Paternalism Poisons Everything: Decolonizing The Toxic Attitude of Would Be Saviors

Churches, non-profits, endless well-wishers, bleeding hearts, the US government — seems everyone has chips in the gamble of how the Lakota should make it in the 21st century.  At Pine Ridge reservation, a Native can’t take one step forward without ten outside interest groups telling them to do it another way.  The subtext of all this meddling is typically the patronizing notion that Natives need a guiding hand to steer them toward progress. Just shut up, don’t ask questions, smile, remember who is boss, and gratify someone’s desire to be a savior. Surrender all dignity and autonomy, the new honcho from the missionary industrial complex is gonna lead the rez to paradise.

That is paternalism in brief.  Paternalism is an attitude woven through nearly every institution found on the reservation.  Paternalism is behind the soft expectations that keep the BIA schools 2-3 years behind the national curriculum.  Paternalism is behind the idea that our land must be kept in trust, subject to mountains of bureaucratic red tape.  Paternalism is behind the idea that we need outsiders to save us from our problems, rather than training for our own people to rise up and guide their own destiny.  Living under paternalism daily, across generations, enfeebles a person, makes them meek.  Such a person is never able to do anything for themselves, and always looks at authorities for answers.  In a sick way, this dependence and enfeeblement is perhaps exactly what paternalism desires.  Like a deranged doctor who goes about breaking legs so he can say there is need of a bone setter among all these crippled people, paternalism creates a need for itself.

The big danger of paternalism is how innocent it might seem at first.  Paternalism is not a product of maliciousness.  Paternalism simply results from assuming too much, overestimating one’s grasp of the situation, and overestimating one’s capacity to give answers.  Paternalism always comes with good intentions.  Yet we should keep in mind that saying about the road to hell and good intentions.

Even when it’s backed by good intention, paternalism enfeebles, robs people of their dignity. It is the most horrible thing when a people have no say in their destiny. No voice in the decisions that pertain to them. When the entire world passes by, and none of your hopes, your dreams, your aspirations, seem to affect anything. Everything is just decided for you. Often by well wishers. Yet how well do those well wishers understand? How well can they possibly understand?  Not very, as history constantly bears out.  So Native American policy through the ages is a history of injustices. Made more horrible by the fact that those responsible for many of those injustices actually believed they were doing a good thing.

I think the reason so much good intention leads to harm stems from a disconnect.  There is a vast disconnect between Lakota philosophy, worldview, and values and the philosophy, worldview, and values of our supposed benefactors.  Often, what they think of as being good is so far from anything we conceive of as good, getting pushed toward their ideal does nothing but harm.  This disconnect has always been present since contact was established.  It is made more ruinous by the fact these benefactors, these emissaries of American empire, often come with the hubris that their way is absolutely right.  It is astounding to look through history, and see so much suffering inflicted simply because the American side was too arrogant.  They never considered maybe the Native side had some reason for the way they lived and believed, or that perhaps there was another answer other than grinding their system upon the world.  Of course, this hubris always wore benefactor’s masks.  Lurking behind concern for the poor, concern for the white man’s burden, concern for the Christian mission to the world, rather than coming out in the open with its true face.

Munchhausen syndrome is basically a psychiatric illness where a parent will purposefully try to keep their child constantly sick so as to get sympathy for themselves.  Sometimes even going to the extent of poisoning their own kid.

Paternalism is a sort of cultural Munchhausen syndrome. These Christian groups and non-profits set themselves up to be like that sick parent. They need us to be suppressed, enfeebled, to gratify their need to be needed, their need to look virtuous and gain sympathy. These groups love nothing more than dumb, scared, helpless people. They hate anyone with a mind, anyone who has courage to stand for something. I think the thing these groups loathe the most is when we start to look strong enough to get by without them.

Paternalism has to be gotten past for any organization from the outside to come to the reservation and effect meaningful change. If paternalism is there, it will poison the whole endeavor. Paternalism is typically founded on assumptions about the virtues of American industrial-capitalism, religious bigotry, egotism, so only natural it causes these organizations to fail.  Paternalism also assumes Natives are too incompetent to handle anything on their own.  This assumption sets up the need for a group to come in like a new aristocracy, which reduces tribal members to a sort of dumb peasant class beneath these organizations.

How does an organization avoid paternalism when coming to the reservation? I’m not entirely sure.  Yet here is what I have told some friends looking to get past the old failed way and work toward a new way on these things:

I’d say to avoid the pitfall of paternalism, you’d have to be extraordinarily connected with the people. Any change, to be effective needs to stir from within, so you’d need to be part of that “within” as much as possible. I’ve seen it occasionally. Where an outsider doesn’t look at a Native as an object of sympathy, or an object of romanticized glorification. Or anything really, but a man or woman not too different from themselves, who has certain struggles preconditioned by American history. Their struggles have to be your struggles. You’d really have to imbibe their perspective, be around them enough so that you truly understand them. You almost have to make your home amongst those people. You can’t be some figure three feet above contradiction like many preachers, or like the boss farmer that only shows up once in awhile to pass down dictates. This connection will be difficult if a person has not lived that reservation life, or gains benefit from their place in the systems of oppression.

Decolonizing the mind, deconstructing biases ingrained from years of American education, should be the first step anyone who wants to help the reservation should take.  This means rooting out the paternalistic attitude that has defined organizations that have tried to help the reservation.  The history of those organizations is a history of failure, of causing harm even in spite of good intentions.  Paternalism is a big part of that history of failure.  A change in the whole thinking about aid to the reservations is needed to get somewhere other than failure.


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