Privilege Comes with Such a Heavy Cost

Carol A. Hand

A few days ago, I intended to write a story using the metaphor of sharing a canoe to describe relationships. I spent more than half of my life with a partner I only accompanied on one canoe ride. He built canoes at one point during the years we spent together – works of art built of different colored strips of cedar. But he never took the time to learn how to canoe or build vessels that traveled well on the water. Traveling in a canoe with a partner is not like rowing a boat with two oars, where riders take turns being the one person who does the heavy work. There is usually only one paddle for canoes, although I carried a second just in case on this one and only ride. It turned out to be a wise decision.


Photo Credit: Wetlands

We set off through the narrow channels in the wetland between thickets of water lilies, tall cattails and swamp grass. He was in the front of the canoe, while I sat in back. He used his paddle forcefully, as the canoe lurched from side to side, frequently entangling us in the reeds. He wouldn’t listen to my mild suggestion that he needed to use his paddle gently, alternating it from side to side to guide the canoe slowly through the center of the channel. Finally, I lifted the second paddle to try to buffer the lurching. He quickly decided it was time for us to return home. I think that was my role in the partnership – to steer us on a straight course though the challenges.

I wanted to tell the story of how I first learned to love traveling in a canoe. I didn’t learn about canoes until I was a teenager. Even though my Ojibwe uncles and cousins took me on tours of the interconnected chains of lakes in Lac du Flambeau, they used motor boats, not canoes. (Historically, canoes were one of the primary modes of transportation for Ojibwe people, as were snowshoes in the winter.)


Photo Credit: Lakes Surrounding Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin

My family moved to northwestern Pennsylvania when I was twelve. My parents and brother spent the summer in their new home, the third floor apartment above the 20-bed nursing home my mother bought to administer. I spent the summer with my grandmother on the LdF Ojibwe reservation. I arrived at my new home just in time to attend my new school. I had no friends, the classes were all at least three to five years behind what I had already studied, the summer with my grandmother had eroded my self confidence in profound ways, and my father’s mood swings and abuse escalated. I tried to commit suicide that first year and really did not intend to survive. But I did survive. That was when I began spending time with Clara and other elders in my mother’s nursing home. They helped me find a reason to live, at least for the moment. The next summer, my parents bought a tiny summer cottage on the Allegheny River. Although the cottage smelled of mold and mildew, I loved to spend my summers there. The river became my sanctuary, like the woods that had surrounded my old childhood home.

Our cottage was nestled among a cluster of similar cottages along the shore of one of the many placid wide sections of the river, positioned between islands and eddies on both sides. Some of the channels formed on both sides of the islands were rocky and shallow, and others ran deep and fast. It’s where I learned how to canoe. Perhaps I was motivated by my father’s near disaster. Like my partner in later years, my father was confident that he knew how to canoe. So confident, in fact, that he went on his first trip alone in his best suit and dress shoes. He made it to the middle of the river and proceeded to show off his skill. With a mighty tug on the paddle, he intended to make a quick turn about. He ended up swimming back to shore, swearing, pushing the overturned canoe in front of him.


Photo Credit: Allegheny River – Hemlock Eddy

At first, I used the rowboat. I could leave my family on the shore and drift or travel around the islands to another quiet place. I quickly learned it was wiser to travel upstream first and then let the current carry me home. But the islands and eddies downriver were more interesting because they were shallow and rocky. Sometimes I needed to exit the boat to guide it through the rapids and the river eddies. As my muscles and skills grew, I used the canoe instead. It was lighter and easier to maneuver.

The river was my sanctuary. Until I did a little research online to contextualize this reflection, I didn’t realize that my sanctuary came at a great cost to others. Suddenly I understood many things. Why my mother expressly forbid me to ever mention our Native heritage, why we could afford the cottage and why it smelled of mold and mildew. I wondered why I never heard anyone speak of the dam upriver, except to say it was a good thing that would prevent future flooding. Not one teacher, not one article in a newspaper, nothing.

A few days ago I understood the cost and my heart was heavy.

For My Seneca Relatives

Your villages condemned, your houses and schools and churches burned down
To build the Kinzua hydropower dam, a dam that would flood your homeland,

Land promised in treaties to be yours forever is now your ancestors’ watery grave.
All to protect white towns from (maybe) floods and power their insatiable greed.

My privilege was just downriver – a few mile west of your suffering,
My sanctuary was your hell.
As my horizons expanded, your history was buried beneath tons of water.
As I learned to paddle a canoe, all that you owned was lost.
I didn’t know the cost.
My mother never told me, I doubt if my father cared.

True, I was only a teenager, finding solace downriver while your community disappeared.

I might have stood with you, if only I had known
Please forgive me. I didn’t know…


Photo Credit: Kinzua Dam Recreation Area

A Brief History (an excerpt from David Sommerstein, Seneca Nations New Chief Seeks to ‘Change Course’, 2011, NPR):

In Allegany, one of the Senecas’ two territories in southwestern New York state, there’s an area where a paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. The road is blocked off with concrete slabs. A quarter mile down is an abandoned bridge.

“Old Red House Bridge – that went through the community of Red House,” says Leslie Logan, spokeswoman for the Seneca nation. “Nobody lives down there. It’s a bridge that goes to nowhere essentially.”

Sixty years ago, the road meandered past thriving communities, with Seneca homes along the Allegheny River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.

But in the 1960s, the U.S. government decided it needed the land to control flooding downriver in Pittsburgh. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the villages, burned down the houses and schools and churches, and built the Kinzua hydropower dam. The Senecas had fought the plan in Washington for almost two decades.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

27 thoughts on “Privilege Comes with Such a Heavy Cost

  1. HI Carol, I think it is the pain of what privilege does to ‘other’ people that is the hardest to bear, in the end. Accepting that my life has been privileged (and even that this has lead to achievements I would otherwise not have) is the easier part. The pain that people suffer is the harder part. Babies who die because of lack of sanitation or food, mothers who were separated from their children (in South Africa, apartheid broke up families), police brutality, or systems which don’t support a child’s ambitions, all of this fills me with pain and sadness.

    All we can do is try to create opportunity, I think, and work towards a more critical society by allowing the voices of the marginalized to speak and share the struggles faced.

    This lovely and compassionate post shows that what is a sanctuary for some may be a struggle for others. Thanks for sharing that, Carol.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Nicci, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful discussion of privilege and the often unseen (or unacknowledged) suffering others experience to support it. As you point out, acknowledging our privilege and the costs others bear is an important beginning for becoming more aware of the responsibility we carry to do something about it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, my, how incredibly sad. You were finding solace and sanctuary in a place full of history. Take comfort in knowing you felt something obviously in your time there and unknown memories/history that permeated the lakes. Perhaps a spiritual connection. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And this history (of Indigenous land taken for dams and other megaprojects) is ongoing, with communities protesting throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and Canada. I always feel uneasy standing as an ally with these communities because as a North American I feel like this nation gave the world the playbook on how to treat the Peoples here first and (the privileged) we still don’t acknowledge what was done. But an essay like this is such a sad and beautiful example of sudden awareness. And the canoeing stories are also very very funny — or would be if they weren’t also so sad.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your ever-thoughtful comments, Diane. You are so right – land loss is ongoing with corporations often taking the lead these days. Today’s news is but one example:

      Yes, the US (and Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands, to name a few) all contributed to the playbook of land theft, genocide, slavery, and confinement for indigenous peoples. But that was in the past.

      (Actually, I felt the need to correct this because it is still ongoing.) New assaults come in addition to a troubling legacy of disinheritance and centuries of colonial oppression. I am so grateful to you for taking a stand on so many crucial social justice issues in ways that are respectful and liberatory.

      The canoe stories – humor often helps us survive tragedy and oppression, at least it does for me. Originally, this was meant to be a more lighthearted post, until I learned more about history… When I did learn more about the context of my privilege, I felt obligated to share what I found and felt.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh, Carol…I loved reading your story until I got to the part about the “eminent domain”. That nasty use of “other person’s” property is still a popular way to take what they (the city,the government,etc) want for their own use at no cost to them in terms of money or morals.
    I know the freedom of being outdoors, alone, surrounded by nature as a healing tool. I love trees and I find them to be healers for me. I have been where you were and am proud to have you for a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and lovely comments, Shirley Ann. It is true that being in nature is healing, and I love trees, too!

      Initially, I did want to write a different post until I read the history…


  5. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    I’ve only become aware of privilege in the last twenty years or so, and how I have impacted others. When I was able, I bought stocks in companies, not knowing how they treated their employees, whether the CEO made 400% of what the workers made, whether they polluted, etc. Now, I would not invest unless I knew all of that, and in the end, probably wouldn’t invest in corporations at all, but rather, small mom-and-pop companies. I have a firm belief that we are where we are supposed to be at any given time, and I think Carol was there for a reason, too. Perhaps she was guided there to experience what her ancestors experienced, or perhaps to bring her to write this story…or both. Awareness is the key, I think–aware of those that came before us, and will come after us, and that connection to the Creator that I personally find more in the wonder of nature. And the canoe rides? Loved it when I was at camp and first learned how to row a canoe (as Carol says – paddling equally on the sides), and the awe-inspiring scenery is just breathtaking. I am so grateful that I got to row a canoe again last year. It still brings a smile to my face now when I think of it. I would hope to share that with a partner sometime. And the best thing about canoes is that you’re not adding to the pollution by using a motor.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Dolphin, these are such crucial insights about privilege, history, and synchronicity (being in the right place at the right time, even though we may not realize it until many decades later). And I love your thoughts about canoes!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for sharing this post ❤

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Your posts are like history lessons to me. This one is quite powerful. There is so much hidden history in our lives, about our lives. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Shery. There is so much history – and it’s a crucial context for understanding the meaning of our lives and our responsibilities to others and the earth… Your work teaches me about other cultures, and I am deeply grateful for that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. I’ve learned and am still learning so much about many other cultures. To me, this makes life interesting and memorable.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Coincidentally (or maybe not, maybe things like this happen EVERYDAY), I just received this:

    San Carlos Avenue P.O. Box 0
    San Carlos, Arizona 85550 Phone (928) 475-2361 Fax (928) 475-2560

    Terry Rambler Tribal Chairman
    Dr. John Bush Vice-Chairman

    Coalition Opposes New “Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013
    San Carlos Apache Tribe, Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition, Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter and Arizona Mining Reform Coalition Unite to Oppose Land Swap.
    Contact: Tanayia White, 928.961.0603 For Immediate Release
    February 14, 2013
    San Carlos, Arizona. Today, Representatives Paul Gosar (R, AZ District 4) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ District 1) re-introduced the “Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013,” formerly H.R. 1904 in the 112th Congress.
    “It is outrageous that members of our Arizona Congressional delegation support a land swap that benefits a foreign mega-mining giant over what’s best for Arizona,” said Terry Rambler, Chairman, San Carlos Apache Tribe. “Resolution Copper Mining (RCMO), owned by Rio Tinto which does business with Iran, wants to blast a 7,000 foot deep, massive block-cave mine into sacred land in the Tonto National Forest. This land was set aside in 1955 by President Eisenhower for its religious, cultural, traditional, recreational and archeological significance.
    “We, along with many tribes, and recreational and environmental organizations, have opposed this land swap and the mine for more than seven years. Arizona cannot afford this deal. The mine would be an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale and the job claims made by the copper company are unsubstantiated. As Apaches, we will continue to fight to preserve this land for all Arizonans.”
    The Chairman emphasized that the real cost of this bill is not jobs, but desecration and destruction of a significant sacred site. He also expressed concern that the extraction process would consume voluminous amounts of water. “Toxins released intogroundwater by the block-cave mining process can contaminate our water supply throughout our region,” Chairman Rambler noted.
    Tribes throughout the U.S. have joined the San Carlos Apache Tribe to oppose the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013. The member Tribes of the Inter Tribal Councils of both Arizona and Nevada oppose this bill as does the National Congress of American Indians, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, All Indian Pueblo Council of New Mexico, and United South and Eastern Tribes. Many Apache Tribes, including Fort McDowell Yavapai Apache, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Tribe and Mescalero Apache Tribe are also opposed to this legislation, as is the Navajo Nation and others.
    In addition to Tribal opposition, the proposed legislation is also strongly opposed by major environmental groups including the Access Fund, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, Tucson Audubon Society, Friends of Ironwood Forest, Earthworks, and Sierra Club. The land is used by recreationists, hikers, and campers and is one of the nation’s premiere rock climbing sites.
    Said Don Steuter, Conservation Chair for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter, “This bill is nothing more than special interest legislation for a foreign mining corporation. It allows Rio Tinto to privatize public, sacred lands, including Oak Flat, which are of incalculable value to Native Americans, birders, rock climbers, and endangered species. And it does this by sidestepping a cornerstone of our environmental laws – the National Environmental Policy Act. We strongly oppose this bill and we are disappointed that some in our congressional delegation are once again trying to bypass the public and push through this bad deal. This legislation will harm our lands and provide little return to the American public.”
    RCM has lobbied Congress to enact this land swap since 2004. The legislation would mandate the Secretary of Agriculture to transfer more than 2,400 acres of the Oak Flat Campground and surrounding public land in the Tonto National Forest to RCM. RCM has indicated it will use the block-cave mining technique to extract the copper from Arizona public lands, a process that will destroy huge swaths of land in the Tonto National Forest and consume more than 40,000 acre feet of water yearly. In addition to the massive water withdrawal, the process will release toxins through the mining process that can contaminate and further deplete Arizona’s precious and limited water supply.
    RCM is owned by Rio Tinto PLC (United Kingdom) and BHP Billiton Ltd (Australia). Rio Tinto is partially owned by the Government of China. Because the proposal does not require that copper assets be kept in the U.S., China, and not the U.S., is positioned to be the chief beneficiary of the copper and other materials removed from the mine. Rio Tinto also does business with the Iran Foreign Investment Corporation, a wholly owned company of Iran. Rio Tinto and IFIC are partnering in a uranium mine in Africa.
    Rio Tinto and RCM have opposed any changes to the bill that would require the corporation to hire Arizonans and use Arizona resources in the operation. In addition, the bill avoids both an environmental assessment and public interest determination.
    “Resolution and its political allies don’t tell you that the land exchange sidesteps critical safeguards provided by other federal laws,” said Roy Chavez of Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition. “Arizona’s senators and representatives should be cautious. If passed, this bill may leave Arizona with nothing but a massive hole in the ground and a huge cleanup bill costing the American taxpayers billions of dollars. That would be a most unfortunate legacy for Representatives Gosar and Kirkpatrick, as well as Senator McCain.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a powerful example of ongoing corporate land and resource grabs. In fact, it’s reminiscent of how the US has treated other “third world nations” – as places to exploit for cheap labor and valuable resources, with weak environmental safeguards – all of which maximize corporate profits.

      I’m sure you’ve seen the Lakota stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline: These will be interesting times ahead…

      Liked by 2 people

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