Basketball, Native youth, men’s healing, indigeneity, a European culture of conquest – all of these things come together in David Dean’s personal story. David’s story takes us on a journey that melds study with life experience as he spends five summers on the Crow Reservation in Montana, asks questions about his European heritage and how such a horrific culture of violence and conquest emerged within it, and compares his own experiences healing hyper-masculinity to the type of healing we might need as people of European descent to stop the processes of exploitation our ancestors put in place.
After reading David’s story, you might consider engaging with the guided inquiry “Two Strands”, which explores themes of colonization and indigenous ancestry through pre-Christian, traditional ritual practices from the British Isles.
Indigenous Peoples: From Study to Friendship
“My story started as a senior in High School, where I attended Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland, just outside of DC. My high school offered a unique class on the history of Indigenous Peoples in this country that covered the long story of colonialism in the US in a more truthful way than anything I’d ever experienced before. Bob Hoch has been teaching the class to seniors for 30 years.”
David was an avid basketball player and studied the significance of the sport on Native American reservations. “It’s incredibly popular. Some people speak about the game as a modern day equivalent to a young person’s development as a warrior in traditional society.” David’s high school study of colonialism, basketball, and cultural renewal turned out to be the beginning of a longer path.
At Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, David became friends with Justin Big Hair. Justin’s mother, Peggy Wellknown Buffalo, runs The Center Pole, a beloved and longstanding community organization on the Crow reservation (Apsaálooke Nation) in Montana. David and Justin’s friendship formed amid threats of violence and responsive activism on the campus.
“Someone threw a brick with a homophobic death threat on it through a gay student’s window that semester, and students organized a vigil in response. Justin and I met around that time and we talked a lot about the massive levels of homophobia on my basketball team at Guilford.
Because I was already familiar with it, we began talking about how popular basketball is in the Crow community, and eventually started bouncing around this idea for a summer program, using basketball as a hook for participation and connecting it with an education that was responsive to the deeper needs of young people there. We shared the idea with Justin’s mother, and she liked it.”
The result was a program called Unity Hoops, which brought David to the Crow reservation five summers in a row. He worked closely with Crow leadership and youth as coordinator of the program, and underwent his own transformation in the process.
Time on the Crow Reservation, and Questions
Unity Hoops is a summer camp for Native youth that cultivates values such as teamwork, dedication, critical thinking and poise under pressure. The program connects these values, which are integral when competing in basketball, to social justice work. The young people develop Community Action Projects, working in teams to identify an issue or problem in their community. “They would study the issue [by assessing] their own lived experiences with it, doing internet research, and talking to community and family members. They then would make a plan of action to do something about it and carry out that plan as a team,” David recalls.
“As coordinator of this program, I had to understand the effect of the historical trauma of colonialism [on indigenous peoples] in the US and specifically in this community. For some time colonization involved a very long history of straight up violent conquest to take land and make money off of it. Then came forms of cultural conquest and colonization of the mind that involved legislation outlawing traditional ceremonies and a national boarding school program that stole Native children from their homes, physically abused them, and taught them that their culture was of the devil – indoctrinating them with the capitalist values of the white, Algo elite,” David continues.
“There is all of this healing work that Native people are doing everywhere at this time. Peggy went to boarding school and was affected by that in very harmful ways. What helped her achieve the most healing was doing the Sun Dance for the first time. [The Sun Dance is] an intense and deeply transcendent traditional ceremony. The most important thing for her was reconnecting to her culture.”
Spending about 3-4 months of cumulative time (over the course of these five summers) immersed in the Crow community, David came to understand how important it was for many Native people to reconnect to their own ceremonies and traditional ways of life. This was not only important for personal well being – it was a prerequisite for effective action for legitimate social change. Healing oneself seemed to be intimately connected to healing one’s community.
This value placed in the recovery of one’s own indigenous culture came up in other experiences David had during the same time period, including work he did for Fania Davis (sister of Angela Davis) in her organization Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY).
After decades as an activist and civil rights lawyer, Fania entered an Indigenous Studies doctorate program and began to study under traditional African healers for her own well-being. Fania’s current work to transform the school-to-prison pipeline integrates restorative justice she learned from indigenous culture and people into schools and communities, emphasizing the notion that “harmed people harm people” and that “healed people, heal people.”
Fania reflects on her experience with indigenous culture in her article “This Country Needs a Truth and Reconciliation Process On Violence African Americans – Right Now”, a widely circulated piece that Fania wrote in response to the 2014 national outcry over the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Having come to California for graduate study, while still spending summers on the Crow Reservation, David’s exposure to Fania’s work and value system meshed with the experiences he was having through Unity Hoops.
“I came away with all of these questions through this whole learning process,” David says. Fania encouraged David to reconnect to his own indigenous culture and ceremonies, but the idea that his ancestors were at one point indigenous was not intuitive to David at all. This realization came, he says, as an “epiphany”, and it initiated lots of questions. In addition to understanding who they were and how they lived, David wanted to understand what happened to his indigenous ancestors that would eventually cause them to become violent colonizers of other lands.
“I wanted to understand this culture of conquest and this culture of domination that came out of Europe and hit Africa, hit the Americas, and hit Asia through colonialism. I started questioning the idea that the reason this happened is solely because western Europeans had superior technology – “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which is the title of a famous book that argues this. To me, even if they did have those things, where did this culture come from? Why would you inherently want to dominate the world?”
What Happened to Us?
The questions he was asking started David on a path of research into the history of domination and colonization that occurred within Europe prior to its brutal expansion abroad. He began to read books such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s The Indigenous People’s History of the United States – which describes the refinement of a European culture of conquest through the Crusades and the British colonization of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland – and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch – which traces the birth of capitalism to the late-Medieval stigmatization and mass genocide of “witches” as a strategy to destroy traditional rural culture, inculcate fear and division in the peasant class, privatize and steal communal land, and establish oppressive gender norms that subjugated women to the home in order to exploit men in the factory.
“I’m still very much in the beginning stages of learning about this cyclical history of colonial domination; this passage of wounding that expanded outward from western Europe across the globe.” David’s desire is to better understand the processes that disconnected the indigenous peoples of Europe from their own traditional ways, and what a healing process might look like.
“I know that Rome, and other groups after them, culturally and physically colonized the British Isles in a very similar way that centuries later Britain did to their periphery in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Then the entire empire did it to the rest of the world. I’m trying to learn more about genuine efforts to reclaim indigenous cultures of Western Europe, particularly the British Isles where I come from.”
Facing the Emotions Our Ancestors Repressed
David met and began a dialogue with Eleanor Hancock, director of White Awake, through an InterPlay class she co-facilitated at the Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, MD, in the early summer of 2016. This class, called “InterPlay with Race: Exploring Whiteness”, was organized and led by local InterPlay facilitator Katrina Brown, producer and director of the film “Traces of the Trade: a Story of the Deep North”. Through six weekly meetings, the group used movement and storytelling to explore emotion, identity, and the history of racism in a white affinity context.
In reflecting on the class, David says that, “White people are not taught how to dig deep into the emotional experience of these topics so having having embodied outlets for those really strong emotions is powerful. One of the things that’s cool about White Awake is this idea that while many of us who are white can intellectually understand how racism operates and functions – how to say the right thing and to be moral human beings in relation to these issues – we also need outlets for processing emotion. When you are a part of a group that has directly perpetrated or been complicit in massive forms of group violence such as genocide or slavery, through the generations you can incur toxic levels of shame that are not processed.”
An important piece of David’s research has been on the trauma experienced by perpetrators of violence, and the need for healing of perpetrator and victim in order for cycles of violence to cease. David has been very influenced in his thinking by psychologist Eduardo Duran’s concept of the “soul wound”, as well as the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) training program used by the Coming to the Table, a nonprofit focused on racial reconciliation .
“[When I] started to work in an indigenous community, I found a lot of emotions bubbling up. We did some exercises in the Interplay with Race class about the cost of racism to our mental health, to ourselves. It was cool to be able to get past the intellectual and move more into my body. The way that I could process and discharge a lot of negative emotions.
For me the emotions that have come up are shame, that’s the big one, and sometimes emptiness, just not having meaning, and anxiety about messing up at times when doing this work. Prior to getting in touch with my body, my only strategy for dealing with these things was powering through and numbing, numbing, numbing.”
David found the embodied outlet of InterPlay to be helpful in processing these emotions, and is interested in supporting the work of White Awake in bringing more of these types of modalities into white affinity work. He sees all of this – understanding our history, and working to heal from internalized colonization, cultural loss, and the toxic, transgenerational shame of perpetrating violence – as part of the process of ending the cycle of violence.
“My understanding is that Western European people were ripped away from their indigenous cultures through violence, and when they came to this country and were given a position of social and legal superiority to black people and Native people, they then incurred more trauma and psychological and spiritual wounding by perpetrating or being complicit in this violence. It’s not all good for white people. Within this unjust society we have more social status, and some have far more material and economic privilege, but we are very wounded and this needs to be dealt with as well.
This is not to silence the pain of people of color, which needs to be the center of any conversation about healing in this country, but if the wound of the dominant group is never discovered and articulated – so that there are direct ways to process and heal from that pain – then I think it maintains the cycle of violence and keeps real racial justice from happening in this country, because of massive defensiveness that makes us unable to stand in genuine solidarity with people of color.”
David has found it very helpful to begin to understand the history of how a culture of conquest developed among his ancestors in the British Isles. “When you understand the forces at work it that can help you unwind them. We need to understand that at one time we came from a place of wholeness and connection to the earth. This is not about taking away accountability; it’s about creating the conditions where you can be a whole human being and be accountable.”
Healing the Dominant Group, Breaking the Cycle of Violence
David’s experience with breaking a cycle of violence by focusing on the unmet emotional needs of a dominant group has its roots in a masculinity project he initiated while he was still in college. After his freshman year at Guilford, David transferred to Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania, where he completed his undergraduate degree. At Dickinson, David was exposed to radical action and on-campus organizing around sexual violence against women. He also experienced a personal shock when he was cut from Dickinson’s basketball team.
“I was an athlete all my life and played until about half-way through college. As I got to higher and higher levels in the sport, I was subject to an intensifying culture of hypermasculinity that involved the suppression of emotions that had any depth to them, a superficiality of relationships, and the normalization of homophobia and misogyny. All of that made me feel unsafe being who I actually was, and placed me in a fog of anxiety about whether or not I would “measure up. When I was cut from Dickinson’s team in November of my sophomore year I just kind of cracked and decided I could no longer live in this man box and that I instead wanted to change it.
The next semester, in 2011, the spring of my sophomore year, there was a massive occupation of the college’s administrative building. 350 people occupied the building for four days in protest of the sexual assault policy and how the school was not handling sexual violence in ways that were effective.”
David’s friendship with the women who organized the occupation had a strong influence on his own perception and experience. He began to see a connection between his struggle to be himself and the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses. With a group of other Dickinson students and the support of the organizers of the protest, David started a men’s group called MORE (Men Overcoming Restrictive Expectations).
“As soon as we created an opportunity for men to open up we found that people really responded because of how much bottling there was. We found that when men can begin to embrace the side of themselves that feels, that loves, that cares – not only is their well-being served, but the campus community becomes a safer place for everyone.”
MORE started with weekly meetings of about 15 people (all men/male-identified), in which the men talked with one another about their feelings, and what it was like to try to conform to rigid expectations of masculinity. David says that, “you might think that people wouldn’t have been receptive to the work but they really were; not everyone but most. Hyper-masculinity is not a good place to live. That’s why men commit suicide all the time.”
The group expanded into intensive weekend retreats, in which men processed their emotions about their socialization and gender expectations, and eventually began offering public speaking engagements on campus, to promote men’s healing and make the connection between hypermasculinity and violence against women. David notes that the connections he had with women organizers on campus was of vital importance to the development and functioning of MORE.
“What’s really cool about this work is that it shows how the ultimate well being of dominant and oppressed peoples is connected. The wholeness of one is related to the freedom of another. That breakthrough helps men engage in feminism. It can also help release white people from opposing racial justice. Rather than seeing our autonomy and freedom as opposed to people of color, we are able to get out of the cultural dynamic we’re inside of.”
David concludes by saying, “The foundation point of me really wanting to dig in, to understand the wounding of white people and the way we were ripped away from our indigeneity and traditional ways and sent on this journey of perpetrating a lot of oppression, came out of my experiences with MORE and the work on the Crow reservation. All of this has helped me see a bigger picture of global colonialism, how colonized people are trying to heal, what healing might look like for white people, and why this healing is important.”
This article was created with the support of Margo Mallar, a member of the staff at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Margo for making this profile piece possible!
You can listen to David speak directly about Unity Hoops and the awarenesses he developed through engagement with the Crow in the video below, a clip of David’s presentation to the extended community of his high school alma mater (Sandy Spring Friends School) at the Adelphi Friends Meeting in Maryland. If you’d like to contact David, he’d love to hear from you! Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org