Cup 22

Person: Abby Ward

Location: Brother’s Coffee, Gillette, Wyoming

Drink: Small coffee

Education is the best remedy for ignorance.  

Just when you think you know someone, you learn something new.

Richard Ward works at the Public Library with my mom. As I was growing up, the library was practically my second home, so I’ve known Richard and his wonderful wife, Rachel Nava, for a long time.

The family-member I did not know was Abby, the daughter they had adopted from a Lakota Sioux tribe six years before. I had seen pictures, and even held her once, but I’d left for school in Michigan before she was old enough to really meet. So naturally, when I stopped by the library to catch up with Richard and see if he had recommendations for someone to have coffee with—he suggested Abby.

He said she has a very interesting perspective. Although she is just six years old, she understands that she is adopted, and is knowledgeable about her Lakota heritage (Rachel is also in the Lakota tribe). He made a good point—and librarians have rarely led me astray—so I agreed and called Rachel to schedule a play-date with Abby.

… 

A few days later, I found myself waiting at Brothers Coffee, trying to calm my nerves. I’m not typically nervous in meeting new people, but I live in a college town, which means my world is filled with a disproportionate number of 20-somethings. I’ve forgotten how to relate to the Dr. Seuss demographic.

Abby walked in looking pretty harmless, but I was still nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Rachel asked if she should stay, or leave the two of us alone to talk; I said whatever she felt more comfortable with was fine with me. She said she would run a few errands and be back. Abby and I told her goodbye and walked to the counter for drinks. I ordered a coffee and Abby said, in a barely audible whisper, that she’d like a Coke—with a straw.

I started the conversation by covering the basics: what Santa had brought for Christmas, what grade she was in, her favorite subject in school (answers: violin, first, science). She was adorable as she answered my questions, her legs swinging back and forth as she sipped her Coke, with the straw fitting perfectly into the space where her front baby-tooth had been. I could tell she was growing more comfortable with the situation, as her responses grew from a few words to full sentences and she started telling me unprompted stories about recess. I was growing more comfortable too.

Then I asked Abby what Indian tribe she belonged to, and she said she was a Lakota. I asked her to tell me about some of the fun things she does as a Lakota Sioux. It was fun to hear the excitement in her voice as she told me about Sun Dances and Pow Wows—how she gets to learn the dances and wear the costumes—and going to visit her Tummy (biological) Mommy, and playing with her cousins at events like the Sweatlodge Ceremony. Richard had been right about her perspective—she had experiences that were certainly unique for a six-year-old.

I told her I thought it was cool that she got to do so many interesting things, and asked her if her friends at school thought it was cool too.

She replied, “Yeah, but sometimes they tell me that Indians are extinct.”

I was trying to find a response, when she said, “Some kids tell me I can’t be Indian, I have to be Mexican. But my friend who is Mexican says that I am an Indian, and Mexicans are better than Indians.”

Talking with Abby took me back to a time I had outgrown 16 years before. I had forgotten about the dynamic climate of recess; elementary kids can be a lot fun, but they can also be very cruel. Sometimes they don’t know any better, while other times the behavior is intentional. Either way, it is painful. The worst part was when she told me about when some kids came up to her and said they heard that Indians cut people’s heads off. It was clear the incident had hurt her feelings—that she didn’t understand why people would say things like that.

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to say it wasn’t her fault people were ignorant, but that’s not something you tell a six-year-old. Before I had a chance to answer, Abby started telling me a different story that took our conversation in a new direction. A few minutes later, her mom came back and joined us.

My conversation with Abby made me realize I had never heard the full story of how she had come into Richard and Rachel’s lives, so I asked Rachel a few questions.

Rachel is also Native American; however, she’d been born into an Apache tribe in Arizona. It wasn’t until she had gone to college and joined a student organization for Indians that she learned about the Lakota traditions. She’d felt a strong connection to many of the Lakota ways and spent more time with the tribe, eventually meeting an older Lakota woman who’d become like a second mother to Rachel.

Rachel explained how the Lakota have Seven Sacred Rites, one of which is adoption of others into the tribe. The older woman had expressed interest in adopting Rachel into the Lakota family, and, after serious reflection and prayer; Rachel had decided it was the right choice.

That had been over 20 years earlier, and Rachel had continued to be an important member of the Lakota family, a community of people that take great care of each other. That was why, when Abby (the biological granddaughter of Rachel’s adoptive mother) had been born to a mother who was unable to raise a child, Richard and Rachel had considered adoption. They’d known it would be a major change—Rachel had already raised two boys, and both Richard and Rachel were now old enough to be Abby’s grandparents—but they’d known it was the right thing to do. And the decision had brought them great joy.

It was a beautiful story—from Rachel’s journey into the Lakota tribe to the actual adoption—one that captured a culture rich in community, love, and tradition. It was also the kind of story that is so often missed, since we like to keep our conversations on the surface level, where things are safe, instead of taking the time to dig deeper.

I asked Rachel how she had reacted to the things students said to Abby; she said it had been heartbreaking the first time it happened. She pointed out that she knew Abby wasn’t innocent, and was just as guilty of being bratty at times; but the fact she was being treated differently for being Native American had been difficult. She explained that she and Richard had tried to counteract the incidents with education. They wanted Abby to know as much about her heritage as possible, so she could be proud of where she came from and teach others about her culture.

That made sense—education is a good remedy for ignorance.

If people took time to ask questions and get to know each other, there would be less ignorance and discrimination. Instead, we make assumptions about who they are, what they believe, and what they are capable of doing—from religion and politics, to race and everything in between.

This causes two problems—it creates unnecessary pain and prevents us from connecting with interesting people. I have known Rachel for many years, but it wasn’t until I sat down for a 15-minute conversation that I actually got to know her. Now I have a whole new appreciation for her and connection with Abby.

That’s what Cup 22 taught me: each person has a unique story, but you have to be willing to go below the surface level to find it. It’s likely that the real story is much different from what is portrayed on the surface. That is true for friends you just met (Abby), and those you’ve known for a long time (Rachel). Our meeting had me thinking I should take more time to get to know those around me a little better—walk the metaphorical mile in their shoes.

When we were talking about how the kids at school treated her, Rachel asked, with perfect mom pitch, “Abby, what does your teacher tell you to do when people are being mean?”

Abby’s answer was simple, “Let your light shine.”

We can’t control the way others treat us, but that doesn’t mean we let them stop us from shining.

That’s a great lesson to learn from a six-year-old.