Recognizing Privileges: Growing up as a White Middle-Class American vs. Growing up on a Native American Reservation

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This May I traveled to Minnesota and spent a great deal of time grappling with the fact that I had not grown up in the same culture as the people I was staying with. Listening to the Ojibwe people and learning about their ways of knowing, I agreed and identified with many of their traditional lessons. At the same time I had never experienced the sufferings they went through and grew up in a completely different environment. I wanted to find a way that I could bring some of this knowledge back and inform others of their culture without being offensive.

A specific moment that I can recall from the trip is a scoff from one of the Ojibwe men we met when a girl mentioned her major as being sociology. Our professor later explained that the people in the community have a negative viewpoint of ethnographers because many have came there and written about their culture posing as “experts” without getting to know the people or their ways. This made me think about my position. I highly respected the Ojibwe people I was meeting and had realized all of the valuable knowledge they had to share. I did not want to come off as someone who valued my knowledge as being higher. Recognizing my privileges was vital in order to keep me in check so that I could better understand their story and how it could relate to my life miles and miles away.

To start out, I am a white middle-class American citizen with a European background. I come from a family of farmers who were able to buy the land of their choice with little trouble. Much of this land was probably once home to other indigenous cultures. Since the time of purchase, my family has had relatively no threats to their land other than when the local government took a couple acres through eminent domain for a high school property. Still, we were compensated. The Ojibwe on the other hand were forced from their land and now reside on a small portion of “reserved land” which is constantly under threat and they have received little to nothing for what was stolen from them.

Another privilege I have is healthcare and a steady income. Through my parents jobs I have always been covered by insurance and have gone to regular doctors visits in order to maintain my health. Being a middle-class American I also have had access to fresh produce and health clubs. The neighborhood I grew up in was drug and crime free so I always have had the pleasure to live my life with little worry. The Red Lake Nations of the Ojibwe have few job opportunities that include healthcare benefits. They also have little access to health education, are surviving in a food dessert, and have grown up around rampant crime.

Education is yet another privilege I have grown up with. Throughout my life I have been able to commit the majority of my time to my studies while my parents have worked to support our family. Through my education I have acquired knowledge that will help me to attain a job later in life, which will hopefully give me the same benefits that I have grown up with. It has helped to shape me culturally and has given my multiple once in a lifetime experiences like traveling for this trip. Many young Ojibwe people do not have the same advantages. With a graduation rate of 40 percent at the reservation high school, many youth are dropping out due to problems and responsibilities at home that I have never had to deal with.

Perhaps the biggest privilege I have in hand is my cultural history and personal freedoms. The Christian faith, which my family has practiced for generations, has always been accepted in the United States. My first language is English. It is spoken at my home and school. All of my past relatives and I have been able to live with our born freedom and rights. This is all very different than the past of the Ojibwe who have had their culture and language suppressed. Although many of their rights have been restored in the past couple decades, the grandparents still surviving today were not able to practice their religious ceremonies while growing up. They were also taken from their homes, separated from their culture, and placed into boarding schools where they were taught to forget everything. In these boarding schools they were also beaten for speaking their native language and were forced to only speak in English. As a result, many young people have lost or not had access to their cultural identity. All of my ancestors’ history has been documented. I have access to this knowledge and learn about it in school. My ancestors are written about as heroes while Native Americans are hardly mentioned and are often times drawn out as savages.

It was definitely a humbling experience visiting the Ojibwe people and listening to their stories. Although our lives are so different, recognizing my privileges and acknowledging them has helped me better put everything into perspective. Without doing this, I would have missed much about what I have learned.

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