It’s hard to know where to start. Should I tell you about kids and grandkids, triumphs and setbacks over the past year? Or muse about the state of the country and the world, the places I visited or lived in years ago—and are still close to my heart—that are now in turmoil or in ruins? Or should I tell you about the peace and hope that I find in my work with American Indians, how my old mentor Alvin Josephy, gone now for a dozen years, gets smarter every day as I learn from Tribal people? And learn not just about the past, but get glimpses of hope for tomorrow.
Yesterday there were visitors at the Library. Two families from McMinnville, Oregon and their two YES exchange students, one from Pakistan and the other from the West Bank in Palestine. YES, or “Youth Exchange and Study Programs,” brings students from predominantly Muslim countries to the US, and sends American students to those countries. YES involves full scholarships, is administered by the State Department, and was instigated by Senators Kennedy and Lugar, a Democrat and a Republican. It is difficult to imagine how the program survives.
But it does, and my 16 year-old Palestinian visitor—his English was flawless, and he had a good basic understanding of American history and official Indian policy—asked fine questions about the Nez Perce story and Josephy’s understanding of Indians in new world history. We talked about languages—about the 2500 distinct languages in the pre-Columbian Americas and the dialects of Arabic across the world. He was hungry to know what we can learn from the flow and development of languages—I told him how Josephy had gone to linguists to explore the early movements of peoples across the Americas, and to make estimates of their numbers. He promised to look for Charles Mann’s 1491 for a better grasp of the pre-Columbian Americas, the impacts of diseases and the interchanges between the new worlds and the old.
Not fifteen minutes into the conversation, my new friend remarked on the similarities between the plight of American Indians and that of Palestinians—peoples visited and lands settled by foreign colonists.
At this point one can become pessimistic. A YES exchange student from Palestine who lived in Wallowa County a couple of years ago had serious trouble getting back to his family home. Will these bright young people who spend a year exploring America and ideas of peace and friendship get lost in a decades-long fight for home and culture on their return? Or will they be part of new flowerings of peace-making in their home countries, and in the “work” they have done in their brief stays in ours?
We’ve just celebrated my favorite day of the year, the winter solstice, the day that brings more light. It’s also a reminder that our linear understanding of history is always punctuated by the cyclical—or rather that the cyclical is fundamental, and the events and actions done in the present punctuate the rhythms of light and darkness, days and years. Summers and winters come and go; listening to the people who know that the land needs fire, salmon need free-flowing water, that the earth we live on persists through plagues and tyrants, we might begin to live saner lives. As Alvin Josephy said so many times, we have much to learn from American Indians.
And whatever the reasons for the perennial mid-winter calls for peace—shalom—that emerge in many languages and religions, and always in perilous times, let’s listen to them too. Let’s listen to and hope with YES and the students who are bridging the divides in their worlds and ours.
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