I spent some time over New Years with a man named Dr. Erich Longie, a Dakota man from the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. Erich is a tall man of basketball-player proportions, about 6 foot 2, (actually I'm 5'11" I just appear bigger to white people. EL) has long graying hair, and a very pronounced limp to his walk. Erich runs a consulting firm in North Dakota. His presence is very calming and he speaks softly and with Malcolm X-like logic. He also speaks with the kind of honesty and disclosure that invites respect. Even the very young relate to and listen to Dr. Longie.
My 5-year-old son was with us part of the time and later, apart from me; he whispered Erich's name and official title while going to sleep. My wife heard our son say gently: "Dr. Longie. He's the coolest Doctor." Erich's doctorate is in educational leadership so my son knew that he was not the kind of hated doctor who takes temperatures, tests reflexes and gives dreaded shots with long needles.
Myself being non-Native but being married to a Native woman, I relish chances to speak to Dr. Longie, as he is an elder in the Spirit Lake community. Over the course of a few days, we covered a number of serious topics, very personal topics, some concerning my marriage into the Indian community. I won't share all of these topics with you. Some of Erik's opinions, about my marriage's chances of flourishing and surviving, were very tough for me to hear; some of them were indeed devastating pronouncements, predictions of great difficulty, or judgments based on a perspective of cultural knowledge that took time to digest for me.
You see, Erich met me some time before my marriage started, and as he knew me, I was a very typical, mainstream, so-called dominant culture college student of so-called middle-class Anglo origin. I held myself in high regard. Perhaps Erik saw the crippling arrogance, which I unconsciously showed in the way I had once held myself. This arrogance was a trait far from the normal ways of the Chippewa Culture into which I was soon to marry. This arrogance seemed to Erich typical of a young Non-Native, but very un-likely to exist in the persona of a youthful person able to successfully wend his ways towards a culture like an American Indian's.
Arrogance must break many a marriage. A white man is not going to last in a red culture if he is arrogant. He will degrade himself, his family, and his new community. Self-assurance, pride, and confidence in one's abilities are necessary. But arrogance does not work well with a society where humility is a central, core virtue.
I knew this before Dr. Longie opened this to me. It was evident in many conflicts I had had with my wife, in many situations where I felt uncomfortable, and in many private thoughts that I have had to hide across years of agonizing secret turmoil. Arrogance has haunted me like a ghost. It haunts me as you see me stand before you.
But after one revealing talk with Dr. Longie, I became reflective and drew strength from these reflective thoughts. I reflected on a particular family member, a young man who is my wife's nephew, her brother Jeff's son. This young man's name is Mike. Mike is a young Chippewa man who has known some trouble in his life, but who has always remained humble through these tough times. I have never known Mike to be arrogant. Mike has taught me a lot just by being in his presence. With kids, Mike's true genius is shown. I see Mike's humble genius in the workings of his hands, the way he holds, lifts, cradles, plays, pushes and hugs kids. Mike always has a funny comment to make in a timely way - but, again, I see his true humor, personality, grace and joy by watching his two hands. It's hard to describe, but it's almost like his ancestors, especially his grandmother, my wife's mother who I never knew and who has gone to the Spirit World, is in the workings of Mike's hands when he holds kids. Mike's ancestors must have been beautiful people. Their ways are in Mike's hands' moves.
I find myself imitating Mike's abilities with kids, especially with my wife and my adopted son Hunter, the boy of all of our dreams, the spiritual presence, the beautiful brat, the gifted goof-ball: a 5 year old boy. He is my adopted son. He is Mike's biological son. Hunter, my adopted son, is, in actuality, Mike's son. Hunter knows me as "da-da." Mike is "Daddy Mike."
It has taken humility for me to accept that we are all raising Hunter, that Hunter needs his relationship with all the adults in his life, and that I may not know best in all situations. And as I grow within the beauty of an Indian community, my borrowed, unwanted arrogance will fade.
Dr. Longie's words humbled me. Actually, they scared the crap out of me. Why? Because I knew they were true. But I also know that I need to listen to Dr. Longie because he had a profound effect on my 5-year old. "Mr. Longie," Hunter whispered as he fell to sleep. "He's the best doctor," whispered my son. It has to be true.
Entering or contacting a new culture is difficult. Those virtues you have in one culture may be vices within another. But, my advice is, listen to the words of some people and watch the hands of others. You might find medicine in your observations, in your dreams of crossing over intact and in love.