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Poverty, Wealth and Power

Poverty is a mask we put on one person to cover up his real wealth and that wealth is a disguise we put on a person to hide his or her profound poverty.

– Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies

The Navaho Tribe recently rejected the development of a resort at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers on tribal land at the Grand Canyon.  The sacredness of the area is more important than financial gain.

So what is this box that we call poverty really about?  Around five years ago there was an article in the New York Times about the severe poverty here on the Wind River Reservation.  Many were offended by the article, because they do not see themselves as living in poverty.  The article did not tell about the strong family values, the importance of spiritual traditions and the rich culture.  The article did not tell about the beauty of the landscape and the wildlife.

Poverty is defined in terms of high unemployment, low graduation rates from high school, poor housing and low incomes.  Governmental measures of poverty mask who people are and their value as human beings.  Another face of poverty is seeing someone as poor who uses food stamps to buy groceries.  We might feel contempt and blame, rather than being glad that someone is being fed.  The wealthy see themselves as smarter, better and more responsible, but at the same time may be willing to sell off public land in Wyoming to get fossil fuels that pollute our environment and restrict use to a privileged few for recreation.

Poverty and wealth are not about money, but about power.  I recall a cartoon years ago depicting old white men drinking martinis and smoking cigars in a floor to ceiling library of a mansion, and one says to the others, “I say if we weren’t meant to be rich, we would not be so.”  Nikki Giovanni, a well-known black poet from Cincinnati, Ohio now in her 70’s, said, “I hope that when they write about my childhood, they don’t write about how poor I was, but about how happy I was.”

We want to be the one who helps the poor, because then we then can identify ourselves with those in power.  We want to be in the role of helping someone go from rags to riches, escaping poverty.  But let’s change the roles from changing individuals to the challenge of changing institutions that prevent people from realizing their dreams, define certain people, especially people of color, as lesser than others and rob them of their pride, resulting in woundedness physically, spiritually and emotionally and addictions to alcohol and other drugs.

Therefore, I ask that anyone who plans to visit the Wind River Reservation to do so not to teach the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, but to learn from them; not to help them, but to be helped.

Fear not. Be bold. Build bridges. Do justice.

Chesie Lee

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