“You Need to Tell Them How I Was with the Children”

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.

Ojibwe speaking communities

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 Ogemawas 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.

18 thoughts on ““You Need to Tell Them How I Was with the Children”

    1. Thank you for such kind and lovely comments, Charlotte, and for your emphasis on the importance of courage to dare to be different (although in my case, tenacity and stubbornness are probably better descriptors). ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  1. While your words are not lost on me, I do love the fact that you had a vision (probably not your first, I suspect(?)). And that you have the courage to express it matter-of-factually is another matter that speaks highly of you, Carol. So many look on such as nonsense. And I think that is one underlying purpose of religious indoctrination, to dismiss such things as either lunacy or the work of Satan, thereby keeping us spiritually constrained (powerless) while ensuring their monopoly on their watered-down, impotent version of the mystical. Though, for myself, I’m still waiting for my first vision. Perhaps the spirits have abandoned me. Yes, that would be like them I think.

    Which reminds me and further illustrates my point, I seen a UFO in the night sky last Saturday, remember I live in the country now, and for the few I’ve told of this unidentified object, they look at me like I’m bonkers. Well, maybe I am, but I did see something. Nothing humming, large, or hovering but brighter than Venus, just off to her left and four times as large, stationary, first on then off, then on again and gone in a flash.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Peter, you raise so many important points about different ways of knowing.

      In the past, Ojibwe culture discouraged speaking about one’s visions. One ran the risk of making others feel “less worthy,” promoting feelings of insecurity in others and perhaps inviting jealousy and self-doubt, disrupting egalitarian relationships. I remember the feelings I had when I read the account of Rev. Peter Jones, Kahkewaquonaby (History of the Ojibway Indians; with special reference to their conversion to Christianity, 1970/1861). He describes his failure to see a vision during his quest as a young man, leading him to adopt the Christian faith. Perhaps this was meant to be. He went on to become a pastor and used that position to become a more effective advocate for Native American cultures and sovereignty. But I wondered if he felt less worthy…

      I don’t believe that seeing visions makes someone more “spiritual” than anyone else, and in my case, other ways of knowing often point out a danger or something important that I may have missed 🙂

      And even in all my years living in a country setting, I never witnessed a UFO. Yet I am open to the possibility they really do exist, even more so now given your experience…

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  2. Maori also cherished their children prior to colonization. Corporal punishment was unknown – their children were too precious to hit. I’m not sure but corporal punishment seems to be a uniquely European invention – a sure sign to me of how deeply fucked up European culture is.

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    1. Interesting discussion, Stuart. Thank you for sharing these insights about broad cultural similarities and differences. I wonder if the differences are related to cosmological/spiritual/religious beliefs. In Ojibwe culture, children were viewed as sacred, gifts from the creator – born in a state of sanctity. Adults were responsible for protecting them, holding them close in cradleboards, and guiding them with stories. From what I’ve read (only a little), Maori cultures appear to share this view as well. In cultures that believe children, like all humans, are born in a state of original sin, “sparing the rod” places children at risk of losing their souls… The difficulty from either perspective is figuring out how to best protect children in a society and world that is dangerous, violent and oppressive. (And of course, figuring out to make the world safer for all.)

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  3. Carol, our teachers come to us when we need them, sometimes in visions, voice, images and so on. I’m so happy that you consider it not at all out the ordinary, and began your defense by recounting your experience with Ogema. He was looking after you! My muse comes in the same way, but in a very clear and beautiful voice and she’s always able to see what I cannot. Thank you for this wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The clarity and beauty of your muse’s voice is so evident in your work, Susan. Your kind and thoughtful comments and your eloquent poems and stories are such gifts. Thank you.


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