It Could Have Been Us

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The last time I saw Will, he was hanging out by the local store. Lots of guys hang out at the store. They work in concert, bumming for “spare change.” When they get enough money, they buy a bottle or a tall can of ‘whatever’ to share between themselves. Tuberculosis is shared that way, too, though I am not sure that is a problem here.

Will is a disabled veteran. Like most men here, he was in the Service. Native Americans are some of our most decorated veterans. There is a fellow here called Two Bulls who received three Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, and a bevy of other citations. Brave man. It is a warrior thing. Veterans are honored here. When Will was discharged from the Army, he worked as a juggie on a seismograph crew doing oil exploration — in and out of helicopters all day, handling dynamite and setting charges. Dangerous job. He is too old for that now. Like many others here, Will is often homeless, unemployed and impoverished.

There are two kinds of poverty — situational and intergenerational. Situational poverty is most often temporary due to divorce, the death of a provider, an accident, or the loss of a job. Intergenerational poverty goes back two or more generations. This kind of poverty sets up a cycle that perpetuates itself.
As I study the history and culture of the Fort Peck reservation and the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, I repeatedly hear about the “generational trauma” of the boarding school era. I have never considered how trauma could be intergenerational, and I had not heard about the boarding school era. None of it made sense to me. But, as I continued to study, I realized the two were profoundly related.

When a child grows up in poverty, there is often a lack of necessary skills and resources passed on by the parents.

Relational resources: having access to individuals who are safe and appropriately nurturing.
Emotional resources: the ability to respond in a controlled, mature, non-destructive way when under stress.
Language resources: taught by role models who speak ‘adult,’ enabling a child to communicate effectively and appropriately in different contexts.
Spiritual resources: knowing that they are not a mistake and there is a divine plan for their lives.
Socially-hidden resources: verbal and non-verbal rules that can quickly reveal whether or not a person is a part of the group.
Financial resources: all too often.

The boarding school era of 1860 – 1932 happened during the era of the industrial revolution. It was the ‘Age of Progress’ and social evolution (a spin-off of Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species). In general, Amero-Europeans commonly believed Native cultures were inferior and uncivilized. And as the relentless push westward for more land continued, the U.S. government faced what President Thomas Jefferson called the “Indian Problem.”

Carl Schurz, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1881, said Indians were confronted with “this stern alternative: extermination or civilization.” That same year a book called A Century of Dishonor by Helen Jackson was published and drew attention to the scandalous plight of Native Americans perpetuated by the U.S. government. Groups that were friendly towards Native Americans soon formed. With the influence of a few wealthy Christian philanthropists, it was determined that assimilation by education was the best way to save the Indians. However, it was a scorched earth approach. Cut their hair, forbid their language, and force them to speak English. Give them Christian names, train them to be farmers or teach them some menial trade, and dress them in civilized clothing. As one famous man said in 1892: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” Genocide of a culture. Shocking, isn’t it?

These things did not happen that long ago!

Please allow me this illustration: If circumstances had been different and our great-grandparents had been Native, they would have gone to (in most cases been forced to go to) a distant boarding school and made to eat foreign food and wear strange clothes. They would have been forbidden to speak their native tongue and forced to speak English. Likely, rudimentary English, as the structure of the English language and that of the two dominant North American Native languages, Siouan or Algonquian, are radically different in grammatical structure and sound. Our grandparents would not have been fluent in either their mother tongue or English. They likely would have gotten low-paying jobs, if they found jobs at all, due to their poor language skills. Our parents would have grown up poor, lacking at least one, if not several, life skills and social resources. Then compound this with the stark life on a remote reservation. Ask yourself, what do you suppose our lives might look like today?

According to Google search results, the family poverty rate in the U.S. is 12.8 percent, and Montana is 11.9 percent. The poverty rate for the Fort Peck Indian reservation is currently at 58.5 percent. A retired council member told me the unemployment rate here is currently at 60 percent, which explains the poverty rate.

Escaping intergenerational poverty is complicated, requiring a changed mindset and a rejection of the fiction that one’s destiny is set by circumstance and fate. Our Native neighbors are some of the most resilient people alive today, plainly evidenced by the fact they are still among us, clinging to their culture and refusing to assimilate into the melting pot of America. Life skills can be taught, and hidden rules learned when modeled by loving souls who honor and see each person as Jesus sees them, valued and created in His likeness. Lives can be changed, and the cycle of poverty can be stopped!

Want to help? Here is how: There is a shortage of teachers for reservation schools, a shortage so dire that the local school districts have contracted with Philippine nationals to teach in the public schools. Can you mold impressionable hearts and minds with your love and example? Teachers are on the front lines of change! Are you patient, good with children, and willing to make a commitment to become a change agent? We have a huge need here for an orphanage and a Boys and Girls club. There is also a shortage of doctors and nurses and a tremendous need for entrepreneurs to work with the tribes to bring industry to reservations. Can you help? Can you love people? Are you willing to commit a tithe of your life to make a difference? If so, pray and contact AFM. They will help you turn your decision into a reality.

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