Carol A. Hand
How do I choose three vignettes from a lifetime of so many experiences? This is my choice for today.
It was autumn at the university. Classes had just begun. Even though I had finished all of the required classes for my doctorate degree a decade ago, here I was again, taking a class on child welfare as a foundation for research on a topic that was still new to me. After working as a research assistant on two different university studies on tribal education, I was ready to take the last steps to qualify to do my own study. I hoped to challenge the accepted dominant cultural policies, institutions, and practice paradigms that continued to be imposed on tribal communities.
Taking classes meant a long drive once a week from my northwoods home 250 miles away. On this particular day, the first day of class, I went to the social word library to read through recent journals. I sat at one of the long tables with several foot-high piles of journals in front of me. As I was reading, I couldn’t help overhearing a loud conversation between two fashionably-dressed young women. They appeared to be of “white” Euro-American ancestry and couldn’t have been much over 20. “I can’t wait to take those children away from the terrible mother I’m working with in my practicum.”
I remember wondering if either of the young women had ever been a mother. Had they ever experienced poverty, deprivation, or trauma? Did they have any clues about the difficulties lone-parents face when they need to balance the challenges of being both the primary caregiver and bread-winner?
I didn’t say anything, and anyway, it was time for me to run to class.
It was the first gathering of all of the county and tribal partners for the university child welfare training initiative. As I walked into the room, I noticed that directors and staff from county and tribal child welfare departments were clustered about the room talking. My role there was one I had reluctantly accepted a few weeks before.
I received a phone call and a forceful plea from the director of a newly funded project. “We need you to be the tribal child welfare training specialist,” she said. “I don’t know anything about child welfare,” I replied. “But you know about tribes. You’re the first one everyone mentioned as the best person for the job.” I thought about all of the people who might be better, but I couldn’t think of anyone who walked in two worlds, or anyone who might be able to deal effectively with people in powerful positions at the university and state. I had been the deputy director of an inter-tribal agency, and the developer, director, and evaluator of many tribal projects.
Before the meeting was convened by the university project director, I overhead several county staff talking. “I’ve been doing this job for 25 years, and I still don’t know if anything I’ve done has made a difference in people’s lives.” I wondered how anyone could do a job for so long without trying to answer that question. (During my time with the initiative, I would learn how important that question really is, and how seldom anyone really wants to know the honest answer.)
I travelled to each tribal community to speak with child welfare staff about their work and the types of training they would find helpful. What I discovered was distressing – underfunding, and over-work. Caseloads in some instances that were over 100 families, and jurisdictional complexity added to the challenges of dealing with tribal children throughout the nation. Despite the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, tribes were still underfunded. Counties and states were still able to find ways to circumvent a law intended to strengthen the sovereignty of tribes. Native American children were still at higher risk of being removed from their families than “white” children, and still likely to be removed from their communities and placed in “white” foster or adoptive homes.
After meeting with all of the tribes, I met with the project director and suggested that the wisest approach was to convene a series of forums to bring tribal staff together to discuss their issues and develop a clear vision of what they would like their communities and child welfare systems to look like in the future. That would become the foundation for a tribal curriculum. “No, that doesn’t fit with the training model. We need to have the same approach for counties and tribes. Just take the county training modules and add a few things to make them more culturally appropriate.” Ethically, that was something I just couldn’t do, so I left. Approaches that merely perpetuate assimilation and colonialism were not something I was willing to support even then.
Lucille, an Ojibwe woman in her mid-60s, bent down to whisper in my ear. “You wouldn’t want to hear my story. It’s not a happy one.” I told her I really did want to hear it.
I was doing research in an Ojibwe community to learn about the childhood experiences of community members. I knew it was a story Lucille wanted to share. Following is an edited version of the story she shared that day. (Please note that all names have been changed and there are no community descriptions or other person or place identifiers to protect privacy.)
“When I was little, with grandma and grandpa, when it was time for doing canoes, I went with them to get bark for the canoes, for the wigwam. I went with grandpa. He always did that. Grandma always taught beadwork. I had to tan hides – I’m glad I didn’t have to clean them [smiling dreamily]. They were spread out on frames in the house – I would scrape them [she lifts her hand and moves it through the air with back and force motions] until they were nice and soft.
“The big drum was here and grandma and grandpa were part of it. The drum was presented to grandma. Every time they would have a feast, she’d take me and my brother. I sat on the right side of grandma, and my brother sat on her left. As long as the drum was out, we couldn’t get up or say anything.
“My job after school was to go to all of the elders’ houses to see if they needed anything, any work done or water or wood. My job was to do whatever they needed. I guess that’s why I do it now. I always got along better with elders. If they ask for help you give it, or you offer. I could sit and visit with elders and I always felt better. [smiling as she remembers these times]
“I had a lot of good times when grandma and I would sit on the porch. She would talk Indian and I could understand what she was saying. My brother and I always knew what she was saying, but she wouldn’t teach us because she said it was going to be a white man’s world. “They’re taking over and I don’t want you to be beaten up for talking Indian.” And she was right. It was our heritage, but we couldn’t learn because the white man’s going to take over. [She frowns as she says this in a rougher tone of voice]
[Suddenly her face lights up and she talks animatedly] “We went to ball games. Grandpa would be an umpire and we’d go all over. I was always with grandpa and grandma, going everywhere with them – [suddenly her smile fades] – more than with my mom. Mom didn’t care. She’d come home drunk and chase us out of the house at 3 or 4 in the morning. We’d run to grandma’s. [a wistful smile returns].
“Grandma always had a crock pot of biscuits by the door, it was covered with a towel, and we’d go in and grab a biscuit and go upstairs to the bed – they always had a bed for us. When grandpa got up in the morning, we’d hear him say “Well our kids are home again.” I could never figure out how they knew we were there, and then one day I realized that my brother never put the towel over the crock pot after he took his biscuits. [laughing softly as she remembers]
“My grandparents got up early. In the morning, my grandpa would say “It’s 6 a.m., daylight in the swamp kids.” My grandpa trapped in the winter time. He’d come and wake me up early and tell me to go with him. I’d ask him why he wasn’t taking my brother instead. He’d say “you’re the oldest so you’re coming.” If I wanted money, I’d have to work for it. I’d cut wood, or pump water if I wanted money. If I wanted a nickel or dime, I had to work for it first.
“I could always count on them. They always had something to eat and there was always a bed ready. [she sits up straighter and says this with conviction]
“After I was 9, for 9 years I was away from that love, heritage, pride, life. Where’s an Indian supposed to fit in? When you have those values and are denied a chance to practice them? It was just nine years of hell. How to work was all I got out of it. There was no love – no nothing.
“I was 9 years old when I was told welfare was going to come and take me and my little brother to a foster home. Grandpa and grandma wanted to keep us but they were told they were too old. They were not willing to have us go away, but the county social workers took us anyway.
“We were one of the first ones taken away. They came and picked us up and took us to this farm. I was 9, so I tried to remember the route. I remembered the highway. They said it was 80 miles, but it was more than that. They said that Mom could come and see us whenever she wanted but that did not happen.
“The home on the farm had three daughters of their own, but we – the Indian foster kids – had to do all of the work. We had to wait on them all. [anger and disgust in her voice] We were supposed to get $3 a month for an allowance, but we never got it. We didn’t know anything but work and school. We were not allowed to go anywhere else. We couldn’t have any friends. They were mean to us – we were hit and beat by horse straps. We would tell the social worker at our monthly meetings, but for the 9 years my brother and I were there, we never had the same worker twice. They kept changing workers.
“After I was there, they started bringing others – my other brothers, my sister, and my cousins from the reservation community. My grandma told me “You’re the oldest so you need to watch out for the others.” I took a lot of beatings to protect them so they wouldn’t be hit. [her voice firm and angry, her fists clenched and again, she sits up straighter, adjusting herself in the chair]
“They only took us in because of the work they could get out of us. They never took me to the doctor or dentist like they were supposed to do. I never went to the dentist until I was 18 and I got out of there.
“They had these fields of green beans. They took us there to work in the fields picking beans every day in the summer. We were there from 6 in the morning until they came to get us. We earned 3 cents a bushel, but we never got to keep our money – they took it.
“My brothers ran away. I got beat until they came back.
“My grandma told me “You’re a survivor – you’ll make it no matter what.” And that kept me going. I had a couple of nervous breakdowns. When I was raising my own kids everything that I went through at that farm – it all started to come back.
[tearing up, you can hear her voice breaking as she struggles not to cry] “I can’t have no hate in my heart. If you can’t forgive, take charge of your life, you’re lost. I don’t blame anyone, I don’t blame my mom – she thought she was doing the best thing for us. Mom drank a lot. There were nine of us kids. She was a good mom, other than going and out drinking. She was not a mean mom, but a lot of the reservation thought she wasn’t a very good mother. Her own sister did it to her – reported her to welfare. Her sister later told me that if she had known what was happening in the foster home she never would have done it.
“I don’t have anything good to say about the welfare system. I don’t care that much for foster homes because there is no one who oversees the homes. I don’t think Indian children should be raised in a white man’s home. They don’t share our culture, and they don’t want to understand us. The only way is their way. I don’t think that’s right for Indian children.
“I did survive even though it’s been hard. I have lived with the hurt and the shame of what happened to me as a child. I never shared this story before. Now I see that we need to share our stories with each other. As a tribe and community, we need to heal the circle for those like me who return looking for the love we knew or missed as children. We return looking for the sense of acceptance and belonging we remember from our childhood.
“I just want to help others who have had hard lives. If my story helps at least one person, then what I went through will be worth it.”
Photo: Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Wikipedia)
Lucille’s story is only one of the thousands and thousands of stories that Native American children could tell about more than five centuries of colonial policies intended to “civilize” and assimilate them, most commonly by removing them from their families and communities. Few people in the US have learned this history in their public school educations. The sad fact is that disproportionate removal of Native American children continues today. But notice how this disparity is explained by a leading research institute.
“American Indian children are disproportionately more likely to be victims of maltreatment and to be in foster care than the general population of children, according to 2012 data. Despite Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) guidelines, only 17 percent of American Indian children not living with a biological parent reside with an American Indian caregiver.” (Casey Family Programs) (emphasis added)
More likely to be victims of maltreatment? Certainly Native American children are far more likely to be among the very poor and all that entails, easily classified as parental neglect, the most common form of substantiated maltreatment among all racial/ethnic groups. I witnessed how easily that classification was applied in my own research – because county child welfare workers, teachers, physicians, and law enforcement were more likely to surveil Native families, and more likely to assume the worst, removal was often their first and only action.
Recent investigations also document the power child welfare systems still have over Native American families. I’m sharing these vignettes because this is still an important issue, among the many that face our world today.
Note: This is a rhetorical essay that I would prefer to support with objective data as a dialectical argument, but I didn’t have time today.
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