The Migration Muddle

A friend of mine from Phoenix is preparing to be part of a panel that explores immigration issues. He has 6-8 minutes to present and is discerning what is the most important thing from his experience to say. He challenged me with: “What Would Marcia Do?” “What would be your talking points if asked to speak on ‘From Tribalism to Oneness’ in regard to immigration in 6-8 minutes?” I felt the weight of the question immediately, felt its enormity and felt its necessity. As my friend says, we are all immigrants. What is my story? 

How far back should I go? In one sense, like everyone else, I’m an immigrant from Africa. I know through my mother’s line, for example, that I immigrated thru Asia and into Northern Europe. More recently, if the 1400’s are recent then, I have a recorded history of settling in Norway, particularly on the western coast, on an island near Bergen. Then 4 generations ago, I can say I am part of a family that immigrated from Norway to Illinois in the 1880’s. Then my grandmother moved to Iowa where I was born. In 1975 I “immigrated” to Alaska to a land that was first settled by the Alaska indigenous peoples. (I like the Canadian way of naming them “First Nation” people.) My ancestry is a migration from Africa to Alaska. 

I remember how out of place I first felt moving to Alaska–for work, for adventure, for a better life. I am like most migrants. I didn’t understand the Native culture here at all. I didn’t understand the way of Native time, the way of knowing the land, the way of listening, the food, the humor, the wisdom, the dance, the art, the alcoholism. I was the first time for me of being off balance in a place. I was coming in the dominant culture of white America, but I floundered in this new place where I wasn’t welcomed by all. I was hated for being white, called names, not trusted, not part of this tribe. And I would soon learn why the trust was broken. Eventually I would have Natives who called me friend, but I knew I was the one who was migrating to their land, not the other way around.

Years later, I would be the one welcoming immigrants from Laos–the Hmong who fathers had fought with the Americans during the Vietnam Era in the “Secret War in Laos.” The few that made it out after the Americans deserted them, were eventually given green cards as promised to come to the U.S. after years in camps in Thailand. A resilient and fiercely bonded tribe of their own, this people never had their own country but lived in the mountains of several countries in Southeast Asia, Laos being one of them. How we stumbled to know each other and to live together in harmony and understanding! Despite our best efforts on both sides, I didn’t even know what prejudices and assumptions I held unconsciously until this mirror was held before my face. The parents had never had an education; “sisters” turned out to be one of many wives of the father; birthdates were unknown because that was considered unlucky in that culture. I brought them canned food which they politely accepted but then gave away to the food pantry; they ate only freshly prepared vegetables and meat. Saying “yes” to me sometimes meant “no”; they were being polite but I had asked something of them that they couldn’t do. I have hundred more examples. They came for a better life without much money, not knowing the language and guessing at the customs. Again, some of them are deeply tied to me yet. And I am still learning how to be with them and they with me. We have hurt each other’s feelings so many times without knowing why or how. 

I do not live near the border with Mexico as my friend does. I don’t know how it impacts his community or his life. But I know he is honestly struggling as I am to understand how to take this issue past the safety and familiarity of belonging to a “tribe’ where customs and language, art and history, values and religion are shared and known. To move to a place where we understand each other as all members of the human race is like leaping a chasm. It leaves behind that comfort and security to risk not knowing–to being okay with not knowing how to do it, but sensing it is the only way forward for us to continue to evolve as human beings.

Tribal affiliation has so much richness to it; I’m not saying it needs to be sacrificed. God apparently loves this diversity. But tribalism lumps everyone together not in Oneness but in prejudice. I learned that the way to break into my own limits of tribalism was to meet someone I didn’t understand and first see them as a fellow human being, and then see them, for example, as a Native or Hmong. What comes first sets the stage for relationship or lack thereof, judgment or allowing, holding a fixed position or having the freedom of an open mind, operating out of fear for our own security or a curiosity about another human being. Humans have been on the move since we first evolved to standing on two feet. We migrate, searching for food, for security, for work and better way of life for our families–or simply to see a new place. I know from my experience as well that sometimes boundaries have to be set. The migrant fears too, has prejudices, has anger and resentment. We meet at the border with our inner and outer defenses. Yet beyond our armored egos, we are also souls inhabiting the same planet. 

If we could only see ourselves so privileged to be alive in this vast space of the universe–to see this tiny spot of blue and green in the vast quiet universe, a star amongst billions, but the only one that we know that has life. Then our human need to struggle to survive could quiet a little in the awe and grace that we are alive at all.

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