Breaking down the barriers
By Mikailah Shealer
On Wednesday, Nov. 6, author Kent Nerburn visited the Loras campus to share his background and unique experience of writing Neither Wolf Nor Dog. He held Q&A sessions during the day and ended the evening with a lecture. Nerburn has released at least 16 nonfiction books full of amazing essays, each exploring the relationship between Native American culture and American culture.
He also dwells on spirituality, both how it blends with and is contrasted among different cultures, describing himself as,
“a nonnative author who tries to bridge the gap between nonnative and native ways of life,” stating further that the most important thing he’s learned is that it’s “[his] responsibility now, as an elder, to teach others what life taught [him].”
Professor of English at Loras, Kevin Koch, introduced Nerburn who then introduced himself as a failed sculptor with a doctorate in Theology and Art. That was until he received a message with an interview opportunity at a Native American nature preservation in the middle of nowhere.
He described his first encounter as rough, seeing as his lack of understanding about the culture got him off on the wrong foot. But through this interaction is how Nerburn describes his purpose to us; recognizing Cultural Colonialism and transforming the way we think in order to be more open-minded and aware of the White Man’s influence on native cultures.
Native Americans follow a matriarchal system of power, meaning the females are more respected, are regarded as the more powerful sex and are given the important duties within the community. Nerburn started this journey by entering the Cultural Center to introduce himself to Deloris Cloud. He was ignored and then scolded for asserting himself into a situation that he wasn’t invited into. It wasn’t until a few hours later that he was told what he did wrong, along with all the other things in White American culture that are not universal and can be quite disrespectful.
For example, the White Man Power Grip or as we like to call it, a handshake. Nerburn explained that firm handshakes are a sign of domination instead of equality, according to Native American culture. Where we would demonstrate strength, they demonstrate kindness by providing a softer grip that is still inviting, “so as to say that you are welcome to stay as you are welcome to leave. Their body language is inviting but not in a way that traps.” From here, Nerburn exposed more ways in which Cultural Colonialism creates a barrier.
“When you cross into their land, you feel like you’re leaving America,” because even the littlest things that you’ve known since birth are alienated. Nerburn told a story about a time when he was walking his elderly dog in the park and came across a Middle-Eastern family. Everyone likes dogs, he thought, so he approached to be friendly. But what he thought was acceptable wasn’t acceptable to the family; dogs are a symbol of negativity in certain cultures, and he happened to approach the wrong people that day.
Their practice of the land is another quality that sets us apart, because they appreciate and respect without question. They learn the original teachings in their original land and refuse to manipulate it in any way that would compromise that learning. Americans are a restless culture, always searching for knowledge and growth, craving discovery and expedition. We are hardly satisfied because we seek answers we want instead of asking about what’s there.
But the most significant thing that sets us apart is the Membership Religion that white culture created. Instead of asking questions and being open-minded and acting as a tool of nature, we changed our methods to set everyone opposed to each other like weapons. We made it so that in order to identify with “our” religions, you must fit certain expectations or follow certain guidelines. True religious sediments should be available to everyone because culture is a symphony of creation and we are all under one sky.
Nerburn ended on this note, leaving us with a duty to act against Cultural Colonialism and appropriation. He encouraged facilitation of knowledge and respect as a way to expand the love that creation radiates. We can break down the barriers that separate cultures in order to truly embrace them as a collection of various beliefs, rather than differentiation between them.
“The language barrier is logically the toughest one to get past, but we won’t truly be able to understand each other until the cultural barrier is broken too,” Nerburn concluded before he sent us on our personal missions.