A Different Cultural Lesson Learned At the Pow Wow

I attend the Shinnecock Pow Wow every year.  I have long felt a special, only partially explainable affinity with Native American culture(s), and not only enjoy, but feel especially comfortable being there amongst the people, sounds, rhythms, scents, tastes and colors (including those of the diversity of the participants).  And I am not generally a comfortable person.  I’ve taken in and taken home a number of things over the years, but something special happened this year.

Due in large part to the current battles over the direction of public education, there is a lot of attention focused these days on children and what they need to learn and grow.  Now before I go any further with this, I want to acknowledge that what I am about to present as insight is bound with more than a few subjective assumptions and generalizations.  But what I perceived and how it affected me beg that risk.

Simply put, I have never seen more happy, peaceful, independent and in tune children.  I and my companion watched a beautiful toddler experimenting with blades and clumps of grass and the wheel of his carriage, and one could almost see the cerebral synapses firing.  His family seemed to strike a perfect balance of loving affection and respectful space, a watchful eye and following his lead.  We saw a number of parents affectionately holding their children up to give them a clear, engrossed view of the dancing up on stage, or playing with them attentively, or walking with or behind them regardfully.

And we saw the effects.  There was absolutely no crying or fussing, from the babies nor what could have been “the terrible twos” nor the older ones right up through teenage.  It was in their body language: how relaxed and contented they looked in their strollers, on their blankets or in the arms of their parents, and how free and proud they appeared in their postures and movements while walking or running or dancing.  And it was in their faces: the fascination with every interpersonal and sensory experience surrounding them, and the confidence to explore, approach and partake.

There was one notable exception.  A school-aged boy, observably less comfortable with himself and his surroundings, was trying to capture the attention of his father, who seemed much more interested in his camera and his considerably younger blonde girlfriend.  Fairly or unfairly, he appeared to us to be a too-typical every-other-weekend custodian.  And he also appeared to us, unlike the parents described above, to be, in accent and appearance, assumptively non-Indian.

Obviously, as a non-Native Caucasian myself, I am not trying to assert that all White parents are bad ones.  There was a wonderful, loving mother, later finding herself next to us, whose daughter was a joyful, liberated dervish, even when the music stopped.  She clearly relished in her daughter’s exuberance, at least up to a point where a slight hint of a self-conscious need for over-control revealed itself.  So what am I really saying here?

From what little I may have read or have observed, the parenting tradition among Native Americans, discounting any corruptive effects of poverty and its corrolaries, has historically been one of respect, restraint, naturalness, immersion and communalism.  The parents that I witnessed whom I presumed to have some Native American cultural influences may well have been showing that continuing tendency, more likely than others in American culture to see children as a gift to the future rather than a burden to the present.  Or maybe it was less about lineage than it was about atmosphere.

I find peace and acceptance in the white sage, in the music and rhythms, in the natural environment, and in the people, their diversity, their hospitality and their spirit.  Why wouldn’t others be influenced by the same sensory, or dare I say spiritual, envelopers?  Could the reservation hold some collective consciousness, some enduring wisdom, when it comes to children and parenting?  Am I making too much of all this, stereotyping and mystifying sheer coincidence, or can I trust what I, what we, became so seemingly aware of?

As someone who is supposed to have some expertise in child development, I am so often disappointed, when not horrified, by the way children are raised, taught and treated in our society.  I have done pretty much no traveling in my life, so haven’t had a first-hand view of the experiences of children in other societies around the world, some I nonetheless know to be better, and some far worse.  But a mere forty minute drive brought me to another nation, one which, for all their struggles with poverty and oppression, seems to know or induce far better what children really need and deserve.

As I approached and sought an ending for this reflection, I thought I’d do a little research to satisfy myself that I am not completely off base here.  I came upon references to a book, Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting, by Laura Ramirez.  I will be buying and reading it.  But I was immediately struck by her having interwoven the traditional wisdom of Native American perspectives with the very compatible psychological theories of Erik Erikson, who did engage in cross-cultural studies in determining what is universally best for children.  Erikson’s theories on child development have always been at the heart, quite literally, of my teaching and parenting.  So, this now all comes full circle for me.  And, again from my meager knowledge of the subject about which I am writing, truth is supposed to come in a circle.