It's Time to Welcome New Cultures With Open Arms

Sep 7, 2018

In the distance, I could see piles of twigs and decaying fabric, each one telling its own story of the Sun Dance Festival. “Don’t step over the branches. It is disrespectful to the spirit of the tree,” they told us. For many years the Blackfeet tribe has cut willow branches, dug holes, and wove their sacred hut. Left to the passage of time, I see the bones of once mighty encampments before us. 

I remember how I felt. I was standing in their field. I was listening to their history. I was part of their culture. The more they shared, the more I learned and respected. At that moment I was not a tourist, but a guest, one of the community. Now, I cannot claim any Blackfeet heritage of my own, but at that moment I reached a level of cultural understanding I could have never imagined I would ever receive.

Last summer, I spent a month on a Native American reservation in Montana. One of my first experiences came when I helped set up a tipi. Everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed to grab long spindly logs from a nearby cart while three older men barked out orders. Then the cloth covering was meticulously draped over the tipi’s frame by the men. The woman played their part by holding the fabric, preventing it from flying away in the brisk wind. Finally, wooden stakes, smooth to the touch due to their stripped bark, were hammered into the ground to stabilize the tipi. The amount of teamwork required to set up one simple structure was astonishing. 

Later that night we came back to the tipi to attend a ceremony in honor of the Native Americans who would dance in the upcoming Sun Dance festival. We ate a grand feast and the dancers ate their fill before beginning their ceremonial fast. There was chicken, fry bread, and of course, berry soup. As custom dictated, we picked a berry out of the soup and buried it. Experiencing these parts of their culture was fascinating. 

Culture sharing is extremely important, especially today where we are connected through social media and find diversity throughout our lives.

But what is culture? To explore this question, I went to Portland and asked random passersby what culture meant to them. One person defined culture as “a collection of the personality, the character, of a place and the people who occupy that place.” Another person responded that, “Culture  means the different ideals and morals of a certain civilization.” Someone else added on, replying, “It’s how we identify as a society.” Essentially, one woman replied, “Culture connects to people’s identities of who they are and where they come from and what their background means to them.”

All of these responses fell among a similar thread; however, I feel that one response truly summed them all up: “Culture is a reflection of life.”

Once I understood what culture meant to the people of Portland, the next step was to ask these strangers how they would go about sharing parts of their culture with someone else. An artist and a musician stated that they would share their culture through their craft because, “that’s how I personally express myself and get my individualism across.” A common reply was, “Through conversation, not very formal occasions.” Culture sharing is not some formal occasion that requires fancy dress and proper manners.

One can learn about other cultures at any moment if they only seize the opportunity. But, as one responder stated, “First you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say about them, and if you’re both willing then there’s the possibility of sharing about what you’ve experienced.”

We know what culture is and how to share it, but why should we care? The participants were asked one final question: Is culture sharing important and why? One person stated, “It’s important to share culture. It’s a way to disarm any animosity anyone might have towards any ethnicity or religious group. Sharing is a way to bring unity and peace.”

One woman in her early 20s replied, “I think it’s important because you can never know exactly what each person has been through. With the benefit of being able to see into their culture and where they come from and their language, you can get a better handle on it and understand the people more which is incredibly important.” Another finished with, “It’s definitely something that you don’t want to lose sight of because I think it’s something that defines people may be more than we recognize.” Every single person responded with a resounding “YES!”

While each response varied with word choice and length, every person touched on a common theme. People are scared of what they don’t understand. Through understanding each other’s cultures, we can better understand the individual, and if we learn to understand and respect each other, we can combat the things trying to tear us apart. If every person on this planet respected each other, we would not have racism, homophobia, and so many other evils plaguing this earth. As one woman stated, “You guys get to weave your understanding of each other’s cultures into each other’s hearts. . .and it’s through our hearts that we can truly know each other.”

While this may seem extremely optimistic and unlikely, there are simple things we can do to bring about a little more peace and respect in our communities.

We work, study, and live with people from so many walks of life. My grandmother is Peruvian, and so my mother cooks some Peruvian dishes. We like to make these dishes when friends and family come to visit. One of my best friends is part Puerto Rican, and I continuously learn little tidbits about her culture through our conversations.

We need to welcome these experiences with open arms. Just like it took the entire group to help raise the tipi, everyone needs to put in the effort to understand each other. We are not the closed planet we once were.

Millie Erickson is a student at Cape Elizabeth High School. She wrote this piece during a Raise Your Voice Workshop sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.