Carpe Diem! — Participating in the Culture of the Other
About five years ago, Steve Young, a reporter who in 2011 received Harvard’s Nieman Foundation Taylor Family award for a series the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, SD, called “Growing up Indian,” described to me a moment that influenced tremendously his development as a journalist. Why? Steve empathized with an individual whose culture he was only beginning to understand and took a giant leap in the evolution of his personal humanity. Here’s an excerpt from what Steve said: I did this series on Indian education, and it was well received, and I think Dick Thien [then publisher of the Argus Leader] told me after that series ran in 83 or 84 that he wanted me to go out and do another one. And at the time there were a number of things that he was interested in and that I was interested in. The Bill Bradley Bill was going on. He said, “Why don’t you go out and interview people at all the reservations and see how they feel about the Black Hills/do they want the money back? Do they want the land back? What do they want. Let’s do a big series on that. Again, because of some of the doors that Tim [Giago] had opened for me, I’d gotten to the point where I felt fairly comfortable out on the reservations with the people I’d met; so I did a big series on the Black Hills claims issue. You know, I remember Tim introduced me to a gentleman named Pete Swift Bird, and Pete was a heyoka, and it means clown, I think, in Lakota. And the heyoka was supposed to kind of be a buffer or an intermediary between the spirits and the people, you know. If there was a big thunder storm coming, lots of lightning, then he went out to try to make the thunder gods laugh so they would quit that—or the wind or the rain or things like that. Tim told me I should go down and interview this guy—and told me he was a heyoka—and so I contacted him and asked him if I could stop by, and he said yes. When I got there, Pete had a friend from Chicago, an African American man that was visiting him, and they were just getting ready to sweat. And he said, ‘You know before we do this interview, we’re getting ready to sweat, we’re going to say some prayers, we’d like you to pray with us.'” So we’re sitting in Tim Swift Bird’s basement or living room, and he turns to me, and he says, “Why don’t you start?” And you know, I’m a raised Methodist, I’m converted to Catholicism. I’ve been married about 4 years, 5 years, at this point, and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted me to [do]. He’s a Native American, he’s Lakota culture, he’s a very spiritual man. I’m a Catholic kid, who was at that time about 25-26 years old, and I sat there in silence for a long time.
He turned to his friend and said, “Well, why don’t you go ahead and pray?” And the guy from Chicago said some prayers, and Pete said some prayers, and they turned to me, and, you know, I kind of bowed my head and folded my hands, and I asked that God bless this conversation and open our hearts to hearing each other, and something along those lines. You know, Pete nodded his head and said, “You know, that’s good, that’s very good.” And then we talked about the Black Hills claims, and to be honest I don’t remember at this point in time whether he thought they should get the land back or they should take the money. The experience really kind of cemented in me this idea that when we go into all these different cultures, whether it’s the Hutterite culture or the Native American culture or the African American culture, whatever it is. On the reservations, in the tribal communities, we’re really walking into their land, and we shouldn’t expect them to adhere to our way of doing things. We should be willing to participate in their culture, and be observant and be respectful. And not just come in as the hard-core journalist—“I’m asking the questions, you answer type of thing.” And really respect the environment you’re in. That was probably one of the most impactful moments in my early journalism career—was praying in his living room.