Friday, October 25, 2013


When I first got to Saskatoon in 1986 to serve the Unitarian congregation, I joined a circle of professional women counselors.  I was surprised that they all still traveled to workshops at Esalen in California, which the States-side people by then thought was pass√© and even laughable.  If the subject came up, you’d hear only jokes about what Fritz Perls did with his big toe in the hot tub.  Still, those smart, engaged Canadian women found the work useful.  Recently, when I began to hear about Abraham Maslow in Alberta, I was afraid it was going to be some time-lag anachronistic sort of situation.  It is not.  They are making the ideas work the way they are supposed to.

Cindy Blackstock is a social worker and an academic who is developing a new way of helping aboriginal kids because the old way just isn’t effective.  Sometimes called “Breath of Life,” it is a humanistic approach that does not start from a prescriptive premise about what should be done.  Rather it looks at the tribal origins of the child and develops a Maslowian pyramid of needs and ways of meeting them that come out of the aboriginal background.  All it takes is money. To get money, one must tell one’s story.  Maybe in a movie like this one:

Shannen Koostachin

Alanis Obomsawin

Hi-Ho Mistahey!” is a documentary film by  Canadian director Alanis Obomsawin, which was released in 2013. The film profiles “Shannen’s Dream, an activist campaign first launched by Shannen Koostachin, a Cree teenager from Attawapiskat , to lobby for improved educational opportunities for First Nations youth. . .The film's title is Cree for "I love you forever." Obomsawin has said she heard about Koostachin's story from childrens' rights activist Cindy Blackstock.

Six years ago Blackstock accused the Canadian government of financially short-sheeting aboriginal students.  The government (which is NOT the soft and ladylike entity that many Americans envision) hammered her for her audacity.  They eavesdropped on her computer and kept her under surveillance.  She turned them in to the governmental monitors for that -- I’m not sure there’s a decision yet.  Whether her brilliant breakthrough ideas about child welfare came out of that experience or were in spite of them, they certainly look worthy to me.  But if the simplest appeal for money is met with such suspicion, it’s no wonder that little progress gets made for rez kids in any country.

Cindy Blackstock

The Emergence of the Breath of Life Theory” by Cindy Blackstock, PhD.  First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, University of Alberta.  Published in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, Volume 8, Number 1 (2011) Copyright 2011, White Hat Communications.  This online article does a good job of laying out the basic concepts and justification.

For a vivid sample of how formidable she can be: .

Terry Cross

Terry Tafoya

The equivalent in the States might be Terry Tafoya.  Another admired and creative person is Terry L. Cross, MSW, ACSW, LCSW (Seneca Nation of Indians) director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association.  All the people above have worked in the Pacific Northwest area where the New Age has never been abandoned: plenty of gray pony tails.  On the Blackfeet rez Theda New Breast is a standout leader.  That’s who organized the workshop I attended last week that kicked off this series of posts.

I’ve just found this complex of theories, so I’ve only begun to do the reading, though some of the materials are familiar already.  Blackstock is frank about saying that they are still developing and sharpening.  What I see as still needed is the acknowledgement that tribes arise from human biogeography, each according to what is necessary for the survival of people in that ecology, and valuing what arises from that place.  It’s the land that forms indigenous people. This is why it doesn’t work work to lump all Indians into one movement, even though Pan-Indian organization is good politics because it produces critical mass of voters.
Breath of Life is clear that each tribe has its own ways, but has not gone deeper to how the relationship to the land determines what the economic base will be and therefore the qualities that need to be encouraged in those children.  I think this is because the education and development of social work is traditionally rooted in the cities where it has emerged from helping immigrants become adjusted to this country, or maybe adjusting country people to city life.  Theda’s advantage is being local as well as native.

American Indians are in the paradoxical situation of being displaced in their own country, on their own land, even held captive in front of television screens that let advertising from Manhattan or LA be their “assimilators.”  This is understood by many.  Programs exist and grow every year to teach traditional skills, get involved in the natural history of the place, open up to the metaphors that come out of earth and sky, the unique sensorium of each tribe’s material culture.   Now -- with electronic tablets that even a small child can operate -- it’s possible to roam the planet and come back home again, while never leaving one’s chair.  But it’s necessary to get out of the chair so as to participate.  You’ll never learn to prairie chicken dance while sitting down!

These principles, this point of view, is not just relevant to tribal kids.  There are other categories of kids trapped in syndemics: illegal immigrants, street kids infected with HIV, trafficked kids, child soldiers.  And, oddly, many kids with parents who never interact with them because they work several jobs to survive.  They amount to landless tribes, no place to go, no safety, no belonging.  But they do have one “place” where they are together:  online.  They speak one language: video.  They have one foundational requirement: visibility.  To the general public, they are mostly invisible.

Native Americans know how that feels.  Unless they’re on a horse or wearing feathers, the public thinks they’re maybe Italian.  Even knowing someone is tribal doesn’t necessarily help if the only thing the person knows about Indians is Tonto.  Recognition is a little higher on the pyramid than safety, shelter, food and water, but not by much.  So the dilemma has been how to become educated and even “hip” to the modern world of mixed-but-still-mostly-white world without losing identity as an indigenous person of a particular place on the planet, especially when moving to the city. 

Focusing on kids is not just idealistic in terms of giving each of them a better life, but also practical in terms of improving the lives of everyone.  Less confusion, less dysfunction, more energy, more creativity.  The status quo, often because they fear change will cost them power, try to withhold money in order to stop time.  This is true on the family level, the local level, the national level, and the global level.  It is true in the larger society and also true in the covert counterculture and underground societies that always accompany what is known and public.  Highly principled and devoted individuals who inspire others can make changes happen in spite of social inertia.  But it ain’t easy.

No comments: