Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"I've Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers"

I received a phone call the other day from a charitable organization seeking donations. They wanted one hundred of my hard earned dollars to help mitigate the current "food crisis" on the reservations in Arizona.

I'm afraid I wasn't very nice, but, if I were to explain some of my experiences with telemarketeers (spelling on purpose), you might be more forgiving of my immediate, knee-jerk kussen mein Arsch reaction.

I listened for a bit. Their plan was that I would donate $100, and they would take my hundred dollars to the store and buy non-perishable foods, which they would distribute using volunteers. It is, supposedly, a program that encourages self-sufficiency, because the recipients of the donations 'work' to distribute them to others.

I was left wondering, where is the self-sufficiency part?

So, I asked, "Do they have arable land in Arizona?"

He said that they do.

Then, I asked, "Do you know how much a packet of seeds costs?"

I didn't hear his answer, because I didn't care to know if he knew how much a packet of seeds costs. I was kind of being facetious.

So, I asked him who he represented again, and then told him that I would not donate at this time, but that I would like to do some research on his organization, and invited him to call me again some other time.

And I did do some research.

I found that they don't score very high with the AIP, and there was a lot of negative press about the entire group (this was one of the larger group's subsidiary programs), but most of it was several years old, and it's likely that they've cleaned up their act.

I guess being only one generation removed from extreme poverty (heard the stories, but didn't live the life), I have a problem with organizations like this - in general. I understand that the US government and Anglo settlers were unkind (I know - understatement of the year!) to the native populations. I mean, imagine if somebody just came up the beach and told you to get out. I wouldn't be terribly happy, and I would, very likely, not just up and walk away, either. The natives have reason to be ired, and they deserve more than just the land that has been allotted to them. They certainly deserve more than a paltry $100 from someone like me.

I get that, and if there were anything I could really do to help ease their suffering, I would be more than happy to do so, but I don't think my hundred dollars worth of canned food is really going to make a difference in the bigger picture.

It's like the whole stocking up for TEOTWAWKI thing. Yes, we should have some food stored, BUT at some point, we'll have to find a way to produce our own. At some point, the supply lines are going to run dry, and there won't be the option of the grocery store. At most, people will have stored a years' worth of food.

And, then, what?

What's the plan for replenishing in the absence of an oil-soaked food chain? I mean, we need to eat every day for our entire lives, right? If the grocery store (or my $100 canned goods donation) is the only place we know of where we can get food, and there is no grocery store ... what?

What do we do?

Yes, in the short-term, if people are starving, we should give them food to eat, but that's not the long-term solution. There has to be the teaching-how-to-fish part of the equation, too.

I couldn't find anything about how this (or any other) organization was working with the native populations on the reservations to learn to feed themselves once my $100 ran out.

Rather than answer my questions, much of the information I found just begged more questions.

In one video I watched, they showed a man who was living in, essentially, a one-room building without electricity or running water. He walked several miles each day to a neighboring town where he did odd jobs, and earned about $20 per day. I assume he fed himself with this money.

What I took away from the video was not how horrible this fellow had it, but rather the tragedy that his ancestor's knowledge of self-sufficiency has been completely lost to the point that he feels like he needs "modern" accouterments to live a good life. That he feels his quality-of-life is substandard because he doesn't have money. That the most proud and self-sufficient people on the North American continent have been so changed that they can no longer speak to the Earth that once nourished and sustained them ... without the help of Green Giant whole kernel canned corn.

And worse, that we "do-gooders" feel like we know what's best for them (and have thought so for hundreds of years). *We* think they need canned food (there is an extremely high incidence of diabetes among the natives living on reservations. Reckon the Hopi suffered from diabetes in the 1830s?), because they're starving. *We* think they need suburban-esque, vinyl-sided houses with electricity and indoor plumbing (heck, *we* think *we* need those things).

It made me sad, and it reminded of my own ancestor's experiences with the do-gooder US government programs.

The book Stinking Creek is a look at what happened in a very poor, very rural, very isolated part of the Kentucky appalachian region following Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, and how much more terrible life has been for the people of that region since they've been turned into Welfare County.

I know this region. This is where my grandmother grew up. The region is where much of my family still lives, and like the natives on reservations, my kin (many of whom are some degree of "native") were stripped of their dignity and plagued with government assistance programs that took away their pride and self-sufficient, subsistence living, and forced them into a life-time of dependency and impoverishment - because there will never be enough money or adequate government programs to replace what the people in that area of the world once had.

I know all of this is very easy for me to say from my comfortable, suburban home with fully-stocked pantry and a pot of beans simmering on the electric stove while I type on this computer, and my girls wash their hands in the bathroom with hot, soapy water, but I also know that we have done (and continue to do) these people a great disservice, and I won't perpetuate the myth that we are doing "good" with our charitable donations.

I also know that if someone were to give me an allotment of raw land, where I could live completely for free (no taxes, no mortgage) that I would find a way to make that land support me and my family. I probably wouldn't have a computer anymore, and I may not have indoor hot and cold running water, and life would be incredibly labor-intensive, and often very difficult, and we'd probably be hungry a lot when things weren't growing, but I would be able to take a certain pride in my independence, because, really, for me, the best part of life is having the freedom to make my own choices.

In the end, I won't be giving any money to that organization, because, like all of the public programs available, it will be money wasted trying to force an unsustainable lifestyle on these once proud people who lived just fine, thank you very much, before the US government mucked things up with their do-gooder programs.


  1. Thought provoking post.

    On another commented on my blog about rental space for homeschoolers as a solution for what to do with an old church. I wanted you to know that the church in question is in Portland, MAINE. I have forwarded your comment to Marjorie and said I would foward her contact info to you if she thinks this would be something the congregation would like done with the building.

    Sorry the off topic comment but this is the only way I can contact you.

  2. What is that old proverb? Something to do with 'to feed a man for a day, give him a fish. to feed a man for a lifetime, TEACH him to fish' ?

    I feel the same way about many of our charitable organizations. It seems that they don't truly solve the problem with their handouts.

    Of course, everyone has to agree on what the problem IS. I tend to agree with you that some of the expectations for life in this country are a little high, but a lot of folks truly think that if you can't afford to live on frozen pizzas and microwave meals while watching cable TV you are living a life of abject poverty.

    I also want to say that I think it is truly tragic that a people who were once so independent and proud have lost that heritage. I have had the good luck to know in my life some 'natives' who never lost that link or their ability to live in the manner of their ancestors, and theirs is a life that is truly inspiring....

  3. Well said.

    It's amazing how the Marketeers think that the answer to every ones problem must involve buying something. And that's what created the economic problems we have today.

  4. Indeed, well said.

    Sometimes I open the front door to charities canvasing the neighborhood. Times are tough. But I get annoyed when they won't accept a donation that I can afford. They usually have a minimum amount they're looking for, and if I offer $10 because that's all I can afford at the time, they hem and haw, and excuse themselves to leave for the next house. That just seems rude to me.

  5. Good post.
    I think the old fashioned US do-gooder programs were just fine. Take my hometown--the Matanuska Colony (and there was a handful of other ag colonies created as part of the program here in the Lower 48 too) was Uncle Sam taking farmers who hadn't been able to survive the depression and the droughts and moving them to different land to basically restart. Yes, many of them failed, and the whole thing started off kinda rocky but many of those families prospered and still prosper today.
    Granted these were farmers to start...
    When you look back, it seems like a crazy thing to do, and boy it could have gone really bad--but in the end it worked.
    When did our nation lose that ability to take a risk? When did we become so willing to punt on 4th and 2 instead of going for it?? That's what I want to know.

  6. One charity I do support, and thank goodness they don't do telemarketing calls, is Native Seeds/SEARCH. They conserve and distribute native and culturally important seeds to this region. They give Native Americans free membership and free seeds to encourage retaining this aspect of their heritage.

    We buy some of our seed from them and our CSA farmer gets quite a few of his varieties from them. I've never been to their farm, but they have an active farm where they grow out their seed so they can keep them viable and gather new seed each year.

  7. Oh, Wendy, I am making the best book list from your posts!! I still plan to read the two memoir books you mentioned a few weeks ago (on the list) and now _Stinking Creek_. It sounds like something I can really sink my reading teeth into. As I've mentioned many times in the past, my dad grew up just over the Kentucky line (Near Elk Horn) in VA. I often think of the self-sufficiency that was lost by the "War on Poverty".

    great approach to the profiteer that called to solicit "help" for the Indians. I also ask how much the percentage of the cut will be theirs.