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Lifelong Learning and Giving Thanks

~by Michael Wilcox

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)


Each year, the Purdue Extension Community Development team gives thanks. This year, I am thankful for lifelong learning.

Cooperative Extension was founded as a resource for lifelong learning for people throughout the United States. To be successful, lifelong learners must approach the process with humility, recognizing that we still have much to learn. For me, I seek to learn from others and to be challenged. I strive to fill my mind, as well as my heart. What follows will help you understand why…

We lived in a relatively homogeneous community when I grew up in upstate New York during the 1970s. Class differences played out geographically with the affluent North and East Side versus the working class (and more diverse) West and South Side. But, by my indicator at the time, our elementary classes were not very diverse.

Interestingly, we were surrounded by the legacy of being located in Native American homelands of the Mohican (Algonkian), Abenaki, and Mohawk (members of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy)) tribes. Yet, in our day-to-day life, I remember evidence primarily in names (i.e., Kayaderosseras Creek or the “Valley of the Crooked Stream”), history (connections to the American Revolution and our world-famous mineral springs), sport (lacrosse, snowshoeing, canoeing, etc.), farming and land use. And, my only direct interaction with a Native American was my friend’s father, Jerry Clements, coming to school and giving us hands-on presentations. So, while I was aware of the artifacts, stories, and other tangible evidence that Native Americans lived in vibrant communities throughout the region, they had essentially been erased in many ways.

For me, the erasure meant ‘out of sight, out of mind’ until I went to Cornell. There, I encountered Akwe:kon (pronounced uh-GWAY-go), the first university residence ‘established to celebrate American Indian culture and heritage.’  As Michael Charles explains (1:31:00 to 1:37:40), Akwe:kon served as a gathering place for Indigenous students to share their lives while going to university. I wrote to Michael to explain how I always hoped that I had the opportunity to learn more through Akwe:kon.

“As a fellow Cornellian (’92, Biological Sciences), I found your perspective quite interesting. I often wondered, as a student and alumni, whether the dormitory concept made sense. Hearing your perspective helps me better understand the benefits. As a white male, I appreciated having Akwe:kon, Ujamaa, and other residential options available for students. Still, I struggled with how I might benefit from the knowledge and resources there so I could increase my cultural competency and expand my horizons. I know that sounds very selfish. I definitely do not mean it to…I am always actively seeking opportunities to learn about people different from me. I understand better now how having these spaces, open or not, don’t necessarily serve to keep people apart but offer a much-needed refuge from the prevailing dominant culture as well as serving as a platform to build social and cultural capital and create a level of visibility in what can often be unwelcoming spaces (like campus overall).” Michael was gracious in his response and appreciated that his work was generating opportunities for reflection and thought.

Once again, I learned an important lesson. You need to be an active seeker. I certainly wasn’t back in my undergrad days. I needed to seek out Akwe:kon, not the other way around. Also, you need to be more than well-intentioned. You need to recognize that lifelong learning must take place in a way where you do not impose yourself on others but find ways to be intentional and self-directed. Finally, if you find someone who is a resource, be prepared to be an active listener.

After Cornell, I served in the U.S. Peace Corps (Cameroon, 93-95) and spent the next twenty years learning about world cultures and how I operated within them. I made friends across the globe while traveling with my wife and children. I worked for weeks/months at a time in Cameroon (for my Ph.D. work), Lesotho, Liberia, and Mozambique. Experiential learning positioned me to be a global citizen and help my children learn more about people who are different from themselves. However, two things were silently working against me.

First, for all of the traveling to exotic locales and meeting people from all over the world, back home in the United States I was utterly oblivious to what was going on in ‘Indian Country.’ I did not have a clue.

Second, unbeknownst to me, I was operating from a cultural competency orientation “that highlights cultural commonality and universal values and principles that may also mask deeper recognition and appreciation of cultural differences.” According to the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), I was in Minimization. Even more worrying was the fact that my perceived orientation was Adaptation – “An orientation that is capable of shifting cultural perspective and changing behavior in culturally appropriate and authentic ways.”

I was shocked. Why/How was I in Minimization? Self-perception is often wrong, so I took a look at myself, held myself accountable, and began to work on my cultural competency. Yet, just as I was getting started in 2019, the two factors above were put to the test.

First, I met someone that knocked me off my axis. Emily Proctor is a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and an Extension Educator working on Tribal Governance and Leadership and Community Engagement with Michigan State University Extension. She thinks deeply and doesn’t seem to get rattled. She also has had to deal with ignorant people like me for a long time. Yet, she has infinite patience and grace. We attended the National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals (NACDEP) meeting together. While there, we attended a few of the sessions focused on the great work going on in Indian Country. We also had a few long talks about making NACDEP more relevant to Indigenous people and the 1994 Land Grants, the Tribal Colleges and Universities. She introduced me to the concept of land acknowledgment. I had never heard of such a thing. What an interesting concept! But, I understand that it is just a first step towards accountability. It must lead to action.

Second, the Purdue Center for Regional Development partnered with the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky at the University of Kentucky and Purdue Extension Community Development to work on the Rural Economic Development Innovation Initiative (REDI) funded by USDA Rural Development. I was assigned one of the successful applicants, The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in north-central North Dakota. Their application talked about the need for a youth detention and rehabilitation center. Our conversations over the phone turned to a substance use disorder crisis. I was excited about the prospect of working with Turtle Mountain and very, very nervous.

How nervous? I think everyone there remembers my arrival on the reservation. For one, Dr. Nicole Adams and I had rented an SUV as it was November in North Dakota. What we hadn’t bargained for was that we were given a huge, black Chevy Suburban with heavily tinted windows. Let’s just say people weren’t excited to see us pull up in a vehicle that reeked of, “Hi, we are the FBI, and we are here to help.” The other factor? For some reason, the only clean socks available to me before my departure were a set of hot pink wool socks. How were these folks going to take me seriously?

I will never forget the week we spent there. We had an entire two-day workshop planned based on what we were doing in other REDI (non-Indigenous) regions. After our preliminary meetings (including a tour of the jail and hospital), we decided to create a training on the fly that was better suited to the situation. Instead of a data-heavy discussion, we used storytelling. Instead of discussions heavily facilitated by us, we listened. In a matter of twenty-four hours, our hosts had organized a Recovery Rally for people in recovery and those affected by substance use disorder. The Rally started at 1 pm. By their design, there wasn’t an end time. There weren’t any rules except that everyone would be heard and everyone would be treated with respect. Seven people spoke over five hours. We laughed. We cried. We learned.

During our week in Belcourt, ND, we met a lot of people. Doctors, lawyers, elders, nurses, administrators, business owners, public servants, academics, cultural stewards and family members. We also met people in the depths of their lows dealing with substance use disorder, suffering from trauma and feeling the stress of poverty and unrealized dreams.

Two people surfaced that week that I will never forget.

The first is an elder and an expert basket maker, Brenda. On the Heritage Center’s website, Nicole and I saw that there would be a traditional willow basket weaving class held while we were there. When we arrived at the class, you could hear the needle scratch the record, if you know what I mean. After a few confused moments, people settled in with the idea that these two outsiders would try their hand at basket weaving. Brenda took pity on us when she saw that we were fish out of water. She was very patient. She wasn’t as patient with the local kids, and we started joking around that we were so bad at weaving she didn’t even bother trying to teach us the hard way. People were laughing! We kept at it and made progress. However, our last night was the night of the Rally. We showed up to class over two hours late. Word had gotten to the class about what we were doing at the Rally. And after a few minutes of quizzical looks from our new friends and confused looks from us, Brenda presented us with our baskets finished, ready to take home to our families. Now, I was getting made fun of because of the tears welling in my eyes. It was a magical moment for me.

The second is Erin Belgarde, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and a descendant of Turtle Mountain. Erin has been working for the Tribe for over a decade. She manages grants and programs. She pulled the short straw and was assigned to work with Nicole and me on the REDI grant. Erin means business. But, thankfully, she likes to laugh just as much. We became fast friends. I shared my insecurities about working with the Tribe, and she shared inside jokes and memes that gave me an appreciation for humor on “the rez.” Erin helped Nicole and me understand the politics associated with the Tribal Council and how things get done…or not. Erin helped us network and helped us develop some street cred. Erin also was critical of our work when needed and she paved the way for us to successfully write a clinical plan and business plan for the recovery center. She has been a rock. She saw us through good times and not-so-good times. And, in a year or two, we will be sitting next to her as the ribbon is cut for the recovery center and the recovery campus.

Erin and others also opened my eyes to reality.

These sovereign nations face institutional challenges, such as treaties between the nations (tribal and US) being broken and mismanagement of Indian Trusts by the US federal government. Many tribal nations are shackled by the federal government and may not be able to pull themselves out of poverty. There is trauma that persists from experiences at boarding schools. Like other rural areas, many of the youth are seeking ways off the reservation. After decades of not practicing their culture or speaking their language because it was illegal, the traditional ways are slowly returning, but it is an uphill battle. Indigenous people do not all look the same. Indigenous people can be found everywhere but may not always want to be found. Non-Indigenous people can be racist and hurtful.

On the bright side, Erin also introduced me to the fact that the people of Turtle Mountain and me share a few things in common, a love of basketball and, for some, Minnesota sports teams! While this makes for easy conversation, this places me solidly in my Minimization safe place. My personal growth and effectiveness in this project were firmly rooted in those moments when I was operating in Adaptation – when I was receiving cues from Erin and our other local partners and using those cues to inform my actions instead of defaulting to a culturally unaware expert model.

My journey of lifelong learning did not stop there. While the experiential learning has been very rewarding, I knew I needed to dig deeper. I was making progress but also holding myself accountable for not doing enough.

I reached out to Emily. I explained to her that I wanted to learn more about the Indigenous people of North America. Not in a secondary school textbook kind of way (often told from the colonialists’ perspective and ending with Manifest Destiny), but in a manner rooted in evidence-based history, lived experience, and mindful of the present-day situation. She suggested “Custer Died for Your Sins” by Vine Deloria, Jr. and “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Both are heavy. Both are raw and real. Both opened my eyes.

While these books tell the story of bloodshed and broken treaties, removal and erasure, they also set a course for renewal based on resilience and recognition that the Indigenous people of North America were here as dynamic, thriving civilizations long before the colonization process began. They will persist through the promotion of community vitality into the future. Evidence of progress towards this goal can be seen if you know where to look. Back home, we are finally honoring the Native American people and culture in our region and providing opportunities for our youth to learn about Native American history. For me, I saw it firsthand last month through participation in the First Americans Land grant Consortium (FALCON) conference.

Indeed, our Land Grant System has great potential to contribute to this process, but we have much history to reconcile as well. We can and should acknowledge the traditional homelands of the Indigenous People which Purdue University is built upon. We should honor and appreciate the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), Lenape (Delaware), Myaamia (Miami), and Shawnee People, who are the original Indigenous caretakers. But how do we put this acknowledgment, honor, and appreciation into action? How do we reconcile that 380,440 acres of land owned by Indigenous people were used to help fund the founding of our university? How do we bring together the thirty-four Land Grant institutions in the North Central Region together in a high-functioning collaborative way? These are big questions that do not necessarily have straightforward answers.

On a personal level, as a lifelong learner, I have found that curiosity and open-mindedness are critical. By intentionally learning about Others (as Grand (2018) puts it), we open ourselves to new knowledge and understanding (the mind). At the same time, we also inform our heart. Accordingly, from an emotional standpoint, Ekman (2003) describes an empathy pathway that starts with understanding the feelings of another person (Cognitive Empathy), which can lead to sharing those feelings with them (Emotional Empathy), which can lead to taking action (Compassionate Empathy / Empathic Concern).

It is Native American Heritage Month and a time to give thanks. These are not mutually exclusive. Intentionally take time to learn more about people who are different from you from an objective standpoint. Tap into your humility and activate your lifelong learning. Hopefully, this will translate into action and opportunities for you to make a difference in the lives of others.

As for me, I wish to say “Miigwech” to my friends and colleagues. You have taught me so much and have been very honest and patient. You have held me accountable, and you have made me feel like I belong. This journey requires the full participation of both head and heart. I so appreciate your filling both for me. I wish to do the same for you.

I will leave you with this to consider while you are breaking bread with your family and friends at the end of this month:

The Seven Teachings of the Anishinaabe People
To cherish knowledge is to know WISDOM.
To know LOVE is to know peace.
To honor Creation is to have RESPECT.
BRAVERY is to face the foe with integrity.
HONESTY in facing a situation is to be honorable.
HUMILITY is to know yourself as a sacred part of the Creation.
TRUTH is to know all of these things.

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