Look beyond your culture

The multiple, significant changes people globally are experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic give us both the time and impetus to revaluate our lives. And the opportunity, or rather the necessity of figuring out where we go from here. What life will be when the virus is under control, either once a vaccine or effective treatment is available.

The problem is even if we could return to our lives as they were before the pandemic, we would continue to be devolving further and further into climate chaos.

Times of great disruption are opportunities for great change, good or bad. It is becoming increasingly clear we won’t be able to return to life as it was before the pandemic. Life circumstances that weren’t that good for so many people. As I hope to explain here I think we will have to look beyond our own cultures for many of the answers.

A week ago I wrote Educate Yourself. https://kislingjeff.wordpress.com/2020/04/07/educate-yourself/

That article was about a video Lance Foster shared in which he was talking about critical thinking and life long learning. Lance spoke of how few people are really educated. Among the things he said was how important it is to explore outside your own culture. To read widely. But beyond that, to be aware of our own framework of ideas, and integrate each new thing we learn into our own internal library. I realized that is what I’ve been doing as I write my blog posts. Critically examining what is going on around me. Creating a digital library of hundreds of blog posts and the things I quote, ideas I explore in those writings.

Those of us who attended Scattergood Friends School and Farm recognize, often later in life, what a great education we got there. We learned about living in community, and making decisions as a community. We learned practical skills on our crews, like baking bread, farming, pruning trees, etc. Learned how to organize our work and cooperate with others. The foundation of this education was to learn to apply critical thinking to everything we learn and as the tool for our subsequent life long learning.

Critical thinking is not an isolated goal unrelated to other important goals in education. Rather, it is a seminal goal which, done well, simultaneously facilitates a rainbow of other ends. It is best conceived, therefore, as the hub around which all other educational ends cluster. For example, as students learn to think more critically, they become more proficient at historical, scientific, and mathematical thinking. They develop skills, abilities, and values critical to success in everyday life. 

The Foundation for Critical Thinking

That education was invaluable. But it is important to recognize it took place within our culture, or perhaps within a Quaker subculture.

Looking back on my life now I recognize many of the most important lessons I learned occurred outside my own culture. One of the things I try to keep in mind is “you don’t know what it is that you don’t know.”

We really limit ourselves and what we know if we confine ourselves to our own culture. And it is a choice we make, consciously or not, whether to constrain ourselves. As we grow through childhood we learn the values and beliefs of our culture. Some groups, like Quakers, believe in the idea of a guarded education to protect our youth from corrupting influences of the larger culture we are part of. And to teach those values of Quakers which would not be taught in public education. What our children are taught is focused on the values of our culture.

For example, the idea that war is acceptable in the larger U.S. culture is not acceptable for Quakers. As a result, for example, draft (Selective Service System) resistance would likely be taught in Quaker schools but not in public schools.

What is insidious though are views we have that are mistaken. Mistaken being factually, socially or morally wrong. The only way to become aware of these mistaken ideas is to find ways to step outside our culture, or by applying critical thinking within it. Since many people of every culture insist on living within the confines of their own culture, they can’t see beliefs or practices of their own that might be mistaken.

One of the enduring questions is whether there are universal truths. For example, is it ever right to kill someone? While some would say no, others say there are certain conditions in which that is acceptable–self defense, capital punishment or a justified war for example.

One truth is life cannot long continue if what is taken from Mother Earth exceeds what can be replenished.

One of my lifelong struggles has been trying to convince people of the existential threat of fossil fuel consumption. After years of trying and failing to get White people to change fossil fuel use, I looked for cultures that were living sustainably. That led me to learn more about Indigenous peoples. (see https://kislingjeff.wordpress.com/?s=native+indigenous).

“In Native American culture, by contrast, they study the interconnections of the entire ecosystem.  ‘Seeing in a sacred manner’ means perceiving interspecies links. The word for ‘prayer’ in Lakota is wacekiye, which means ‘to  claim relationship with’ or ‘to seek connection to.’ To the Lakota people, the cosmos is one family. To live well within the cosmos, one must assume responsibility for everything with which one shares the universe. There are familial obligations toward water, plants, minerals. Any harm done to the slightest of these relatives has devastating consequences for the whole ecosystem. The merest hint suffices as a warning of eco-cataclysm.

We are blinded to these subtle signs by having been taught that matter is dead and inert. Considering it inanimate makes it available for exploitation as a resource. Lame Deer insists that ‘the earth, the rocks, the minerals, all of which you call ‘dead’ are very much alive.’ He implores us to ‘talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as to our relatives.’” 

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes.

That is a example of how important it is to explore outside your own culture, as Lance Foster said at the beginning of this.

There have been other important things I’ve been learning related to looking outside my culture. Learning more about spirituality and our relation to all our relatives (in the Native sense). Learning more about the sacred connection to Mother Earth. Learning about the horrendous epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. About land acknowledgement and Native rights to unceded lands.

One of the reasons for writing about how important it is to explore outside your own culture has been learning about the Quaker Indian Boarding/Residential Schools. Until I began to learn more about these schools in the past few years I had what I think is the widely held assumption among Quakers that Quaker participation in these schools was to help Native children learn to live in the White communities that were colonizing what were Native lands. I’m sure Friends involved did what they thought was best, and they treated the children better than they were in other schools. But that doesn’t mean the concept of forced assimilation was ever an acceptable idea or practice.

More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents, grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered. As adults, when the former boarding school students had children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing Our History and Ourselves, by Paula Palmer on October 1, 2016

Last summer Paula Palmer did a presentation at Scattergood Friends (boarding) School on the topic quoted above.

I’ve shared the story of conversations about the Quaker Indian boarding schools I had with my friend (new friend at the time) Matthew Lone Bear during the First Nation-Farmer Climate March.

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 narrow 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.


I’ve met with significant resistance in trying to talk with Friends about these schools. Similar resistance to talking about Quakers and the institution of slavery (some Friends were involved in the slave trade).

So what do we do as 21st-century American Quakers? How do we bring our values of peace, community, and equality to the truth of what our ancestors did? Palmer is working on that, too.  Learning our part is surely the first step; owning it, the second.  And after that, we must work to make sure we aren’t doing it again with our missions and projects on reservations and elsewhere in the US and beyond in South America and the Great Lakes region of Africa. And more to the question of what do we do in our everyday lives; we each seek the Light of God in our prayer and meditation and in the silent expectant waiting of worship with Friends.  And then we bravely do as we are led.

Quaker Indian Schools: A Legacy We Need to Heal,  AUGUST 8, 2016 BY MOLLY WINGATE, Patheos.com

As Paula Palmer says (above) we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

We’ve had to fight for over a hundred years. And despite the residential schools despite the epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis. Despite the enfranchisement. Despite the reserve. Despite all the assimilatory policies of Canada that have existed up until the modern day, our system of governance and the Wet’suwet’en system of governance has persevered and they have remained strong as is demonstrated by the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en when they evicted Coastal GasLink from their territories.

Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, Indigenous Youth

It is ironic that many of the things I’ve been advocating for all my life, like significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption, have been accomplished in just months by the pandemic.

I’ve been learning as much as I can about Indigenous cultures because I think many of the keys to halting our unsustainable practices can be found there. The reason for spending so much time on history and the Indian Boarding Schools is I believe we must know this history, and acknowledge that we do to Native peoples we want to be able to work with as we build better lives for us all. These past traumas have been passed to succeeding generations. Are experienced by Native people today. We can’t act as if this is something from the past and not relevant to today. We cannot build relationships until these issues are addressed.

It is up to us to apply critical thinking at this point in time. To envision how we might yet avoid environmental catastrophe as we figure out how to live post pandemic. To take this chance to look at things from outside our current culture.

This entry was posted in #NDAPL, climate change, decolonize, Indigenous, Indigenous Youth for Wet'suwet'en, Quaker, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Look beyond your culture

  1. peterovisoke says:

    Thank you Jeff. Stepping outside of our own cultural context is essential. It is also difficult for many, maybe even for most of us, regardless of whatever our culture is. However, it seems to be especially difficult for human beings from dominant, colonizing cultures. All the beings on Mother Earth are now even more clearly connected and understood to be intimately related since the pandemic has demanded our collective awareness. Willingness to become uncomfortable and to lay down our certainties of what is true or what is right will open our hearts further to connecting with All Our Relations.

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