A Reflection on a Discussion Circle About Race

“I remember the exact moment in my childhood when I realized I was Native,” reflected one of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal members who gathered in our convent living room for our Discussion Circle about a book titled, Waking up White. She drew nods from others in the circle.

“And I remember the moment when I realized I would always be an ‘outsider,’ ” shared a neighbor who grew up in Iran. She had escaped as a refugee, then lived in various U.S. cities large and small for much of her adult life, and eventually settled in the tiny town of Sisseton, S.D., population 2,300.

“I grew up in an area of South Dakota,” added a retired public school science teacher, “where we actually never even met a Native person. It was rural farming country. So, it wasn’t until I moved here that I began to see the ways that being white was different than being Native.”

After a simple shared supper, these women came together with a certain degree of courage. They’d come to talk about racism. In our reservation community, racism is a dominant undercurrent impacting education, faith communities, businesses, health care, social services, housing, and access to resources. It is also a reality that is rarely spoken about, especially across cultures. Sitting down to intentionally engage on the realities of racism and our own “place in the story of race” was clearly much more than a simple book discussion about Debby Irving’s Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

Each participant brought her reflections, personal stories and insights. With mutual respect, each woman shared even her frustrations and her pain at the ways racism had impacted her and those she loves. Sister Rita Vogelsang and I, who organized the gathering as part of National Catholic Sisters Week, sat as welcomed equals in the conversation. We too, had reflections, insights and experiences to share. In this circle of equals, each participant consciously acknowledged how easy it is to slide into “us vs. them” thinking. Using Irving’s book as a springboard, each woman considered the impact of “white privilege” and “white superiority” thinking on her life.

Living in a small, rural community located in the traditional homeland of the Dakota Oyate (the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe members’ name for themselves) means living in a space and in a time where racism is real and constant. Only two generations ago, speaking the traditional language in school was forbidden and punished. It wasn’t until 1978 that Native nations could once again freely live and practice traditional religious beliefs that had been the life-energy of the people for tens of thousands of years before colonization. It wasn’t until 1968 that members of more than 600 tribal nations across what is currently the United States were guaranteed civil rights equal to non-native citizens. Only in 1924 did the original people of the North American continent gain the right to vote.

“It’s shocking to realize that, in our state’s official history curriculum, the entire story of our People’s existence has been reduced to a brief narrative of pre-invasion, with the past 250 years of oppression and resilience completely omitted,” noted one of the Discussion Circle members. This racist approach to history is so common across our country that almost no one even notices it. By choice, a critical foundational story remains untold, leaving those with power unaware of the realities that continue to mold the present and influence the future.

The evening was rich. As it wound down, each participant in the Discussion Circle shared how reading this book and preparing for the discussion had impacted her in positive, though sometimes painful ways. When we initially planned the gathering, we were intentional in inviting men and women of different generations and backgrounds. We invited “movers and shakers” such as the Chief of Police and the newly elected Tribal Chairwoman. We invited Native and non-Native neighbors. We also considered carefully who might carry whatever they gained from the Circle back to others. By offering an opportunity for sharing across cultural boundaries, we hoped for a mutually meaningful conversation. As the last guest headed off across the snow covered prairie to their families’ place “up in the hills,” Sister Rita and I gratefully considered the gifts of the evening’s conversation. Then, we looked ahead.

In the process of inviting people to the first Discussion Circle, we’d discovered a surprisingly high interest in dialogue. Some invitees couldn’t make it for the first gathering, but urged us to please include them in a second. One shared his book with his wife, hoping she too, could come. Another heard of the Discussion Circle from one of her relatives, and reached out to us to find out how she could participate. Soon, a new list was in the making: more movers and shakers, a mayor, a pastor, a rancher, a business owner. Another opportunity for diverse voices to be heard.

Of course, healing wounds of racism requires far more than simply gathering to talk about a book. Yet, sitting face-to-face in an intentional, small circle to share personal and community stories, experiences and fears, and to listen with one’s mind as well as one’s heart, begins that process in a very real way.

Our first Discussion Circle was held on March 20. This year, March 20 was a full moon. For the Dakota people, who know the circle of the seasons according to a lunar calendar, this starts Maġaokada-wi, the moon when waters become navigable. This past winter was long and difficult for all who live in this region. The promise of spring, the break-up of thick ice on the rivers, sloughs, lakes and roads, the glimpse of a wambdi ‒ bald eagle ‒ flying back north, seem like miracles promising new life and new growth, even as the hard-packed snow drifts struggle to melt.

Our world needs the melting of the waters in so many, many ways. In May, a new group of eight or so will finish reading Waking up White. They’ll gather at our home for the second Discussion Circle. They’ll share. They’ll stretch their minds and hearts. They’ll grapple with some of the complex issues that characterize our community, our country and our world. It will be Woźupi-wi, the planting moon. They’ll have a chance to help plant seeds for a new way of being and understanding, accepting and relating. That, too, is something for which our aching world yearns.

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