October 2017

Last Monday and Tuesday, I had the chance to spend time at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation (where the Lakota live). Of all the experiences I’ve had so far, it was the most eye-opening. This post series will consist of four posts: a conversation with a group of students, two individual interviews, and my reflection.

This first post is a conversation I had with four students at the university in a class on government. They all asked to remain anonymous, so they are just listed as Students 1 to 4. The conversation touched on people’s need to understand tribal history and the U.S. government’s shortcomings.

Whether they’re good citizens:

Student 1: I am because I’ve never been arrested.

Student 2: Yea, I think given all the negativity we live with, if we stay positive and obey the laws, that makes us good citizens.

Why voting is important:

Student 3: I think it’s important because every vote for counts. I vote for every U.S. election.

Student 2: Voting is important, whether it’s tribal or U.S. government, because it’s going to affect future generations. I wish kids from 18-35 would vote. It’s scary because a lot of this (politics) is based on the future, and young people don’t vote. For example, education cuts really hurt the reservation, and the only way to prevent them is to vote.

Student 4: People have to come together to help each other. We have to help each other survive. The political lifestyle isn’t for me. But I still vote because it’s important to guarantee people get what they need.

On whether they feel more “American” or “Lakota”:

Student 2: I don’t know how to answer it. I like being a Lakota, but when we don’t follow rules, I look to the U.S. for help.

Student 4: I don’t look at the identities as divided. We are all a part of the United States.

Student 3: I never saw them as different things; they’re both important to me.

They’re concerned about whether tribal history will endure:

Student 4: I had Lakota Culture this morning, and the professor has been with the university forever. He now has cancer. Him, and the other Lakota historian on campus, are both sick, and the tribe will lose a lot. They speak seven languages and know almost all of the cultures. Next fall, they’re going to get rid of Lakota history as a class, and it won’t be here for any of the younger generation. It’s kind of scary.

Student 2: But that’s where we come in. I grew up traditionally, speaking the language at home. We need to keep that history alive.

 The conversations about the Las Vegas were hard for them:

Student 2: I’ve seen on the news about Las Vegas. Nobody cared when our tribe was massacred. Nobody talked or talks about it. The younger Lakota talk about that shooting. But they should be going back to our own history and talking about what’s happened.

Teacher: When they said it was the biggest mass shooting on the news, I was like, “No it wasn’t.”

Student 2: That’s what I said! It kind of grew anger inside me.

Student 4: I think if they rephrased the way they talk about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. We’ve shown hatred toward people when we don’t pray for them; we know what happened at Wounded Knee. But we still need to show compassion for other people. We can’t show hatred just because they’ve worded things wrong.

The biggest challenges facing the Lakota Community:

Student 3: Alcohol, drug, abuse, domestic violence.

Student 2: Poverty.

Teacher: They all go together. But how do you pick one?

Student 2: The whole umbrella.

Their feelings towards the U.S. Government:

Student 3: I don’t like the government at all. I think not all of them are open-minded.

Teacher: I think it’s hard to feel represented in South Dakota. There are only 3 reps in Washington, and they don’t represent the whole state. They’re all very conservative; it’s hard to see how they help people who aren’t ranchers. People run cattle here, but it’s not ranching.

Student 4: Representatives skip over the reservations and parts of the state.

Student 2: The government could do more. If they want our voters, they should actually help. They should come to the reservation. I have friends from off the reservation who are afraid to come here. We have police and laws here! It just shows that people don’t care.

How they’d like the government and non-indigenous people to interact with the Lakota:

Student 3: People need to stop being racist towards us.

Student 4: Individual people should stop the labeling. What both people and the government could do is help with funding for homes, and treatment centers. Finding homes for our homeless.

What it means to be an American:

Student 1: Boundaries. The reservation has boundaries between what’s America and what’s the reservation. That’s what I’ve grown up and come to understand.

Student 4: To me, it’s about family. It’s about knowing the culture and history. It’s about having that growing up as kids, bonding with your family. Bring those together as who we are, whether we’re Native America or any other culture.

Student 3: I think America has a lot of diversity. We, as Americans, all live here together.

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I had a chance to speak with Bob Driscoll, a former member of the Department of Justice during George W. Bush’s administration. Our conversation covered our duty to society, the limits of government, and what each side of the political aisle needs to learn. I also recommend reading an article he wrote on many of these topics for the New Boston Post.

What his family taught him:

My dad was a great citizen. My Grandad was a postman. My dad went to college on a military scholarship, then was in the Marines, and then became a lawyer. He asked us every night at dinner, “What are you going to do for society today?” He emphasized that it wasn’t about us. It was about the greater community. We did service at the church. My parents were active with setting up housing for Vietnamese refugees. There was always this notion that we had to be contributing something beyond our family unit.

He thinks American life has changed in the last twenty years:

Coming from a conservative perspective, I feel like because of maybe social media, or media saturation, people have lost any sense of limited government. Every problem today is a government problem. We place too much of our hopes in our federal leaders to fix our problems. That’s a cause of anxiety for both sides, depending on who’s in office. I read a piece from a psychologist that talked about how when we feel like we don’t control our lives, we are anxious. We have an outsized notion of any given impact that a federal leader has on them. People’s angst about their government is greater than the impact of the government itself.

I think what’s unique about the American experience is that we’re a society of negative rights, not positive rights. The Bill of Rights is a list of things the government cannot do to you. That’s good because it restrains government. But for others, it’s not enough. We don’t have a right to healthcare (at least legally speaking). People look to government to solve more problems, rather than the government setting the parameters by which government can solve your life.

How Democrats can improve as citizens:

People are so quick to go to motives these days. I think Democrats are, in general, a little bit quicker to do this. “If you don’t want gun control, you’re responsible for this shooting.” What I feel like saying is, “If someone calls you a baby killer, is that gonna make you pro-life?” Are you ever going to say, “I’ve never thought about it that way! Now that you put it that way, I’m going to change!” It’s the late night comedy phenomenon: everyone who disagrees with me is stupid.

How Republicans can improve:

Conservatives put things too simplistically sometimes. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because political correctness can bother you doesn’t mean you should be an a**hole. Pissing the right people off and being an a**hole has become a substitute for ideas. I’m halfway to the point that thinking that this is all about culture. I joked to a friend, “If Trump nationalized the energy industry overnight, no one would care so long as he tweeted something insulting about Rosie O’Donnell.”

What he thinks the average Democrat and Republican would say about one another:

It kind of depends what you mean by average. The average, meaning we randomly pick someone out of the phone book, you would think people of different political leanings are good citizens. In the real world, people aren’t that politically active, nor do they care that much about others’ politics.

But among politically active people, I don’t think they’d say people of the other side are good citizens at all. Republicans would say Democrats are f***ing communists who want the government controlling everything. And Democrats think all Republicans are racist bigots who are secretly Bull Connor.

What he’d say to a Trump voter:

To the average Trump voter, I’d say anger, even justifiable anger, is not a policy. Think about what governing means instead of just making a statement.

What he’d say to a Clinton voter:

To the average Democratic voter, I’d say get outside the bubble and make an effort to understand religious people. There’s a not unfounded perception for religious people that there’s no place for them in the Democratic Party.

Religion has informed his ideas about society:

We don’t have the idea that “if we had the right policy in place, we can fix this.” Policies help on the margins. But religious people see the sin of man. I understand that government can’t fix that. Understanding their value in the world brings them happiness. People who are more secular, democratic, liberal think “if only we could do this thing, it’d be great.” It still won’t work. Someone will take a bribe. Someone will fall on hard times. Someone will become an alcoholic.

What it means to be an America:

It just means to live in America and benefit from the freedom of structure of government. America needs people with those values of freedom and equality. But you can be a communist in America, and you’re no less American.

The thing that concerns him most about American politics:

I’m constantly amazed that no one has written about all the things that happen with (politicians’ finances). Maybe it’s because everyone is a part of the game. Bernie Sanders has been in government for 40 straight years and has three house. Same with Harry Reid. He only ever worked in government, and now he owns a suite in the Ritz. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, was investigated for corruption. His defense was two million bucks. That’s way more than he made in his career.

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Until last week, I had never traveled anywhere in the Midwest other than Chicago. I was totally naive about the places, cultures, and people in the region. Fortunately, in my time in Waukesha, WI, Dubuque, Iowa, and Sioux City, Iowa, I had a chance to learn about what unites, and divides, people in the heart of our country.

The Flag in Waukesha:

When I arrived in Waukesha, President Trump had just said that players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. While there, I made sure to ask people about their thoughts. Laura, a military veteran, told me that she fought for people to do “dumb things like that.”

Meanwhile, Terri, a self-described Christian woman, rejected the practice. However, her thinking intrigued me. Her rationale? “Use love to bring people to your side, not criticism.”

And finally, an artist I spoke with, who voted for Bernie Sanders, didn’t like that Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem. He did, however, support athletes’ right to protest. He said that he would love to see players kneel before  the anthem, then stand up during it, as a protest of what’s wrong but also as a signal that they believe things can be better.

There’s been many words written about the protests and Trump’s statement about them. But what I found interesting in all of these interviews, from three people with very different life backgrounds, was that they all appealed to two ideas in our conversations. First, they talked about respect, both for the flag, and for someone’s right to kneel (and in their minds, disrespect that flag). Second, they were the first group I spoke with that consistently mentioned patriotism. In fact, the thing that has most surprised me so far is how few people think we need to “love” our country. In Waukesha, however, love and respect go hand-in-hand.

America in a city:

Although I’ve found that stereotypes people have about other regions in the country are wrong, one that isn’t wrong is that driving through Iowa is phenomenally boring. It’s flat, and there are almost no cars anywhere. My first stop after Wisconsin was Dubuque, a town on the Mississippi river.

Dubuque was unlike any place I’ve ever been. A city of roughly 58,000 people, there was more variety of people and culture than I anticipated. As a former factory town, it still has a blue-collar aesthetic and vibe. But with a large affluent, suburban population, there were also places that reminded me of Bryn Mawr; yoga studios, custom cupcake shops, and several nice coffee shops lined the main street. And in recent years, there has been a large influx of African-Americans from Chicago, and so the city’s cultural events and social hangouts are increasingly diverse, too. It was as if three core aspects of American life had been squeezed into 30 square miles.

Most of my conversations in Dubuque were fantastic. From Taj, a Sudanese refugee, who talked about the importance of community, to Brisa, a Trump voter, who said jobs are key to civic life, and Maddie, a non-voter who thought we need to be more humble as citizens, I learned about the complex intermingling between economics, the community, and the individual. As much as try to divorce these things, we can’t. Brisa is right that people’s opportunities, and their freedom to pursue them, are crucial for citizens and for the community’s well-being. Likewise, we can’t underestimate how important our individual attitude towards others is.

My Worst Experience Yet:

However, I also had my worst experience to date in Dubuque. During one interview, I heard the first rhetoric that I would say is actively harmful to civic community. The person told me that the one thing that all American high school students needed to know was that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers had sought to undermine the country from within. He also said that the anti-fascist groups they funded were, and the groups that their relatives fund are, the real threats to American freedom.

These words alarmed me on two levels. First, it was trademark anti-Semitism. Fear of powerful, wealthy Jews is as old as time. It saddens me that it’s still rampant. Second, the idea that we should teach in schools that there is a group of people, whose only tie to one another is a religion, or a race, that actively wants to ruin our country means that we are saying some groups don’t belong. Given that many people I’ve spoken with describe America as a melting pot, we need to actively reject this type of thinking.

The Representative Midwest City:

As much as Dubuque taught me, Sioux City reflected the image I had in my mind of the Midwest. I also think it’s the consummate story of a place where opportunity is lacking, and people are desperate. A couple I spoke with both said that the “lack of opportunity” for young professionals is draining the city. And the husband said he voted for Trump because he thought America needed to return to its industrial roots.

As I drove around the area, what he said made sense to me. There were abandoned factories and few office buildings. The downtown was small. The people seemed sad, something the other two people I spoke with in Sioux City mentioned. The unifying forces in Sioux City – factories such as Gateway’s – had left. The place was still trying to figure out a way forward.

Unity and Division:

More than any segment to date, my time in the Midwest reminded me that for all we share, there are substantive. One man told me he sees Black Lives Matter as the equivalent of the KKK.  Regardless of how one feels about BLM, the idea that white people are inferior to black people is not core to their mission (the way the reverse is central to the KKK’s work). But it says something that people now believe this to be the case. Another person told me he doesn’t see a future for people in his area. And as I walked around, I saw the way that community’s were faltering without jobs and hope.

And yet, most of my interviews reminded me that there is a way forward together. One might disagree with Brisa that Trump will create jobs. But I think it’d be hard to disagree with her sentiment that people deserve better chances and that we have to help. And Linda, a Clinton supporter, talked about the importance of knowing the First Amendment. Given the way we all scream about the other side’s abuse of free speech, I can’t help but agree with her that we might all need a refresher on speech, how it works, and why it’s important.

The challenge about division is that it’s easy to replicate, easy to be angry at those who are different or have had better lucky. But that’s exactly why need to be thinking about the things we do and can share.

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I had a chance to sit down with a couple in Sioux City who voted differently from one another in this election. Our conversation covered leadership, industry’s importance, and Trump’s appeal. Because the husband is an active duty member of the military, and the conversation covers his voting preferences, I am keeping their identities anonymous. His comments are labeled “G” and hers are “H.”

He views citizenship nationally, whereas she views it locally:

G: I’m a good citizen of the United States. I volunteered to do something for our country that a lot of people don’t do. You could donate your time to the Red Cross here, or in Texas or Puerto Rico. It’s not like being in the Air Force here is different from elsewhere – we’re helping American people just the same.

H: I don’t think I contribute significantly to the community that we’re in right now. Volunteering your time, and making yourself known in the community is good citizenship. I don’t really do that, but that might be because I live in a new community. It’s hard to get a foot in the door. When you don’t really know people, it’s hard to be a good citizen.

On Sioux City’s Challenges:

G: I feel like there needs to be something for people our age.

H: It’s a lack of opportunity.

G: If you’re not willing to work in a packing plant, or a blue-collar job, and work your way up like my dad, who did it by sacrificing his body, (there’s not a ton to do). You’re hoping that by working your ass off for 20 to 30 years, you can have the last fifteen years in an office. But either way, by the time you’re 65, your body is shot. Continue reading Leadership and Industry

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Concerns about the media:

When’s the last time you read a new media source? Or a source that doesn’t promote your world view? I ask because a theme I have heard in the last week or two is that it’s hard to trust the news these days, that people are turning it off. Jon, from South Bend, said, “I never know what to trust. The inaccuracies and political bias on both sides are absurd. I’m not smart enough to know what’s true or what’s not.” Rick said that he now turns off the news. This problem wasn’t unique to Indiana. Maxwell, a student at Bowling Green State, said that he feels like the media distorts our opinions of one another.

Staying informed:

Despite people’s concerns about the media, many interviewees, especially Matthew from University of Chicago, mention the importance of “being informed.” I agree them that knowing what’s happening in our communities and country is really important to being a good citizen. We can’t take political action if we don’t know what’s happening. Serving people is harder if we don’t the problems. It’s difficult to be respectful if we don’t know what’s happening in our neighborhood. Continue reading Staying Informed

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Brisa is twenty-one, living in Dubuque, Iowa. As an employee for her family’s business, Shaggy’s Flea Market (pictured above), and at Hotel Julien in Dubuque, she sees jobs as the key to civic life.

Her key to citizenship:

I believe I’m a good citizen. I don’t cause any trouble, commit any crimes, or bother any people. I just live. I feel like certain areas of Dubuque have good citizens; there’s no crime. There are others I wouldn’t even walk down the street because of the crime.

Basically, good citizenship is about not breaking the laws and not disrespecting anyone.

She’s not a fan of current protests:

I don’t see the protesters right now, like the ones in Missouri, as good citizens. And I don’t support the NFL protests. The flag doesn’t stand for Donald Trump. It stands for all the people who have fought and died for this country. People have stood for the anthem for forever. Now all of a sudden the flag is an issue? I don’t think that’s good citizenship. Continue reading Jobs and MAGA Hats

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Taj is a Sudanese refugee, now living in Dubuque, Iowa. He became a citizen ten years ago, and he works for the Dubuque city government. Our interview covered topics ranging from the immigration system to what he sees as the core American values.

On his experience as a refugee:

I am a former refugee. I came in May, 2000. I came from Lebanon, and I am originally from Sudan. I arrived in Salt Lake City, and it was a culture shock.

I think that I learned what it means to be an American from the people in Salt Lake. Yes, I was on government programs. But what made a difference was the community. The people who helped with my language and taught me to navigate the system were amazing. There was a sense of belonging because of the people around me. It was tough – in six months, I had to speak English and find a job in six months to meet the government’s expectations. Some of my friends struggled to do that. The people who excelled were connected to the community, not just the government. Continue reading Coming to America

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