March 16, 2008, 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. We were discussing my work as an advocate for the First Nation peoples when 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.
"Because you were born human makes you superior to nothing."
A couple of years ago, I was talking with a Shoshoni elder, and she asked me why I wanted to help Native people. I gave her 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 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.
As an American, to be ahead of others is our ambition. To be superior in all things, people taught me growing up. In the Native American culture, I learned that no person is superior to another. When the world was created, Creator touched it with his hand, and so it is sacred and spiritual. The Land is our home, our mother, nourishing all her children. The Land is sacred and belongs to all who inhabit it. That Creator gave each person talents and gifts which you should be used unselfishly for the betterment of the community. Every person and everything has a purpose, and we should never take that for granted.
It follows that we are all interconnected and interdependent upon one another. We need each other to survive and live. The water we depend upon, the four-leggeds, winged, those that swim, we are all relatives through relationship. We are all in a relationship with each other. And each becomes a relative by relationship. 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? We should come from our hearts with great love and intelligence when we speak to each other. I, me, myself is an illusion. I feel humbled to have learned these life-changing simple teachings from First Nations people.
It is not about me. It's about all of us, 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 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 have I heard people say about the Black Hawk War, "That's all in the past we just need to forget about it and move on." True, but the truth about our history doesn't belong to just the Church, it belongs to each of us, and no one has the right to hide it from us. 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: Phillip has been researching the Black Hawk War since 1989. He has lived with Native communities across North and South America. Phillip was recognized by the Utah State Division of Indian Affairs and the state of Utah with the prestigious Indigenous Day Award.
Several Tribes invited him to participate in sacred ceremonies while learning about Native American history and culture. Phillip was requested by the elders to teach others what he learned and to help build a bridge between the two cultures. He holds deep respect and humility for the Indigenous people's trust in him. He promises to honor that trust and the sacred promises he made.
See: Phillip B Gottfredson Bio & Source Material