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White: Making sense of community

I watched a few movies during my recent vacation. I lean towards sports dramas like “Gridiron Gang,” “Remember the Titans” and “Hoosiers.” These films really stress team values and striving for excellence. There is great dramatic tension and pause, all leading up to the choices the protagonist must make. Then there is the tough disciplinarian who pushes players to excel beyond their limits. In the end, the team never loses, the kid makes the right choice and the disciplinarian was again proven wise. After all, it is a movie.

There is also a resounding secondary message, too: Which path to follow? It’s a subtle undercurrent that is often missed. These films that we so love to watch build community where there was none before. Much of the drama involves getting the character to buy in to the sense of team or community, to work for something larger than them.

As a teacher and an Educational Opportunity Program counselor for the last six years, I have worked with many at-risk university students. This isn’t some movie, and not all of my students have made it. Some fail out slowly, some fail out quickly and a moderate number succeed. A great many do it on sheer tenacity.

As a way to help our students succeed, the EOP staff contemplated how to develop community among our student populations. Many are used to charting their own course individually, without much help from anyone. Some who have dropped out tell me that moving away from their families was too hard to bear, and that they returned to their communities, where things made more sense.

Retention rates for indigenous students reflect a tough challenge, to say the least. Some reports suggest that Native students stay past their freshman year approximately 54 percent of the time. This is well below the national average. There are a number of articles out there dealing with the reasons for this disparity. I suggest that part of the problem is a lack of community and community building for students uprooted from their home lives.

I grew up in an urban environment, with a strong, connected family. I’m the first to admit that I never grew up on the reservation, but only visited often. Many of the students I worked with who returned home frequently on weekends were from a Native community. Those of us who came from urban environments stayed around campus and in the city because that’s where we felt most comfortable. During the school week we were our own little community, one that vacated on weekends and holidays. I didn’t understand it when I was a student, and I sometimes ponder it now: that draw towards home, to where things make sense. The answer always seems to lie in community.

My sister recently moved home to our reservation. Like me, she grew up in the city. Over the years she has become fiercely independent and managed to make a good home for her family. One of the first things she expressed to me upon returning to our rez was that it felt like home.

She told me she was overwhelmed by all the help she received during the first couple of days in her new place. People would show up, ask what she needed and return with it a couple hours later. Her first week back, a few close friends brought her to a barbecue. Being home, feeling the effects of the move, she was inundated with emotions. What amazed her even more was how people kept her daughters entertained while she “pulled herself together,” as she put it.

She said it felt strange to have others help her out, that she has grown accustomed to doing it all by herself. Then she asked me, “Why did they do that? They don’t know me.”

Her question made me think a lot about this. The answer was that she had come home; for them, all that mattered was that she was Mohawk and she was home.

Another trend I’ve witnessed lately ties into this notion of doing something for recognition or acknowledgment. Why? If we do things for our own benefit, are we building community or seeking recognition for our efforts? This was not the case in the help my sister received. In order to be part of a community, one has to be involved in it.

Many of our traditional cultures and teachings that evolved into our worldviews and ceremonies are all centered on reflection of things bigger than ourselves, thinking of others; in effect, the buy-in from the movies I mentioned. The answers we seek are likely to come from inside our communities.

Our communities need to address some of these issues in terms of family responsibility and working from the inside out. We also need to address them at a community level, too, for the benefit of our own communities, indigenous or otherwise.

In my Army days, they stressed that we as a unit were only as strong as our weakest link. By this logic, if our families are struggling then it stands to reason that our communities will struggle, too. Our communities need to understand the same thing.

If our family units are in trouble, then what should we do to aid them so they can first return to a good mind, and then participate in our community again? Do we, as a community, bear responsibility for someone’s situation? Are there things we can do to ease someone’s burden just because they’re of the same nation or Native or human and they’re in need? Will that build stronger communities?

I think it will.

Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an instructor at SUNY Oswego in the Native American and American Studies programs and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He has been involved with the Pinewoods Community Farming Inc. Iroquois White Corn Project since 1999 with John C. Mohawk. He can be reached at