JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: What does it mean to understand someone?

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In the process of interviewing Charles Grolla, he asked me how I happened to be drawn to teaching in reservation schools. I told him that after spending time working with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, I knew very little about Native Americans. Fifty years ago if someone were to ask me to name a Native tribe in Minnesota, I don’t think I could have done it.

When a position opened up to teach at Pine Point Experimental School on the White Earth Reservation in 1972, I thought this would be a chance to learn and understand the Native culture. So I accepted the teaching position and I am glad that I did. My life and the life of my family have been enriched by living among the Native American people. I still have a lot more to learn.

What if everyone took it upon themselves to try to understand the people that surround them? I am not referring to only Native Americans or Hispanics but I am referring to just trying to do a better job of understanding one another regardless of skin color. And if we truly took on this responsibility, wouldn’t we be closer to helping everyone get along?

What does it mean to understand someone? First, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Another word for this is empathy. What if, for example, it were not George Floyd but your brother, sister, father, or mother who was pinned down by having someone kneel on their neck? And as a result of this action, that person was convicted, tried and sentenced with a penalty of death? Would you have a better understanding of what is happening in the Black community and why people of all colors are marching?

Why did Native Americans tear down the statue of Christopher Columbus near the state capitol? Columbus was one of America’s heroes, right? How do Native Americans feel about him? Because of his explorations, the indigenous people that occupied this land were almost exterminated, mostly by disease brought in by Columbus and the thousands and thousands that followed him. If a statue of Hitler had been placed near the capitol in Berlin, don’t you think it would have been destroyed by now? The extermination of the Jews is comparable to the attempted extermination of the indigenous people who occupied these lands before Columbus arrived.


Second, to understand means that we need to listen. Think of all the times that your son or daughter, friend or neighbor came to you with a concern. Didn’t you try to understand them by listening?

It has been said that our kids want our presence more than our presents. It’s very difficult for children who come from broken homes to cope with life. There is no one person consistently present to listen to them. Being a good listener means taking time to be present and to listen. The best gift we can give people of all ages is our time.

Third, to understand means to listen to what your conscience has to tell you. Picture yourself in a circle of people who were influential in bringing about meaningful and peaceful change. I’m thinking about people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Ada Deer, Eugene McCarthy, Dalai Lama, Wilma Mankiller and Rigoberta Menchú. Do you think these people would be marching in the streets alongside the protesters demanding justice and equality for all? Wouldn't they be pulling your hand urging you to march with them? To understand means we have a commitment to ensure that things are morally right for everyone by using non-violent means.

Fourth, we know that it’s not so important in terms of what we say, what is important is what we do. When we finally understand, we have to take some action. Something has to be done when injustices exist and isn’t this a great time to take some action?

What if a community or a school changed its mission to reflect working for peace for all people? I challenge you to think of a better goal for any community or school. Most everything that was done would be oriented towards creating a peace-filled world. What if BSU or NTC could become known as the school for peace and justice? What if our local public schools and charter schools could become known for not only being an advocate for but teaching peace and justice? What if Bemidji was known not for Paul and Babe but for “A City of Peace?” It could be done. Why not now?

If we take no action as a result of the marching and protesting, then why are we here? Let’s just burn the Constitution and have a free-for-all. Who cares if our children and grandchildren will be confronted with the same issues that confront us today? Is this what we want?

Most of the things in the world, most of our greatest inventions and deeds were considered impossible before they were done. How is it possible to carry something in your pocket equivalent to a public library? Can you make a room light up just by clapping your hands? Can polio be cured or smallpox or COVID-19 (a cure is on its way)? Can you ask a little round device on your kitchen counter to give you the weather forecast? We made the impossible possible.

Why can’t we, for once and for all, try to understand the people that surround us? Is it really that difficult? When we make the right use of today, we can count on tomorrow also being right.


Riddle: Why did the teacher put glue on her students' foreheads? (Answer: Because she wanted the answers to stick on their minds.) This is a good time to ask ourselves, “What do we want to stick on our kids’ minds”?


When schools at all levels aren’t graduating 100% of their students, doesn’t that mean they, too, have to make some necessary changes? I can’t think of a better time to make those changes.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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