‘What do they think we are? ...your trained bears?’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 13, 2008

It wasn’t a new insight, and I thought I had been practicing the point of the lesson for most of the preceding five years. But sometimes collective rage catches us unaware and we continue to be perceived as those who are insensitive to the dignity of others. I’m speaking specifically about social do-gooders in the dominant society treating identifiable minorities as their pet projects. Such was the case for me back around 1970 while attending a workshop in New Mexico with other members of the Stoney Nakoda linguistics and Bible translation team from Morley. 

First a little background. At the time, I was associated with the Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics (WBT/SIL), an international Christian service organization specializing in linguistic research and scripture translation among endangered languages. Under their auspices in late 1965 my wife and I had arrived at Morley, the heart of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, in response to a request delivered to WBT/SIL offices on behalf of some of the community.

Although we had come as so-called “missionaries” – a term with which I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable because of the patronizing baggage it carries – my wife and I were soon to discover that we were probably much more the “mission field” than the Morley community. Within the first year – and contrary to so much of the culturally-arrogant thinking with which we had been raised – we came to realize we were on a journey together with our hosts. Yes, we provided a certain technical expertise not present in the community at the time; and yes, we had a passion to share what many have called “the Greatest Story ever told.” But we had much to learn from our hosts about putting that Story into practice – about growing up into mature human beings, humbly grateful to God and characterized by respect, gentleness and patience.

During those early years I would on occasion accept speaking engagements in Calgary-area churches and service groups. I tried using these opportunities to challenge what I perceived as misguided attitudes about serving others. I would recount how this or that Stoney elder had clarified for me important wisdom for quality living. Sometimes I would introduce to the audiences my Morley mentors who had accompanied me. Sometimes these valued members of the Stoney Language and Translation Project would also speak.

But no matter how hard I tried, and no matter how excellently the First Nations team presented themselves, inevitably at the conclusion of such gatherings some dear soul would come up to my wife or me and say, “How wonderful it is to have a fine young couple like you helping those poor Indians.”

Some folks just didn’t get it. People weren’t our project. Language-related issues were our project. People – “those poor Indians” – were our friends and esteemed colleagues. The more I heard such responses, the more convinced I became that none of us has the right to treat others as “pet projects” – to objectivize and manipulate others according to some agenda of our own. No organization, no individual, religious or otherwise, has the moral mandate to thus exploit others, no matter how noble the cause – and this includes high-profile global outreaches who compete with each other in raising money for their endeavours by parading across TV screens grotesque images of the maimed and marginalized, and in patting themselves on the back, robbing others of their dignity and pride.

The net result of all this was that I stopped taking speaking engagements about anything to do with the Stoney project. If some audience wanted a speaker on Stoney issues, then they would have to contact a member of the Stoney community directly – someone who by birth and understanding had the inherent right to speak. And clearly, that did not include me.

I nearly stopped taking speaking engagements myself, I should say. Like being hit over the head with a baseball bat one day, I came to appreciate why I should have completely stopped.

As I said, the Stoney language team, myself included, were attending a workshop in New Mexico around 1970. When I received an invitation to speak at a church in Taos, I mistakenly thought it would be safe to accept. The day before the event, the team was touring the culturally-colourful town when over the car radio came a public-service announcement:

“Everyone is invited tomorrow night to [such and such a church] to hear Warren Harbeck and his Indians from Canada talk about what is happening in the Stoney Bible Translation Project.”

I knew I was in trouble even before the irate voice screamed out from the back seat: “What do they think we are? . . .your trained bears?”

I rest my case.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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