Fall Break Service Trip

One of the reasons I had so much trouble on my service trip to the Winnebago Indian Reservation is I had to think about things I don’t really want to know. It was tough to see the poverty, the alcoholism, and the loss of hope within the community. It was tough to see the attitudes of the people there. It was tough to see that there was very little I could do.

I went into our trip knowing very little about Native Americans, even though I have a little bit of heritage (I’m 1/32 Choctaw). The little I knew came from what had crossed over into Boy Scouts or what I had seen in old Western films. What I encountered was actually similar, in a way, to Avatar, and not just because both were in 3d. Probably the best experience of our trip was the sweat lodge. We were welcomed into a small dome covered with blankets that had a small pit in the middle of the floor. I felt close to everyone there, and not just because there were 18 of us crammed into the small area. When we first entered, we were asked to pray for the others around us while they were praying for us. In this way, we would all have 18 prayers supporting us instead of just our own. I was a little skeptical going into the sweat lodge, but the second the tent flaps closed, I was transported into a new world. Though the space itself was cramped, a crowded darkness, the openness of the community made it expand to include all my relations and all their relations, improbably squeezing all of them into there as well. People chanted their prayers out loud, voicing them to the community gathered around the glowing stones so that the community could pray for them as well. The sound of everyone murmuring their own prayers under the continual singing in the Omaha language connected me to these people in ways that I am still discovering. Even though we were shrouded in darkness, with but a little glow from the burning rocks, I felt like I could see these people, see their true nature, better than I could in the bright light of day. And they could see me just as well. To see someone in such a way, in such a light, creates a deep bond: you are seeing them as they are and they are seeing you as you are, and you both respect each other because of it. It was a surreal experience, especially with the distraction and distancing effects of technology in my usual world. I felt more present in that moment, more connected with those people, than I have felt with the majority of my friends here at school. That is not to say that I do not have good friends here, but I have not shared that type of vulnerable openness with them.

Just like the natives in Avatar, these were a people who were deeply spiritual, who were deeply connected to each other and to their past. After seeing the best side of the community, it was so much harder to see the rotting underbelly. After catching a slight glimpse of it during the sweat lodge, the reality of the situation bore more heavily on me than ever before because these same things that are so great about that and other Native American communities—the openness, the welcoming nature, the non-judgmental attitude, and the commitment to the community—are threatening their way of life.

There is a lot wrong with the Native American society, in the sense that the people on reservations are suffering and have a much lower quality of life overall. I just want them to be in a better situation, and I feel that there are a lot of things they do that are holding them back in that sense. The strong sense of community is necessary to preserving their culture and history, and helped them survive through the cultural trauma that they have experienced. However, this strong sense of community can prevent bright, talented individuals from going away, especially to college. Many of the students that go to college are drawn back by that strong community, so the tribe is missing out on individuals who have the knowledge and skills to make a bigger difference. Someone likened the tribe as a bunch of crabs in a barrel: when one crab starts to climb out of the barrel, the rest drag it back down so it will suffer the same fate. Similarly, when a member of the community starts doing well and making a lot of money, the rest of the tribe tries to get in on the prosperity, unintentionally pulling the striving individual down. A lot of times, when a business is successful, the tribe will take control and distribute the profits among the people. This practice is good in the short run, but then the business has no capital to invest and grow, so it stagnates and eventually is run out of business by bigger competitors.

Probably the coolest thing about the reservation is how connected everyone is with the past. They are, as a whole, incredibly connected with their ancestors in past generations. This leads to strong traditions and wisdom from the greats who came before. This strong tradition can hurt the tribe, especially with business. There is a company called Ho-Chunk Inc., which now makes over $200 million a year, located in Winnebago. The founder, an Omaha Indian, went to the Omaha tribe and asked for a few thousand dollars to start up his company. The council, wary of his request, decided not to grant him the funds. He went to the Winnebago tribe and the rest is one big success story. The Omaha tribe missed out on a huge development and influx of money and jobs by not taking the small risk. They were so set in their ways, that they were unwilling to foster new business.

Also, this strong tie to the past prevents a lot of the Indians from forgiving past wrongs, especially in regards to the United States’ Government. Many will not wear anything resembling an American flag and still maintain a mistrust of governmental policies. I cannot begin to understand their struggle and pain, and by no means am I saying that the reservation system or past injustices of our government were a good thing, but this memory prevents many from moving on. They are so focused on all the bad that has happened that they dwell in the past injustices rather than acknowledging it and working to fix the situation. The people were incredibly appreciative of our service, especially when we worked, in conjunction with the Omaha Food Pantry, to hand out clothes and food to the community. They praised our efforts and our character, letting us know how much of an impact we had on the community. At the same time, none of them, the Native Americans, decided to come and assist us in this “worthy and great” work. They accept and praise help, but have trouble taking the extra step to help themselves. This was even evident in their church, which was only 5 years old. When I was told how old the church was, I was shocked. As part of our service, we cleaned out the inside of the church and painted the walls. Already, the church was dirty and there were tons of dead bugs just sitting in the windowsills. I thought that such an important part of the community would be well-cared for, in almost a loving way, not neglected in the way it was. They were happy to receive the church building, I am sure, but they had done little to maintain it.

When we entered the sweat lodge, we were told a few things about the ceremony and to maintain reverence throughout. They told us, “we are sure that you have come from good families and been raised well, but we are just reminding you since this is a new experience for you.” It was nice that they were so non-judgmental and accepting of all credos and upbringings. The Native American Church is the same way, with not much by the way of doctrine, but an intense emphasis on the natural world and a spiritual connection to the past. This is a great quality of their culture, but it could be taken too far. The Indians are so respectful and so afraid to criticize another tribe-member that they will rarely offer even constructive criticism. Many who get up to speak begin by saying, “but I’m nobody,” or, “I’m just a janitor, teacher, etc.,” discrediting themselves before they even start speaking. They are, similarly, slow to judge others. As opposed to our method of dealing with alcohol abuse, the Indians pick up the intoxicated person, give them a bed for the night, and then drive them home. There is no judgment involved, just a concern about the person’s safety. While this is a great sentiment, the fact that they attach no punishment whatsoever to public intoxication seems to enable such rampant alcoholism. There are many who are not alcoholics, there are many who are working hard to cure their addiction, and the vast majority are not addicted; however, there are many drunks who need to be aware that their behavior is already hurting those around them, hopefully spurring their decision to enter rehabilitation, rather than letting it continue unabated.

One of the most disturbing things that I found there was the lack of motivation in the schools. There were many children there who simply give up and assume that they will never go to college. One child even said, “Why should we care? We aren’t going to college, so it doesn’t matter.” The community as a whole works so hard not to judge others that they cannot judge those who have no academic aspirations after high school. They do not feel that they can expect their children to go to college. By and large, the majority will not be able to go, but it is important to encourage the children to strive for their potential, whether that be through a trade school, community college, or a university. The community is undercutting those bubble students by not expecting them to make the most of themselves. Arguably, what I’m suggesting may take more away from their rich culture, but I think those changes are necessary in order for their culture to survive and prosper.

After visiting the reservation and seeing the community there, I would love to know what their experience would be upon coming to our community just a few hours south. I would love to see what they saw when they visit and how they could help us. They have so many great things in their culture, but some of them are taken so far as to hurt the overall good.

Probably the hardest thing that I encountered at the reservation was my own romantic notion of service. I came in with the idea that I could do so much for them, and they could do so much for me. I hoped that we could sweep in and clean up whatever problems they might have, while they taught us and helped us with our own lives. I had to realize that I cannot change the situation they are in, I cannot “fix” them. It was a frustrating realization, especially when many have no desire to change. Because of this, I was depressed by my inability to affect anything. My romantic notion of service was gone, but, in its place, sat a small, previously concealed idea: to work harder, to work more passionately, not in the hope of “fixing” everything, but in the hope of doing what little I could as best I could, of making what little changes I could, and let grace step in to do the rest. One of the ways I rationalized and made peace with being able to have such a little impact was to realize that this trip is more for me: it is to serve the people of the reservation, yes, but I learned so much more from them that has prepared me to go out into the world and be able to help out in the future. I grew a lot, and I know that, with this experience, I will be more ready for the challenges I will face. I pray and will continue to pray for the sake of that community, and I hope that they will pray for me, as I need just as much help as them.

I would like to leave you with one image that struck me as a fitting analogy for a service trip: one of a jar of dirt. Originally, the dirt is packed tightly into the jar, unwilling to move at all. Signing up for a service trip is like adding a bit of water to that jar, it starts to loosen those set beliefs and values just by the willingness to have them challenged. While on the service trip, the jar is continually shaken for the entire week, helping to dislodge the dirt that firmly sticks to the bottom of the jar. When you return from a service trip, the jar stops shaking, and the sediment once again settles at the bottom. This is not a bad thing: it is just a fact of human nature. While it may seem that you ended up in the very same situation you started out in, it is a vastly different one. Because of that tiny amount of water in the jar, your beliefs will never be able to return to their original state. The dirt will settle at the bottom, but it will not cake there. If something else comes along and gives the jar one good shake, the dirt will be uprooted with much less effort. The water is, in a sense, leaving you more open to be affected by new experiences and more willing to respond to them. I urge you, never let that jar run dry.

— Post by 2010-2011 Resident Gray Jackson

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