Carol A. Hand
Let me begin by being honest. This assignment proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. I wanted to use the word prompt to draft the beginning of a novel, but I found myself up against decades-long university programming. I just couldn’t break away from the need to write like a distant observer. The only character I could put myself into was my own.
I’m including my first draft, and my after thoughts. I really would appreciate honest, constructive feedback.
Draft “Coming Home?”
“Let’s go for a ride. It’s a nice day and I want to show you the house the tribe is building for me,” said Grandfather Thomas.
(I think of him as grandfather. It’s a title of respect for someone who is older than I am. He’s in his late 70s. And in a sense we’re related. We’re both Ojibwe although from different communities. He’s tall, thin, and stately, with silvered hair that’s often covered by a baseball cap. His hearty laughter and ready wit make him seem much younger than his chronological age. But his stooped shoulders and stiff movements make me wonder if he’s in pain although I’ve never heard him complain.)
Grandfather Thomas has always made me feel welcome in this Ojibwe community that is not my own. I wonder if he really understands what it meant when I told him that I was here to conduct a research study. Will it ever be possible for me to remain distant from people like him whom I am learning to care about during my short time here? He eagerly shares his stories and his artwork with me, and all I should really do as a researcher is listen and ask questions. My job is to record his words and write up my observations every evening after our visits when I return to my little efficiency apartment in the neighboring town.
“Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to drive? My car’s right over here.”
Yes, I was being polite, but I was also a little hesitant to ride with an elder who is sometimes easily distracted.
We set off, traveling past tribal buildings, past the HUD homes. As we drive, Grandfather Thomas is telling me the history of the people who live in each home. Finally, we come to a fork in the road. The road to the right is paved.
“Go left here,” he said.
We travel on the bumpy rutted one-lane dirt road past pine trees, and past birch and aspen trees that are beginning to take on a golden autumn glow.
“We’re coming up to the house now. Pull into the driveway.”
His new house is set back from the road, nestled in the woods. I can see a small stream in the backyard. Inside, the house is light and airy. Construction materials are scattered about – and the floors are still uncovered plywood – but it’s easy to see that his new house will be much nicer than the cramped, over-heated apartment he lives in now in the tribal elders’ center.
It is a nice, ordinary ranch house, appropriate for someone in his late 70s. He won’t have to climb too many stairs. But, there aren’t any houses close by and the road will be hard to travel in the winter.
He’s eager and impatient to move, voicing his frustration with the tribal council because it’s taking so long. He wants to move before winter.
As we drive back to town, Grandfather Thomas is quiet. It gives me time to think. Even though the dirt road bears his family name, and even though his ancestors have lived on this reservation land for centuries, I wonder if it really feels like home to him. He’s lived away from this community for almost his entire life. It wasn’t his choice or his family’s decision. When he was just five years old, he was kidnapped as he walked along the village road. The strangers who enticed him into a car in the early 1920s were not the strangers we often imagine taking children. They were missionaries, sanctioned by the federal government to round up Native American children for placement in crowded unhealthy institutions far from their families and communities. There, they would be forced to speak the language and adopt the customs and religions of those who conquered their Indigenous nations long ago. There, they would be taught the skills that would make them productive manual laborers and servants.
Grandfather Thomas was among the lucky. He survived . And he was able to return to the reservation after his wife died ten years ago. I wonder if he felt at home here, though, because he spent so much time away. The community was different than the one he knew as a little boy.
I wonder if he ever felt at home anywhere after he was kidnapped…
It’s a question I can’t ask him. I can only listen to what he chooses to share. Although he never mentions this, the stories he does choose to share continue to affect me profoundly through the years that follow…
I wonder if the words I wrote convey how deeply I loved the people I was privileged to meet. (It’s not something I’m supposed to admit as a researcher.) They gave me the most precious gifts, their trust, friendship, and their stories. I hope that I can honor those gifts by sharing what I learned to raise awareness about the past and present issues people on the margins face.
What I’ve sketched out here isn’t poorly written, but it seems to lacks substance. As I reflect on this beginning, I keep hearing my university graduate advisor asking me “What do you mean by this term?” In this case, the term is “home.” How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance? How do I describe it in ways that touch the deep human longing we all feel for a sense of connection and belonging? This beginning doesn’t do that for me.
It may meet Hemingway’s advice to begin with one true statement. I think that’s about all it has. It’s missing heart. I want people to feel what it’s like for a child who is kidnapped to lose his home. To feel what it does to the meaning of home for families that lose children to horrifically abusive institutions generation after generation as they watch helplessly. To feel what it does to communities when they are unable to fulfill their most sacred duty – protecting and nurturing children to assure cultural survival – because the children that are supposed to protect have been violently ripped from their care generation after generation.
I want to write something that reaches people so they understand the history of the colonialism and its legacy today. I want them to care. I don’t want to blame anyone for the past. It’s done. Blaming those who carried out these policies in the past does nothing to heal trauma for descendants of the victims or the perpetrators. And it does nothing to end the collective abuse of children today both here and abroad.
As someone who grew up between cultures, I became a boundary-spanner and an ethnographer to survive. Writing a good ethnography is like telling a story. It requires the art of translation, the ability to bring others inside of experiences or a world or a culture that are unfamiliar. I don’t think this first draft does that…
I would like to be able to answer the voice of my advisor that still echoes in my thoughts. What does the word “home” mean? It’s more than a place. It’s more than being surrounded by a group of people who accept us for who we really are, with all of our faults and gifts. Can I remember times in my life when I felt “home”? Maybe the years I lived without electricity surrounded by forest on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation, but it’s something I still need to think about.
Photo: Winter on Amik Lake – sometime in the early 1990s
This exercise has been so valuable. It’s made me think even though I don’t have any answers today. I do look forward to hearing your thoughts.
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