By Kamilyn Choi | grade 12
As I look back on my life, I realize that the person I am today has been largely shaped by three Native American women. I grew up in a traditional Korean household, raised by a single mother, and it so happened that in the times of greatest darkness, these incredible women strongly influenced and guided my life. Through them, I had the amazing opportunity to experience Native American values and culture as they taught me what was most important in life: listening, respect, and mutualism.
These Native American values are still very relevant in today’s world especially given our common human experience.
As a child, I struggled against discrimination, trying to find my own way in the world. Thankfully, I had an amazing mentor who was like a second grandmother. We often met to discuss issues surrounding our own lives as well as that of our community and world. Within these conversations, a dream took root within me—a dream of achieving social justice, equality, and an end to poverty. She not only taught me to listen to and respect the stories of others, but to value them as if they were my own—to value their history, their roots, and their present. With that in mind, in my freshman year of high school, I decided to write my historical analysis research paper on Native American reservations and, more specifically, how Indian termination policy from the 1940′s through the 1960′s influenced Native Americans today. Because she had lived through this period in time, I learned immensely about the traditions and the history of another culture that had been heinously dishonored. Following this experience, I started to channel what I had learned in my research into my work with our school’s diversity club, organizing discussions and activities to raise awareness about a culture that is very underrepresented and perhaps misunderstood in our school and community. By genuinely listening to others, we have the potential to learn so much and step into another’s shoes—to empathize rather than sympathize, ignore, or blindly hate. If we took the time and effort to value listening above stifling others’ voices with our own words, we could create an accepting, cohesive society, further expanding our own knowledge and wisdom. Much like my own Korean culture, these sources of knowledge and wisdom are most often our elders, making it especially important to listen to them. In practicing this principle of listening and respect in my life, I hope that I will find a solution to eradicating a pervading culture of ignorance that leads to larger problems like inequality and poverty.
In my sophomore year of high school, my mother’s only kidney began to fail. She was put on a waiting list for a kidney donor, but within a few months of waiting, I began to doubt that she could ultimately stay alive. Because my father passed away 17 years ago, we had no family here, and I began to fabricate haunting images of yet another lifeless parent. In this time of hopelessness and desperation, a close family friend decided to donate her kidney, treating my mother like her own sister and essentially saving my mother’s life. I can’t even begin to express the appreciation and indebtedness I felt. This woman taught me immensely about mutualism, a connection that goes beyond simple generosity, where a sense of solidarity dictates our actions allowing us to truly give without expecting anything back. We depend on each other, and individual success becomes all of our successes. It’s humbling to know that someone will always be supporting you as a family member would and never giving up on you, no matter what happens.
As I began to solidify my core values and principles throughout high school, another family friend became a close mentor, teaching me the values of respect for nature and cultural pluralism. A healer who uses natural remedies, she had a strong spiritual connection to the natural world. I often recall her saying that we are destroying the Mother Earth that gave so much to us, that we need to rethink the ways we are using energy in our world. Her words have led me to think about the ways that I contribute to earth’s destruction and to act to minimize it. If everyone embraced this core value, we could reduce our carbon footprint and the effects of global warming. We, as a society, could make a committed effort to develop novel ways to produce energy, waste less, and promote sustainable development. We must resist the temptation to continue harming the earth simply for economic development and personal gain.
I’ve discovered that it is important to retain one’s cultural identity in a land of diversity in order to be able to share and celebrate our differences as a means to unity.
In addition, her emphasis on cultural pluralism has helped me understand others as well as discover myself. She takes great pride in her Native American heritage and is very active in the Native American community despite being put down because of her race. As a second-generation immigrant, I often find it difficult to retain my culture and be proud of my Korean heritage; however, I have learned to achieve a delicate balance between American and Korean culture through her example. In a broader context, I’ve discovered that it is important to retain one’s cultural identity in a land of diversity in order to be able to share and celebrate our differences as a means to unity.
These Native American values are still very relevant in today’s world especially given our common human experience. Although I had a strong, personal Native American influence in my life, Native American values could take on a universality that could make the world a better place—a world where politicians work together and listen to constituents to solve our nation’s problems, where all children, no matter their background, value and respect each other, and where people see each other as one family unified by a shared humanity.
“Contrasting Values.” Literacynet.org. Literacy Works, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.
“Traditional Native American Values and Behaviors.” NIARI Curriculum Project. Evergreen State College, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.