Carol A. Hand
It was early spring, and the snow had just melted in the northwoods. I referred to this time of year as “mud season.” It meant I needed to park in the graveled parking area at the end of the dirt road that led to my cabin. (I had learned the hard way how difficult it was to dig out my car after it was swallowed up to the axels and undercarriage in a puddle of “quick mud.”) It would mean hiking seven-tenths of a mile down the muddy dirt road that led through the clear-cut national forest land, down the winding hill, and into the uncut forest that surrounded my cabin in the woods.
I had just returned from a conference where I led a workshop on Native American mascot issues. As I hiked, the straps of my laptop, purse, and suitcase were digging into my left shoulder with each step, but I barely noticed. I was lost in thought, reflecting about a comment one of the workshop participants had voiced.
But before I tell the rest of this story, I need to go back and provide some background about why I was asked to discuss this topic, and how I ended up living on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born.
“More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.
“At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.
“The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.
“My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.
“Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.” (Carol A. Hand, We’re Honoring Indians, October 25, 2013) We’re Honoring Indians
When my partner lost his job as an assistant manager of a lumber retail company, in all likelihood a response to my very public and unpopular advocacy, I was forced to withdraw from the university in the final stages of completing my doctorate in order to get a full-time job. I wanted to escape from the world of Euro-Americans for awhile and accepted a position as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. I moved to the Ojibwe community where my mother was born and bought an off-the-grid cabin in the woods. When Native American educators in the state took on the issue of Indian mascots and logos a year or two later, I was asked to lead a workshop about my experiences at their state-wide conference.
As I walked down the road to my cabin, I was still trying to sort out my feelings about dealing with Euro-Americans whose privilege often made them feel it was their right to remain oblivious to the history and present day oppression and suffering of Native peoples. Did my unresolved anger and frustration show in my response to the comments made by a workshop participant?
“You’re so lucky you have a culture. As a white person of mixed ancestry, I don’t have one.”
I did respond, but I wasn’t really satisfied with my answer even though it was honest.
“We all have a culture. But those of us who are not part of the dominant culture have to learn to see our culture in contrast to the one that most others in society share. We have to learn to understand both in order to survive.”
But that wasn’t what I was thinking about as I walked. It is tempting to think that one’s own culture is superior. I found myself thinking about the differences between the Ojibwe Midewiwin Code, the “Path of Life,” and the Christian Ten Commandments. I realized that there were many reasons why I prefer the tenets of the Path of Life. I was tempted to see it as superior. And as that thought passed through my mind, it seemed as if the earth itself spoke to me, or perhaps it was the spirits of my Ojibwe ancestors who had once lived here.
“Codes of conduct and spirituality may differ, but the existence of a code signifies that people need rules to live by because no culture or individual is perfect. You may prefer one approach over others, but that doesn’t make it better. All codes of conduct serve the same purpose – to help guide people as they live their lives or when they lose their way.”
I suspect many who will read this post know the Ten Commandments by heart, but few have heard of the Midewiwin Code.
- Thank Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit, for all of the wonders around you and the miracle of life
- Honor elders and you honor life and wisdom
- Honor life in all its forms and your own life will be sustained
- Honor women and you honor the gift of life and love
- Honor promises – by keeping your word, you will be true
- Honor kindness – by sharing gifts you will be kind
- Be peaceful – through peace, all will find the Great Peace
- Be courageous – through courage, all will grow in strength
- And be moderate in all things – watch, listen and consider so your actions will be wise.
(Adapted from Basil Johnston, 1976, p. 93)
It would be years later when I would learn about the Ojibwe “Seven Fires Prophecy.”
“ … when the world has been befouled and the waters turned bitter by disrespect, human beings will have two options to choose from, materialism or spirituality. If they chose spirituality, they will survive, but if they chose materialism, it will be the end of it.” (Wikipedia)
“The Seven Fires Prophecy is an Ojibwe prophecy that encourages the union of all four colours of the human race to ensure a kinship that will lead to peace and harmony. The prophecy warns that without a union of the earth’s people the earth will cleanse itself.” (http://ojibweresources.weebly.com/prophecy.html)
I’m sharing these memories and musings today because the times foretold by Ojibwe ancestors have arrived. As I said in the ending of a play I recently wrote (You Wouldn’t Want to Hear My Story),
“The waters have been poisoned by our disrespect for the earth and each other.”
Image: Kids for Peace
I don’t believe it’s ever too late to do what we can to help our communities and world, no matter which spiritual codes of right-living we follow. It’s in our power to reach across the illusory divisions that keep us from living in peace with each other and in balance with the earth we share. The well-being of all children and the health of our world depends on each of us to use the skills and knowledge we’ve gained to create a peaceful future even though the times ahead may be difficult.
Basil Johnson (1976), Ojibway heritage (p. 93). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
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.