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A step toward understanding

September 15, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Global Citizen Corps leader Molly Mus at mosque. Photo: Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps  </span>
    My high-school classmate Charlene Teters introduces her granddaughter to her first powwow, the Spokane Indians powwow in Wellpinit, Wash. on Sept 4. Photo: Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps

“What should I wear if I do not have a long, loose dress? haha…that may sound trivial but I want to be respectful. Do you get my question?”

Now I generally do not wear dresses, but when I got her text message this morning, I did understand all too well her question. Molly, a 17-year-old student and leader in Mercy Corps’ Global Citizen Corps, is getting ready to lead more than a dozen other students from her high school to a press conference and tour of a mosque in Seattle today.

It’s September 11th, a day of remembrance, and one in which Molly and her group want to recognize as a day to build bridges to understanding as an antidote to fear and distrust.

I understand because earlier this month I faced a similar dilemma.

I had been invited by Charlene Teters, a high school classmate, to come to her annual Pow Wow for her tribe — the Spokane Indians. I had connected with her at our 40th year class reunion last month. We didn’t know each other well in high school, but I did remember her brother, George, quite well as the guy who beat me with uncompromising regularity in competitive wrestling throughout high school!

At the reunion, I learned that over the years Charlene had become a nationally prominent activist, leading to major policy changes so that today many sports teams no longer use Indians as mascots for their teams.

As I got ready that morning to pack and go to the Pow Wow I realized I had nothing to wear that would work.

I pulled out my one clean white t-shirt, with a Seattle Mariners emblem on the back (that seemed OK) but the logo on the front was of Alaska Airlines, with a Native face. I grabbed another t-shirt I had gotten at the Grand Canyon some years ago, and then noticed the image of Kokopelli, a fertility deity worshipped by some Native American tribes in the Southwest. Not OK?

I grew up in Spokane, a western town of sorts, so decided to grab my leather belt and leather hat I had gotten in Peru a few years back. Both handmade. And both etched with what some believe to be religious animal symbols, called the Nazca Lines, from the ancient time of the Incas. Another commercial exploitation of Native culture?

My last option was to go a little fancier, and pull out my best western-looking shirt, a black, decorative Cowboy shirt. Eek! Now that would be a real poke in the eye.

We really know so little about each other. Maybe none of this would be offensive, I really don’t know. And I didn’t fully know what to expect at the Pow Wow or, for that matter, what we will see when we go to the mosque today. I have traveled to 26 countries so far in my life, a good number of them in the Middle East, and in all that time, I don’t think I have ever stepped foot in a mosque.

What one wears, or uses for a mascot, or burns, or makes a cartoon about or builds near; these things can seem trivial to some, but to others are critically important. We don't really know why it is important unless we all learn a heck of a lot more about each other. And come to understand what we mean with our actions. For that, we need to step into each others' worlds.

Today is a day to take one more small step. Time to get ready.