Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, in his first book, Banker to the Poor, writes, "Like navigation markings in unknown waters, definitions of poverty need to be distinctive and unambiguous. A definition that is not precise is as bad as no definition at all."
Poverty is often thought of only in terms of cold hard cash, or in recent times, the quicksand of credit. But I grew up with Dolly and her coat of many colors, and "I knew I was rich." It is precisely this wealth, of spirit and dissent, that has and continues to inform my work (as a wife and as a writer) today. My greatest failing, as a writer, has been my inability to offer a distinctive and unambiguous explanation of my understanding of poverty and wealth.
I am beginning this series for that sole purpose.
In July I came across Christopher Ketcham's Article on Daniel Suelo, the sadhus who has lived without money for the last 10 years, residing just north of Monument Valley, in the caves outside of Moab. My first feeling on reading this article was "this is what they want you to believe" that you've got to live in a cave if you want to live outside this economy. I thought it was nothing more than a propaganda leaflet in the "you can't ignore the economic realities" machine. The same machine that ignores the environmental and colonial realities so intimately shaped by said economy. As the web leads you to click on and click off, I did.
I have been reading Yunus's work, after it was introduced to me by Woody Tasch, the author of Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Reading Tasch's book is what made me decide to quit writing For Future Reference in favor of My Grandpa Knew That; at least once on each page I would hear myself screaming "Shicheii, bil bééhózín." (More on Slow Money coming.)
Working through K'é and For Future Reference I have tried to unravel the negative feedback system many of us (land based people) find ourselves in: we are rich, in knowledge, but this knowledge has become worthless in what is known as The Market, and more perniciously, it is becoming worthless to many of us, in what we know of ourselves and our minds. Many American Indian political and educational professionals are responding to the abject poverty in both reservation and urban communities in ways that leave the heart of our nations (our knowledge and expertise) behind.
There are economic realities and we cannot ignore them. But these realities do not form or result from an isolated universe, as a sort of Merry-Go-Round we either have a ticket to ride, or not.
I reread Ketcham's article on Suelo and want to point out this passage: "In 1987, after several years as an assistant lab technician in Colorado hospitals, he joined the Peace Corps and was posted to an Ecuadoran village high in the Andes. He was charged with monitoring the health of tribes people in the area, teaching first aid and nutrition, and handing out medicine where needed; his proudest achievement was delivering three babies. The tribe had been getting richer for a decade, and during the two years he was there he watched as the villagers began to adopt the economics of modernity. They sold the food from their fields—quinoa, potatoes, corn, lentils—for cash, which they used to purchase things they didn't need, as Suelo describes it. They bought soda and white flour and refined sugar and noodles and big bags of MSG to flavor the starchy meals. They bought TVs. The more they spent, says Suelo, the more their health declined. He could measure the deterioration on his charts. 'It looked,' he says, 'like money was impoverishing them.'"
The idea that money could be impoverishing is significant. We must take it seriously without being flip or ignorant about homelessness, nutrition and health care.
"The economy" is a cultural framework with undeniable consequences on our daily lives, but it is also a fabrication. We do not need to accept the rules as they are laid down for us.
"Experts on poverty alleviation insist that training is absolutely vital for the poor to move up the economic ladder. But if you go out into the real world, you cannot miss seeing that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty."
I do not believe that keeping our focus on moving up the economic ladder is the best approach, but his point about "retaining the returns of our labor" is clearly true. If we can refocus our attention to the land, and land based communities, consequently redefining capital, and the control of capital, we might be able to make some of the many changes essential for our survival.
Deloria and Wildcat, in Power and Place: Indian Education in America, describe an Indian Metaphysics, offering it as a way of approaching solutions to our contemporary problems. This metaphysics uses an indigenous knowledge base as its point of origin: dirt, water, people, plants, animals and the relationships between these beings as recorded in our languages, ceremonies, games and material culture.
I begin here, in the dirt, with the people.
The title for this series is inspired by Duane BigEagle's poem, My Grandfather Was A Quantum Physicist.