Grasping Tightly to the Symbols of Power

Carol A. Hand

This morning I awoke thinking about the images that come to mind for three of the ways power is manifested: military/police force, symbolic forms of oppression through the enforcement of conformity, and resistance. Military and police action is the easiest to envision for me, and the list of images that come to mind is long indeed. Images for resistance are also easy to envision, although not as likely to appear in corporate media. Symbolic power is more difficult to envision, but the image that comes to mind for me is from Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics of the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children.


Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand

(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault (1)

At a university with strong anti-Native biases, I lived under the manifestations of symbolic power – the oppressiveness of invalidating judgments from most of my non-Native colleagues. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claimed to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. Some even thought of themselves as experts on Native American issues, and some of them had authored works that claimed to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time.


The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future. It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for master’s students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs.



I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we headed toward the auditorium. I worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture has taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. In any case, my role in this procession was to merely follow. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.

Following our unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.” As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor then noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.

After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.

We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.


When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white (as mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear).

I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.

I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced. And without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.


I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned about power from my colleagues at the university. Those of us on the margins are sometimes fortunate to encounter harsh lessons. If we are able to hold onto our foundations from other cultural or spiritual perspectives, we are better able to remember what really matters in life. It helps us resist the temptation to grasp the symbols of power for our given position in the socially constructed hierarchical order. Having options helps us question the limitations of internally programmed and externally imposed norms. It helps us see more clearly the worth of who we really are. It helps us have compassion toward others. And it gives us the tools we need to loosen the ropes that bind us all in the prison of socially constructed categories, roles, and hierarchical relationships.

Work Cited:

(1)   Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, photo inset between pp. 169-170. New York, NY: Vintage Books.



19 thoughts on “Grasping Tightly to the Symbols of Power

  1. Thanks for sharing this experience. I appreciated and shared in the lesson you drew: “The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.” I applaud your raising an unpopular (but glaringly true) view vis-a-vis the governor’s speech. How telling is it that he could not just “get away” with such an affront, but that purportedly progressive folks were gleefully eating it up? Only when we’re seen and heard swimming against it do our peers recognize the tide that carries them. Swim on, sister! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miigwetch (Ojibwe “thank you”), humanwritesblog. I appreciate your encouragement and hope that speaking one’s truth does make a difference in the long run, even if some don’t appear to hear it at the time. I also appreciate the important insights you share on your blog.


  2. Reblogged this on Voices from the Margins and commented:

    Yet again, I have observed the need of administrators to use their socially-constructed status to oppress others rather than build egalitarian partnerships that are liberatory. Perhaps my efforts to offer alternatives from the margins will take root and bear fruit in the future…


  3. The image you drew of the tree is so powerful, Carol. I’d like to blow it up and frame it 🙂 I am so amazed at the courage you showed in speaking up when everyone else gushed over the speech, standing by your convictions when something wasn’t right. But that is what I’ve come to learn about you. Such a powerful teacher with powerful lessons for all of us. Thank you.


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Mandy. I do love the symbolism of the bonsai tree roped to make it straight. It’s what I feel we often do through the processes of socialization and education.


  4. Takes courage to speak out. Well done, Carol. Perhaps the people who walked away will take some time to reflect later on? I hope so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, the ones who walked away closed ranks and defined me as an angry Indian – a common response to voices from the margins. Three of my eight colleagues (those not in power positions) understood the message and actually integrated their understanding into greater sensitivity in their future work. And as so often happens, none of them remained within that particular university – some left by choice, and some because they were refused promotion or tenure. I left for both reasons. This is an example of the power of the privileged status quo at work to silence critical discourse and maintain their hegemony …


      1. Power always fights to maintain itself, I guess. I can’t understand why people want to be so narrow, I have to say. In the end, all these old ways of viewing and seeing life become so boooring! Deathly dull. And I don’t know why people can’t take an interest in anything very different. But maybe it feels too challenging? Maybe the crisis it evokes when the world isn’t as people used to see it is too threatening to bear?

        I think there needs to be work on how to make it through the crisis, shame and discomfort of seeing other world views, and how to integrate that. In this way, I wonder if social justice could learn from the eco-therapists, who learned how to contain the emotions, denials and resistances?

        It gets to be infuriating at times when people just won’t be considerate.


        1. It is “so booooring,” Nicci. It helps me to realize there are many choices one has when the power structure ultimately closes ranks to preserve hegemony. Flexibility, creativity, and humor help. I remember how grateful I was to have the option to leave for another position. During my departure, I thought of Sartre’s No exit (Huis Clos). Basically it’s a play about three people who can’t stand each other who are trapped in the same room for eternity. Those in power can close ranks only when there is an “enemy” to fight. When the enemies all depart, leaving behind people who are too caught up in petty concerns like those in No exit, they fight with each other. Honestly, I can’t imagine a more meaningless or boring existence!

          Freire argues that change can only come from those who are oppressed. The challenges are (1) how does one join or build the critical mass of oppressed people needed for transformative change, and (2) how does one build and maintain cohesion in a collaborative without merely replicating the structures and hierarchies of the past. I do remember reading that the most effective approach is for millions of smaller separate movements around the globe, each approaching local change in their own creative, peaceful ways. It’s easier for the conformity enforcers to infiltrate large, visible movements like “Occupy,” but how can they possibly contain millions of separate movements?

          Liked by 2 people

  5. There are so many different voices, and it makes sense that if different groups present different alternatives, there are new seeds of thought, imagination and possibility to work with. I remember one person explaining to me that people who don’t fit in with ‘norms’ anyway will not fight change.

    At the same time, it’s helpful to have alternative ways of looking at the world, new solutions, outlooks, a broader view which becomes incorporated into everyday life, wider definitions of what it means to be a part of the human (and even non-human) family, and deeper understandings of difference. I think it should be a part of everyday learning, culture and discourse.

    My daughter is now learning about the history of Mali at school. Mali, with it’s massive library. Just learning about it undid the colonial discourse of (mis)education as a means of development in Africa. “It’s a myth that colonialism brought knowledge to Africa, it was already here.” She said. Children need to know that, and change has to happen. When I was at school, history began with a couple of ‘white’ people getting off a ship!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the story about what your daughter is learning now, and the contrast to what you were taught in school! it is true that understanding the richness and complexity of other cultures widens our horizons, making it possible to break out of our narrow perspective about what is possible.

      I remember reading that it is crucial for groups that are trying to innovate to “reinvent the wheel,” to make whatever they are trying to develop a hybrid of what others have learned and what works in their context. Groups need to feel it’s their idea to be motivated to go through the long and difficult work of transformative change.

      I just want to add a final comment, Nicci. I love your willingness to engage in dialogue. Thank you 🙂


    2. Nicci, are they discussing what happened to the library last year – how it was attacked and I think burned, but the librarians and caretakers knew the criminals were approaching and saved most of the manuscripts?


  6. I have recently been asked to join a kamatua (elders) group of the Te Atiawa iwi (Maori) in New Plymouth. Most of the people who attend have been to university and are teachers and professionals. I hear this theme constantly at the meetings, which are surprisingly large for a small town (40-50 people at most meetings). The meetings are modeled on the deliberative democracy process that happens in the traditional marae, which means that everyone gets an equal voice. It is quite gratifying to see the members take strength from one another and begin to speak out – officially – against the constant disrespect they experience from the dominant (European) culture.


  7. What a fascinating honor and opportunity to participate in the Te Atiawa iwi elders’ group! Your observations about the inclusiveness and respect of all voices are so eloquently described.

    This past week I had a similar experience at an Indigenous women’s gathering. Standing in a circle around the fire as the full moon rose to the sound of the drum and the Ojibwe “Bear Song” forged a bond among women from all types of backgrounds and life experiences. All voices were equally valued. Experiences like this make me realize why it was so difficult to “serve my time” advocating from the margins within dominant cultural institutions for so many years.


    1. You’re right. It’s a great honor and somewhat humbling. Ironically I have never participated in a “European” group that functioned so effectively. I’ve been going to political meetings of European groups for over 30 years and they’re all pretty dysfunctional.


      1. I’m not surprised you were asked to join the group. Your past work and ongoing commitment to social justice are clear to people who see beneath the surface of differences. And I’m not surprised that you have found European groups to be dysfunctional with everyone focused on their own ego-driven agendas. How could it be otherwise when people are socialized to see others as competitors?


  8. Carol, Just getting time to read your essay. I’ve addressed my dismissal of “people in authority” in my 20’s when I began my step away from what “society” considered important. It was about the same time I read Freire. Interestingly, though, this essay brought to mind a documentary I watched last night called Black Girls. It was about the continuing devaluing of the beauty of dark skinned black American girls. Some of the things you said in this essay applied in that discussion. It ended though, with the importance of girls being loved for who they are and their beauty being recognized in their families giving them the self confidence and pride they needed to shine in a world that doesn’t really see them. Just like the Governor failing to honor the true, best, and first citizens of the state. Thanks again for sharing the jewels of your experience and insight.


    1. I always look forward to your insights, Skywalker. Thank you for a more expansive and inclusive dialogue about the many ways in which “difference” is marginalized – seeing others’ beauty and worth are two critical considerations. The prejudice and discrimination directed toward black Americans in this country is appalling and inexcusable. I am grateful you added these examples.


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