Paul Shirley: (Donated) food for thought?

Initially this article made me mad.

Reluctantly, I read it again. The second time I read it, I thought it was actually pretty interesting, and despite some coarse/buttheaded language, it actually raised some extremely valid, if unpopular, points. Paul Shirley is a former NBA player who has some pretty provocative laissez faire views–and he articulates those arguments fairly well.

Not saying that his viewpoint is nice, or even humane. But it makes some sense.

I’ve heard Shirley’s criticism before–and I cringe everytime I hear them. Now, of course I felt compelled to give money to this effort in Haiti (primarily because of my ridiculously sad bleeding heart liberal disposition), as well as many other “bleeding heart” causes. Still, I cringe because, well, despite my not wanting those arguments to make sense–the arguments make sense. Still, I tend to give until it hurts to these “causes” because I have such a hard time accepting the conclusion (as opposed to the premises), that “the victims of disasters are responsible for their suffering”–even though it’s staring me right in the face…>sigh<

Anyway, here’s the crux–check it out, and try this little exercise-replace “Native” for “Haitian” in the article:


I can’t help but wonder why questions have not been raised in the face of this outpouring of support. Questions like this one:

Shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster?

Before the reader reaches for his or her blood pressure medication, he should allow me to explain. I don’t mean in any way that the Haitians deserved their collective fate. And I understand that it is difficult to plan for the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it is not outside the realm of imagination to think that the citizens of a country might be able to: A) avoid putting themselves into a situation that might result in such catastrophic loss of life. And B) provide for their own aid, in the event of such a catastrophe.

Imagine that I’m a caveman. Imagine that I’ve chosen to build my house out of balsa wood, and that I’m building it next to a roaring river because I’ve decided it will make harvesting fish that much easier. Then, imagine that my hut is destroyed by a flood.

Imagining what would happen next is easier than imagining me carrying a caveman’s club. If I were lucky enough to survive the roaring waters that took my hut, my tribesmen would say, “Building next to the river was pretty dumb, wasn’t it?.” Or, if I weren’t so lucky, they’d say, “At least we don’t have to worry about that moron anymore.”

Sure, you think, but those are cavemen. We’re more civilized now – we help each other, even when we make mistakes.

And also a parting shot:

Dear Haitians –

First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.

As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?


The Rest of the World

This gets right back to the “give a man a fish” discussion of a couple of weeks ago–how much better are we really making a person/nation/tribe if all we do is bail them out when they get into trouble?

Anyway–this IS “The Thing About Skins”–therefore, it’s fair to ask what is the relevance of Shirley’s article to Natives? Well…I’ll tell you.

See, I hear “intergenerational trauma” arguments over and over and over. I hear that the reason why Natives consistently serve as the poster children for FAS, teen suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence is because of what happened to us in the distant AND not-so-distant past…ok, I can dig that. That makes some sense (and I’ll hold any questions regarding whether ALL people have gone through some trauma in the past).

Still–like in Haiti–at some point we have to ask the question, “Despite the intergenerational trauma, how much of our pain/suffering is of our own creation?” I venture that the answer is “more than we like to admit.”

Thing is, if we use that intergenerational trauma rationale as the reason for our continued struggles/destruction, exactly where does it get us? Dead, but with a great excuse for our demise?? Drug addicted, but with a great excuse for our addiction?? A people filled with teenaged mothers, but with a great excuse for why we simply perpetuate the same cycle? See, we can continue to use, like Haiti, colonial mistreatment and governmental antipathy as an excuse for every failure under the sun–but it doesn’t help any of our kids to get college degrees or any of our teens to get out of the suicide-laden rut that we’re in. Excuses will not help us to escape our rut–they only provide our children another reason to believe that they are not equal with non-Natives.

So yeah, we can ramble on and on about how Natives have been screwed historically and that some poverty is a by-product of that; we wouldn’t be lying. Still, we can also say, since we’re being so honest, that we really don’t use condoms nearly enough and we create more acute poverty because of our lack of self-control. Further, yes, we can honestly say that Natives got the short end of many sticks. But can we can honestly say that Natives, collectively, do a good enough job proactively teaching teaching drug and alcohol prevention?

I think that if we were to answer that question honestly, the answer might make us mad. It would be one that we wouldn’t want to agree with. But the answer would be there, looking us dead in the eye.

Anyway…Paul Shirley is not important in life. He’s a sucker, a nobody…probably IS a racist, and meant his abrasive questions in the worst ways possible. Still, that doesn’t mean that the questions that he raised are not legitimate.

Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 6:56 am  Comments (15)  

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  1. At least our ancestors had an excuse for why they were killed by small pox and other non-native diseases because there body had never experienced such nasty viruses before. Nor did our ancestors know how deadly alcohol was and that if it did not kill them physically…it would spiritually. Many died and the ones who survived had no idea why the others died. They did not know how to cure small pox so what’s our excuse today??

    Sometimes I think we are a lot worse off because we know drug and alcohol kill our people more than any other race. We know diabetes is deadly, we know that physical/sexual abuse leads to death and or prison time. The saddest part is we know how to solve these problems today!

    We know what drug and alcohol abuse looks like. Most of us are born with a 110% chance of becoming an addict ourselves. We know abuse is taught and carried on…we know what physical and mental abuse look like. We know how to prevent teen pregnancy and most have free birth control…so why are we still suffering???? Until our nations (tribes) begin to take responsibility for some of the prolonged situations we are in and GET HEALING! We will continue this evil fate.

    Some nations are doing a lot better in social/spiritual healing and yet others are still acting like we do not have social issues that plague us. What do we do? Take individual responsibility and make our own personal choice to make the next generation better than ourselves! BUT also, we cannot forget some communities breed these monsters and then act like they are not monsters. What’s that called? Blaming the victims? We must empower ourselves and each other. We did not survive as individuals back in the day so why would be now??

  2. Why don’t u encourage the tribes that are doing well to help and assist the nations/tribes that aren’t? If we teach the children of Haiti there is help with politics, education and birth control; maybe, when they grow up, they’ll go to college, overthrow the corrupt government and use condoms. Its possible. Rumor has it the next generation of “skins” is gonna “wow” everyone..

  3. In a perfect world I guess this would make sense. Unfortunately when people make these kinds of statements they do so without a thorough understanding of a country and the situation it is in.
    I mean really don’t you think natives would be leading healthy happy lives had we not been raped, infected with disease and shown the ways of the white man. The same could be said for Haiti. I doubt their lives were like this prior to the white man contact.
    Yeah I’ve had a tragic life death, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction but it’s only made me more determined to succeed, while my sister goes in the opposite direction. Who will ever understand the reasons why two sisters of the same mother and father go in completely different directions. Because of the variables in life, that’s why. It’s going to take one indian at a time to stop the cycle of trauma.

  4. Are our own people responsible for our own internal troubles? Are the tribal businesses (Casinos) that are most successful hurting it’s own people by tapping into addictive natures? As a Tribal society most of the time we persecute the drug dealers who feed on off of their people. We point a righteous finger at these individuals and tell them to leave. Legally we are correct, morally we have no right. If we continue to support endeavors that directly hurt our people and turn a blind eye to it’s devastation in the name of profit, we are to blame for our future troubles. If we sell “Native Pride” gear next to the beer cooler, we are helping propagate the negative image of a “drucken’ Indian”, we are partially to blame for a poor image . If we stop caring on what happens to our Tribal member’s dreams after they turn 18 and graduate, we are to blame for the lack of educated professionals and are contributing to low self-esteem, and a general lack of confidence as individuals. These are tough questions, that need tough leaders to answer. We are a proud race, with a proud heritage and if we encourage the dreams, give them the tools, and take away the distractions, we can have a strong future and regain much of what we lost over 500 years ago.

  5. I’m glad you’ve asked us to consider what “intergenerational trauma” is. It certainly doesn’t mean that we Indians can now conveniently blame our ancestors or the governnment for everything we experience now, and then continue to replicate those conditions. No, the term expresses more about our part of the intergenerational relationships that we have with our ancestors as well as our descendants: Are we transmitting our trauma to future generations? The same trauma that our parents and Grandparents couldn’t cope with? That is the question to address. The emphasis is not about how much of our own personal suffering we are bringing upon ourselves, instead, we might create better conditions in addressing how much suffering we are inflicting upon others, especially those close to us and dependent upon our care. That is the inter-generational trauma that we can and ought to do something about.

  6. hoka hey! hokay hey! I like what the young are doing taking responsibility. People like me were taken in by the atrocities taught in colleges and universities, usually written by non-natives, and did alot of pity-pot behaviors-“I’m this way because the whiteman took my land, my culture, and my language”. Maybe our young shouldn’t go to college. The young have a strength which no one seems to acknowledge, but its happening. Its a good day to live!.

  7. Im Native (Canadian) and the one thing i hate about natives is how they play victim, its so pathetic. they gotta let go of the past. I am 19 yrs old and its with deep sadness that i see adults who beleive in this whole victim crap. they gotta wake up, take care of thier kids, teach them mannerisms, college, etc.. the past is gone, look to the future and whats happening now. no more whining plz. I am Cree from north saskatchewan.

  8. There’s absolutely no way that man’s column makes the slightest bit of “food for thought” if one knows anything about the last two centuries of continued American, French, and other nations’ interference in Haiti. From when the French presented the Haitian government with a bill demanding compensation for loss of property (aka slaves) that resulted in mass deforestation to the results of IMF loan debt, it’s not at all about the Haitians being allergic to responsibility. A little background research might help your perspective.

  9. I’m not sure any implied that it’s “all about the Haitians being allergic to responsibility.” Therefore some might say that actually reading the article would help your perspective. But my goal is not to get into an argument–it’s to present some viewpoints that people may or may not agree with.

    Personally, I think he’s right on the more I learn. At some point excuses are just that–excuses. Thank you Wyatt, Kinajin and Theresa (and indeed, everyone, for reading)…yeah, we may be born into rough conditions, and that’s perfectly valid. Still, when we’re 53 years old and raising kids and grandkids into the same dysfunction–who cares about whether or reasons are valid?

    Personally, I’m more concerned with “how do we change the circumstances and our collective (poor peoples’) fates and trajectories?” than “what can we blame our continued poor circumstances on?”

    Thanks again!


  10. Indians need to leave the land that they were forceable escorted too and immagrate to the USA. I guarentee you if Hatians were given that opportunity hardly anyone would left.

  11. Also I hate hearing history about Indian travstys, it does me no good at this time to dwell on theese facts.Id rather focuss on Native sucess storys and feel inspired.

  12. nice post, this is what i need, thank for sharing, greeting

  13. I was speaking with another woman, who went to the same Indian boarding school with me, about the poverty on the Reservations, hopelessness, and addictions that our future leaders are killing themselves. What is really going on? Through out our discussions about these issues, we questioned the idea of living in poverty. Can that really be the main reason for why our teenagers don’t want to live? Money doesn’t make anyone happy, it may make you comfortable, but not happy. There is poverty everywhere and people in the world don’t have some of the opportunities we have in America, but you see poor people and they are happy for what they have. We came to conclusions that we lost our way in telling our children what life is really about? We as a people have forgotten to appreciate life through nature the thing that gives us everything we need to live. Have we forgotten to tell the stories about the Great Mystery of life. Lets start talking otherwise we may lose more our future leadership.

  14. native people DO need to move away from crippling their nations when they cling to the excuses (reasons) for the maladies that plague us, poverty addiction,etc.Do we react or do we respond? Are we in relapse or recovery? As an elder who has spent over two decades encouraging our tribal council and community to become drug and alcohol free, I can testify to the resistance from leaders to assert their trust and social responsility to create programs to work on the tough issues such as domestic violence,sexual abuse,child abuse etc. In order to be ,we must do. Not just talk, do. I have lead marches. protests about civil rights in our court system, police brutality ICW issues , etc .There are a few in the community who will be brave enough to come forward and that’s enough . Be ready to make a sacrifice as well. Those elders who have been fortunate enough to learn from their spiritual leaders will always tell you -go back to your teachings.

  15. Great Food for thought Gyasi…so true about taking responsibility….

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