Who Are Your People?

Last night Kate and I watched an episode of the ABC news show “20/20” on the internet, having missed it when it had aired last Friday.  The segment, entitled “Children of the Plains,” focused on the hard life of children of the Lakota nation living on reservations in South Dakota.  As we sat in front of the computer screen, we were touched by how resilient and hopeful they are despite extreme poverty, crowded living conditions, limited options, rampant alcoholism, and family tragedy.  I managed to watch with detachment and not cry over their plight, but many things were stirred up inside of me.

In one interview during the show, the host, Diane Sawyer, asked a tribal leader why the people stay on the reservation if there are no opportunities to find jobs there.  His reply was mostly about the fact that they are taken care of there in terms of government assistance, a level of (meager) support they would lose if they left to find work.  As the story continued, I understood something else about the situation that reaches beyond simple economics; they are with their people and their culture.  If they left, they’d be just like most of the rest of us non-Indians, swimming in the so-called melting pot of America, separated from our cultural communities of origin and no longer enveloped on a daily basis in the ways of our ancestors from just a few generations before us.

This got me to thinking about how I felt with respect to my own life connections.  Who are “my people”?  What is “my culture”?  During my fifty-some years I have silently asked those questions many times, feeling a sad missingness and lack of connection from having no real answers to them.  Growing up, my extended family was not close-knit and I didn’t spend a lot of time with ethnic-type aunties and uncles, grannies or grandpas.  I considered myself “American” when I was old enough to think about it, and felt no great connection to either my European Jewish heritage or (theoretically) Middle Eastern origins of my more distant ancestors.

I felt out of place in the “Oy-vey” culture of modern Judaism, but also an outsider in the largely Christian-oriented community I grew up in.  I missed a feeling of belonging that even escaped me in my nuclear family when it exploded in my parents’ divorce.  These factors were part of why I was so attracted to Native American culture from a young age, because Indians seemed to stick together, had distinct ways of living that resisted peer pressure “modernity”, and managed to maintain their culture even with the rest of us surrounding them.  My own ancestors had wanted to blend in to America and went to great lengths to avoid standing out ethnically; modifying family names, leaving behind native languages and customs, holding on only to their religious practices, engaged in largely out of sight of their neighbors.  Native Americans seemed proud of theirs.

What is American “culture” anyway?  A nation of immigrants who often want to keep new ones out, we talk about how proud we are that we partake of tacos and Tai cuisine, blend African rhythms into our music, practice Buddhist meditation, and have welcomed all nationalities, races, creeds, and religions into the fold.  In truth, much of what we have as a nation is the hollow commonality of materialism, electronic gadgetry, the belonging sense of professional sports fans, and xenophobic “patriotism”.  (Yes, yes—there is good stuff, too…)  In many ways our regional, political, religious, and class diversity divides us, rather than making us One Nation under much of anything at all.

Today, as I pondered all of this with Kate during our morning “meeting” in our living room, a deeper truth emerged about who my people are and what my culture is.  The answer was not startling.  From a spiritual standpoint, I recognized that ALL people are “my” people and any and all cultures that have ever existed are “my” culture.  I just had trouble seeing and feeling it that way.

No wonder I have at times felt that I didn’t belong on this planet, because I was looking for a small, segregated sense of belonging like the familial and strongly ethnic groups I saw around me growing up.  As much as I was drawn to cultures I did not grow up being a part of, I could never BE Native American, Japanese, British, African, Israeli, or whatever.  What I recognized was that what I needed to feel I belonged to was there all along, rather than elusively lost to history.  I didn’t need “my people” to find or include me, I needed to find my connection to them— all of them, in an emotional sense.

Certainly there are individuals who I had considered my kind of people, often joking that they are “from my planet”.  They are usually people of high spiritual energy, creativity, and vibration.  They are open, accepting, and came in all in sizes and colors.  Sadly, we never seem to find much time to be with each other, and I would yearn for the kind of intimacy with them that I had seen within close-knit communities in other cultures I had visited in my travels around the world.  Luckily, our connections are quickly renewed with a phone call, email, or intermittent visit.  It was I who maintained their proximity in my mind and heart in the interim.

Kate was (not surprisingly) in the same boat about “her” people, and lamented the loss of flavor of her ethnic Scotch, Irish, and German cultural roots to American Pie blandness.  We understood that we needed to find ways to make felt-sense connections to all of our human species and understand world culture as our culture, celebrating all of it.  We did our guided head movement healings to shift the restrictive unconscious issues, telling each other to connect with and “find your people”.  We both felt greatly expanded as the structure of our energy fields shifted and our old emotional ways of regarding categorical separation crumbled.

At the end of the “20/20” piece as she was leaving the reservation for the last time, Diane Sawyer was taught a Lakota expression, “Mitakuye Oyasin”, and its meaning, “All My Relations”.  She was deeply touched.  This important expression is a reminder that the time is now for all of us to recognize our place as world citizens, neighbors, and clansmen, and generate belonging where it does not already exist, even if we never leave our home town.  It’s time for us to do what we can to help our species in whatever ways we are able, whether it is through charity, service, prayers, or simply by being conscious of our brothers and sisters as such.  WE, are our people.

About Brad Silberberg

Brad Silberberg, director of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA (Pittsburgh area) is an artist, holistic healer, spiritual leader, and change agent.
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