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50% Right

I'm a perfectionist, so the idea of being only 50% right is hard; but I can also think of times when I was 100% wrong.

The falls of the Big Sioux River, in my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (December, 2012).

In this anxiety-inducing time, someone recently told me of her meditation exercise to pursue equanimity, breathe mindfully, and take up a practice of assuming that each person may be about 50% right. This 50% idea may come from Thich Naht Hanh’s community, the Buddhist teacher whom I greatly admire, but we can’t find the reference at the moment. Rather than take forever looking it up, let’s take the lesson, especially in our daily current political and social reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and really trying to practice it. When I hear someone say something that I just can’t get on board with, I try to stop, breathe, and wonder where the truth is in their statement. I can often find some! I have found that pointing out to the other person the thing that I agree with, we can keep talking and find other things to agree about. Or we can disagree in a more thoughtful and “listening” way.

I’ve really been (over)thinking about this. For example, I’ve wondered if each person is around 50% right on any given topic, or more like 50% right over the course of a lifetime. Like, should I be looking for a full 50% of rightness when I talk with people I disagree with? Or just a kernel of truth? Or, could the person be entirely wrong about that one thing, and entirely right about something else, and thus even things out? Or maybe that’s wrong-headed, and the idea overall is that we all have “rightness” and “wrongness” in us, all the time, that the world is complex, and the lesson is that we should treat each other as human beings rather than as “friends or enemies.”

Even if I’m overthinking the 50% part, I’ve encountered a number of areas lately where it has helped me to step back and consider what about another person’s comments or opinions might be correct, even when the overall statement seems to be pretty opposite my own. I invite you to try it! Rather than go into those examples here, I want to move on to another revelation that this contemplation has provoked in me:

When I consider that everyone may be 50% right, that means that I may be 50% wrong. And if people are more like 50% right over the course of a lifetime, that means I could be pretty close to about 0% right about any given idea. Of course, being totally wrong about something is one of my greatest fears. I’m a perfectionist, after all, and being even 10% wrong can feel like it’s not an option. This is something that I need to work on, and I am.

But I can think of an example of where I was pretty much 100% wrong, and it’s become part of my life’s mission to be a little more “right” about it, by which I mean, I’m trying to learn the more about history.

OK, here’s the story: when I was an undergraduate student studying abroad in Guatemala, one assignment that we carried out was to interview people in the central square of the town of Quetzaltenango (Xela, for short), where we spent a month studying Spanish at a language school. Guatemala in general, and Xela in particular, has a visible indigenous population, with people that wear their traditional dress and speak their own languages, in addition to Spanish. The assignment was to talk with people about the presence of the police officers on the square, and how that made them feel. We found that the indigenous people felt fear of the mixed-race (Ladino) police officers, but the Ladino residents in the square felt safer due to the police presence. It was striking how clear-cut the answers were, based on ethnic identity.

The central square in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I interviewed both indigenous and Ladino people back in 2004.

Now, here’s where I was dead wrong. Either in my reflection about this assignment, or in a comment to a classmate, I said: “I am so glad that I’m from South Dakota where we don’t have this kind of racism.”

I mean, what?

Perhaps it took me saying that out loud for it to sink in. I am ashamed to say that it didn’t sink in that day, or that month, or even probably that semester. It’s still sinking in, almost 14 years later. By “it,” I mean the knowledge that my home state has a history and a present of extermination, isolation, repression, and marginalization of the American Indian population there. It’s something that we white South Dakotans don’t talk about much, and don’t learn about in school, not to the extent that would cause us to question our own role in past and current mistreatment of American Indian people.

I recently listened to an interview with a fellow Upper-Midwesterner, John Biewen, who is grappling with the history of his hometown of Mankato, Minnesota, which is only about 150 miles from my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Biewen has as great podcast series called Scene on Radio with another amazing scholar, Chenjerai Kumanyika, in which they interrogate topics like race, the history of democracy in America, and in this case, whiteness in America. Biewen produced an hour-long documentary podcast (with This American Life) about the history of his hometown, and called it “Little War on the Prairie.”

It’s about the US-Dakota War in 1862, which stemmed from conflicts that can be traced to the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, in which the Sissteon and Whapeton bands of the Upper Dakota ceded a large part of their land in Minnesota territory to the US government. In the treaty, they were promised cash and annuities (payment for the land per acre), and “allowed” to live in two small reservations along the Minnesota River. The Dakota were dissatisfied with this arrangement for several reasons that you can read about in the link above, and as time went on more and more European American settlers started encroaching on what little land they had left. There were also storehouses available on the reservations where the newly land-poor Dakota could buy food and other goods, but they didn’t receive the government cash promised to them, and quickly went into debt, and then, into hunger.

In fact, here’s what our US founding hero Thomas Jefferson had to say about this kind of thing: "To promote the disposition to exchange lands, we shall push our trading houses and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt. Because we observe that when these debts get beyond what individuals can pay, they're willing to lop them off by the cession of lands."

But check out these maps. Here is the land the Dakota ceded to the US government in 1851:

See how the land includes a strip of eastern South Dakota? The border of the western edge of the cessation land is the Big Sioux River, the river that runs through my hometown and gives it its name: Sioux Falls (for the falls of the Big Sioux River). It turns out that that river almost formed the state boundary between South Dakota and Minnesota, but then for reasons not entirely clear, the border became the straight line it is today. But here’s the connection with me: the house I grew up in is one whole mile from this river, as the crow flies, and as far as I can tell lies inside the land that would have been Minnesota, the land that was ceded by the Dakota in the treaty of 1851. And the town where my dad grew up, Britton, South Dakota, is 17.8 miles from the current Lake Traverse Reservation (the red triangle) of the Sisseton and Whapeton bands that were ultimately run out of Minnesota after the 1862 war. Many of those Dakota were also sent to the Crow Creek reservation, just north of Chamberlain, South Dakota, where my grandpa liked to go fishing on the Missouri River and where we always make a stop on our way out west on summer vacations.

I’ll save the story of “out west” for another post, but for now I’ll just say my comment from Guatemala about no racism in South Dakota is extra silly “out west.” For now, I’ll just stick with my own hometown area, which is located inside the land that was related to the biggest event of our region (overshadowed, however, by the Civil War), and which led to the largest public execution in US history (of 38 Dakota warriors) carried out at the order of President Lincoln.

So this is some history, but even today the racism is ever-present. When American Indians ask for recognition that their land was stolen from them, they are labeled as terrorists (as I heard from a white tourist while in Custer, South Dakota, over the 4th of July this year). At best they are labeled as crazy when they remind people that the buffalo were also stolen (as I heard from another Sioux Falls resident who witnessed an American Indian man point this out while riding his bike by a local park recently). And when they take steps to protect themselves from the coronavirus (from which they die at a rate 3.5 times higher than other racial groups), they are threatened with lawsuits from the state of South Dakota.

And, as recently as last week, I wrote a blog post in which I said one problem with hamburgers is that we destroy tropical forests when we import beef from countries like Nicaragua or Brazil (which is true). But the news article that prompted my post was not about the forest, but rather about land being violently taken from indigenous people. As a white South Dakotan, I do a lot of mental gymnastics to not have to address land that is taken away from native people, probably mostly because I personally benefit from that violent theft, pretty much every time it happens (I get my hometown, my favorite vacation spot, and my hamburgers).

John Biewen talks about this in the interview he does with Krista Tippet on On Being. He points out that we white Upper Midwesterners (white Plains States people), do a pretty good job of labeling racism when we see it happen elsewhere, but a pretty terrible job of recognizing it in our own backyards:

“I grew up in a family where race was talked about… we saw the Sidney Poitier movies when they came on, or To Kill a Mockingbird or A Raisin in the Sun... So we had this consciousness, and absolutely, racism was off-limits in our house. But at the same time, the world where those things were happening, where those terrible injustices were happening, was someplace else. And not only were we innocent, but kind of our whole region was innocent… [I]t wasn’t really about me.”

Biewen’s various conversations about his hometown of Mankato, MN, are really helpful to me as I think about the ways that I’m at least 50% wrong about things. There are other resources that I can share that help me think about the ways that my potential political opponents may be 50% right about things, but we can do that in another post.

A photo from the Land of Memories Park in Mankato, MN. This land, as well as Sibley Park (named after the general who betrayed his Dakota friends with the land treaties and the war in 1862), was the site of the detention of 800 captured Dakota at the end of that war.

For now, this Thanksgiving week, as we tell ourselves a story about the first Thanksgiving in which Indians and white European-American settlers came together to celebrate their joint survival, I’d ask you to reflect on what percentage of that story might be true, and what percentage might be false. Because all of us, and all of our stories, contain both truth and falsehood, and we and our stories are much more complex that a lot of what gets written down in history books or broadcast on the news. For some quick but informative reading on a more true and complete history of Thanksgiving, I recommend this interview from the Smithsonian with the author of This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.

I hope that this week you can practice some mindful thanksgiving, but not for the injustices that led to your comfort and privilege. And hopefully we can all also practice some mindful reflection about the ways that we and others might be both right and wrong, particularly as our country waits in tension for political transitions and for the future to come into a little bit of focus.

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