December 14, 2007
When I was a grad student, I once attended a class in which an aspiring Ph.D. candidate asked our professor to condense his experience into one kernel of sage advice for us. He flatly replied, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." It’s hard to dispute the truth in this statement. It does often feel as though, to get the work done right, you must do it all yourself. Yet I’ve found this adage troubling because of its implication that the “right work” is done in isolation. For that matter, what is the "right work"?
In my view as an anthropologist and educator, the "right work" is never done in isolation from your community because your survival and the survival of your community depend on it. This is one of the reasons why I've woven civic engagement into my career as a teacher-scholar. I believe the university shouldn't be a fortress, or, more accurately, a field of little disciplinary fortresses.
Instead of a field of fortresses, I believe the university should be a forum – a place where people gather to exchange and debate ideas, discover new knowledge, teach, and learn – learn from professors, learn from students, and learn from other community members. And I believe there are many kinds of knowledge that help our communities survive – knowledge of technical skills, academic knowledge, ecological knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, ethical knowledge, spiritual knowledge – and it's our job to teach and learn those kinds of knowledge and, importantly, how to use them in the right ways.
So, now we've got two questions to grapple with - what is "right work" and what are "right ways"? And guess what? That's your job! Now that you are graduating, you are leaving the forum. As UNC alumni, you're always welcome back to share your knowledge and experience (and donations!).
But, you're moving on, and it's up to you, as you pack your bags, to take what you got out of your time at UNC and figure out how it can benefit your communities, wherever they may be.
So, in the spirit of bag-packing, I've got a few things I'd like you to carry with you. Three stories (short and sweet, I promise!), three insights into "right work" and "right ways," and, because I’m an archaeologist and can’t help it, three objects to help you remember them.
This is a piece of chert, worked by human hands, from a river in
I have a very good friend and grad school colleague named Chris, who recently started a heritage preservation firm in
Not only are environmental resources going under the bulldozer to build condos and hotels; the reference points for ancient stories and family histories are, too. For European-Americans, it would be like witnessing a colossal bonfire fed with family photo albums, history books, literary classics, and Bibles.
Recently, I visited Chris on O’ahu. He drove me to a house in the countryside and we met a Native Hawaiian partner of his named Alika. Alika’s a man of slim build, but robust passion for his people’s culture and lands. Native Hawaiian culture goes back a couple of thousand years. That’s a lot of families and a lot of history tied to life on the islands. As some of you might remember from obscure literary sources such as Lilo & Stitch (!), ohana means family, and family is very important to Native Hawaiians. They carefully keep track of their lineages and kinship relations and the storied landscapes to which these belong.
Alika told me about his lineage and showed me his family’s connections to the local landscape. From his garden, he brought out a volcanic stone, pointed to the mountain it came from, and put the stone in my hands.
It was about the size of a loaf of bread and shaped like a donut. They are called “piko stones.” Created around volcanic vents, they are regarded as belly-buttons by Native Hawaiians – an ancient umbilical connection between the people and the Earth. Alika’s piko stone had been passed down through the generations of his family. He is a steward of his family’s piko stone – protecting it and the stories associated with it until the time comes to pass them down to the next generation.
Whatever you wind up doing, strive to respect the deep connections between your community and its place in the world. And if those connections are threatened, see what you can do to help protect them. During my conversation with Alika, I mentioned that I was developing a project that might help Native peoples preserve traditional knowledge tied to their cultural landscapes. Later, when Chris and I were saying our goodbyes, Alika took me aside and said, “Mike, I want to say something to you, but please don’t take it the wrong way.” He looked deep into my eyes and, with a broad smile, said “Hurry up!”
This is a vertebra from the backbone of a swordfish. An archaeology student of mine who used to dig for bait worms along the
I came here from Machiasport, a small town of about 2,500 people on the northeastern coast of
I have a friend named Steve who’s been a lobster fisherman his whole life and can’t think of anything else he’d rather do. He’s married and has two young boys and I’m sure at least one of them will follow in their dad’s footsteps, too. A few years ago, Steve was out in the back acreage of his land with his boys. He had climbed a tree to put in the final touches on a deer hunting stand, when he lost his footing, fell twenty feet, and broke his back.
His boys ran home. When they couldn’t find their mom, the 5 year old decided to go back to stay with his dad. He told the 3 year old to wait at the house and tell their mom when she returned. His little brother did exactly as he was told. When she got back, she called Steve’s brothers – because family members are much faster than paramedics in a remote coastal town – and they raced out there to rescue him.
Steve’s a paraplegic now. He can’t use his legs and, while he can move his arms, his hands are paralyzed. Fortunately, he can move his head and talk and all his involuntary functions are in working order.
And he’s still fishing for lobsters. Here’s why: Steve’s smart and tough and determined. Also, just about the entire town of
To help with the hospital bills, they held an auction where people bid sums of money that far exceeded the value of the items on the auction block. His competitors protected his lobster fishing territory – a profoundly altruistic act – and the town maintained his fishing license while he was recovering. Eventually, Steve had his boat retrofitted so he could steer it from his wheelchair. His wife even worked for a time as his “sternman” (someone who helps haul the traps and process the lobsters).
There are many possible endings to a story like Steve’s, but his is amazing. His is amazing because of his personal strength and because of the selfless support of members of his family and his community. They shared the burden. They are part of his backbone and he is part of theirs.
There’s nothing remarkable about this feather, but it reminds me of another story, and a final insight into “right work” and “right ways.”
I was the academic advisor for a non-traditional college student and former Marine named Joe. Except for his long black hair, tied back in a pony-tail, he looks like the stereotypical marine – powerfully built, lithe, and handsome. Joe also happens to be a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and lives at Sipayik, part of the Passamaquoddy reservation about an hour’s drive from Machias. After leaving the Marine Corps, Joe returned to
Because of its history of neglect and oppression by the
During the time that I’ve known him, “GI Joe” – as the kids jokingly call him – has been a role model and coach for the reservation’s young men. He helps them get physically fit, teaches them boxing, looks out for them, and every Sunday, leads a traditional sweat lodge ceremony in which he trains them to be warriors – in other words, honorable men who can resist the temptations of anger, despair, and addiction and become wise leaders.
I recall one cold and windy morning last January when I joined Joe, another Passamaquoddy elder named Darrin, and six boys at their Sipayik sweat lodge. The lodge sits on a point of land overlooking
Near the eastern door of the lodge, we carefully built a smaller lodge of logs and kindling. Darrin explained that this was the lodge for the “Grandfathers” – the stones to be heated in the fire until they glowed orange. When the ceremony began, one of the boys who agreed to be the “fireman,” as he’s called, would carry Grandfathers on a pitchfork to the doorway of the lodge, where Joe would place them in a central pit in the floor of the sweat lodge. There would be four “rounds” of the ceremony: one for the women and children; the next for all of Creation; the third (and hottest!) for healing; and the last for forgiveness.
I stood with my back turned to the lodge as we fed the fire and its intense heat began to push back at the frigid northwest wind. I watched the boys horsing around and heard the crunch of Darrin’s feet behind me as he returned from a foray to his pickup truck parked nearby. When I then heard the sound of something being pressed into the thawing earth, I turned around and was startled to discover the head of an eagle, mounted on the top of a leather-wrapped wooden staff a few feet away. I still remember its yellow glass eyes glaring at me in the sunlight.
Until that time, I had never seen nor heard of an eagle staff. Later, I learned that some Native American military veterans and respected elders are granted the right to carry an eagle staff, which stands for the best qualities of a leader – honesty, bravery, humility, wisdom, integrity, and respect. For these Passamaquoddy young men, I couldn’t think of a better example of strength and hope than what I saw in the form of the eagle staff and in the forms of Darrin and “GI Joe.”
So, these are my three objects and three insights for you to pack along with your updated CV and favorite reference books. Stone: Respect and steward your community’s cultural heritage– it’s your umbilical connection to the Earth. Bone: Support community members in need – they are part of your backbone. Feather: If you’ll allow me to take liberties with Gandhi’s famous saying about change, “Be the leaders you wish to follow in the world.”
As an archaeologist, I've "seen" (through my research) whole civilizations come and go across human history for all different sorts of reasons – overexploitation of natural resources and people, invasion, disease – but through it all, through all the ups and the downs, somehow communities of people have survived.
They survived in the past because their members didn't toil in isolation and they didn't harbor the illusion that they lived independently of the others in their community. Because of our ancestors’ right work and right ways, I'm here to share some of my insights with you tonight.
For our communities to survive into the future, each of you must find your right work and right ways. And my final words to you are the same as those my Native Hawaiian friend Alika said to me. Respectfully, I say to you: "Hurry up!"