Reflections about the Power to Shape “Knowledge”

Carol A. Hand

I wish to express my deep gratitude to Miriam Schacht for helping me be able to admit something that I have carried silently throughout my professional and academic career. Influenced more by my Ojibwe heritage, perhaps because of consciously-obvious contrasts to Anglo-American values, I have viewed my work as a sacred responsibility. As non-rational as it may sound, I seek to understand individuals and communities by listening and observing from a compassionate, nonjudgmental, eco-systems worldview. This is not an easy task, and it has often made me wonder if the lenses I look through to make sense of the world are trustworthy.

I wonder what knowledge or obligations still lead me to challenge the taken-for-granted views and methods of other practitioners and scholars. Yet when I ask whether research and practice interventions improve the lives of individuals, the compassionate cohesion of communities, or the sense of peace and shared humanity in the world, I must honestly admit that the consequences are often justification for ever-increasing levels of oppression through the language of “scientific,” “evidence-based practice.” I realize it is crucial to challenge this paradigm and share what I discover, even though I will never know if what I see is true.  The research I have done feels more trustworthy, respectful, holistic, and authentic than what is currently viewed as “scientific research.” When I share what appears to be “true” from a perspective of deep listening and compassion, I can feel my heart begin to “glow.” That’s when I feel compelled to speak or write, as I do now, even though I have papers to grade and a new course on research to develop.

Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

Miriam’s essay reminded me that it is important to take the time to reflect on the meaning of life and the work we do first. It has helped me reflect once again about the links between research and power (or hegemony), and how important a bi-cultural lens can be. The following excerpt from one of the exam papers I wrote during my graduate studies demonstrates the complexity of walking in two worlds. [1]


Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. [2] In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.


 [My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.

This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy. [3]


Through boarding schools, educational policies, and child welfare institutions, generations of First Nations children were taught, and internalized to varying degrees, the ideologies, attitudes, and behaviors imposed by colonial powers (Bensen, 2001).

Although I had been “trained” in the dominant quantitative research paradigms of my university and social work discipline, the power of experts to frame every aspect of studies troubled me as I reflected on the perspective of the Ojibwe youth who shared the story above. It highlighted the dangers of adopting the methods used by the dominant culture to study less-powerful “others.” Instead, I chose a qualitative approach, ethnography, which would require living within the community I planned to study. Even so, the ethnographic accounts written about Ojibwe people are fraught with misinterpretation and biased representations that only serve to reinforce power differentials, hegemony, and stereotypes. I added another layer of protection from this danger by conducting a “critical ethnographic” study designed to question the role of dominant policies and institutions in creating the problems being investigated. Answering the questions about disproportional representation among Ojibwe children in the child welfare system no longer focused on identifying the problem as one caused by Ojibwe families or communities, but one that was located in the imposition of dominant cultural policies, institutions, and practices — past and present.

Even with extra safeguards, such as asking some of the key Ojibwe people to review what I write prior to publication to check for accuracy, the power of ethnographers to frame other cultures still makes me uncomfortable. As Crabtree and Miller (1999) point out, even with the best of intentions, our gaze is still limited by the lenses we look through. Through the processes of education, socialization, and mass communication, the citizens of nations are programmed to accept the prevailing order, to spontaneously consent “to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci, 1999, p. 12). Despite reflection, I know I still carry years of indoctrination that color what I look for, what I understand from what I see, and the meanings I attribute to what I hear and observe.

In the research project that followed the Ojibwe child welfare study, I worked with an urban Indian center to design a more egalitarian partnership based on the philosophy of community-based participatory research (Israel and colleagues, 1998).


The Indian center was located within an urban community that was palpably anti-Native, with significant disparities in terms of health and income for Native Americans. Diversity based on Tribal heritage and the length of residence in the urban area contributed to the development of distinct factions among members of the Native population, resulting in fierce competition for limited jobs and leadership positions. It was within this context that the Center staff and Board of Directors asked me to conduct a “needs assessment.” I told them I would be willing to help if we could also gather information about community strengths and descriptions of what community members hoped the community would look like in the future. They agreed. Using research as a tool to explore possibilities for identifying common ground, I collaborated with a multi-cultural team comprised of urban center staff, Native American community members, graduate students, and another faculty member. As a team, we worked collaboratively to design every aspect of the study. As one of the community members noted,

 “Part of rebuilding the community is utilizing people who want to help. It will take the sense of belonging to the community like the branches of a tree. By doing this reaching out, it makes the community healthy, and it makes the center strong and healthy, and people are drawn to it and want to hang around.” (Community Member, January 8, 2007).

The information we gathered from a diverse selection of community members gave the team a great deal of hope for successfully uniting the community. But in the real world, things don’t always work out the way we would like them to. Timing was a crucial factor. Before we had an opportunity to share our findings with the community as a whole, I accepted a position at another university to escape the offensive and oppressive politics in my university department. Doing so proved costly for the project and the Indian center. Without crucial support from the university, the agency staff and board members were unable to withstand divisive internal conflicts and external political oppression. Although I tried my best to provide encouragement and support long-distance, the next steps never took place. Ultimately, part of the challenge of community work is to realize that it needs to be a community decision to take the next steps to bring people together. Nonetheless, it is heart-breaking to be aware of the consequences of oppression for marginalized communities, and to realize that we might have made a difference, if only …, but I trust that we all did the best we could at the time.

I am grateful to Miriam, to the Ojibwe youth who wrote his award-winning essay, and to the Indian Center friends who helped me remember what it means to value the sacred gift of caring. For me, the roles of teacher and researcher are humbling reminders of how little I really know, and reminders of the need to honor the sacred obligations embodied in the responsibilities these roles represent. I am reminded of the need to be truthful and compassionate, and to give voice to the strengths, hopes, and visions of those who share their lives with me during our collective journey. Research, a neutral tool, can be used as a force to promote understanding and liberation. Even though the type of research I do is not seen as “scientific” by many in the academic community, it does have the potential to inspire people to envision new possibilities, realize their own strengths, and gain the skills and confidence to transform their lives and communities.


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures



1. Carol Hand (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices, and paradigms: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Unpublished Paper: Preliminary Exam Paper 2 – Relevant Theoretical Literature – Differential Power and Indian Child Welfare. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2. The youth’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited.

3. The terms Native American, American Indian, and First Nations peoples are used interchangeably throughout. American Indian/Alaska Native (or simply ‘Indian,” as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs) is still the dominant term used for administrative purposes by the United States Government, as well as by many tribal elders. The term Native American emphasizes the indigenous status of the population which occupied the Americas at the time of European “discovery,” and served as a focus for unifying the descendants of indigenous peoples across tribal boundaries during the 1960s. First Nations peoples, a term widely used in what is now Canada, underscores the importance of sovereignty as an ideology which distinguishes tribal communities from other numeric “minorities” within societies dominated by the numerically larger Euro-American immigrant populations who have imposed political, cultural, and economic hegemony.

Authors Cited:

Bensen, R. (2001). Children of the dragonfly: Native American voices on child custody and education. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Crabtree, B. E. & Miller, W. L. (Eds.)(1999). Doing qualitative research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gramsci, A. (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds & Trans). New York: International Press.

Israel, B. A., Schultz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173-202.



13 thoughts on “Reflections about the Power to Shape “Knowledge”

  1. Ah, yes, “evidence-based” is a term we’ve heard in public education for years now to justify increasing standardization and suppression of critical thinking, creative pedagogy and multicultural literature. As a former social worker, the conflict between clinically-based practice and authentic, relational interactions was also evident. It is disheartening to hear these issues are prevalent in academia as well.

    But mistakes made are lessons learned…thank you for being willing to share both, Carol. Not many people are willing to admit to theirs. As teachers, a common mistake we’ve all made is to impart knowledge to our students while withholding the winding road that took us there. It helps to see the process.


    1. Unfortunately, the positivist myth of evidenced-based practice is something academia passes on to many students. It’s an effective paradigm for blaming the problems people experience on their own personal deficiencies rather than on the social inequalities and oppression that are often the causes of people’s suffering. It’s a clever ploy that keeps many people from seeing that the real problems are structural, not personal.

      I agree that experience is the best teacher, and from my perspective, the most important and memorable lessons in my life have come from my failed attempts — yet caring enough to try is a consolation. As a teacher, I try to create real-life assignments that are intended to help students grapple with the challenge of figuring out how to apply what they’re reading. Grades aren’t based on success, but rather on their ability to describe and demonstrate what they learned as a result. I suspect you do the same for your students 🙂 .

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this~
    The challenges that Native children face daily are scarcely known by the public off the Reservations. Their world is filled with choices to be made that other children will never be exposed to in their lives. Pine Ridge is what comes to my mind always, with White Clay and its poison just feet from home. This ugly situation should have been removed many years ago, yet still it exists and flourishes. Taking hostages for life as it does. The street outside their doors are filled with them. Removing this evil must come from within, and the mothers and women of Pine Ridge are fighting back. If their children are to grow up and make it, they must succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Gator Woman, and for raising an important example. The colonial repression of the Lakota people clearly demonstrates the importance of understanding history and the consequences of U.S. policies. The Lakota descendants who now live on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota carry the trauma of a series of particularly brutal events: Historical trauma, combined with continuing discrimination on every level, contribute in direct ways to the current situation in White Clay, Nebraska: . I’ve included links to some information in case others want to find out more.


      1. The whole area there is a tinder box.
        So many factions are involved and the stress level is raging for all concerned.
        My heart breaks every time that I go there.
        Did you read my post yesterday on tahtonka?
        I did it for you~


        1. Yes, I loved your post about Carlisle. The story about the children’s graveyard was heartbreaking, and the honor and respect you and Walking Fox showed to their spirits was beautiful and profound, an act of deep kindness. I wanted to comment to tell you how moving your story was, but I couldn’t find the words to say what I felt at that moment.


  3. Hi Carol, I thought about this one such a lot as well. What do we, as researchers, bring when we interpret/ share ‘knowledge’? What do we miss? In the end, all I could do was say my own privilege was probably going to mean i missed a lot, and there could be many different interpretations which would be written up by other researchers. So the knowledge was really just part of a conversation. It’s a hard one though, because as long as people with privilege write the most, the conversation remains off balance.


    1. These are crucial insights, Nicci. As you point out so eloquently, the first step is to acknowledge our privilege and myopia with honestly and humility and offer our interpretations as one way of seeing things and be open to ongoing dialogue in order to explore other views.


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