Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A reflective autumn drive to New Ulm

Took a wonderful drive through autumn colors to New Ulm yesterday to speak at the local Rotary club (My topic was the use of the Four Way Test in mediation and how it applies to the upcoming Dakota commemorative walk and to indigenous sacred sites). I was completely blown away by the generous offers and the quick turn around for answers after the meeting.  I left town around 3 PM with a stack of business cards of people offering to help with tangible, specific and needed logistical support.  Unprecedented.  Glorious.  I think I flew home.

In the car I had four hours round trip to reflect on the complex stories of what happened in New Ulm in 1862 and the aftermath, and also what it could mean for the current 150th anniversary. There are different oral and written stories that relate details about the route of the "Minnesota Trail of Tears", the actions, the intentions, the long term effects on families and communities.  I am definitely no expert.  I'm not a historian.  And frankly I've come to the conclusion that my personal opinion about what happened doesn't matter.  At all.  

What I have observed is that for those who believe that history happened a certain way -- it does matter how their stories are told.   History DOES matter.  Details DO matter.  And because it matters to someone, if I'm their neighbor, it should matter to me.  That begs the 2000+ year old question...who is my neighbor.

 Strong emotional reactions are tied to the personal belief that the story unfolded a certain way, and that it is the way they were told.  Regardless of the documents you  would view later, photos or the personal stories shared, any "proof to the contrary" that brings a detail into question, some stories passed down to us are ingrained as deeply as our DNA.  And I've come to the conclusion that it's ok to have competing "histories" and that we don't have a neat little package of what exactly happened.  We won't get history right.  But we need to acknowledge the person who has the competing historical details.  Give honor to the person even if we disagree.  Stop planning your rebuttle and listen. THE PERSON matters.  Their feelings matter.  Their perspectives matter.  Their beliefs matter.  And not because I say they matter, because that also would be elitist.  They matter simply because they matter.  (I would hate it when my mom would use the "because" answer -- but I will defer to her wisdom and the wisdom of parents everywhere!)

How do we move forward?

As I've listed to those with a personal connection to this tragic story that unfolded here, it's similar to themes played out across North America.  I've sensed a consistent tipping point in conversations about details.  Some dig in the "fox hole" and refuse to give an inch because it would completely rewrite their version of truth to acknowledge someone else's truth. 

In Minnesota one of the conversation tipping points is when people discuss the route of the Dakota women and children took from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling in 1862.   There are varied answers to the questions: Who was on the walk... How many walked...  Where did they walk...  What was the reception...  Where were attacks...  Who was harmed... To what extent... Who suffered more... Who started the conflict...Who is more guilty... It is a prison camp/concentration camp/internment camp.  Was it a march/force march/death march.  Words and definitions become laser points that cut and divide and soon people are becoming defensive as they rely on their definitions and their version of the truth.   And all of this matters because it matters to people.  And right now it is especially poignant because these views of history frame the perception of the Dakota Commemorative walk that will begin in a little less than a month.
This awkward conversation is good for Minnesota and for North America and all those lands have been colonized.  Maybe I've naive, but I believe that talking and sharing stories does seem to help.  Someone needs to share and to be listened to -- this is truth telling.  It's not about arguing details.  It's acknowledging the person.  Hearing others.  Valuing others.

This dialogue is long overdue because emotions are just bubbling under the surface for many Minnesotans even if we're "too polite and nice" to talk about it publicly. History is more complex and deeper than perhaps once thought for Americans.  I believe we need to challenge the lore and find the history and then figure out what it means for future generations.  Look past pilgrim costumes in the kindergarten Thanksgiving play, the fourth grade depth of history on a  tour to Fort Snelling, cherry tree stories.  We need to ask some tough questions.  And that means some study of history from each of the story tellers' perspectives, because the person is what matters.

I think I've only said this about 5000 times this month to anyone who listens...but how often do all people of a certain group or label ALL think the same thing?  Why would we expect that all lineal descendants of a particular tragegy would view it the same way?  Even if they are related or saw the same event, you will get a wide variety of testimony.   It is unfair and unrealistic to expect unanimous, homogenous answers.

On a personal note, In March 2002 I came back to Minnesota after volunteering at the Salt Lake City winter olympics.  I was full of a with a fresh dose of patriotism, especially after spending weeks doing disaster relief post 9/11 in New York City.  I was bleeding red white and blue and I am admittedly so very still grateful for the opportunity to be an American and the privilege that provides for me and my family.  Yet I also recognize that the choices/policies/results  driven by the USA government from the founding until now have a scope and scale that is hard for me to get my mind around.  How can I be a proud American when I am not proud of everything American leaders do?  These are things to wrestle with and I'm becoming more comfortable even before I get closure.  I'm becoming more comfortable with not having answers and becoming ok with the actual process of  wrestling.

And that brings me back to why I am so passionate about prayer and allowing all people the opportunity to pray.   At first glance it may look like we can't do much except to pray.  Ironically, prayer may be the only thing I do that changes anything! 

Prayer change things because it changes people's hearts, starting with the one who prays.  Prayer for me is the act of spiritual wrestling...learning and struggling...hearing and struggling...then finally giving in.  And for those who know me, you know the struggle is immense.  The results are less than glamorous most of the time, but I rejoice when I look back and see any progress.  And I hope that in His mercy, those prayers will continue to soften my heart and make me more of whom He wants me to be.

I also believe it's important to pray for our country's leaders, specifically for their wisdom and discernment.  I am so glad that others have chosen a life of public service because I know I'd be horrible in that role. I pray that they get complete information on which to base their decisions.  I pray that they have hearts balanced with compassion, mercy and justice.  I pray that our leaders see people in the way that God sees people.  And  I pray for wisdom to discern for whom I should cast my ballot in the upcoming elections.   Prayer will definitely not hurt our leaders.

 Religion may be the root to wars... but I believe that nothing bad can come from an abundance of prayer.  Conversely, if someone's opportunity to pray or worship in their way is threatened or actually taken away, you have a surefire recipe for a tipping point to violence.   That's why it is so important to protect the right to pray and to protect the space where people are praying. 

Prayer is part of the recipe for peace just as sure as threatening prayer is a recipe for violence. 

I trust that if someone is praying or meditating that the answers he or she is seeking will come.   And boy are we a world in need of answers.