Why I choose respect-based partnerships instead of pity

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 10, 2012

Respect, not pity, in humanitarian outreach has been the key value that underlies the charitable projects in Mexico of which I wrote so passionately in my past two columns.

Why do I feel so strongly about the importance of respect?

Allow me to draw from my own experiences a lot closer to home than Mexico.

When I began my association with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley, west of Cochrane, in 1965, I really did want to do something good for a community labelled by one prominent magazine of the day as the poorest in Canada.

Though as a professional linguist and Bible translator I had convinced myself that my motives were purely noble, in hindsight I can see a certain degree of patronizing attitude implicit in my role which was anything but respectful of the community that had welcomed me so warmly.

This disrespect showed up less in my own words and actions than in my very identity as a “missionary” and in the newsletter and speaking tradition that role entailed.

Back then, I was associated with an NGO renowned for its pioneer work among indigenous peoples around the world. Among my responsibilities as a member of that NGO was sending out monthly letters to keep folks “back home” informed of our activities.

I do not believe any of my own letters were ever a put-down of the Stoney community, but the sad fact is that many recipients of such letters were caught up in a do-gooding subculture that hungered for “the real dirt” on the “target” communities in ways that exploited pity to raise support.

Indeed, some missionary letters I received from others did exploit pity in humiliating ways that too often promoted the self-importance and gratification of the servants at the expense of the served.

My growing discomfort came to a head for me personally in a pair of incidents in the early 1970s.

The first occurred when I was invited to speak at a church in Calgary. Accompanying me were several Stoney Nakoda elders whose outstanding contributions to their community deserved recognition. Far from being objects of pity, these were my colleagues and mentors in how to walk my Christian talk in more culturally appropriate ways.

But the pity-oriented members of my audience seemed to hear only what they wanted to hear, and in spite of my attempts to garner respect for my companions, several well-meaning folks came up afterwards and praised me for doing so much good for “those poor Indians.”

The second occasion was at a workshop the team from Morley, including myself, were attending in the American Southwest. Again, I had been asked to speak at a local church. Without my input or consent, a radio announcer said something that just about ended my amicable relationship with the rest of the team.

There were five of us from Morley. The day before I was to speak, we were driving back to our place of residence after taking in some of the natural grandeur of the area. We had the radio tuned to a local station. “Tomorrow evening at (such and such a) church,” the announcer began, “Warren Harbeck and his Indians from Canada will be speaking . . . .”

Before the voice even finished the announcement, a mighty roar arose from the back seat: “What does he think we are? Your trained bears?!”

The pieces of a not-very-pretty puzzle began crashing together in my mind almost immediately. The very structural mentality I represented as a “missionary” carried with it pity-based baggage over which I had no control.

Soon thereafter, I was offered the chance to work directly under the auspices of the Stoney Tribal Council. I seized the opportunity, severed my ties with the NGO, and have ever since attempted to do my part within locally generated dreams and in relationships that are mutually respectful of each other’s dignity.

Yes, Stoney language and translation work continues, but my role is strictly as a consultant-as-called-upon.

As one of my mentors at Morley, Sykes Powderface, explained to me at the time: “Make it known how you can be of help, then wait till you’re asked.”

You see, it’s all about respect-based partnerships with local dreams, rather than pity-based relationships based on agenda imposed from outside – demeaning, dependency-prone relationships which only further marginalize the already-vulnerable. (About respect as a fundamental value in the Stoney Nakoda way, see my June 6, 2012 column.)

So, folks, those are some of my reasons for choosing respect over pity as the motivation for my involvement at Morley. That’s also why I believe so strongly in respect, and not pity, as an essential condition in all responsible charitable outreaches.


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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