When Cultures Clash

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Young Navajo friends of ours have been living in an RV in town this school year so they can attend the local community college. Even RV living differs greatly from their homes on the “rez.” In town, Calvin* and his buddy enjoy electricity, running water, and electric heat (rather than wood-stove heating). They are within walking distance of the bus which whisks them to and from campus. Included in the monthly lot rental is cable TV and internet. (And the internet is not pay as you go, running out before the end of each month!)

Both fellows have appreciated the benefits of town living. However, over time, we have realized they lack fundamental knowledge about how things work in town..

RV living in winter

RV living in winter

Recently, Calvin moved out of the RV with little notice, frustrated at how cold the RV was and at having no running water for more than a week (with frozen pipes.) When my husband arrived a few days later, he soon had the RV toasty warm and had the pipes thawed within a few hours.

What was the difference?

Having grown up with wood heat and a lack of indoor plumbing does not prepare someone for town-living. Throughout the fall, we urged Calvin to put up insulation around the bottom of the RV. We explained a number of times how this “skirting” helps the heater work more effectively and keeps the water pipes from freezing when the weather gets cold.

In back-country Navajo culture, there is no reason to do extra work that is perceived to be unnecessary. Daily living takes enough energy and work. Unfortunately, even though we provided the needed materials, Calvin followed his life-knowledge and never got around to installing the extra insulation. In his world, one just throws more wood in the stove when the weather gets cold. With no skirting around the bottom of the RV, as the temperature plummeted this winter, it became more and more difficult to keep the place heated. Eventually, as we expected, the pipes froze.

Calvin’s perception was that the flaw was in expecting to live in an RV during the winter. He found little connection between the lack of preparations and the eventual consequences. The proposed work was viewed as unneeded—which it certainly would have been in his childhood home. Even similar suggestions, by neighbors who lived year round in their RV, fell on deaf ears.

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

RV parked in a similar location to where Calvin lived in town

Another clash of cultures occurred in the matter of paying rent. Calvin’s buddy was inconsistent, often choosing to spend extra days at home rather than staying in the RV. He then saw little need to pay for days he didn’t use the RV. He fundamentally did not understand that rent is owed each month for the entire month, regardless of days spent in the property.

Having to consistently pay monthly rent by a certain time was also challenging for the fellows. Few Navajo in outlying areas have any concept of credit, which translates to a lackadaisical attitude about bill-paying. After all, with no concern about a personal credit rating, what is the downside of being late with payments? In addition, having to pay a deposit to move in was a new idea. Putting money ahead of needed use is rarely done in a culture where family “need” trumps personal savings.

We are happy that Calvin is continuing to pursue education at the local community college. We are sorry it didn’t work out for him to continue living in the (low-cost) RV at this point. Sometimes cultural expectations outweigh other considerations…

*name changed to protect privacy

Another School Shooting?

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This is something that has infuriated me over the years. When something tragic happens in a suburban school, people from around the country rally in support of the community. At the time of the Columbine shooting, young Cambodian friends of ours had not-too-long-earlier had to deal with shootings in their neighborhood which killed friends and family with no acknowledgement or support from the outside world.

Working with families and students in the Lybrook area of Navajoland was devastating at times. Far too often we saw first-hand the results of beatings, of abandonment, of neglect, of abuse. I’ve written occasionally on this blog about some of the bigger tragedies in the community. But where is the outpouring of support? Where is the free counseling? Where is the money and the prayers and the encouraging notes…for the adults choosing to work with these families and for the children themselves?

There was another school shooting this week. But it hardly merited comment. Perhaps that was because it might have been gang related. Perhaps it is because it happened in a school that has metal detectors at the doors. Perhaps it is because we can’t acknowledge the violence faced by thousands upon thousands of children every day in this country. Perhaps that is just too hard to think about when it makes us feel too helpless.

Discussing and debating laws and regulations won’t change lives.

Our family is no longer living and working in Navajoland. But a piece of our hearts is still there, suffering and celebrating with our friends. Concerned for the children we know who are trying to raise themselves and their siblings with no stable adults around them.

I wish I knew what WE could do about such callousness in our country. And I wish there was some way to set hearts on fire so that each and every one of us would rise up in outrage at these tragedies, insisting that things MUST change for the “least of these,” for children who are precious in the sight of our Saviour…

I read a few blogs written by families who are doing what they can to stand in the gap for needy children. One of these summarized that life well today:

And the truth of the matter is that the cracks aren’t very comfortable. They’re dark, and kind of squishy, and supremely lonely. We’ve been having trouble recruiting mentors, which has given me a bad attitude and made me feel a little despondent and frustrated. Like why in the world are we the only ones here? Where are all the other people who love Jesus?

But when I get in that place, when I get overwhelmed by the darkness, by the storm that so often surrounds us here, it usually means I have taken my eyes off of Jesus. Because here’s the thing about cracks: they let the light shine through. So even when they feel broken, and dark, and even a little scary, I am learning that standing in the gap for “the least of these” means we bear the great privilege and responsibility of being a fissure for Christ’s love to seep through.

I challenge each one of us to step outside our comfort zone. To reach out and help someone who is in a difficult situation. To speak up for the children. Discussing and debating laws and regulations won’t change lives. Making time to spend regularly with one or two of these children could make a huge difference. Jumping into the “trenches” with a family who is working with little ones in tragic situations, trying hard to understand what that life is really like, and encouraging those workers can make a difference.

The real question is: are we willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable? Are we willing to be stretched outside our “normal”? When will we react with as much shock and horror to the devastating lives of the poor as we do to tragedies among the well-to-do?

(If you are interested, you can read more from the above blogger HERE)

Drinking Among Navajo People (Guest Post #20)

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This is post number 20 in a series of guest posts written by a visiting anthropology student. You can read more about the author and these posts HERE.

Drinking is one of the first things I got to know about Navajo people right after I came to Navajo land. Randy and Jill have talked a lot about the consequences of drinking, generally car accidents. We touched upon the topics such as the genetic influence, cultural traditions and Navajo people’s world views. Much of what we have discussed is sporadic and lacks depth. I felt so especially after I read a scholarly research on Navajo drinking.

Quintero’s study (1997), conducted in the mid-1990s, provides a comprehensive analysis on Navajo drinking from local people’s perspective. By focusing on the narratives of Navajo people about their experience with or without drinking, this study investigates issues such as how and when Navajo people began drinking, how drinking behavior changed during one’s lifetime, what Navajo people’s attitudes to drinking are, and what the alcohol abuse treatment’s effects are, etc.

The author reveals that most people started drinking as an adolescent, as a result of socialization and growing up. Family is an important factor for the start of drinking behavior. The author emphasizes that drinking behavior changes during one’s lifetime due to various reasons such as consideration for children and family, health, religion. This study illustrates that there was a trend that problems associated with drinking happen at an earlier age among younger generations. According to the author, Navajo people consider drinking to have contributed to the decline of ethics. This study also investigates the cultural factors that affected the abandonment of alcohol use when people were older.

As to treatment programs, the author argues that the effects are not clear since people tend to change their drinking behavior while they are getting old, and that the label of sickness associated with drinking suggested in the treatment programs may negatively affect people’s psychology. In critiquing the theories that consider Navajo drinking as problematic for social change, this study emphasizes the social and cultural mechanisms that help control drinking.

Reference:

Quintero, Gilbert. 1997. The Discourse on Drinking in Navajo Society. Ph.D Dissertation, University of Arizona.

(Note from Jill–although I haven’t read the referenced dissertation, I disagree with his conclusions as portrayed in this post in two respects. From what we have heard from “elderlies” in the community, there USED to be more effective social and cultural mechanisms that helped to control drinking. Today most family members throw their hands up helplessly and bemoan the deaths and violence caused by alcohol but state very clearly that nothing can be done about it. Second, we experienced first hand that often the older people who talked with pride about “being on the sobriety road” were actually drunk on numerous days per week. Navajo are very good at giving the expected answer in conversation. I know that we heard occasional joking among Navajo friends who had given nonsense information to outsiders who then believed that erroneous information. The Navajo saw this as a joke, not as something to be concerned about or something to be corrected. It seems to me that this might well have happened to the researcher who wrote the dissertation.)

(I have written a number of posts about our observations of drinking among local Navajo. You can see two of these posts HERE and HERE.)

Don’t Miss the Bus!

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Yesterday the 4th-8th grade students at the local public school went on a special field trip. They got to see a play-version of The Hobbit in a live production at a theater in Albuquerque.

This trip was planned weeks in advance. Students were given permission slips to return, which clearly stated that parents needed to bring their children to the school one hour early on the appointed day. Most students promptly returned the required forms.

During this past week, students were reminded each day that they could not take the usual school bus; they needed to find someone to drive them to school so they would not miss the field trip. Everyone seemed to understand this requirement.

There were 6 students (out of 50 or so eligible for the trip) who never brought back a signed permission form. Perhaps they “forgot,” or they “lost” the form, or their parents never signed it. Most likely they made the decision that they didn’t want to go on the trip. After all, in most Navajo families the parents rarely say “no” to their children. If it was important to the child, the signed forms would have been turned in long before the trip occurred.

I was assigned to oversee these students who were being left behind. It was still a school day with attendance expected at either the theater or back at the school. When I got to school yesterday morning, I discovered that there were more students who had “missed the bus.” I was responsible for 15 students, rather than just 6 children.

A few of the girls were belligerent. They had returned the required permission forms weeks earlier. They were grumpy that they had been left behind. They rode the usual school bus to school and were shocked to find that the classes had not waited for them. I reminded them that they had been told (and told, and told) that they needed to find their own way to school to be there at least an hour earlier than usual. That didn’t seem to sink in. The girls remained grumpy throughout the day that the teachers had been so mean and left them behind.

As I looked around the room, I realized that 25% of the eligible students were sitting in that room with me. It was interesting to note that these were the same students who are significantly behind—both in grade level and in day-to-day assignments. These are the students who lack family support for education; the ones who seem to be least knowledgeable about cultural differences in time management and expectations between Anglo and Navajo worlds. These are the children of adults who walk through life as helpless (and hope-less) “victims.”

I realized yesterday that we are failing these children in more fundamental ways than merely their lack of a solid education foundation for adult life. They lack models who can show them how to “catch the bus.” They lack understanding of the expectations of the work world they hope to join someday.

STOP! How can we help these Navajo children not “miss the bus” in life?

Perhaps even more important than teaching these kids the 3 Rs, we need to help them gain skills for functional adulthood. We need to help them take responsibility for their own lives. We need to help them so they can change the patterns in their family culture so that THEY won’t “miss the bus” in their own lives!

 

(all photos from fotosearch stock images)

Mule Deer — 1 Mission Truck — ?

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There are large herds of mule deer living in this remote corner of New Mexico. We used to see them frequently on the mission property, although since we have been “babysitting” some horses there is little grazing left which means far fewer deer sightings.

Why did the mule deer cross the road??!

I used to think that white-tail deer (in Ohio) were large. HA! They now look puny when compared to the hulking mule deer out here! Plus, there are elk roaming this area and they make the mule deer look puny.

Randy made a long drive up to Colorado a few weeks ago. He left before dawn to get to a meeting by late morning. Unfortunately, one of the many mule deer who wander this area of the state decided to cross the usually deserted road right when Randy was passing. (Fortunately it wasn’t an elk—those collisions often send the driver/passengers to the emergency room. And the big hulking black bull mangled on the side of the road a few nights ago didn’t look like it would have been “fun” to hit, either.)

OUCH! poor truck…poor deer…

Randy didn’t see what happened to the mule deer, although judging from the damage done to the front end of the truck, the deer most likely didn’t survive… Randy was surprised to find that the truck continued the trip with no problems. No fluids were leaking out of the radiator, although the rattley noises were loud enough that he tied the bumper and other parts together with some rope for the trip home.

rope…almost as good as duct tape or baling wire!

Unfortunately, driving the dirt roads to church a few days later apparently shook more things loose. The radiator sprung a leak and the truck had to be limped home. Randy was a bit shocked when he opened the hood and saw all the damaged parts. And when he got an estimate for parts and labor, the repairs come close to “totaling out” the car.

All I can say is, I’m SO glad it wasn’t our new 4wd that tangled with that deer!

(The mule deer photo and lots of additional information about mule deer can be found HERE)

Graveside

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As you recall, the Lopez family has had a tragic year with two fatal accidents on January 1st (blog post about it HERE). A few weeks ago, the family faced yet another tragedy, also involving alcohol and vehicles. This time the deaths were of the mother-in-law and the young son of one of the remaining brothers in the family. In the photo below, you can see the corner of the open grave just beyond the decorated graves of the family members who died earlier in the year.

too many family members

Coming from a protected world, where death is prettied up and gravesites are carefully covered with astroturf, and a tent, and comfortable seating, the stark reality of death out here in Navajoland is striking. The grave is usually dug early in the morning on the same day as the funeral.

grave hole

We have a cemetery here on the Lybrook Community Ministries property; however, the family must arrange with someone else to provide the backhoe. Most families use the equipment from the local Navajo Chapter House (local government).

backhoe

With the recent deaths in the Lopez family, some of the men in the family are experienced backhoe operators. Can you imagine digging the grave for your brothers, inlaws, and nephews??

The dirt is left piled beside the grave. As mentioned in this earlier POST, at the end of the graveside service, family members and pall-bearers will work to fill the hole by throwing in handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt.

These plywood frames are part of the vault system, to help keep the dirt from crushing the casket.

When the graveside service is finished, the extra dirt will be carefully mounded up with silk flowers covering the mound. It might look bright and cheery…but the colorful flowers can’t disguise the heart ache…

gravesI know that death is a natural part of life. But my heart still questions why there is so much tragedy out here as one after another family member dies in such a short period of time.

Please keep this (and other) families in your prayers. They certainly need the HOPE and PEACE that only God can give in the midst of such trauma.

Helping “victims”?

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A few days ago a woman knocked at our door. She needed to arrange for a cemetery plot for an uncle who had died. She already knew we charge a small fee but still wondered if they could get a discount. When I said no (especially since this mission has had no contact with this woman or any of her family in the past), she just nodded and commented that our price was the cheapest option anyway.cemetary plots

Next she wanted to use the ex-church building on this property for a funeral service. “I suppose you charge a fee for that also,” she grumbled. She was shocked when I told her that the building is not currently available for use. (The pews were falling apart which wasn’t safe, so they have been knocked apart completely. We will eventually figure out what other seating options might make more sense for a multi-purpose building.)

She got a bit angry with me, demanding to know what their family was supposed to do. I suggested the chapter houses (local Navajo government buildings). I suggested one of the 15 or so other churches in this area. She didn’t like any of those ideas. She stated loudly that she was shocked we were no longer available for funerals. She questioned if we had the “right” to deny her family the possibility of using this facility.

I placated her as best I could, internally seething that a stranger would be so demanding. I don’t believe our mission is to be sitting around here, waiting for the 3-4 times per year that someone might prefer to use this facility for some reason, rather than one of the many other options in the community…

Still grumpy at this woman’s entitlement mentality when I walked back inside, I just started laughing in recognition of the truth in this quote, which was in a new email from a friend:

In politics, few talents are as richly rewarded as the ability to convince parasites that they are victims. Welfare states on both sides of the Atlantic have discovered that largesse to losers does not reduce their hostility to society, but only increases it. Far from producing gratitude, generosity is seen as an admission of guilt, and the reparations as inadequate compensations for injustices — leading to worsening behavior by the recipients. – Thomas Sowell

We continue to wrestle with the question of how we can TRULY help the Navajo living in the Lybrook area. We continue to listen to some of our Navajo friends and community leaders who are becoming more and more outraged at the entitlement mentality of constituents who expect everyone else to do things for them. In the two years we have been here, we have learned that hand-outs are often toxic. And hand-ups are usually rejected, at least for now.

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