Asking the right question

This morning I’m thinking about my experiences as an old White man with Native people. Perhaps something said here might be useful to other White people who have been, or want to be in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en or other Native people. I believe we need the leadership of Indigenous peoples to guide us through our deepening environmental chaos.

The central question of my life has been “why can’t people see and act on the damage we are doing to Mother Earth?” Although it often felt like it, I’m not the only one who has been asking that question. Indigenous peoples have watched this unfold for centuries.

For a long time people could ignore the massive amounts of greenhouse gases coming from their automobiles, especially after the advent of catalytic converters in the mid 1970’s. That meant auto exhaust/smog was no longer visible but the gases continued to pour out.

Perhaps a reason we have not made significant progress on climate change is because we have not asked the right question. I was blessed to hear the Indigenous leader Arkan Lushwala speak.

“Everywhere people ask, “what can we do?”
The question, what can we do, is the second question.
The first question is “what can we be?”
Because what you can do is a consequence of who you are.
Once you know what you can be, you know what you can do”

Arkan Lushwala
Arkan Lushwala

I was raised as a Quaker and attended Scattergood Friends School and Farm, a Quaker boarding high school. I was challenged to develop my spiritual life as the way for me to learn who I am.

Recently I have been blessed with opportunities to become friends with some Indigenous people. My spiritual life helped me make connections with these friends whose lives are their spirituality.

There was one thing I had to do, though, as I began to develop these relationships. I had to confront, within myself and then with my new friends, Quaker history related to Native peoples. Quakers were among those who taught at the Indian boarding schools that were created to assimilate native children into White culture. Forced assimilation, since these children were often forcibly removed from their families. All kinds of significant trauma occurred. Trauma to the children and to their families and communities. And that trauma has been passed from generation to generation.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Many Quakers are very uncomfortable about examining this history. One reason is it doesn’t fit with the idea of Quakers doing good in the world. But that is one of the reasons I’m bringing this up now. Too many times Quakers and other social justice people have used the approach of implementing a solution they have come up with. And they think they should lead the implementation their solution.

That approach never works.

If you want to help, you must not try to assert any leadership. The affected community understands their situation and usually knows what the solution is. You should spend a significant amount of time in the community, in a way that fits with that community. The best thing you can do is listening deeply. After the community has begun to know and trust you, they will let you know what they need from you.

As I began to become friends with Native people, I became aware of this barrier about the Indian boarding schools between us. At first I wasn’t sure how much they knew about the Indian boarding schools. It was tempting hope they didn’t know, and to not bring this up.

Which shows my ignorance because they not only knew about those schools, but had their own experiences today related to the trauma that originated in the past. So there was no way we could get to know and trust each other if I didn’t bring this up.

The following story occurred during the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March when a small group of Native and non native people walked and camped together along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline in Iowa.

It didn’t take too many hours of getting to know Matthew when the Spirit led me to say to him, “I know about Quakers’ involvement in the Indian boarding schools. I’m sorry they did that.” I was apprehensive about whether I should have said that, whether that was appropriate or could pull up bad memories. We continued to walk side by side. All I noticed was a slight nod of his head. He always smiles, and that didn’t change.

One of the next times we walked together, Matthew shared a story with me. He had been living at Standing Rock for about six months, when he learned a new rope was needed to ferry people back and forth across a short channel of water. He offered a rope so the ferry’s operation could continue. He went on to say his mother called him after she recognized the rope while watching a TV news story. She was very upset because that brought back terrifying memories of how the Native families would try to help their children escape when white men came to kidnap them and take them to a boarding school.


To return to what Arkan Lushwala said above, we have to know who we are before we know what we can be, what we can do. One way I am learning who I am involves confronting my connection to White settler colonialism. I needed to learn this about my history. And acknowledge and apologize for this history with people who were harmed by it.


We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories.’”   

Rebecca Solnit, ‘Silence Is Broken’, in ‘The Mother of All Questions’ (07/03/2017).

From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.  

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017)   Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

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