When customs dictate behavior


On Friday mornings I head off on my bike into our little berg with my pack full of painting supplies.

I lock my bike at a cafe and pull out a large ceramic mug and buy a bottom-less cup of coffee to take to my watercolor painting class.

My cup filled, I cross the street, armed with bike helmet and painting supplies, and head off to class.

Today I’m a bit early, and I look for an open seat with plenty of table space.

Some of the regulars are already painting, even though class hasn’t officially begun.

I often sit near the teacher, since I’m a beginner, but the seats are already filled by eager regulars.

This summer I discovered that a handful of the artists have been taking the class for three, five and even seven years.

The alumni know one another, chat and laugh, and talk about children and grandchildren, their retirement, and politics.

In contrast I feel young, but not unwelcome.

Until today.

I find an empty seat on the other side of the room and start unpacking.

One of the regulars comes over to me and says that I’m sitting where Norma [not her real name] usually sits.

She then points to other chairs: and that’s where Peg sits, and that’s where Charlie sits.

I put my hand on an empty seat.

Yes: that’s OK, she says.

I take the seat and the women next to me—who I’ve never seen before—smile and nod while I unpack, and continue their conversation about their husbands.

I’m annoyed.

I feel a stranger in Camus’ sense: an outsider in my own classroom.

Friday mornings are my Zen time, when I meditate through painting.

I usually concentrate on the task at hand—brush to water, brush to color, brush to paper—and surround myself with thoughts of painting.

The outside world slips away.

Today I try to temper my annoyance with breathing and concentration.

I wonder: where else am I an outsider?

I think about going to the reservation for the annual dances.

Where you sit is proscribed.

I learned about the seating customs when my mother and I first attended the dances nearly 30 years ago.

My parents had built a house a few hours from the reservation and my mum made weekend treks to Oklahoma to become reacquainted with tribal ways (she was born there, but moved away as a youngster).

Slowly she learned about reservation life and was taken under wing by relatives who invited her to come to the dances in June.

My mother learned to make traditional regalia and was taught finger-weaving by the village’s most respected elder.

One summer my mother and I attended the dances with relatives and I learned there are benches reserved for the inner-circle.

Outsiders can sit on chairs for visitors.

I learned that where you sit signifies your place in the community, which I never questioned as someone who never lived on the reservation.

Since then I have returned many times, often with my children in tow, and most recently with my husband, who had never visited an Indian reservation.

My husband was warmly welcomed by my relatives, who joked that they needed to vet him as a suitable partner for our marriage to be formalized.

My relatives are kind and warm and open, and they tell me if I have my skirt on backwards or if my ribbon is too long when I participate in the dances.

Like the reservation, my painting class is full of denizens who instruct me on the customs.

I’m an outsider who needs to learn the local ways.

7 October 2017

Pictured: One of my first paintings, created this summer 





About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, reservation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When customs dictate behavior

  1. Lisa Chesser says:

    It’s always so refreshing to learn about traditions in other communities, especially pleasant when both parties enjoy the intricacies of “my skirt on backwards.” Such a perfect line.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find myself deeply touched by your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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