Actually becoming Amish may be biting off more than most “English” folks can chew.
Become Amish? One Amish writer responded this way, quoted in Small Farm Journal some years ago: “If you admire our faith, strengthen yours. If you admire our sense of commitment, deepen yours. If you admire our community spirit, build your own. If you admire the simple life, cut back. If you admire deep character and enduring values, live them yourself.”
That reminded me of how I have mixed feelings when I’m poking my nose into other peoples’ communities or cultures, such as the Amish or Anishinabe people I encounter when doing my Spokesrider things. I am fascinated and drawn to many aspects of these cultures. I feel honored when these people allow me into their worlds even a little bit. But those are their communities, not mine, so I also hesitate and hold back. I am not going to become one of them, even though I have had life-changing interactions with their worlds.
These photos were taken in spring 1998 (if I remember correctly) at a dedication ceremony at the Nottawasepe reservation near Athens in Calhoun County, Michigan. Two new gravestones were being dedicated. One was for John Moguago, the Potawatomi man who had founded this reservation — bought it with treaty money and put it in a “trust” so it could not be taken away. The legal status of this trust was something that was being deciphered in recent years when the Potawatomi people here were applying for federal recognition.
John Moguago was one of the Potawatomi people who were rounded up by the U.S. Army in 1840 (two years after the similar roundup in Indiana) and marched west. But he escaped along the route, near present-day Joliet, and came back to Michigan.
I had already known about the gravestone project, but learned of the day of dedication from the local newspaper. I learned that anyone was welcome to come, so naturally I wanted to go.
I was running late that morning, though. I was driving the back roads a lot faster than I should have, in an attempt to get there by the stated time. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. These are Indians. This thing is NOT going to start on time.” So I slowed down and drove more carefully. When I got there, sure enough, I had plenty of time to relax, look around, and talk to people before anything showed any sign of getting started.
I said hello to one of the elders whom I had met many months earlier. She asked if I had ridden my bicycle. I admitted that I had not. (I have ridden my bike there before and since this event, though.)
When the ceremonies did get started, there were jokes about it running on Indian time.
During one part of the ceremony, even though it was mid-day, there was a songbird singing in the trees overhead. I can’t identify very many birds by song and don’t know what this one was, but it struck me almost as a song of blessing on the proceedings. Not that anybody else seemed to notice it, and not that I am aware that songbirds are bearers of blessings in Potawatomi tradition. In the history I’ve read it’s almost the opposite — somebody saying he had been listening to “bad birds” as an explanation for why he had been resisting the Americans. And besides, what birds are usually doing is defending their territories or attracting mates.
I was sitting on the opposite hillside in the top photo above, and as an outsider stayed toward the back. A woman sitting close the drum circle had noticed the singing, too, even though everyone else was oblivious. We smiled as our eyes caught each other looking for the source of it, but nobody else seemed to hear it. Then it was back to business.
Another place where I used to poke my nose into Anishinabe culture is in an Ojibwe language mailing list on Yahoo. I enjoyed hanging out there, but I finally decided there were too many of us chimokomanag (long knives, non-Anishinabe) trying to horn in on Anishinabe culture. Some of the people there are trying to do a little culture renewal though the language, and it doesn’t help when they’re almost outnumbered by outsiders. And some are openly hostile to outsiders learning the language. I wish they weren’t, but I can almost see their point. So I decided to back out so as not to contribute to the problem. Besides, I’m also trying to learn other languages — Russian, Spanish, German, French — and there are others to dabble in, too. So I decided to not push the issue of learning more Ojibwe. Maybe a better opportunity will arise someday, and maybe not.
Another area where I hold back: An Odawa man once told me a story about Noonday that’s told among his descendants. I was honored to be told it, and I was astonished to hear it. I don’t think the man realized the historical significance of what he was telling me. But I’m not sure that that story was given to me to be told elsewhere. Some Native people are touchy these days about outsiders taking their stories and using them for their own benefit. I would gladly re-tell that one for my own benefit, but until/unless I’m assured someday that it would be appropriate, I’ll just keep it to myself.
I’ve had people tell me, e.g. after my talks, that I should do more of these because they enjoy hearing about Indians. Well, I enjoy that, too, and I like hearing compliments. But it’s not just about Indians. I have a lot more to say about people who are not Indians than those who are. It’s about us. And it’s not just about the past. It’s about decisions we all still need to make about how to treat each other.
As the Amish writer said, “If you admire our community spirit, build your own.”