide/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing this link, Stuart. Neuman’s work sounds very interesting!

      I remember reading a little bit different history about the consequences of industrialization for the “serfs” who lived on the manors – feudal estates – of the English aristocracy. Their labor and talents were exploited and, depending on the “lord” of the manor, sometimes poorly “rewarded” by the inadequate and patronizing system of noblesse oblige. Ultimately, they were displaced because it was more profitable to raise sheep and sell wool to the new textile factories. Thousands of farmers, artisans , and craftspeople were forced to look for work – wage slavery – or beg on the streets of the cities, resulting in a series of English poor laws in the 1500s and early 1600s. I didn’t realize that they had a share in the ownership of the land. It makes their losses even more tragic. It’s not a history I know well, so I appreciate the resources you shared.

      Like

      • In addition to whatever relationship serfs had with feudal lords, there were numerous farmers with access to “common land” for grazing and some crops (for over 1000 years). This was referred to as “the commons.” As landowners built up large agricultural estates for export crops, they “enclosed” the commons and evicted the farmers’ families who relied on the commons for subsistence. Most went to jail (for vagrancy) or to work house. Many emigrated to North America or were forcibly “transported” to Australia and New Zealand. With the rise of manufacturing in the late 18th century, many of the displaced farmers took up jobs in factories.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeff Nguyen says:

    This is another outstanding analysis and essay, Carol. NCLB and the standardization of public education is assimilation for the rest of us. With indigenous peoples of N. America, this assimilation existed in the context of a very real genocide. In current times, this assimilation provides a vehicle for social control. Unless a student is identified with a disability, his or her education is one size fits all. Even for students with disabilities, it tends to merely result in watered down curriculums rather than truly individualized educational plans.

    The steel plow approach to education has left a generation of children behind. Fortunately, there will always be creative thinkers like Mark Twain who opined, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was hoping you would share your views on NCLB, Jeff 🙂

      I so appreciate your assessment of “the steel plow approach to education.” It leaves a desert at precisely the time when we most need engaged, creative critical thinkers. I’m sure that was intended. As you point out, mind-deadening “education” (dressage) is a powerful form of social control.

      Like

  8. I love the synchronicity with us. Just today, I was talking with an Aleut storyteller about your blogs, as he brought up something you had written about before. And as we talked, he said some of the same things you said in this essay, as he was talking about education. I’m going to share this with him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comments, Skywalker. I look forward to hearing more about the experiences your Aleut friend shared if he approves. And I’m honored that you find this piece worthy of sharing with him. Chi miigwetch, dear friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Cultural damage occurs on multiple levels. An interesting paper that was brought to my attention focuses on the role of dislocation imposed by the capitalism of dominant cultures that plays a significant role in addictive behaviors. The paper, by Bruce Alexander, is titled “The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society.” (http://www.brucekalexander.com/pdf/roots_addiction_2001.pdf?phpMyAdmin=fc7384f5b29d4dcea89cdea166944b98).

    He writes: “In order for ‘free markets’ to be ‘free,’ the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions ‘distort’ the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.”

    Indigenous cultures are especially impacted by these dislocations and thus represent another burden imposed by cultural and other forms of imperialism.

    Thanks, Carol, for continuing to facilitate the understanding of cultural diversity and the values such diversity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your cogent comments and the fascinating paper you shared. I look forward to reading it, Systemic Disorder. It’s clear that land loss and removal have added to profound loss and unresolved grief over the course of generations for all displaced peoples.

      I agree with Alexander’s point about the deliberate strategies to abolish communal ownership and cultures. Henry Dawes, The architect of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, makes this point quite explicitly.

      “The head chief told us there was not a family in that whole Nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in that nation and the nation did not own a dollar. It built its own capitol … and it built schools and its hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common… and under that there is no enterprise to make your home better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress.” (Senator Henry Dawes, 1883, as cited in Sharon O’Brien , 1989, American Indian Tribal Governments, p. 77)

      Interesting that he (rightly) sees competition and selfishness as the most important values of his version of civilization!

      Again, thank you for contributing to an important dialogue 🙂

      Like

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