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Making Space Consulting


Peacekeeping and Coyote Listening

On a recent trip to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, led by staff from the Grand Canyon Trust, we had an opportunity to list to Emmett Curly talk about his work with the low-profit, limited-liability corporations (L3C) initiative – an initiative intended to obtain investment for Navajo-centered, environmentally- and culturally-responsible development in the area recently opened up by the repeal of the Bennett Freeze.

I think most of us were expecting an examination of the L3C concept, criteria for responsible development, expected economic impact for the affected chapter houses, maybe even a list of potential projects and investors. We were expecting Western details about the things Anglos care about.

What we got instead was an old Indian talking for over a half an hour, telling us a rambling story about growing up Navajo in the off-reservation oil fields where his father worked. He talked about being an outsider in the Anglo schools, and how, if he started to make friends his father would move the family to another place, another oil field, another job and another school, and he would have to start all over again. Eventually he gave up trying.

He talked about being invited with his father to the fancy homes of the managers and owners of the oil fields. He talked about the clothes and possessions of the other children in his schools. He talked about the nice neighborhoods he could see and walk through but could not live in.

He talked about going to boarding school. He talked about going back to the reservation, and how it felt like coming home.

We never got any of the details of the work of the L3C but, paradoxically, when he was done, we knew why the work was important to him and should be important to us. If we were listening with Western, Anglo ears, it was hard to align the details of what years he spent changing schools and what years he was in boarding school and when he came back to the reservation. But if we were listening with other ears, we know why he said, “I learned that there were different kinds of people. Up here are the affluent people. Below them are the middle class. Below them are the poor people, and below the poor people are the Navajo.”

Then I asked him a question about tribal councils. Not an Anglo question. After listening to him, I had on my other ears. I told him my story. I told him how I had studied and practiced leading groups through a process of dialogue, and how many of the practices and values I used I had learned from studying action research. I told him how, when I learned that action research was first articulated by John Collier of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), I had assumed that is was a technique that Collier had invented to help solve the problems of the native peoples the BIA was responsible for.

Then I told him how, as I learned about native practices and the Indian ways of governing, I came to understand that Collier did not invent action research, he learned it from the peoples, tribes, and nations that he worked with. Then I asked Hosteen Curly if I got it right. And that is when he talked about Coyote.

Coyote is known for his wisdom and cunning. But Coyote is also a trickster: a joker who takes very little seriously, and will trip you up if you take yourself too seriously. And that is a paradox. In one creature, in one Being, in one Ideal Form, exists both the serious and the playful, the sober and the joker.

Then Emmett told us about peacekeeping, the Navajo process of coming to decisions when there is not war or disaster that robs them of the time to do it correctly. In any group of 20, Emmett told us, you will probably have 30 or 40 ideas. But if you listen to the stories, with the right kind of ears, the ideas usually sort themselves out into four major themes. And if you play with those themes, you will find that two align on one side and two on the other. And if you continue to talk and listen and share, you find that those two pairs of ideas represent forces in opposition that must be brought into balance. You find, in the center of the four ideas, the paradox that includes all the issues, all the forces.

You find Coyote. And that is when you can find an answer that everyone can get behind. Peace can never be found when you just list the ideas and take a vote, when you require everyone to take a position in favor of one force or the other. That way leads to the vain attempt to do something that many of the people did not favor, and the forces remaining out of balance. How can you be led by someone that up to 49% of the people voted against?

Many of us non-natives – Westerners, Anglos – are members of the Grand Canyon trust in part because of our support for the initiatives of the Preserving Native Cultures program. One way that we can help support that program, one way we can help preserve native cultures, is to stop listening with Anglo ears. One way to help is to listen to the stories, listen to the ancient wisdom, listen for the paradox.

One of the best things we can do is Coyote Listening. Then we are ready to take our part in the peacekeeping.