Differential Power and Indian Child Welfare: Part Five

Carol A. Hand

This is the final installment of the exam paper on differential power and Indian child welfare. I have shared the essay in installments, with minor edits and illustrations added, in hopes that it might be of interest and stimulate thoughtful dialogue. I’m so grateful to say that it has and I wish to thank everyone who contributed such thoughtful and incisive comments. I have learned a lot from what you shared about your experiences, insights, and expertise.

By way of background for others viewing this last installment of the series, here’s a brief summary of prior installments:

Part One defined theory and discussed some of the relevant general theories that continue to guide research, policies, and practice paradigms that limit the exercise of sovereignty by tribal governments over the welfare of their citizens, lands, and resources.

Part Two covered theories about the ways in which power over others is imposed and maintained.

Part Three explored different theories related specifically to the colonial experience of Indigenous Peoples in what is now the United States.

Part Four examined child welfare from cross-national and cross-cultural perspectives.

The decision to post this particular paper was a risk I was willing to take. Yes, in many ways it is history. I have often been advised by those in privileged positions to “Just get over it.” But the “it” – the consequences of oppression and genocide in both a physical and cultural sense – are with us still.


Photo: Public High School Mascot ( Link here for more information)

By “us,” I don’t just mean Indigenous Peoples in North America or the world. I mean all of us. How could the blood on the hands of all of our ancestors not affect who we are today? Just look at how we treat each other and the earth we all share. It is also true that many of us are motivated by other legacies our ancestors have left – as visionaries, inventors, artists, builders, scholars and peacemakers. It is the latter legacies that I know many of us follow and nourish as artists, advocates, healers, and ordinary people living our daily lives.



The theoretical frameworks for explaining the concept of differential power discussed in this paper go beyond Zald’s definition of power as “the ability of a person or group, for whatever reason, to affect another person’s or group’s ability to achieve its goals (personal or collective)” (1981, p. 238). According to Foucault and Gramsci, power is more than economic or political control: it includes the ability to impose values and build enduring mechanisms to perpetuate particular beliefs about the nature and meaning of life and human behavior. A number of crucial dimensions emerge from the preceding review of diverse literatures. First, while it is clear that some nations and cultures dominate others, it is also clear that domination does not signify the superiority of dominant cultures when compared to the cultures of subaltern groups. Although characterizations of cultural superiority/inferiority have emotional appeal and are often used to justify domination, they are outdated and irrelevant within the more respectful frameworks of cultural relativism and cultural pluralism.


Photo: Diversity Tree ( Source )

Second, while the relationship of individuals and groups with their environmental context is transactional, power differentials between groups operate to constrain or expand individual and group choices and actions. Power operates through both overt and covert ways, through centralized structures and through diffused norms and disciplinary paradigms. Power is no longer seen as

“… an exclusive property of ‘repressive apparatuses,’ it has invaded our sense of the smallest and most intimate of human relations as well as the largest; it belongs to the weak as well as to the strong; and it is constituted precisely within the relations between official and unofficial agents of social control and cultural production… [F]orce … is only a tiny part of power, so that much of the problematic of power today is a problematic of knowledge making, universe construction, and the social production of feeling and of ‘reality’” (Dirks, Eley, & Ortner, 1994, p. 5).

As Korbin (1987, p. 26) points out: “When cultures come into contact, the situation is ripe for conflict on a range of issues, including child care patterns.” Korbin (1987, p. 28) adds that in the absence of an understanding of the cultural context and emic meaning of child care practices, “ethnocentrism may dictate that the dominant culture will tolerate the behavior or attempt to eradicate it either through punishment or education.”

Third, Euro-American cultural hegemony over Native Americans has increased over time, and continues to the present time through both the imposition of Eurocentric institutions within tribal communities, and through the acceptance of Eurocentric institutions and the values which they embody by some tribal members. Tribal political structures and tribal identity have changed in response to Euro-American policies and institutions, as factions with differing views of tribal identity have emerged within particular political tribal entities. Tribal accommodations and the acceptance of dominant institutions, while exacerbating internal factions, have enabled tribal communities to survive with at least a small measure of self-determination; perhaps, tribal communities would not have been able to survive otherwise.


Photo: Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow – 2010 ( Source )

Finally, the conditions affecting the present generation of Native American families and children still bear the impact of past policies of disempowerment and marginalization. Native American families, both on and off reservations, face a daunting set of challenges: poverty and unemployment, poorer health and inadequate housing, and continuing racial/ethnic discrimination. Added to this set of stressors is the erosion of clear cultural definitions of “appropriate” or “good” parenting, and culturally preferred methods for intervening in cases of “poor” parenting. For centuries, Native Americans were forcibly subjected to family and child welfare policy paradigms developed by the Euro-American elite. Through Indian and child welfare policies, federal and state governments have clearly played the dominant role in defining normative family and child rearing practices. Deliberate policies to force First Nations people to internalize Euro-American norms and values predate the United States constitution and continue to operate in overt and covert ways today. This legacy continues to influence Tribal child welfare in a number of significant ways.

The dynamic interplay of “traditional” and “contemporary” values touches the lives of Native American people both on and off the reservation and continues to affect community and family structures, practices, and attitudes. The erosion of informal networks and the changing realities of parenting children in a transnational environment create new stresses. Added to the challenge inherent in balancing very diverse world views, Native American families must also respond to the changing context of instantaneous worldwide communication and information that affects their children’s current values and future well-being.

Uncritically transposing values and practices from the dominant child welfare paradigm on Native American communities is of questionable efficacy within this complex context. Yet, as Kuhn (1970) argues, paradigm change is not a simple undertaking, largely because most members of a particular discipline or culture cannot envision alternatives (Kuhn, 1970; Fleras & Elliott, 1992). As Bourdieu (1994, p. 161) asserts, the “established cosmological and political order is perceived not as arbitrary, i.e., as one possible order among others, but as a self-evident and natural order which goes without saying and therefore goes unquestioned…” Kuhn likens paradigm shifts to revolutions.

“Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased to adequately meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created… In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution… Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates a partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all” (Kuhn, 1970, pp. 92-93).


Photo: National Grass Dancer Pow Wow – 2005 ( Source )

However, institutional change need not be a through a violent overthrow of existing systems (Foucault, 1988). Scholarship, often used to perpetuate the status quo, can also make significant contributions to social change efforts. The role of intellectuals in resistance is to question what has become self-evident, “to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions …” (Kritzman, 1988, p. xvi). The cross-national studies conducted by Fleras and Elliott (1992) and Armitage (1995) are pivotal in this regard: they point to the existence of alternative paradigms. Unlike United States child welfare policies which have remained embedded within the dominant Euro-American paradigm, recent developments in New Zealand demonstrate the potential for cultural pluralism as a result of both Maori community initiatives and national legislation. Fleras, Elliot (1992), and Armitage (1995) argue that it is possible for politically pluralistic nations to acknowledge cultural diversity and to empower racial and ethnic communities to develop their own culturally-appropriate institutions.


The situation in North America represents more than cultural conflict between Native peoples and Europeans: the policies imposed went far beyond imposing Eurocentric standards of appropriate child care. The impact, if not the intent, of U.S. Indian policies has been, to varying degrees for different Tribes, cultural genocide, economic exploitation, social marginalization, and political repression. The legacy of harm done to Native cultures, families, and children is indisputable.

A new era of Native resistance and national pluralism emerged in the 1970s. “Self-determination” and “self-governance” are the labels given to current federal legislation governing federal/tribal relations. A number of scholars caution, however, that the thin veneer of pluralistic rhetoric embodied in such labels, while a hopeful sign, is at best tenuous. Eurocentric institutions have been imposed on Native American peoples and are now firmly entrenched within reservation communities. Federal and state policies, and federal court decisions, still determine the limits of tribal self-determination and power. The era of self-determination and the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act have not signaled the emergence of new family and child welfare practice approaches within the United States which have been evident in New Zealand. During the past twenty years, tribal child welfare systems have been established within the context of continuing Euro-American political domination, and within social work and child welfare practice paradigms that reflect the values of Euro-American professionals and scholars.

Hence, more questions than answers emerge from the preceding discussion of the impact of differential power and cultural hegemony on tribal cultures and tribal child welfare systems and practices. Eagleton (1983, pp. 214-125) points out that:

“Culture, in the lives of nations struggling for their independence from imperialism, has a meaning quite remote from the review pages of the Sunday newspapers. Imperialism is not only the exploitation of cheap labour-power, raw materials and easy markets but the uprooting of languages and customs — not just the imposition of foreign armies, but of alien ways of experiences. It manifests itself not only in company balance-sheets and in airbases, but can be tracked to the most intimate roots of speech and signification. In such situations, which are not all a thousand miles from our own doorstep, culture is so vitally bound up with one’s common identity that there is no need to argue for its relation to political struggle. It is arguing against it which would seem incomprehensible.”

ada deer

Photo: Ada Deer – Menominee Tribe – Activist and Social Work Educator ( Source )

Yet, according to Cornell’s (1988) research, the self-identity of Native peoples, the foundation of distinct tribal cultures, has been impacted by force and cultural hegemony. The result has been the development of factions within tribal communities with very different views of dominant institutions and the values they embody, and hence, very different definitions of tribal identity. Identity is the core of tribal cultures. If Cornell’s (1988) theory of incorporation is correct, competing views of identity within tribal communities may result in different parenting and child rearing approaches and different definitions of appropriate family and child welfare interventions. Hence, a number of crucial questions emerge. To what degree does consensus on acceptable child rearing and child treatment exist within a given tribal community? To what degree is there consensus on appropriate interventions in cases of child maltreatment? What are the perspectives of tribal child welfare and health care staff, and of tribal judges and leaders? In cases of disagreement, are there identifiable groups that share particular perspectives? Do differing and competing definitions of tribal identity result in different child rearing practices? Does the Indian Child Welfare Act allow sufficient flexibility to support community-defined systems and interventions? Given the paucity of answers provided to these questions by existing research literature, Paper 3 proposes research methods for exploring the answers to these questions within an Ojibwe context.


Photo: Ojibwe Mother and Child ( Source )

Works Cited:

Armitage, A. (1995). Comparing the policy of aboriginal assimilation: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1994). Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N.D. Dirks, G. Eley, & S.B. Ortner (eds.), Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 155-199). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cornell, S. (1988). The return of the Native: American Indian political resurgence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dirks, N.D., Eley, G., & Ortner, S.B. (Eds.)(1994). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eagleton, Terry (1983). Literary theory: an introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fleras, A. & Elliot, J. (1992). The ‘nations within’: aboriginal-state relations in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1988). On power. In L.D. Kritzman (ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings 1977-1984 (A. Sheridan & Others, Trans.), pp. 96-109. New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1984)

Gramsci, A. (1994). The sovereignty of law. In R. Bellamy (ed.), Antonio Gramsci: Pre-prison writings (V. Cox, Trans.), p. 87-90. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1919)

Hand, C. (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices, and paradigms: Rescuing children of homogenizing America? Docor of Philosophy Preliminary Exam Paper 1 – General problem or substantive area: General child welfare. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hand, C. (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices and paradigms: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Doctor of Philosophy Preliminary Exam Paper 2 – Relevant theoretical literature – Differential power and Indian child welfare. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hand, C. (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices and paradigms: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Doctor of Philosophy Preliminary Exam Paper 3 – Exploring Ojibwe “incorporation” through past and present Indian child welfare practice. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Korbin, J.E. (1987). Child abuse and neglect: The cultural context. In R.E. Hefler & R.S. Kempe (Eds.), The Battered Child, 4th edition, pp. 23-41. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kritzman, L.D. (1988)(Ed.). Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings 1977-1984. (A. Sheridan & Others, Trans.) New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, Thomas (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zald, M.N. (1981). Political economy: a framework for comparative analysis. In J. Pfeffer (Ed.), Power in organizations, pp. 221-261. Marshfield, MA: Pitman.

18 thoughts on “Differential Power and Indian Child Welfare: Part Five

  1. Hi Carol…. I have wanted to re-blog several of your articles …but have never done so due to the ‘copy right notice’ ….and also due to the extra time it would take for approval each time I would like to re-post….

    I noticed that the re-blog option is available on your site…Is it OK to use the ‘re-blog’ option bring attention to your articles?…. I feel that many more people will benefit from your knowledge and experience… Thank you for all you do!…. Deb

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deb, thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments. I appreciate your request to reblog articles. You certainly have my permission to do so, Best wishes to you, Carol.


  2. Carol, I must thank you, for I have gained a wealth of enlightenment and appreciation for the tragedy of the white man’s, as you say, “cultural hegemony.” It truly is a tragedy in so many ways I’ve never before realized. I’ve often said, in fact some tire of me saying, and as I believe I’ve said here, and excuse the phrase please, “we should have let the ‘Indians’ civilize us.” I believe humanity, the animals, and mother earth would have all been far better off. It’s not too late; or maybe it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter, I am so grateful for your thoughtful comments throughout these installments. I can’t think of a kinder thing to say to someone who loved teaching than “I have gained a wealth of enlightenment and appreciation…” Chi miigwetch, dear friend.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your supportive comments, Skywalker 🙂

      (Paper 3 would be a truly boring read – I had to demonstrate what I knew about “research” in excruciating detail to prove I could proceed with my own study, and I incorporated a description of my proposed study – also in excruciating detail. It was 120 pages long. Paper 2 was only 75 pages long. I am certainly willing to share a copy with you via email if you would like to read it.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carol
    I love reading your posts. I gained an interest in this topic through my experiences auditing Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Village Corporations in the 1980’s. I was a youngster and idealistic regarding the potential for accounting and auditing to help Alaska Natives improve their lives by adopting western economic practices. In retrospect, I see the termination policy of incorporating the Native villages using for-profit corporations with transferable stock as a means of slowly forcing the younger generations to assimilate and abandon their culture (and resources) to the dominant economic interests, i.e. the State and Big Oil. I wrote a Foucauldian genealogy of the NANA corp that editors required me to rewrite (without Foucault) prior to publishing. I understand it makes people uncomfortable to confront history through the eyes of the disenfranchised, but how else are people to learn of the consequences of past policies and seek alternative approaches?

    Unfortunately, as I’ve aged I’ve become more resigned to the inevitability of conflict over resources and the subjugation of indigenous peoples. And by that I mean Native, European or otherwise. Call it greed, or whatever, but these hegemonic shifts have been occurring for centuries and the techniques of implementing cultural imperialism or outright colonialism have become softer and more insidious. It’s controlled through the media. These same techniques are being used on the entire planet’s population to shape and control acceptable normal behavior. Of course, there are differential impacts based on group identity, but by and large, we all suffer.

    It seems to me that new wars with new weapons require new strategies for survival. This implies needed cultural change. Neither the victor nor the vanquished are the same after conflict. The goal of the vanquished is not to merely survive, but to prosper and embed as much cultural identify in the new social paradigm as possible. I think of the Japanese as an example. I guess all I am saying is that, in my honest opinion, it is control of the media, particularly the media adopted by the youth, that is the key to creating a fair, stable and cooperative future for all peoples. New technologies provide new opportunities for leadership to direct the message. Thanks again for your posts. Many are beautiful, some are hopeful and some are sad. At least you are out there trying to make things better.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am deeply grateful for your thoughtful comments, Steve. Your account of your experiences working with Alaska Native villages is fascinating and impressive – based on knowledge of historical context and a cogent critical analysis of assimilative hegemony. I love the fact that you challenged the academic status quo in your manuscript about your work, but I’m not surprised to hear you were required to remove any mention of Foucault. In answer to your crucial question about the role of scholars (although I suspect it was rhetorical), I wonder what value the work or scholars (intellectuals) has if they fail to look at issues in critical ways. The myth of objectivity keeps scholars from exploring grounded methods to address oppression and inequality and promote liberatory praxis.

      Yes, the competition for resources has ever been with us, but has been globalized through colonialism and will only escalate in the coming times. This need not be the case – precisely why it’s so important to challenge taken-for-granted worldviews and paradigms. But, it’s so much easier to write those words than it is to apply them in a neighborhood, organization, or community. I agree that those on the margins will be the ones to suffer first and most but everyone will ultimately be affected.

      Again, Steve, thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comments. I’m deeply grateful.


  4. Carol – you may be interested in reading this post on the “other sociologist” blog about aboriginal Australians. According to the piece “A 2011 DNA study published in Science, headed by Professor Morten Rasmussen, shows that Aboriginal Australians are descendants of the first people to leave Africa up to 75,000 years ago. The study provides genetic evidence that Aboriginal Australians represent the oldest continuous culture on Earth.” We’re all related 🙂 http://othersociologist.com/2015/03/27/sosblakaustralia-colonialism-indigenous-australians/

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Carol, I’m so glad you overcame your trepidation and shared your powerful and probing work. I’ll tell you the one thing I wonder about (and as I’m wondering, I may not have this formulated right):

    There may be something static and yet diametrically opposed in the way we consider both Native culture and Euro-American culture.

    Euro-American people tend to look at Native people in the anthropological present, with a culture that never evolves or responds creatively to changed conditions. So the life conditions of Native families today must be indicative of the eternal Indian. This is how “they” are. There’s no recognition of the history.

    At the same time, Americans live in an eternal present of our own, refusing to acknowledge our own lived experience once it’s past. For example, what was normal to my grandmother and accepted as such by her children would land her in prison for child abuse today.

    Hmmm…Maybe that doesn’t mean the views are diametrically opposed — in both cases, Euro-America negates the past. What exists right now is all we need to consider. ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your willingness to read this series so carefully and comment in such thoughtful ways, Diane. Thank you 🙂

      You have shared such intriguing insights about history and culture. I will need to reflect before I respond.

      (Thinking is not something I do well in the evening on the best of days, but today I’m especially tired after a day of gardening, mowing the lawn, and then dealing with my beloved willow tree that lost huge branches in the wind this morning.)


        1. Thank you, Diane. It was windy this morning, as it often is, and I heard something crack but I didn’t see anything then. (There are always willow branches to clean up.) I think it took hours for a huge branch at the top of the tree to finally give out and fold over – held by thin thread of wood maybe 40 or 50 feet in the air. Branches covered the road and grassy area outside the fence. To make a long story shorter, I was able to get the city to come cut the damaged branch off (even though it was after 4 on a Friday), and they did amazing work cleaning up the smaller branches. The lager sections are still piled in front of my yard. Monday, I have a tree service coming to see what we can do to save what’s left. The city worker who trimmed it seemed to feel it could be saved and live at least another 20 years.

          Liked by 1 person

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