Carol A. Hand
There are days when revisiting old stories gathered during my research on Ojibwe child welfare makes me feel like I’m descending into a dystopian world. Sometimes the feeling is intensified when I look out of my front window in winter.
Photo: The View from My Window – January 17, 2016
I once again feel the weight of hopelessness that I felt when I first listened to stories about loss and suffering, and stories about the hopelessness of those hired as healers and helpers. I could walk away from that world, although the next worlds I encountered were not necessarily an improvement. Still, I had the option to leave while they remained.
Now I have the time to revisit those memories recorded in old fieldnotes and look for insights and solutions that I’m certain I missed. I struggle with how to explain the context that gives these stories meaning and significance. Take the issue of substance abuse. There are ingrained stereotypes about “drunken Indians” that are used as an excuse for continued colonial oppression. Here’s an excerpt from an earlier post that presents a more thoughtful analysis.
Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. (Please refer to Endnote 1 for more information about the request to include this work in my writing.) In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.
WHAT [MY COMMUNITY] WOULD BE LIKE WITH NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS
[My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.
This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy…
1. The young man’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited. (Hand, 1999/2015)
My role as a researcher in the community was to simply ask questions without challenging the reality of those who shared their responses. Sometimes that was difficult. Take for example the present interview I’m editing in the context of recent events in the community. (Please note that all names have been changed to protect identity, and all place names have been removed.)
Research Field Notes Thursday, November 8, 2001
It was a cloudy morning. It had rained during the night, and it was gray and chilly. I was still in pain and tired from my troubled sleep, but I really felt that I needed to keep my appointments, so I took another Tylenol and got ready for the day. I left early (8:40 a.m.) this morning for a scheduled interview with Karen Daley, the alcohol and drug treatment coordinator for the tribe. I was a few minutes early and waited patiently while she took care of some paper work. As I was waiting, I overheard a discussion about a death in the community last night – tribal programs would be closed on Friday as a result. When Karen was ready, she came and led me to her office.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Karen. Can you tell me about child and family welfare issues from your perspective?”
Karen replied. “Dealing with drug and alcohol addiction is the beginning – we need to deal with them first. The substance is still controlling people. They will give up their families before their jobs – jobs provide the income they need to buy substances. Their job is the last thing to go, when they can’t make it.
“Suicide is linked to substance abuse. When sober, people may think about it, but don’t do it until they are high.
“Here, kids – teens – are supposed to be men. Their parents are getting drunk on binges for days, and they are locked out of the home for three days. Who’s monitoring them? Kids can’t control their environment. They don’t want to be pulled out of their homes. They take care of the family – they feel responsible for helping their parents with their substance abuse problems. Kids feel responsible for “keeping the secret” that everyone else knows about the abuse.
“A community member, 50 years old, died last night. One of her daughters held a funeral ceremony yesterday.
“An ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] client was in court yesterday trying to get her kids back. It would be great for the mom to get her kids back – she is doing well. I hope the court can make the right decision.
It seemed important to know more about Karen’s background, so I asked her when she began working for the tribe.
“I started part time in 99. Case managing is a big part of the job. I put in six billable hours per day in case management. The clients I see have a problem that is identified by social services, by court orders for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, or schools. Only one client is a self-referral. I was working with ICW trying to place kids when there was no ICWA worker. A list of Native American foster homes in the state would be helpful, and even in the surrounding states. Now we have to call every county, every tribe, trying to plug kids in the right place.
“In patient treatment for kids is easy. We send kids to a tribal treatment center in South Dakota. The regional IHS [Indian Health Service] staff has been very helpful. Now, we send adults to a tribal treatment center in the state – moms can bring up to three of their children and can stay with them. Women don’t have to go to treatment or leave early because of kids. The tribal treatment center helps arrange school and has on-site nurses. It is arranged like a college campus. Singles are separated from moms, and they receive treatment in the on-site out-patient center. They provide a continuum of care. The centers fax us reports weekly. It is easier to know where to pick up treatment when they come back.
“We are working on a new phone book of clinic and other providers – the environmental building, economic support, social services, domestic violence. It will help us integrate services or do wrap around. We will be better able to help the whole family with all of their needs. So much of the service provided by the system is shame-based. We are interested in finding ways to make people feel good – to succeed. In my last job, I was working on a pilot project with a health care provider in this part of the state.”
Karen shared copies of the assessment and service forms she developed to help identify needs and track follow-up and outcomes. She also shared a number of other materials, some AODA and some general service delivery.
At this point in the interview, I stopped taking notes. Karen began speaking of her own family’s history of substance abuse, as well as her own use in the past. She began talking about her mother’s recent death and her relationship with her siblings. She was very upset, and often in tears as she related the history. It seems that the death of the community member yesterday reawakened memories and the interview provided her with a safe environment to share her pain. I listened and comforted her as best I could.
She also spoke about a gathering she holds at her house, located on the river in a nearby town. She described it as “a Native American-like ceremony for healing.” She is not happy with her home because of a bothersome neighbor and doesn’t seem to want to stay here. She is from the southeastern part of the state and misses it.
She seemed genuinely relieved to have someone safe to talk to, and as we walked out at the end of the interview, she said she would like to get together for dinner some time.
I left feeling ambivalent about the non-Indian professionals who find their way to Native American communities. Sometimes, they are wounded and unhappy and seem to be looking for something to believe in, and people who are even more powerless that they can save.
Perhaps things will change as spring comes. I wonder if there is the possibility for this tribal community to develop a stable political environment and a clear and compelling future vision that brings community factions together to work toward a common purpose – the well-being of future generations. Yet, even this begins to sound like judgmental and empty rhetoric. I wish Karen well and know that her job is challenging.
It continues to trouble me when I encounter professionals who don’t transcend the narrow boundaries of their discipline to understand how their own life experiences affect the types of services they provide or the crucial influence of socio-cultural contexts on clients’ ability to benefit from what they provide. As I revisit this interview, what seems to be missing is an understanding of ecosystems theory, described in an earlier post.
The elegance of Uri Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) approach to human development rests in both its multidimensional complexity and its emphasis on the transactional and reciprocal nature of relations between people and their changing environments. As illustrated in figure 1 below, which somewhat oversimplifies Bronfenbrenner’s model, individuals are “nested” concentrically within a series of environmental relationships.
Figure 1: The Ecology of Human Development
The “microsystem” includes those immediate aspects of the environment “that are most powerful in shaping the course of psychological growth”: “a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22). For infants, the primary microsystem is usually their home setting with primary caregivers, simple activities, and a limited set of roles. Development through childhood and beyond involves an increase in the number and complexity of roles, relations, and activities, as well as the addition of new microsystems, such as daycare, preschool, school, etc., in which a developing person is embedded. As individuals move into additional settings, linkages are created between microsystems, resulting in what Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 25) refers to as “mesosystems,” or “a system of microsystems.”
While the developing individuals directly participate in both microsystems and mesosystems through their relationships with parents, teachers, and other significant persons, their development is indirectly influenced by systems outside their own experience. Parents, teachers, and other relatives are all embedded in a series of settings (for example, parents’ work, parents’ networks of friends, teachers’ unions, local school boards, etc.) that influence how they relate to the developing individuals. This indirect, external set of influences is labeled the “exosystem” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 25). All of these systems are embedded within the “macrosystem”, defined as “consistencies, in the form and content of lower-order systems (micro-, meso-, and exo-) that exist, or could exist, at the level of the subculture or the culture as a whole, along with any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies” (p. 26). Macrosystems are the blueprint, or the overarching cultural paradigm (Fleras & Elliott, 1992), which determines the content, structure, and goals of the lower level systems in which individuals are embedded.
Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 26) notes that the macrosystems which exert influences on developing individuals “differ for various socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and other subgroups, reflecting contrasting belief systems and lifestyles, which in turn help to perpetuate the ecological environments specific to each group.” Individuals not only sustain the blueprint, or ‘macrosystem’ in which they are embedded, but are also capable of modifying its content and structure.
Bronfenbrenner does not speak to the relations among macrosystems, nor does he note power differentials between competing “blueprints” which exist among different social classes or ethnic groups within or among nations. Power, in his conception, is located within a macrosystem and manifested in “roles” or “power settings.” At the level of roles, he hypothesizes that: “The greater the degree of power socially sanctioned for a given role, the greater the tendency for the role occupant to exercise and exploit the power and for those in a subordinate position to respond by increased submission, dependency, and lack of initiative” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 92). (Hand, 1999/2015)
Given the layers of connection that influence people’s beliefs and behaviors, I doubted that Karen’s interventions with individuals would ever successfully address an understandable, although unhealthy, coping mechanism that temporarily numbs pain in a fog of euphoric forgetfulness. The consequences of oppression and losses are palpable here – an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Of course, it is easier for professionals to “treat” individuals than it is to “heal” collective historical trauma and effectively resist ongoing colonial oppression that affects every person in the tribal community.
So today, I’ll continue to return to an earlier dystopian time. Even though the view from my window is similar to the one a few days ago, I can remember the view on a summer’s day.
Photo: The View from My Window – Summer 2015
The memory of creating gardens where little grew a few years ago helps me find hope. Transformation is possible – even in the places where we once saw only futility…
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University 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.
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.