Carol A. Hand
November has flown by so fast. I apologize for being woefully behind in responding to comments and visiting your blogs. Grading student papers is always a challenge for me because I lose my ability to speak in my own voice so I can focus on helping others find theirs. Yet there is an end in sight. The end of the semester is near and I will have a brief reprieve from teaching during late December and January.
When I took momentary breaks from grading this month, though, ideas for how to edit the beginning of the manuscript I began in 2015 kept flowing. It was hard to put them aside but I had to in order to meet my responsibilities for the students in my class.
Thanksgiving break gave a chance to “unplug” from those responsibilities for a week and I did manage to rewrite the preface and first chapter yet again. In the process, I realized that the reason for continuing to work on the manuscript has shifted. This time around, what struck me were all the things I don’t know about writing and how much more there is to know about things I thought I already knew and understood. Continuing to edit and revise will give me a chance to keep learning even if I don’t finish or publish a final product. That’s enough to keep me moving forward.
Here is an excerpt from the new draft of chapter one.
Chapter One – Introduction
Greeting the cold, bright November morning, I once again wonder how to begin a book about the welfare of Ojibwe children. Despite the many different cultures and living beings that share this earth, the welfare of all children is the foundation for our collective survival.
As I sit lost in thought, a little chickadee lands close to my feet and peers up at me before taking flight. He reminds me to be present in the moment. To take time to remember where this journey began.
An essay I wrote a while ago comes to mind.
My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides of my crib, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that was unable to give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.
I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target.
Programmed in Catholic Indian boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was four and my brother was one. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the reservation where my mother was born and raised.
I remember that day clearly, although I was only four-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing with my brother wrapped in her arms as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.
But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.
Rupert Ross (1992), an Assistant Crown Attorney in Canada observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (1) This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people.
For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology, then French and philosophy, before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a doughnut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, a “State School for the Mentally Retarded.”
. . .
Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combining theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.
In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fanon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci, and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. (2)
Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them constructively ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct….
Blaming others for the past is a waste of time. We cannot change it. However, it is crucial to understand the history of colonial oppression and the consequences that have continued to affect subsequent generations of subjugated and marginalized peoples. Unfortunately, history textbooks and ethnographic accounts rarely convey experiences through the lenses and voices of populations without power.
Dominant narratives convey messages that help preserve the power of those who benefited from conquest, land theft, enslavement, and the imposition of structures of social and economic inequality. We need to understand the past through other lenses in order to address the legacy of harm and avoid repeating the brutal mistakes of the past. That is not always an easy task on either a national or personal level.
A frantic phone call from my father in the autumn of 1981 presaged my realization that it was too late to hear my mother’s stories about the old days and old ways. “Please come quickly,” he said, his voice filled with panic and tears. “Your mother almost died. She’s home from the hospital now but she is having trouble walking and seems confused.” I told my father I would be there by noon the next day. It was too late at night for me set off on the five-hour trip north to the Ojibwe reservation where my mother and father lived – the reservation where my mother had been born sixty years before.
- Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON: Canada: Octopus Publishing Group, (p. xx).
- Pierre Bourdieu (1994), Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N. B. Dirks, E. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 155-199). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.; Frantz Fanon (2004). The wretched of the earth. (Richard Philcox, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.; Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.; Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.; Antonio Gramsci (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gransci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds. & Trans.) New York, NY: International Press.