Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Projection of Personal Culture Onto an Existing Culture

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart directly reminds me of a personal experience with a native culture. In the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school I went on a service trip to Eagle Butte South Dakota. The work site was a Habitat for Humanity project in the Lakota Sioux reservation. My emotions going in (embarrassing now to admit) were strongly tempered with a regret that I wouldn’t be spending the week in Jamaica, a service trip that I had been chosen for but had to turn down for family reasons. Upon arriving in Eagle Butte, I can safely say it was the most bleak landscape I’d ever seen. Never having seen prairies before, I realized that they were glorified swaths of dead grass. The state has few natural resources to sustain an economy. While we were there, temperatures sweltered to 110 at noon, before dropping to 45 at night.

The town was a hub for crystal meth distribution, we were informed that an undercover agent had been executed by shotgun the week before our arrival. Stray, half-wolf dogs roamed the neighborhood, humping on our porch. As we drove to the work site for the first day, we passed trailer parks that had no indoor plumbing. Being from Dundalk, I considered myself a little more street savvy than my Towson classmates, but altogether unprepared for this level of poverty. However, while alcoholism, unemployment, and drug use pervaded the reservation, what surprises me is that those are not the residents of Eagle Butte that I recall.

My fondest memory of my time there came at a softball game, played with Eagle Butte’s better citizens. Every evening, the families of the town would gather for a game of softball. We were invited to play in the game as well. The awkwardness of the work day seemed not to exist here. While the Sioux who we were helping seemed a bit embarrassed to have white, East Coast teens helping build the houses, in softball we were more or less teammates. During the work day I had gotten frustrated with the Sioux who always moved on “Lakota Time” as they called it (I was always taught by my dad to hustle no matter what work I was doing, Lakota Time seemed like an excuse to slack). As the families played and cooked together as a community, I realized that this was simply their natural pace.

Perhaps Lakota Time was the same way that our hosts had carried about their business long before governments hemmed them into the infertile land I’d grown to hate so quickly. I grew to appreciate the slower pace, the communal values, the bison tacos. Here was a community that although put in a position to need assistance, held on to a sense of pride, grounded in family values.

The trip culminated with the sweat lodge. We just so happened to be visiting during their most sacred time of year (I want to say it was related to the Summer Solstice). Gerry, our host, invited us to participate in one of the nightly celebrations, that would conclude with the sweat lodge. The assured us that there was nothing pagan about it, that it was multifaith, and that Father Joe our campus priest had joined them on a previous trip. We crowded sweaty and shirtless into a tipi with a pit full of white hot stones in the middle. Gerry, transformed into the tribe’s religious leader led chants, sometimes in English, sometimes in their language. They would sing and scream, and throw water on the stones, raising the temperature to what Gerry said was 140 degrees (we could not wear jewelry, it would burn our skin). I tried to recite my own, Christian prayers in my head and relate the experience to my own faith, but eventually I was too soft and couldn’t take the heat. Only two of us made it through the entire ceremony, the rest left the tent. My friend Elliot who stayed, claimed to have seen a vision he couldn’t relate, my other friend Nick just remembered being very hot.

In retrospect, Eagle Butte taught me that I could not judge a way of life that had existed for hundreds of years, by my own cultural standards. I learned to embrace their family based culture, and simply admire their toughness. Every time I sit in a hard church pew I think about the sweat lodge and I can’t complain.

Much like my mistakes with the Sioux, many European writers would judge African culture by their own standards. Achebe creates a text written from the perspective of the Ibo. By the time European missionaries descend on Nigeria, we as readers see them as strange.

To serve as an example of a rational way of dealing with a new culture, Achebe presents Mr. Brown. He takes time to learn the ways of the Ibo and, while pushing his agenda, he does take their lifestyle into account, not making waves. He attempts to talk Akunna into embracing his Christian god by relating him to their supreme god, Chukwu. Brown acknowledges merits of the existing culture and seeks to work with them, not against them. Achebe creates a relatable character. As I read the dialogue between the two I thought back to aspects of my own Christian faith that became sharper to me in the sweat lodge.

In contrast, Achebe presents the District Commissioner and the new missionary, Mr. Smith. They treat the Ibo in terms of black and white, heathens and saved. They look to inflict their European culture on the natives by force if need be. At no point do they consider the merits of the existing culture or seek to allow the two ways of life to mesh.

Eventually, the great men of the town, like Okonkwo dwindle and Umuofia begins to lose its sovereignty and become a colony. In their “pacification” the colonizers refused to accept the merits of Ibo culture and squelched the good aspects of the villages. I only hope that my experiences in South Dakota have taught me to view other ways of life through their own lense and see them for their advantages.

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