Our children are watching: Native American lawmaker talks parenting, racism amid George Floyd death

Ruth Buffalo learned early on that there were good people and bad people in the world.

She had no choice.

When she was 4, she remembers her mom taking her family to church in a neighboring community. Afterward, parishioners were invited downstairs for cookies and fellowship. The parish priest was making his rounds to chat with churchgoers when he came to her family’s table. He asked her mom where she was from.

“Mandaree,” replied her mother, referring to the small town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“Well, maybe you should go back to where you came from,” he said, before turning away.

Her mother quickly gathered her eight children and left, feeling ostracized and embarrassed. Today, Ruth looks back at the incident and commends her mother for not letting it affect her faith. The whole family continued attending Catholic church in their own community, where their priest was a warm and welcoming presence.

Her mother used the incident to teach them an important lesson: There are good people and not-so-good people in every community, religion, vocation, group and population. Even a man of God could be more human than godly. They just needed to stick with the good people. “We didn’t let that one bad actor ruin things,” she says today.

“Looking back, it was great awareness,” says Ruth, a board member for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota and the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

“I used to think, ‘Why were we exposed to that? Why did that happen? I think the lesson was basically not to label one bad experience and then label an entire group of people. We’ve been on the receiving end of that my entire life.”

Fast forward to 2020 and we find Ruth has become one of most influential woman leaders in the region. Among her latest accomplishments, she has been selected as one of four worldwide Women’s Peacemaker Fellows with the Joan B Kroc Institute and is the first US fellow to be selected in the program’s 18 years of existence.

Parenting in a time of racial unrest

Today, as a mom herself, Ruth is teaching the lessons she learned from her own mother to her children. Again, she has little choice at a time when people of color are dying at the hands of vigilantes and rogue cops, and the news plays a nonstop feed of protests, riots, political threats, racial unrest and military actions.

Ruth has opted to limit her 5-year-old twins’ exposure to the news, as she feels they are too young to process such a complex, violent and often frightening event. Her 13-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, however, see plenty on their social media, and send her videos of young people speaking out against white privilege and racism. “They’re pretty aware of what’s happening.”

Although the George Floyd murder has brought the issue to the forefront, Ruth and her husband have been quietly teaching their kids about the dangers of generalizations and stereotyping all their lives. If the kids didn’t like a ref’s actions during a sporting match, she would remind them “they’re human beings and they make mistakes too. We really try to promote giving grace.”

They also work to walk that fine line so many other parents of black or brown children need to navigate – educating their kids on the fact they may be targeted or bullied, sometimes by people who are supposed to protect them, while also raising children who don’t grow up to be suspicious and fearful.

That balancing act took on special urgency in regard to Ruth’s daughter, as the lawmaker is acutely aware of the alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. After Savanna Greywind’s widely publicized disappearance and murder, Ruth remembers her high school daughter telling her she left her Homecoming Dance with some friends just to run to the football field before returning again to the dance. What started as a fun mother-daughter conversation about an innocent high school experience turned into a serious, statistics-filled discussion on human-trafficking and abductions of Indigenous women.

“It was heartbreaking to have to take away her innocence to share with her an unpleasant reality like that,” Ruth says. “But I’ve always been trained to err on the side of caution rather than not at all.”

What white parents can do to cultivate more inclusive thinking in kids

When Ruth and other Indigenous women are together, they sometimes joke that they wish they had a GoPro with them so they could secretly capture the dozens of small insults and racist comments they encounter in a week.

“If people really knew what different people like us experience on a daily basis – the microaggressions, the just plain rudeness – maybe they would be more aware,” Ruth says.

Ruth remembers once waiting to be served at an ice cream shop in North Dakota. When it was her turn to order, the employee treated her with a disrespect bordering on hostility.

At the time, Ruth had three master’s degrees and was proud of how hard she’d worked to create a bright future for herself. She’d been inspired by the words of Chief Plenty Coups: “With education, you are the white man’s equal. Without education, you are his victim and so shall remain all your lives.”

Yet here she stood, after years of studying and working and striving, being reduced to no more than the color of her skin.

While racism-cams might not always be possible, we do know that building a more empathetic and compassionate culture requires more than a few cosmetic adjustments. A Time article illustrates how simply talking to your children about racism may not be enough to raise children who truly understand and accept different cultures. In that article, sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman wrote about interviewing 10- through 13-year-olds, half of whom lived near black or Latino neighborhoods and frequently participated in activities with children of color. She observed: “The majority of these white kids were comfortable discussing race, conveyed complex ideas about racism and had applied experiences participating in social activism.”

Education builds empathy, connection, respect

Education helps too. Ruth remembers bristling behind her desk in her classroom as she scanned the scant two pages of information on Native Americans in the textbook of her high school history class. The content was incomplete, inaccurate and biased, portraying her people in a bad light and even calling them “savages.”

Fortunately, Ruth’s teacher was an open-minded woman who supported Ruth’s decision to give a presentation on her tribal culture to her classmates. Part of Ruth’s presentation included displaying an authentic, richly hand-beaded buckskin dress, to help illustrate the skilled artistry, deep tradition and incredible resourcefulness of her ancestors. Ruth remembers feeling a little scared how her classmates would react but being pleasantly surprised when they all responded with a great respect.

Her presentation was so well-received that Ruth was invited to present it to with third-grade classrooms around her community.

Ruth believes any community educational activities, such as Narrative 4 can be a powerful

vehicle for helping white citizens better understand and absorb the journeys of minority groups. She is actually a trained facilitator for this story exchange, which involves community members, often from different backgrounds, pairing up to tell each other their most significant stories. When the group reconvenes as one, each participant will relay their partner’s story. The process helps participants understand what it’s like to take on another person’s journey and can be effective at building empathy and a better grasp of other people’s lives and cultures.

Yet we don’t need an organized event to learn more about each other. “I think it’s important for us to take courage and step outside of our comfort zones, reach out to others different from us and say, ‘Let’s have coffee,’” Ruth says. “From there, you have great potential to build a meaningful relationship to effect long-term change. It starts with us individually.”

And we need to act now. As Ruth says: “Our children are watching.”

Tammy Swift

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