Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day Fifty-Seven: The Relativity of Manners

This morning as I walked to school I was taking pictures of signs. Thinking about how signs have to be read and when a person doesn't know the language or culture of a community, the signs are hard, even impossible, to read. Kind of like how my dad and brother are hunters, and know the language of animal tracks, and I don't.

The last of the five year I lived in Treaty 8 on the Louis Chicken Dene Reserve, Black Lake First Nation, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I left the community with a five hundred page something that I call Blue Eyes on Black Lake: Leaving with No Word for Goodbye. Here are my thoughts from November 2nd, 1999.

The Relativity of Manners  
November 2nd
            I never realized the value my white, middle class heritage places on self-effacing manners until I moved to Black Lake to live as a teacher on the reserve. We say please when asking and thank you when receiving. We say goodbye when we leave a room. We say excuse me when we bump into each other. We say sorry for just about everything else in between. We certainly knock to enter a home, and we wait outside until someone opens the door.
I’ve lived in Black Lake for four and a half years and I still can’t get used to the Black Lake custom of walking into each other’s homes unannounced, although on the farm where I grew up, my mom and dad still never lock the door and people come and go as they like. I guess eight years in the big city of Regina taught me city-ways. Now, I like my front door locked and I like to hear a knock at the door so I can get ready, sometimes dressed, to answer the door.
The thing about manners is that they are relative. They are the niceties taught within a culture; however, they don’t always transfer across culture.
I remember my first years in Black Lake. My babysitters always left the house at the end of the day without saying goodbye. I might have wandered into another room, asking over my shoulder if the baby had had a nap. Returning, I often saw the door closing, or I’d look through the front window and catch a glimpse of my babysitter’s long black hair against her back as she walked the graveled road down the hill toward the lake. It always jarred me like a gust of wind on my lungs: harmless, but uncomfortable.
My girls often have little friends into our house to play, and when I give the word that it’s time to go home, they dress in their outer wear, and leave with no parting comments. I often call after them, as the door closes, “See you later.”
This is not to say that the people in this community are without manners. To the contrary, they have rules as thick as any culture. I just don’t understand them as well as my own. For example, I’ve heard that women are never to step across meat being processed on the floor. I’ve also heard that you should not prepare food when you are angry because you will pass the negative emotions into the food. I’ve never processed food from a whole animal, so I’m safe there, but I’ve certainly cooked in a less than cheerful mood, on many occasions.
George Blondin in “My Life in the Sahtu” which was a research study prepared for RCAP in 1993, states the “Yamoria Law of the Dene” as follows:
Law Number One
Share all big game you kill
Share fish if you catch more than you need.
Help Elders with wood and other heavy work.
Help sick people in need – such as bringing wood, hunting and fishing – or gather for support.
If the head of the family does, everybody is to help the widow and children with everything they need.
Love thy neighbour strongly.
Orphans are to go to the closest kin of the one who dies or, by agreement, to another close kin.
Leaders of the tribe should help travelers if they have hard times far from their homeland.
These eight branches are one law. Sharing is the umbrella to all branches.

Law Number Two
Do not run around when Elders are eating, sit still until they are finished

Law Number Three
Do not run around and laugh loudly when it gets dark; everybody should sleep when daylight is gone.

Law Number Four
Be polite, don’t anger anybody, love each other.

Law Number Five
Young girls are not to make fun of young males or even older men, especially strangers.

Law Number Six
Love your neighbour and do not harm anyone by your voice or actions.

Law Number Seven
All Elders are to tell stories about the past every day.

Law Number Eight
Be happy at all times because mother earth will take care of you.

In my experience, most of these laws are honoured by most of the people. I could make a list of the southern Saskatchewan Law of the White, Middle Class, and could say that most of the laws would be followed by most of the people, most of the time; or, at least preached by most of the people.
Sharing and helping is mentioned four times in the first “law”. I have seen this demonstrated over and over.
When any woman, even a teenager, baby-sits for me, she does the dishes. I have never asked anyone to do my dishes, but – by some unknown-to-me reason – this is always part of the babysitting. Likewise, when I am walking up to the big school from my little storefront school, and I am carrying more than one bag, any one of my students often helps me with my load. The student never announces the help; nor waits for an invitation, nor expects thanks when we get to the big school.
The motivation for this help seems to be left to the person helping. In my culture we ask for help, and expect thanks when we respond to a request for help. In my observations of Dene culture, a person helps when he or she thinks help is needed. I’m not saying either system is superior, yet I acknowledge that it is hard to have been raised one way and then expected to understand the other.
Another thing I have been surprised by is the way the Dene children share. A little girl – who does not have much – gave my oldest daughter an expensive toy, just because my girl was having fun playing with it. Many times she has come home with other children’s toys or clothes. In the pre-school Dene-immersion kindergarten class, she excels at most of the motor and language skills, but she does not excel in “sharing” as her peers do. I thought this was an interesting commentary on our cultures. Not that I don’t believe in sharing, but it is not my greatest characteristic. Maybe it’s one of those things that I preach, but don’t practice in every-day ways.
When my students want help they say, “Mrs. Koops, Come.” In my ears it sounds like a command. As an English teacher, I would classify it as an imperative sentence. I often say, “Say, please.” Finally, I realized that my need to hear please is just that… my need. My students’ use of the imperative structure is not a sign of rudeness; rather, this is acceptable for a child to directly ask an adult to come. One of my friends, who has married into the community, pointed out how our need to hear please must sound strange to Dene listeners. What kind of parent would make their child say please when the need is so obvious? If the child needs water, why would the parent deny the child until the magic word is spoken? Even stranger, must the child say thank you for the parent meeting his or her need?
Now that I am conscious of the relativity of manners, I am embarrassed for all the times I have assumed that my students are rude. I can’t help but wonder how many times my students, or their parents, have thought I was rude too, when I was (in my opinion) only ignorant of their ways.
The only problem with cross-culture manner misunderstanding in the classroom is that the teacher has most of the power and therefore dictates what is rude and what isn’t. Teachers from the outside do not stay long enough in Black Lake to either understand that manners are relative, or that learning new manners takes a long time.
I am not against Dene students learning the manners of the dominant southern culture because if they are planning post secondary education or travel, they will need to have the basic rules of the outside world. Neither have I stopped teaching my own children the rules I was raised with. What I am against is the assumption that one culture’s manners or rules are superior or universal.
Sometimes I’ve been labeled liberal minded because I entertain notions of relativity, but I am not above intolerance. I am especially grossed out by students spitting in my classroom garbage can, which many of the students feel comfortable doing. I wonder what habits I have that they consider gross. Still, the other day I heard a janitor who is from the community complaining that students have been spitting snuff in the garbage. Maybe there are some things that are universal.

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