Carol A. Hand
Years ago, I was asked to be a keynote speaker for a conference sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The audience would be BIA and tribal social services staff from the U.S., primarily from the Great Lakes and Western states. The speaker’s fee they offered me was offensively large in relation to the $30,000 annual budget my tribe (the Sokaogon Ojibwe Community) received to address the needs of children and families living on the reservation, or in the case of child welfare, throughout the state and country. The truth is I don’t like speaking in public, so I typically look for diplomatic reasons to decline invitations. In this case, I listed some conditions that I hoped would be reasons for the BIA to withdraw the offer. First, I told the BIA administrator that I would be willing to speak if they paid my travel expenses and per diem for meals and lodging. Second, I asked them to create a special contract to award the speaker fees to my tribe to fund flexible services for children and families. To my surprise, the BIA administrator agreed, so I signed the contract.
As the date of the conference neared, I was given additional directions about what I would need to speak about. The newest fad in federal bureaucracies was the management video – FISH – that emerged from the extraordinarily successful approaches used by the Seattle fish market. Staff at the market were encouraged by management to entertain and connect with their customers — the video shows staff throwing fish to each other over the heads of the customers or singing about the unique virtues of different kinds of fish. It is a very funny video and on some levels emphasizes the fact that work should be fun and one’s clients or customers should be the focus of a worker’s attention in public and private service industries.
Photo Credit: lakesidelodge.co.za
Yet as I reflected on how to interweave the message of “FISH” into a presentation for tribal staff, the prospect became daunting.
2. Make their day,
3. Be there, and
4. Choose your attitude.
I was extremely uncomfortable with the audacity of telling staff whose client loads were over 100 that the way to survive overwhelming responsibilities with inadequate resources, bureaucratic inertia, and racism from surrounding communities was really up to them. All it would take to improve their jobs was their willingness to change their attitudes. Needless to say, I decided I had to not only explain the FISH model, but also critique it from a Native American perspective. And really, I was volunteering my time. The only constraints I felt were to provide useful information to the audience and not embarrass my tribe.
The day of the training, I put on my funny fish-print jumper. At least my appearance would entertain the audience of more than 100 people. Presenters were introduced by the director of the sponsoring Regional BIA Office in a unique themed way — she threw cloth fish our way for us to catch before we were introduced. (Yes, I caught mine.)
The opening remarks were delayed by technical difficulties. But then, I was next up. I decided to use old technology – transparencies – so there was no need to wait for computers and video projectors. I began my presentation, “Of Fish and Families,” by diplomatically discussing the FISH Principles. But I couldn’t ignore the need to explain that the implied goal of the FISH model was to increase corporate profits by maintaining the existing customer base, attracting new customers, selling more products, and decreasing staff turnover. (I could see the Regional BIA Office Director seated in the front row begin to frown, but I kept going.)
It would be nice if tribal social services could increase funding in this way, but that isn’t how tribal social services work – really this only works for for-profit prisons. The goals of tribal governments are profoundly different: preserving sovereignty; protecting people, land and resources; maintaining social order; and preserving culture. Tribal services “customers” are not buying a special treat or even a necessity. They are neglected or abused children, struggling families and individuals, and foster or adoptive families. The job of tribal staff is to help clients obtain the services and supports they need to heal and become self-sufficient, and healing the community ultimately means working yourself out of a job. (An even deeper frown)
So how do the FISH principles fit with the attributes of successful human service programs? Based on a national study of programs that demonstrated success in improving people’s lives, there are some things that may be helpful for tribes to consider. Some of these principles reflect what we can learn from FISH, highlighted in blue on the list, but some are unique to non-profit services.
Successful human service programs:
- Are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering;
- See children in the context of their families;
- Deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities;
- Have a long-term, preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time;
- Are well managed by competent individuals with clearly identifiable skills;
- Are staffed by people who are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive services; and
- Operate in settings that encourage practitioners to build strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.” (Lisbeth B. Schorr, 1998. Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America, pp. 5-10)
How do these attributes and principles fit within the context of tribal sovereignty? (An even deeper frown and arms are crossed)
The problem with policies and programs developed to serve general populations is that they are too often decontextualized and ahistorical. They fail to incorporate a recognition that power, history and culture matter. The external forces tribes deal with make innovation challenging: unequal power relationships between tribes and federal policy makers and funders; the imposition of Euro-American values and ideologies; Federal laws that limit tribal sovereignty (e.g., Public Law 280 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act); Euro-American institutions, organizational structures, and practice approaches; and legacies of colonial oppression. The reality we all face is more than responding to urgent contemporary issues. Many of the challenges tribal people experience now have roots in historical legacies of unresolved trauma.
As a speaker, I always look for ways to involve the audience. In this case, I had decided to experiment by using something I had observed in a workshop conducted with service providers and community members on an Ojibwe reservation. I asked for volunteers to help me illustrate how unresolved grief and loss are passed on from generation to generation. The audience came alive and many hands were raised. I only needed five, so I tried to pick people of different ages in different places around the large room. (The Regional BIA Office Director used this opportunity to get up and walk to the back of the room, where she remained standing for the rest of the session, arms crossed, with an openly angry expression by now)
We “sculpted” the weight of oppression for each succeeding generation, as illustrated in the following figure. For each historical era, the audience was asked to shout out the historical events that occurred for their tribe. The volunteers lined up, all facing the same side wall, each representing one historical era.
Contact Era: massive death mostly due to disease, displacement, land loss, massacres, missionary efforts to “civilize” Native Americans
Conflict/Domination Era: massive death due to disease, warfare deaths, removal of children to boarding schools, displacement, land loss, customs outlawed
Assimilation Era: land loss, tribes placed on reservations, U.S. Congress assumed plenary power over tribes, removal of children to boarding schools, more customs outlawed
Integration Era: Corporate form imposed on tribal governments, children forced to attend off-reservation public schools, termination of some tribes, relocation of families from reservations to urban areas, states granted jurisdictional powers over civil issues (e.g., child welfare)
Self-Determination/Self-Governance Era: limited sovereignty returned for tribal administration, justice systems, health and social services, child welfare
(The Five Generations Exercise, Recovery Foundation, 1999, High Risk Kids Workshop Manual, p. 27.)
For the first era, the time of early contact (1500s-1770s), many spoke of massive death, massacres, and land loss. When it was time to move on, the representative of the first era leaned forward and placed her hands on the shoulders of the next generation, symbolizing the weight of unresolved grief from so many losses that would be carried on the shoulders of the next generation. Again, the audience called out the events for tribes during the era of conflict and colonial domination. As each era was covered, the generational representative would lean on the shoulders of the next in line. By the time we reached the present day representative, he was struggling to stand with the weight of the past on his shoulders. Then, it was time for a change. The present day representative was asked to turn around and face the history. The weight was still there, resting on his shoulders, but our physical bodies are better able to deal with the weight if we are facing it, and so are our emotions. By acknowledging our history, we can bear it. We can understand how the legacy of loss and unresolved grief has affected our families and communities and begin the process of healing. What can we do knowing that our work to help people and communities heal will still remain challenging?
Photo Credit: Trail of Tears, California State University Long Beach
I suspected that my next topic would be the final straw for the Regional BIA Office Director. I shared the story of the starfish. The topic was FISH after all, and we needed to lighten the mood. The starfish story reminds people that whatever they do to improve things does make a difference, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
I ended by tying it all back to simple ways to apply the messages of FISH in our work. “Our jobs may sometimes seem impossible or futile given the number of children and families who need help and the seriousness and complexity of the challenges families face. However, we can remember the story of the starfish. We can choose to do what is in our power – we can be there with people even if we don’t have all of the resources we would like to offer them. When we see others doing what they can, we can offer encouragement, unlike the young man in the story of the starfish. We can join them, and help organize others to help. We can choose our attitude and remember that it is no small accomplishment to improve the quality of the day with simple kindness.”
The audience was gracious and applauded loudly. Most waited to talk with me afterwards, and many wanted to know more about the sculpting exercise – tribal elders, leaders, service staff, and BIA administrators were all eager to share it with others. They told me the presentation touched them deeply because they had an opportunity to glimpse larger historical forces that continue to make their lives and jobs so challenging. It’s no surprise that the Regional BIA Office Director was not among those who were excited. I was never asked to speak again at a BIA conference. Yet in the end, I am glad I made the decision to accept the engagement. My tribe did have a little extra funding to provide services, I had a chance to see a Rocky Mountain city during forest fire season, and I had an opportunity to meet many inspiring people. Oh, and it was the only chance I had to wear my funny fish-print jumper. My daughter has inherited it, and now she will have a story to go with it.