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Attitudes, disability, and violence

November 12, 2009

I’m rereading Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, who is Educational Director of Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC. This is a great book, and I am interested in picking up some of her others.

Maybe more so on rereading, I’m also running across more lessons I’d do well to relearn. Besides general entertainment, most traditional stories have been used–still are–to teach, accessible on multiple levels as a person’s understanding develops. (Which is rather different from what usually happens when folklorists get hold of them and try to come up with “definitive” written versions, without understanding that there are layers of metaphor. Not to mention at least one version per storyteller.) I have enjoyed reading different versions of some of the “animal” stories I heard as a kid, but have also been interested in some of the more contemporary stories and autobiographical anecdotes.

The passage which caught my eye today falls into the contemporary and autobiographical categories. Davey Arch (b. 1957) shares some of his experiences growing up, in “Grandpa and Grandma”. I’m getting rid of the original free verse formatting, which does highlight storytelling rhythms, but is distracting to the point that Nigel just couldn’t read the stories.

And something else that I heard, probably on an everyday basis, was that you can do anything you want to, you know, as long as you don’t offend anyone, and as long as that’s what you want to do. No matter what it is or how hard it is, you know, there’s a way to do it if you really want to do it. And that’s something I’ve always thought, too, that I’ve always been able to do anything, and have done, just about anything I’ve always wanted to. And there’s something else–I didn’t hear “No” as much as I heard “You could do it this way instead of that way.” They tried to give you an alternative instead of a denial. This was something that, I think, got the work done without a lot of fuss, in the parents’ view, and it also taught a lesson. That’s how I grew up.

That’s mostly the kind of thing I heard, too, before I hit school in Radford, and neurodiversity suddenly became an issue. It’s also something I need to relearn, and use to replace some of the harmful crap that later got internalized.

It fits well with some practical things I’ve been reading lately, such as How to be Productive and Still be Kind to Yourself and How to Learn Without Memorizing. If a more-reasonable-than-usual teacher hadn’t recognized that rote memorization just wasn’t working with my brain, so sent me for a couple of special ed sessions, I still wouldn’t be able to do basic multiplication*. As Adelaide summed it up in a comment a while back, ‘“Try differently, not harder” has become my motto.’

This is a very different approach, with pretty wide implications. Even if you don’t understand why someone is doing a certain thing, much less why they’re doing it that way, they have a right to do it as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. And there is not One True Way to go about doing something, but only what works for the person doing it and gets the job done. This way of looking at things implies that everybody is different, and needs their own accommodations. A community, down to the family level, is necessarily made up of individuals with different needs and abilities. (My post on gadugi touched on some related themes.)

A lot of it has to do with the longtime Native emphasis on pragmatism and consensus-based anarchism. (See Jack Weatherford’s Indian Givers for a good overview of this.) Nobody was considered to have the right to tell another person how to do things if it wasn’t hurting anybody–nor did anyone have the right to speak for another person, using disability as an excuse. That’s a morally saner system.

Sequoyah is a good historical example of this attitude in action. His nickname comes from Sekwi-ya, or “pig’s foot”, for a physical impairment.** He may have been born with a deformity, and then gotten further injured while hunting. Sorting through all the conflicting stories, it didn’t get in his way much. He was an artist and silversmith, and he either developed or–more likely in the political situation, IMO–simplified and popularized the syllabary still used to write Tsalagi (heavily modified once it hit the printer’s). He apparently fought in the War of 1812, gimpy leg and all. According to descendents, in 1816 he was branded, and got his ears and fingers chopped off by assimilationists who’d seen potential power and grabbed it. He was part of the anti-assimilationist Black Drink Resistance movement, along with Osceola, Tecumseh, and Tenskwatawa (PDF). He was a medicine worker, and led a–not always popular, to put it mildly–political faction which saw the writing on the wall and moved west of the Mississippi well before forced Removal. He died in Mexico, after tracking down another group of Tsalagi to reunite with them. (There are still a bunch in Mexico, including some of his descendants.) Overall, the man does not seem to have been very disabled.

Even if the specifics are not so striking these days, I know a good number of people in real life who are not noticeably disabled, in spite of having bodies and/or minds which work differently. Most of them are older, except for one guy with spina bifida I knew in college, whose home and educational experiences also seemed to be in serious conflict. My aunt didn’t talk until after she started school, and it wasn’t treated as a huge problem–just as well, since she’d have probably been institutionalized, instead of leading a life more “productive” than mine is ATM. My Left Foot probably struck me differently than it did a lot people; I was used to the “so my brother needs a trolley to get around, so what?!” approach.

Now I need to finish evicting the ghost voices of people who would make a huge deal out of that fact from my head. This is another case where, metaphorically speaking, it may as well be the continuing effects of dark magic placed on me.

I’ll close with another quote from the same story told by Davey Arch, which reminds me of some other posts I’ve written:

Most everybody that I knew growing up was happy. You didn’t hear about mental illness and depression. And everybody drank, you know, and stuff, but you didn’t hear about alcoholism being a destructive element in families…There wasn’t any fighting and shooting and all this stuff that’s associated with drinking that happens in the community today. And the attitude was completely different. The people that drink and carry on now don’t have any respect for anything, not even themselves, you know…”well Tom,” he said, “now that you’re gettin’ this lease money off of this land down here, I guess you’ll stay drunk all the time, won’t you?” Uncle Tom said, “Hell, I stay drunk all the time anyway.” He said, “Now I’ll just drink better liquor.” But there was always that kind of camaraderie, and joking and carrying on. Nobody had their feelings hurt. Once in a while there was, I’ve heard about violence in the community, but it wasn’t usually associated with drinking, and things like that, not like it is today…[continues with observations about the traditional social setup, and clan system, having broken down]

This was not the 1650s; Davey Arch is almost ten years younger than my parents. I have heard about what would now be considered mental illness in my own family, but it was handled completely differently, definitely not as Broke Brain Syndrome. One great-grandfather kept having to take retreats to his family’s farm, to spend a lot of time sitting by himself (meditating) up on a mountainside or taking care of the animals when things got too much for him in town; one great-great-uncle who liked looking after kids filled that extended-family role when his voices wouldn’t let him do paid work. He watched my mom and her cousins a lot, and sometimes had conversations with people in France without the aid of a phone. (So much for stigma, and fear of exposing kids to “inherently dangerous” “crazy” people!) On the whole, there used to be a lot more recognition that some people are just the way they are, and there’s not much to do besides to work from there.

A couple of relatives were prone to sometimes-violent meltdowns, and (with varying success) people around them mostly tried to change the situation to prevent the meltdowns until the person learned to control it better. One of my mom’s aunts would sometimes go off and try to spear other adults with a fork at the supper table. Some people did drink in an attempt to self medicate, but that was not deemed an excuse for becoming violent. There was no acceptable excuse for hurting other people, especially their own family members. That does, unfortunately, seem to be changing, especially when women and/or children get hurt. I can’t help but think that the current disempowering approach to “mental illness” and drug/alcohol abuse have a lot to do with this shift in attitudes. (On that link, scroll down about halfway to the “Beliefs” and “Labels” sections.)

I also ran across an excellent article at Beyond Meds, yesterday, Dharma not pharma. Leah Harris might have been describing some of my experiences. It’s well worth a read.


* It didn’t take long for the special ed person to figure out that looking at it in terms of patterns was what worked for me. Looking at a table full of numbers (with my dyscalculia, particularly) just made things start swimming in front of my eyes. And, in that environment, I faced ridicule for needing to go to the “dummy shed”.

** Unflattering nicknames were/are not uncommon. My mom’s family has a “Pig”, a “Squinchy”, and a “Chubby”; my biodad’s ancestors include such characters as “Whisky Bill”, “Crippled Billy”, and “Twelve-Toed John” to distinguish them from their contemporaries with the same English names. I got off easy with “Goose”. The intent is not to insult, though it can sound that way! There’s just not the shaming power behind it.

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