The smoky sweet wind curled through the air and reminded me, I’m not in New York any more. The vast open space of the desert invited my psyche to unfurl, as mountains in the distance made a comforting cradle out of what would otherwise be an endless stretch of open land.
The calm sense of expansion was reflected in the kind openness of our hosts, the students and faculty at the Indian American Institute of the Arts. I felt a bit uneasy and intrusive to be one of the only “white” girls around, but all my anxieties were swiftly put to rest, as I was welcomed warmly, without ceremony.
Near bedtime I got to talking with my host, Deleana. She’s a prolific, published writer, beader and the head of student activities. When it became clear that my knowledge of Indian American history was sketchy, she was compelled to recount shocking stories of boarding schools, conditions on reservations and the beauty of arts and crafts in her native culture. She pulled out beaded moccasins that she made herself, and invited me to a Pow Wow, where she’d be selling some of her beadwork. “This is what we do” she explained, “this is how we live.” There was a deep sadness in her when she spoke of violence, and a bright sparkle when she turned to art. I felt inspired by her connection to her history and culture – it made me wonder about my own cultural heritage that is all but lost to me under a veil of American assimilation.
“And what about your family, your people?” She was curious. So I told her about my family’s history as Eastern European Jews, the Holocaust, and my absent father that I’ve never met. We discovered glaring misconceptions about one another’s history, and yet we shared a very basic understanding– as we both felt the far-reaching effects of oppression and fractured families.
Surprisingly, it was not the issues and events in our stories that were so different, but the way that we each told our piece. My family’s history and tradition was stagnant and separate from me- a box of facts that I’d pull out from time to time and then shut back up. I wasn’t raised with an awareness of tradition, and I’ve always taken for granted the belief that one can either get mired in history or push forward with an individual vision. But Deleana as well as others in our storytelling workshops had an alternative way of exposing both themselves and their collective past in a balance that did not obscure either one. The people in the workshops had the ability to remain connected to their culture without doubting their individuality; in fact their culture seemed to foster the integrity of individual creation.