"It's Not About Me"

March 16, 2008

Yesterday, I was in a meeting interviewing an individual of social influence in Provo, Utah, for our documentary film about the Black Hawk War in Utah. Out of respect, I will not name names; it is not crucial to this comment anyway. We were discussing my work as an advocate for the First Nation peoples of Utah. The interviewee made the following comment, "Sometimes when whites learn of the history of the Indians, they become so sympathetic toward them that they feel they should help them," she said. "And because they have some knowledge of their past, they feel that they can speak for the Indians and represent them. The Indian people can take care of themselves; they don't need such people speaking for them. Often these people who have good intentions do more harm than good." (Words to that effect).

Of course I understood that this person's comments were directed toward me. I was being accused of poking my nose into Indian affairs and assuming the role as a spokesperson for the Native people of Utah. What is ironic is that the person making these assumptions told me what she believed they thought, but I respected her opinion. Even though she was not Native American nor a spokesperson for them.

"Because you were born human makes you superior to nothing."

A couple of years ago, I spoke with a Shoshoni elder, and she asked me why I wanted to help Native people. I gave my explanation when she said to me, "who died and made you God?" Her stinging words brought tears to my eyes. I knew she was not trying to be mean-spirited. She went on to explain, "the biggest problem between the whites and Native people is that the whites have always believed that they know what is best for Natives. They never ask us what we need, they never listen, they only cram their ideas down our throats." Indeed it was a valuable lesson I learned that day, and one I will never forget. But it takes time to overcome arrogance, especially when you were raised with it from childhood as I was. A slap in the face was just the thing I needed to make me shut up and... listen. We can learn much from Native people if only we get out of our heads and listen with our hearts. Often they reminded me, "We have two ears and one mouth. Listen more and talk less." I was there living with the Shoshoni to learn. I was there not to be critical, judgemental, and not teach my ways to them. And if that meant putting aside my arrogance, then I had everything to gain and nothing to loose.

It's true, our culture has this tendency to think that our ways are better. One reason for our arrogance and lack of humility is, and there are many, goes back to the time of our ancestors. Manifest Destiny is the belief that God led our ancestors to the 'promised land.' Because of that, God favored our ancestors, who then believed they were superior to all others. The concept of being superior is not unusual in our culture; I recall a comment John Lowry made in 1894; he was accused of being the one who caused the Black Hawk War. "We had to do these things or be run over by them. It was a question of supremacy between the white man and the Indian," he said.

To be superior in all things is to be American I guess. To be ahead of others is our ambition. In the Native American culture, I learned that no one person is superior to another. That Creator gave each person talents and gifts that should be used unselfishly for the betterment of the community. Every person and every thing has a purpose, and nothing should be taken for granted. It follows that we are all interconnected and dependant upon one another. It does not mean we should be complacent and not pursue our interests, get an education and be successful. It's about humility. For example, the plant breathes in the carbon dioxide we exhale to live. They breathe out oxygen so we can live. Who is more important? You or the plant?

It is not about me. It's about all of us the human race, and the circle of life - inclusive equality. When there are injustices against any one individual, there are injustices against everyone and everything. We are human regardless of color or religion. To say, "it's not my problem." "I am too busy, or I am just doing my job" is to contribute to the discrimination and bigotry that we say we oppose. Perhaps in my passion for my work, I have said something the wrong way. But I don't know everything; I am only learning as we all are. 

I am not "anti-Mormon." I was born a Mormon. My ancestors were Mormon. But I can't accept the belief that they are superior to others. The Black Hawk War was, for Mormon colonists, about who would control the land. For the indigenous people of Utah it was about survival.

I am not a spokesman for the Native people of Utah, nor do I pretend to be. But they are our fellow human beings. And I will stand in defense of their rights as I do my own. We need to stop blaming each other and look upon our past and present with compassion and equality, as the human condition.

How many times do I hear the words, "That's all in the past we just need to forget about it and move on." True, it is all in the past when we speak of our history, but we should never forget. On one side of the river, the whites don't want to be reminded of how their ancestors mistreated Native people and say, "I have heard it all a thousand times, so what, get over it." On the other side of the river, the Native people are saying, "we are victims, and we won't be happy until you go away and give back the land you stole." Neither side wants pity, and pity wouldn't resolve anything. Both sides do want respect, however. Before there can be healing we need to listen to each other. Listen not with your ears but with your heart.

To illustrate what I am talking about, I encourage everyone to look at what happened in a tiny town in Washington State called Twisp. Google 'Twisp' for the story, or get the Two Rivers video. Two retirees from California moved to Twisp. When they realized there was no diversity in Twisp, only white people. Curious, they began to talk to the locals and dug into the town's history. Learning that the land they were on once belonged to Indians, they became acquainted with two Native Americans in the area. They came together to discuss their history and how Native Americans were treated so poorly by early colonists. Each invited their friends, and the talks grew in number. The rules were simple; no religious entities could be involved in their discussions and no politics. They agreed to listen to each other with open minds and open hearts. Eventually, so many people became interested that they had to hold meetings in a community center. Over time their discussions culminated in a Reconciliation pow-wow, and thousands of people attended to celebrate their newfound friendships.

In 1989, I began my research on the Black Hawk War in Utah. I wanted to know the Native Americans' side of the story. There is no way I could have anticipated what that question would lead me to.  

Returning to my interviewee's comment suggesting I was assuming the role of 'spokesperson' for the Native people. I may have given that impression, but it was unintentional. It was just the opposite. The years I spent learning from Native Americans forever changed my life in a good way. They saved me from my own worst enemy - myself. How can I not share that? How can I not love them? Loving them, how can I not feel compassion for all they have suffered?

Note: Since 2008, Phillip continued his research of the Black Hawk War while living with Native people throughout North and South America. He was invited to participate in numerous sacred ceremonies while learning the history and life-ways of Native Americans. "During my time living with First Nations people, I was asked by the elders to teach others what they taught me and help build that bridge between our cultures," Phillip explains. "I have always felt a deep respect and humility for the trust indigenous people have in me. I will always honor that and the sacred promises I made."

See: Phillip B Gottfredson Bio & Source Material