Carol A. Hand
Winter was sometimes warm and mild in the prairie lands where I lived while I taught a double-load of classes and finished writing about my research study on Indian child welfare. The weather was warm and calm on the day I finished my first draft in February of 2003.
I’m not sure how I ever ended up as a doctoral candidate in social welfare, but here I was – finishing what I had started more than a decade before. I printed and collated the 320-plus pages of my draft dissertation as one of my colleagues tried to distract me and draw me into an ongoing intradepartmental conflict. Somehow, I managed to keep my focus on assembling the six thick binders I needed to mail to university faculty, my doctoral committee, who would judge my work as “pass, redo, or fail.”
After visiting the post office to mail six packages, I headed to my little house in the working class section of town. I parked my car in back, the alley side, and started walking toward my house, probably lost in thought. Suddenly, a vision of the Ogema I had heard so much about during my study appeared in the air to my right. He had died long before my visit to the community. I only knew about him through writings, stories, and old photos. When he appeared, all that I saw was his face – it was as if I were peering through a window into another dimension. He was laughing as he said, “You forgot to tell them how I was with the children. You need to tell them this.”
Maybe I was just tired enough for my imagination to play tricks on me, or maybe this was real – an important message I needed to heed. It’s true that the draft I had just mailed off didn’t emphasize the crucial role model he was for all of the elders who shared their stories about their childhood years. Ogema was often a central figure in their accounts.
As March 12 approached, the day I would face a six-member faculty committee to defend my dissertation, I reflected on Ogema’s words, and on the challenge of walking in two worlds. I doubt that many of the Ojibwe elders I had spoken with during my study would find my vision of Ogema to be odd. But what about my committee members? Would they even need to know?
I prepared my presentation for the committee, carefully connecting relevant theory and past research to support my research approach and conclusions. But one never knows beforehand what questions faculty will ask and whether they will need to challenge the merit and trustworthiness of one’s work. As I climbed Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin – Madison the day of my defense, I struggled to balance the obligatory refreshments for faculty and the thick black three-ring binder that held years of work and the key to a future I had never envisioned when I was a child or young adult.
As I walked, I wondered if the years of work compiled in this document would address the concerns one of the committee members raised at the beginning. “Rescuing children or homogenizing America [the short title of my dissertation]? That’s a very provocative title [meaning ‘critical and emotionally charged’]. You’d better be able to defend it.”
A little winded by the climb, I finally arrived. After introductions and small talk, it was time to begin. I’m not sure why I began my presentation as I did, but in the end, it proved to be wise on many levels. I began with the story about Ogema’s appearance and spoke of the challenge of walking in two worlds – white and Ojibwe, the challenge of reading histories of oppression and suffering and past research literature that referred to people in my grandparents’ and mother’s generations as “the children of savages.” And I spoke of the difficulty of remaining objective as I strove to weave it all together after listening to people’s stories and observing present conditions and power dynamics.
Location of all Ojibwe Reservations/Reserves and cities with an Ojibwe population in North America, with diffusion rings about communities speaking the Ojibwe language. (Source)
The defense was a long and arduous process, but I did pass with two unexpected gifts. The faculty member who warned me that I needed to defend my title had tears in her eyes at the end. She hugged me and told me that she was deeply touched by the stories of adversity and resilience, of oppression and Ojibwe innovation and resistance. And a faculty member who had graded another student’s work with pointed critiques in red ink handed me his copy of the draft I had sent him with his penciled comments in the margins – stories his Native American father had shared about his experiences growing up.
Since then, my files and notebooks have been biding their time, waiting for me to share the story about how Ogema “was with the children” with an audience that is larger than the six faculty members who were present during my defense in March of 2003. And perhaps this post is a draft of the preface for the book I’ve begun to tell Ogema’s story…
Imagine what the world would be like if national and corporate leaders were as eager as Ogema was to be remembered for how they treated children during their tenure.
Note: Ogema is not the name of an individual, but is used to designate his position in the Ojibwe community in the past. In his case, the title represented not only his hereditary status as chief, but also a recognition of the respect he earned from community members through his wise leadership, kindness, and generosity. He was kind to the children, he protected them in times of need, and he enacted policies and built alliances to protect them in the future.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the members of my doctoral committee for their support and encouragement, as well as the Chair of the Social Work Department in the prairie lands who provided support and flexibility for me to complete my dissertation.
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.