Philosophy, action and reflection
Author: Haliehana Stepetin
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. Prayer flags at Buddha’s Stupa in Sarnath.
This trip has been one of transformation and extreme self-reflection and awareness. Everything in India seems to operate under extreme conditions. Extreme heat. Extreme food. Extreme noises. Extreme smells. Extreme pollution. Extreme clothing (bright colors, conservative style). Extreme transportation . . . extremely dangerous driving/walking on roads! The accumulation of these extremes has exposed my own personal norms and privileges I take for granted in my daily life.
As an Alaska Native woman living in Seattle, I already feel many oppressions and experience different tensions in every day life. I did not ever think these privileges I have realized, made my other oppressions less apparent. While I recognize certain privileges that I definitely experience including: Veteran status, socioeconomic privileges, a member of a federally recognized Indigenous tribe, appearance and body type, ability (cognitive and/or physical), gender identification, emotional intelligence, a big loving family, a place to call home, and cultural identity, I did not realize the many other subliminal privileges I take for granted until experiencing life in India. I take for granted things like being part of a federally recognized sovereign tribe, clean cold water from the tap, laundry accessibility, cleanliness, a relatively clean environment (or at least a worldview of respect for the environment), freedom to wear what I want as a woman and be independent, wifi everywhere, data on my phone, able to contact whoever I want whenever, and many more.
These privileges rose to my consciousness especially in contrast to the Tibetan situation. As an Indigenous person with a history of experiencing genocide, assimilation, and acculturation, I feel privileged to experience the freedoms we have as federally recognized Alaska Native tribes in comparison to the Tibetan situation. I had always thought that Indigenous rights are nowhere near sufficient enough to reconcile the violent genocides we have endured since Russian contact, through oppressive Christian conversions, Americanization, and English Only assimilative techniques (and still do not). I know we are not yet where we should be regarding autonomy and self-governance, but I am now extremely grateful for the small freedoms and sovereignty we do enjoy. Knowing that the Chinese government is still actively oppressing the Tibetan people to the point that refugees are fleeing to places in India such as the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) in order to preserve Tibetan culture, language, and tradition, is a reality of how bad it could be for Indigenous North Americans today. It is also extremely inspiring to know that the Tibetan people are so dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of their culture, language, and traditions. I wonder what it would take to invoke the same sort of urgency the Tibetan people have, in Alaska Natives/American Indians? I wonder if Alaska Native populations could use the techniques of Buddhism to incorporate better coping methods from the oppressions we face today and the societal issues we are constantly battling due to our history of colonization, genocide, and destruction of our people? After visiting CUTS and learning about their valuable mission, I have been inspired to start a similar education center in Alaska focused on the preservation of Indigenous language, culture and tradition.
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. Pictured above is Dr. Jampa Samten, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist professor at CUTS who guided us through the sacred sites in Sarnath. Professor Samten inspired me in his life work of the preservation of Tibetan language, culture, and tradition.