Female Elk relaxing on the limestone hot spring terraces of Mammoth
We stayed in the town of West Yellowstone; one of the gateways to the park on the East-most boundary of Montana/Wyoming. One might not guess that the population of this town is a mere six-hundred, what with the masses of people who flock here, particularly in July during the peak season of tourism, and pack the restaurants and shops. With every room in 22 hotels, and every slot in multiple RV parks full, this place was decidedly non-diverse, visually speaking. People came from all over the country and world. In the parking lot of one of two grocery stores we counted 12 different state license plates. But it was still a very "white" place to be. Maybe that's something not everyone would notice. It certainly depends on your point of reference. And for all intents and purposes, I'm pretty darn white. But, you see, I am a non-gender conforming (genderqueer) lesbian-identified, body art covered person often seen sporting a mohawk, and in rural towns filled with gun racks in pickup trucks and faces that are very similar, I simply don't feel safe. I cannot imagine what life can be like for people who don't have the white privilege that I have, and yet being a minority in so many other ways (religiously, gender, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status) I am constantly living on alert that I must be keenly aware of my personal safety and my family's personal safety.
This brings me to what has been mulling around in my head the past week and a half. The experiences that I had in this small town really reminded me that no matter how much we espouse our own contributions to social justice issues, we must always be mindful of our own experiences and that even the most well-intentioned of us have biases. There is a tremendous amount of power to be had in owning up to our biases and turning them into weapons of social alertness that govern our personal conduction. This is how we change the world, or at the very least our home environments to start. This, of course, directly translates into our work with our clients.
So, a magical thing seems to happen wherever I may be. Now, I know I'm an odd looking bird, and I'm terribly okay with that. But while I certainly get a lot of negative looks and comments from some (not to mention aforementioned safety issues) I am more often than not gifted with the interactions of complete strangers who seem to intuit that I have a gentle and loving soul. This may not always be comfortable when, say, I'm using a public restroom, but it sure does open up a myriad of amazing human connections and thus anecdotes! Back to my own preconceived notions. I'm wandering around the streets of West Yellowstone, entering each store I encounter, generally keeping to myself save an occasional smile, as I feel I am being watched. Every store is packed with tourists. No less than 3 people during this walkabout ask me, quite out of the blue, "Where are you from, and what is it you do?" Several extremely interesting conversation ensue, each of which challenge my preconceived notions of the people living and working in this town, some of whom are actually from out of town on summer jobs as it turns out. One includes a self-proclaimed "gypsy wanderer" who is certain my presence is calling her back to Seattle where she once visited and longed to move to but wasn't sure the spirit had called her yet, while two other people begged for information on how to order the "Chick-Fil-A-Holes" t-shirt I had on. (For those who don't know, the fast food chain Chick-Fil-A was under fire for donating money to anti-gay organizations.)
|My shirt (not my pecks)|
Near the end of my walk through town, and the end of my stay at the park, I finally made it into a precarious looking wood shack nestled between a taco bus and a cafe. It had furs, pelts and skins hanging from the outside. I am not a terribly big fan of the fur industry, I will say. As an issue of social justice, and as a general rule, I dislike the fashion industry use of furs and what has happened to various animals because of that industry. But I admit to using and wearing leather. I was achingly curious to know what was inside this literal shack beyond the mounds of pelts and skins outside its door. Inside it was small and dark and smelled of new leather. Furs of elk, bison, bear, weasel, rabbit (a very specific kind that I cannot now recall) and some more obscure animals were stacked on shelves. Gorgeous gloves, mittens, boots, pillows and hats had been very skillfully crafted and for sale. There behind the pine counter nailed together in simple carpentry was a white male in his fifties with the eyes of a child. A strange mix of sadness and beauty filled me as I ran my fingers through all the furs. I might have been angered by this but I wanted to know more.
I told the man, who had been silent the entire time, that I found these pieces to be quite beautiful and unique. He stood beside a pile of obsidian stones he had clearly found himself. With a light stutter, he asked if there was anything I was looking for. I found myself asking for a pair of the gloves in adult sizes, to my surprise. They reminded me of Isotoners, but with wrist cuffs made of the softest, whitest tufts of rabbit. He disappointingly stated he had to make more.
"You made all this?"
"Wow. They're gorgeous."
And again, the question: "Where are you from? What do you do?"
I told him I was from Seattle, and that I was a mental health counselor for a Northwest tribal community. I often omit the Art Therapist part at first, because it always begs the "what is that?" question, and I wasn't sure I was in the mood to try and explain that. He then asked me the strangest thing. It was the strangest thing for someone to ask at the beginning of a conversation, but made entirely too much sense by the end of it.
"Do Native Americans have the same problems as every one else? The same psychological stuff?"
I admit to being take aback, to being confused and curious. And I was very careful, I thought, with how I answered it. "I think that all human beings experience unique psychological stressors that create very similar human responses. I think the people I serve experience the same types of mental wellness issues anyone else does, but because of very different reasons." He asked me what I meant, and I spoke a little about historical trauma and why some of the social issues that are prevalent in ANY community with historical trauma are pervasive. Naturally, I moved toward post traumatic stress disorder, sensing something in his eyes, and that's when he hit me with it.
He is a Vietnam veteran with a PTSD diagnosis. He began to barrage me with questions about why, how, when; "How come I feel this way? I've been in therapy for years."
"I am a therapist" must be tattooed on my forehead. And you know what? That's okay. The Universe put me in this man's path for a reason this day, so let me tell you why and how this relates to our topics of Social Justice.
I didn't want to "play therapist" to a stranger, but then all of our clients are strangers at first. I didn't want to wear that clinical hat, but I didn't want to discount him either. We were two people, just him and me, in a shack, surrounded by animal furs, and my friend idly running her hand through them as we talked. This man with the boy eyes then told me that he was mad at his therapist. He was mad because he was told that "Vietnam is in the past. You can't change it. You can only move forward." Sounded like something someone might say in a well-intentioned way, but it wounded him deeply, for Vietnam still lived in his head, in the present, and was absolutely not in the past. He continued through the end of the conversation with fat tears dancing on his eyelids.
"I disagree," I told him.
"Well," I thought a moment, "I think we can change the past. Maybe not the events, but our relationship to them. I'm an art therapist and I try and find ways to build new associations."
"Art therapist? Tell me more?" He's now looking around at his skins and I think I'm understanding this better now.
"Well, the short answer is that sometimes I help people work through their trauma with art. Sometimes you don't have the words. Well, the art can give us the words. And if we can retell the stories through pictures, sometimes we can change the ending. Sometimes we can take our power back." The tears were bigger now, almost falling, just not quite.
"People come in here and they judge me. They judge me for what I do. Me and my dog, we hunt these animals and I make all these things myself. And if I didn't have this, I'd be in big trouble. I wouldn't be here any more."
The man was aching to be validated. He had found his art therapy through sewing these skins and furs. And he was often placed in the face of rejection for doing so. The same rejection he likely felt by his home country when he came back from Vietnam. Any difficulty that still lingered in me from being in the room with the skins melted away.
I addressed him by his name and shook his hand. "I think what you do here is beautiful. Don't stop. If it helps you, don't stop." Again, he reiterated, "If I didn't have this, I'd be in trouble. Thank you so much for coming in here and talking to me." And then I left.
Everything we do is tied into the greater interconnectivity of things. You never know when you're going to be called to do good, even when you're in the process of doing it. I walked into that shack with a preconceived curiosity and slight disgust and left with an entirely different perspective. I don't know exactly what affect our encounter had for him. I know it certainly taught me something.
It brings me back to the biases we have and the judgement we make before gathering all the facts. This is why stereotypes, discrimination, bigotry, all those yucky things, are so insidious. The truth is usually something we cannot even begin to fathom. I'd like to ask you to think about a time when you allowed your isms and biases get in the way of learning something that could have rather contributed to the greater good, or to your own personal growth.
I'm not asking that you wear fur. Maybe, just once in a while, check the label to see who made it.