Few of us will ever have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time on an Indian reservation. If you don’t live or work there, it’s just not something you’re likely to do. You might drive onto native lands for a festival or to buy some crafts, or you might enjoy some vacation time at an Indian casino. If you ever do have the invitation to fully immerse yourself in the culture of tribal ways, I recommend you walk through the open door.
If you embrace the opening of that door, you will be changed.
My wife and I recently spent a week volunteering at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation that sits at the three-way intersection of California, Arizona, and Nevada. We were there for a week as part of an alumni service project from my college with a group of about 50 like-minded souls. We were divided into three groups focused on construction, education, and business projects. Our construction group built an outdoor shelter where children from the school could study outside in the shade. My wife helped teach music and art in the preschool. I helped teach basic business and entrepreneurial skills to adults.
It is difficult to bridge the gap between what one might expect signing up for a week on Native American lands and what one would actually experience. The key learning for me was getting past what I thought I might accomplish in advance of our arrival and giving myself over to the experience itself — of bonding with people who otherwise would have remained strangers in my life. What struck me as particularly resonant was how building a bridge of trust to a few people one person at a time could open all of our eyes to the language of possibility.
Let’s start with some basics. Even though few people will have the opportunity to spend a week in a place they might not have known was there, a week is a fragment of time too brief to overestimate in scope. That means that every moment shared was a moment that mattered, with an intense focus on listening and learning rather than articulating strategies and solutions. Time may be limited, even precious, but if you try to rush things in cultural immersion, the mistakes of the past can swiftly swell to unintended repetition. There is no doubt that there is a prolonged history of inexcusable abuses perpetrated against the indigenous residents of our nation, but that can’t be repaired in a lifetime of cooperation, let alone a week’s visit. We were not there for any more reason than to be good listeners, good citizens, and hopefully ongoing good friends.
We learned immediately that in the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, each individual is a part of his or her past. We introduce ourselves to each other by talking about our families, initially to see if there are points of intersection in our histories, but more to establish a common ground of respect for the elders who have taught us and the esteemed leaders who will guide us.
As we listen to each other’s lineage, the table is set for sharing what matters in our lives. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all have experienced pain. When we look into each other’s eyes with focus and listen to the authenticity in the words a new acquaintance chooses to share, human connection begins. It doesn’t fix what has come before, but it does gracefully establish a framework for what could happen next.
This is what I mean when I talk about possibility. What might be possible will only be possible if trust replaces suspicion, if curiosity replaces fear, and if hope is elevated from slogan to shared ideal.
I spent the majority of my week working with one entrepreneur. He was slightly older than me. We connected early in the week by chance almost serendipitously around a shared love of music. We both play guitar and are avid classic rock enthusiasts, but he still plays in a party band and I haven’t done that in decades. Beyond teaching himself musicianship in his high school days, he was trained long ago in a skilled trade and made his living at it, but it wasn’t taking him to the economic freedom he desired.
We wrote a brief business plan together, one bullet at a time, from creating a statement of purpose to stepping through the mechanics of daily tasks and completion milestones. We talked about always present competition, nagging administrative needs, and one-to-one marketing opportunities. He didn’t have a website, but with a bit of nagging from me he realized he had a younger relative who had learned some internet basics in school and could help him launch a single online page with his contact information that would cost him nothing. The more we brainstormed the web page, the more ideas he had for posting customer endorsements and project photos that might attract local attention. We documented everything we discussed, and as the pages began to take shape, the candor in our dialogue took on that feeling of lift you experience when the wheels leave the runway below you.
Let me return to the notion of expectation and result. As I suggested, prior to arriving at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, I had developed a tailored curriculum of lessons I would lead on defining mission, vision, strategy, tactics, finance, and sustainable growth. It was a solid teaching plan, and I was only hopeful I could get through all of it in the short week allowed. By noon on the first day, I had abandoned it. It did not apply to the situation at hand. Had I attacked it with the same pragmatism and vigor I normally tackle goals, my week on tribal lands might have been finished by lunch.
No, there was no way I was going to get through that lesson plan, no way I was going to cover all the things that would surely make businesses better for all in attendance. Something else happened, something much better, something that mattered. On the final day of working with my partner, he offered to share the financials of his business. He trusted me enough to show me the material trends in his business — the actual numbers with dollar signs — and we incorporated a sliding scale forecast into our business plan. Together we found the leverage in his operating plan that actually could take him to economic independence in the years ahead.
He didn’t have to change what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He had to make a few changes in how he was doing it. He saw that tangible possibility for the first time in the words and numbers we wrote together.
It was a true aha moment. It was a breakthrough. It was everything I could have hoped for as a result of a week’s dedication, and not a moment of it was anything I had planned. The only thing that could have been harder for me than jettisoning my syllabus and going with the flow was my partner’s unhindered willingness to improvise with a stranger.
We pulled it off together. There was no other way it was going to happen. First the bridge, then the embrace, then the hard work, then the roadmap. We had to do it in that order, and we had to do it together.
The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe lives on the banks of the Colorado River. They live by the words of their ancestors: “Water is life.” They teach that core principle of sustenance to their children and they taught that to us. The water flows with divine intention and with it comes possibility. The water sustains our bodies. The water lets crops grow from the desert floor. The water is a transit mechanism that carries the adventurous from their river home to faraway places of promise. The water is shared with strangers who can become friends if the possibility is identified. That possibility has everything to do with mutual empathy and only becomes activated when a door is opened. Doors open when listening is pure.
If a tribal door is opened to you, walk through it. Leave your plans on the other side of the door. Open your heart to tribal ways, and in a single week you might change a single life. It likely will be yours.
Ken Goldstein is the author of This is Rage and Endless Encores, both published by The Story Plant, as well as the upcoming novel From Nothing.