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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Non-White White (p. 158)

From chapter "Heroes"

I went with Jeannette Armstrong to New Zealand. She is working on a book about what community feels like to indigenous people. She wants to understand how some indigenous communities have survived the dominant culture’s onslaught while others have not. The Maori culture has. She asked me along because of my facility for asking questions, and because I do not understand community in my bones, and never will. As water may be transparent to fish, and as air is normally transparent to us, community is transparent to her. Similarly, although her culture has been devastated by civilization, my immersion in this culture gives me understanding and perspective forever denied her. I might think of questions she would not.

While there, we were to stay in mareas, or Maori common houses, and speak with Maori activists and artists. I was anxious about the sleeping arrangements, because the Maori, as is true for most indigenous peoples the world over, often sleep in huge rooms on pads strewn about the floor. I am a painfully light sleeper. With this in mind, I warily gauged each person’s potential for thunderous snoring. I need not have worried: with the exception of the first night, when I covered my head with two pillows, a duffel bag, and a backpack, and still heard the rhythmic rumbling of the fellow next to me through my earplugs, I slept comfortably, well, deeply, and securely. The act of sleeping communally engenders communal intimacy.

The first evening, we went to dinner at Tapu Te Ranga, a maraebuilt by the Maori writer Bruce Stewart. Probably sixty people were preparing or eating stews of seafood and greens, the latter picked from a nearby ditch. I was one of the few non-indigenous people there.

As we stood in line, Jeannette introduced me to another Maori writer, Witi Ihimaera. He looked at me closely, then, said, “You’re not indigenous. Are you white?”

“It’s the culture of my birth.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I see it for what it is.”

He looked to Jeannette and I followed his gaze. Her face was hard to read. He looked back to me and asked, “What are you, then? Do you want to be indigenous?”

I laughed. “No, and I couldn’t be if I wanted. I suppose I’m a nonwhite white.”

He nodded, then said, more a comment than a question, “And you’re a writer.”

I nodded in return, then, reached to fill my bowl with stew.

He continued, “Then I have a question for you. If someone were to help you see and experience something powerful and inexplicable, something considered impossible by most Westerners, would you write about it?”

“That depends on whether the people who helped me gave their permission.”

He smiled, somewhat formally, then, asked, “What if they weren’t authorized to do so? What if they gave the experience to you as a gift, yet their tradition as a whole was not open to outsiders?”

I thought for a long time. Finally I answered, “There is so much in this world that belongs to all of us, so much I can experience and learn for myself, that I can’t see why I should write about something another considers secret.”

He smiled again, even more formally, and before turning away said, “Ah, so you area non-white white.”

I didn’t know what to make of this conversation. On one hand I admired his directness, but it also seemed that he’d been trying to put me into a box, and had, disquietingly for him, been unable to do so. Watching him later I realized that he had precisely three boxes in which to place people: good indigenous, wounded indigenous, and white. There seemed room neither for bad indigenous people nor for whites who can’t be lumped as either “Indian wannabes” or as those who mine indigenous traditions the way multinationals mine their land.

I need to be clear about this. Although there is much I admire about many indigenous cultures, and much I despise about my own tradition, it would serve neither me nor the world for me to turn my back on the dominant culture and attempt to be something that I’m not. I’m white, of Danish, French, Scottish descent. I’m civilized. I’m not and will never be from an indigenous culture. That doesn’t mean I cannot establish a relationship with the land where I live, based not on indigenous beliefs and practices but instead on my own primary experience. Nor does it mean I cannot help bring to a final halt the pervasive destructiveness of our culture. On the contrary, it seems traditional indigenous people generally have their hands full maintaining their cultures under the social, ecological, economic, religious, and military stresses placed on them by our culture, which means it falls primarily to those of us born in the dominant culture, those of us who know it most intimately, to eat away at it from inside, to break it down, and ultimately to destroy it before it takes down with it the rest of the planet in its final act of other and self-consumption. Our culture has created this mess, and it seems only appropriate that in attempting to rectify it we begin by looking inside.