My director did not respond to my request that we provide another small grant to the River People to complete the environmental education project.
“The center is spending enough already in your time, hotel, and travel,” he said irritably. “The requested amount is so little, why doesn’t the tribe fund it themselves?”
“I suggested the university do the printing and binding of the booklets for youth, but it was obvious that the museum director felt that would be a violation of trust.”
I tried to explain to him what I was learning—that decades of university people had come, taken, and published, and never asked the people’s permission. He did not accept that as legitimate.
“Every effort had been made to deal with these people fairly,” he said firmly. He turned in his chair to move another stack of thick folders in front of him, and I knew I was being dismissed. I could see that if I pressed any further, my assignment might end abruptly.
“I’ll explore other options. But, you should see what they have done with our $5,000. I think this next step is truly the piece that will set it up as a model for tribal environmental education.”
That made him look up. Anytime you say “model” in academia, it bespeaks of some modicum of power—a publication.
“Good,” he said. “See if the American Indian Studies program might have some money laying around.”
Months passed as I attended to my regular duties at the Center, met with various people at the university for potential sources of funding. I struck gold with a large foundation in Phoenix that liked the project and the fact that their funding leveraged ours.
Before calling Marion, I thought it prudent to chat with David Tejanna first. I’d not heard one peep from Marion despite a thank you letter I had sent her for dinner along with my pledge to help her find the additional funding for the booklets.
David listened. He’d had several conversations with Marion after I left. That surprised me. . . the fact that David had not called to let me know that. Then I realized that I was outside the life of the tribal community. It left me feeling alienated because I so liked David Tejanna and thought that we were friends.
“It’s tricky, this business of accepting money from outsiders; there’s usually a hidden clause, if you know what I mean.”
That got a rise out of me. I felt indignation, feeling that I’d done all I could to build trust in an environment where no trust was extended to me. I decided to take a deep breath rather than react.
“If you can get the foundation to write the check and you carry it here with you, I can broker a meeting with Marion,” David offered.
I conceded but not very enthusiastically. I felt hurt, which was my problem, not theirs. Later in the month I came to terms with my own emotions and realized this work required I have no expectations nor wish for gratitude from the People. After what had been done to them by my people, I realized their agreement to allow me to work with them was the real gift. This was a true expansion of my understanding that arose from direct experience, probably the only way an emissary to another distinct culture can truly understand. And, the fact that my culture was the oppressor, only increased the need for direct relationship without any expectation of trust or even the slightest courtesy. Yet, the latter had been extended to me on numerous occasions.
My superiors would never understand it, but I now understood that I could get mileage out of the “model of environmental education,” enabling me to continue to support the project—if Marion agreed.
David had been spot on: Marion was now in control, and I had been tested.