Skip to comments.Windows and roofs..
Posted on 10/10/2006 6:34:09 PM PDT by pickrell
It was one of the fore-runners of "Habitat for Humanity"; a way that those who had displaced the natives of this Northern Land could pay back something, and expiate a bit of guilt. I hadn't known it at the time, since I was stationed overseas, and hadn't the opportunity to watch my younger sister and her husband as they departed- as volunteers for Operation Beaver.
This was an international effort- a coalition of like minded people who would spend time in Northern Ontario, organize themselves into small working parties, and build houses on a Native American Reserve for the indigenous people there. The organization had been around, and growing, since the 1960's. By the time the late 1970's were winding up, they had returned many times to Northern Ontario and other places in Canada, though it was the first time for my little sister.
I heard the story many years after my sister returned. She and her husband had drawn the short straws, and were elected to train and acculturate the volunteers, since most of them had never been that far north before.
Little did they expect that shortly, none of them would ever look at life in quite the same way again. But I get ahead of myself.
As the nuts and bolts of the indoctrination program were discussed, a thought crossed their minds- but failed to look both ways first before doing so. That Mack Truck of reality careened out of their blind spot, and slammed into their worldview, making quite an impression.
The idea originally sounded good, "I know! Let's invite one of the local Native American business owners to come and talk to our volunteers about Native American culture and the Reserve!" And they did so. But the trepidation of the invitee at the initial invitation should have raised alarms.
He confessed frankly that they might not actually want him to talk, since others, especially younger natives, might have a viewpoint closer to what they sought. After being reassured that the group would really appreciate his unique perspective, since he was one of very few who dwell both in the modern world of business, and the native world, and after being told that he was held locally in high repute as someone gifted with a cogent ability to clearly express his ideas, he agreed... though with some trepidation. They hoped that he could give the volunteers invaluable insight into Native American culture, and reassured him that he was free to say anything that he wanted.
That following afternoon he gazed upon the young, freshly scrubbed faces full of intense charity, and opened his talk. The words following are as close as can be recreated, given the stunned reaction of the volunteers, and the passage of years.
"You need to know something," he assured them. "The work you undertake will stretch your muscles and exercise your committment. You will be building houses... and destroying homes."
Nervous glances were exchanged as the audience suddenly seemed uncertain of what they had just heard... and what was to follow.
"The Reserve System, and the charitable works that your group and others like you bring to this land has done more to crush our people than anything else imaginable. We can only sympathize with your welfare recipients, which we have heard of, down below the border.
"Before the government, and kindhearted volunteers, decided to look after the welfare of my people, each man was responsible for caring for, and providing for, his own family. When times were the very hardest, and if no other options presented themselves, he went to relatives and friends. If he had led a good life and had freely lent his efforts to them in the past- they would return that help, and pitch in to repair a roof. After all- they owed it to him- it wasn't charity. And all of them valued that wonderful bond which welded them together as villagers.
"It was part of his dignity as a man, and earned his standing in his community, that he was seen to value and provide for the family he shared a life with. His wife cared for the children and her husband, and accepted her crucial place in preserving their home. She took pride in and valued him, just as he valued her. Together they provided the haven which allowed their children to study them in safety, and begin the process of imitation. Wisdom was passed down, and was greatly valued, by those youngsters who had occasionally watched other families suffer grievously from mistakes, and so were now wonderfully open to the knowledge of their parents. When children played with other children, it wasn't long before the conversation turned to what their fathers did well. Pride, you see, comes in many little faces, as well as big ones.
"But then at one point kind people from the government came, and noticed that our houses were not as large and as well equipped as their houses in the cities. A clean house and a warm house wasn't enough. Children were being deprived. And good works were needed.
"They slowly emasculated our men, taking from us our purpose and our pride. They tore down our homes and built larger, better equipped homes, heated with utilities that brought bills in the post. When the bills went unpaid, they provided stipends to us... with the explanation that we had been badly treated, but that this was now all over.
"We could then afford alcohol, and since our duties were slowly assumed by the mantle of government, we really had no critical responsibilities... or any use, eventually. And many- oh so many of us- drank in joy at no longer having our time tied up being family providers. Grievances we never suspected before, were so well redressed that we soon became worthless even to ourselves. No need to hunt; no fish to clean; no more chores; no more things for our wives and children to count on us for.
"Once the fathers had been liberated from meaning, the kind ones then turned their eyes to the mothers... explaining how child care, professional schooling, women's studies- all of those things that would free our women from the meaning which had solidified their lives, now would enable them to escape the bondage of the male dominated existence which had crushed them.
He had no mercy in his eyes, and yet no rancor, when he advised the volunteers, "If you want to do something wonderful for our people... go home. If you find it within your hearts to allow us to reclaim our rightful places, and allow us to reconstruct the remaining shards of our culture- ... just leave us alone.
"Don't do any more good. The cost is too high. Not to you, maybe, but to us..." As he turned and left, the snow could be heard as it fell on distant mountains.And the chill was felt.
It was a very troubled group of volunteers who built that summer, and few returned the next year. Those of us who saw them as they came back stateside, noticed that something had changed in the psyche of those younger sisters and brothers of ours.
Suddenly, many of them pondered just who was being made to feel good by their previous good works, and at what cost. Suddenly, many of them sat and actually watched speeches by the cowboy President, Ronald Reagan, that they otherwise would have passed over in favor of watching "The Dating Game".
It was only much later that some of them admitted to their older brothers just what had changed their outlooks, and caused them to shoulder responsibility for everything they did in the future. And that responsibility did more to force them to think about those they thought to "help"... than anything since.
Sometimes you open the window... and sometimes the window opens you.
I used to teach Northern Pacific islanders and your wonderful story reflects the damage American aid did to their cultures after WWII.
very good post
Thanks for the comments.