Overcoming Adversity – Part Two

Carol A. Hand

The original version of my mother’s story was intended for a specific audience – my mother, my family, and the caregivers in the assisted living center who provided the 24-hour care she needed during the last fourteen years of her life. There was little reason to include the historical context of the ever-shifting federal policies that dictated the ongoing efforts to gain access to Indigenous lands and resources. My mother’s early childhood, though, was profoundly affected by the larger socio-economic context and federal policy shifts.

The reservation where she was born had already been significantly impacted by previous treaties and legislation.

“From 1785 to 1867, the United States signed 42 treaties with the Ojibwe nations. Some of these treaties are known as the 1836 Treaty, the 1837 Pine Tree Treaty, the 1842 Copper Treaty and the 1854 Treaty. All of these treaties were signed between equal nations—tribes and the U.S. government. However, the tribes had to agree to cede, or give up their ownership, to the land” (Sue Erickson, 2006, p. 12).

Treaties were often ignored when interest in Indigenous lands and resources grew with an exponentially increasing non-Native population. The Dawes Act of 1887 was intended to free up more tribally controlled land. The Act ended collective tribal ownership by allotting acreage to individuals, resulting in a significant loss of land for Indigenous tribes, including my mother’s reservation.

“The act also provided that any “surplus” land be made available to whites, who by 1932 had acquired two-thirds of the 138,000,000 acres (56,000,000 hectares) Native Americans had held in 1887” (Britannica). 

By 1921, my mother’s reservation had been checker-boarded. Only some land was still owned by tribal individuals who had been awarded allotments. The rest was owned by newer affluent non-Native arrivals from urban areas, many of whom had acquired prime lake front property where they built palatial summer homes and tourist resorts.

There were other serious consequences of the Dawes Act for tribes as well.

“The social structure of the tribe was weakened; many nomadic Native Americans were unable to adjust to an agricultural existence; others were swindled out of their property; and life on the reservation came to be characterized by disease, filth, poverty, and despondency” (Britannica). 

The 1920s were a time of great change.

“The Roaring Twenties was a decade of economic growth and widespread prosperity, driven by recovery from wartime devastation and deferred spending, a boom in construction, and the rapid growth of consumer goods such as automobiles and electricity in North America and Europe and a few other developed countries such as Australia” (Wikipedia).

Affluence, railroads, and automobiles made it possible for people from cities to the south, like Chicago, to flock to the lake-studded beauty of the northwoods reservation during the summers. Although resorts and summer residents provided jobs for some tribal members, they also exposed people to a decadent lifestyle that had many negative consequences.

Prohibition (1920 – 1933) affected the reservation as well. I remember my mother’s stories about the mobsters and bootleggers who came up from Chicago and hid out in the sugar bush where the tribe harvested maple syrup in the spring.

The direct impact of the Great Depression (1929-1933) was minimal from my mother’s perspective. Her family had always been poor. The aftermath, though, brought many changes for tribes during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). New Deal programs included the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This Act ended the loss of tribal lands as well as federal support for Indian boarding schools. Instead, the Johnson O’Malley Act of 1934 was enacted to provide federal funding for local public schools to integrate Native American children who lived on reservations.

The communities that bordered reservations were not often welcoming places for Native people, including those that surrounded my mother’s community.  My mother’s childhood and education were affected by all of these factors as the following account highlights.


Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Part Two

Public School Days

Norma did’t speak about her years at boarding school often. leaving the question about when she attended unanswered. She was allowed to come home at some point before high school to care for Anna. These were not happy days. She remembered being repeatedly told that she would be on the street if Anna had not taken her in.

For a brief time, Norma went to live with her cousin, Hazel, Anna’s oldest daughter who married and moved to Chicago. Those were happy times for Norma, but she returned when Anna’s illness worsened and finished high school in Minocqua. As Norma told it, she was one of the first Native American students to attend school in Minocqua. “It almost took an Act of Congress to force the school to admit an Indian” Norma told me years later. Pictures from those days reflect her struggles as well as her resilience.


Norma laughingly told me about her high school days in Minocqua. As one of the only Native Americans, she had very few friends at school or at home. She did have a white boyfriend, but his parents did not approve. So, she had a lot of time to study and was elected Class Secretary. She graduated in May, 1939, as Salutatorian (2nd in her class).

After graduation, Norma took care of Anna who remained ill and incapacitated, although she longed for more. She was engaged to a young man from the reservation who was sent off to war. I know that she told me his name, but all I remember is this photograph saved with her few precious documents. The photo is simply signed, “With Love, ‘Edward.’” While she waited, she spent time with friends and family.


Work Cited:

Sue Erickson (2006, March). Ojibwe Treaty Rights
Understanding & Impact. Odanah, WI: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.


21 thoughts on “Overcoming Adversity – Part Two

    1. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments, Diane, and your astute observations! I remember reading that some of the authors of the Dawes Act feared the communal nature of tribal communities. Tribal members seemed too content with life and the drafters of the Act felt that private property ownership would motivate tribal people to become more individualistic, competitive, “productive,” and materialistic. There was no recognition of, or respect for, the ecologically-sound seasonal round practiced by many tribal peoples – moving from place to place to harvest just what they needed when the time was right.


      1. Even for settled people, communal “ownership” is seen as a threat to progress. In Mexico, indigenous people had to fight to keep their community lands and they themselves distribute the rights to families for pasturage and growing crops. I think the system has been breaking down in recent years with some move to private (or corporate or agro-industrial) property. This has probably been encouraged by trade agreements and climate change as many people who would have been farming can’t survive doing that and leave the village. Oh, look! Surplus land!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. A little know history lesson from the past as you continue to share your mom’s story. The photographs are wonderful and add so much to the story. Wonderful that you are chronicling and updated history through your family’s experience, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Bette. It isn’t easy to find brief historical accounts that “connect the dots” among different, distinct, but simultaneously significant factors affecting groups of people. I thought it might be helpful for my daughter and nephew to know more about their ancestral roots and the challenges their ancestors faced as well as stories they might want to pass on to their children,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, I am reminded as I read these accounts of your mother’s life of how little I was taught of our nation’s history and of how selective it was.
    I thank you for sharing her remarkable story, the accompanying photographs, and the larger cultural context in which her story is embedded. It broadens and deepens my understanding and engages both my mind and my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, Joan, your comments are such a gift. My past jobs and teaching diversity classes at universities taught me a lot about the gaps in our educational systems in this country. I have continued to do what I can even though it hasn’t made me very popular. 😏

      I am so grateful for your kind and thoughtful feedback. Thank you! 💜


  3. Poignant, and difficult for me to read through this chapter of history. I will never understand the great evils that people inflict upon each other and how easy they find justification for all of them. Things appear different now but in reality, nothing at all has changed. It may not even be worse, it just goes on and on. Wherever the effects of the European empires were felt the people were changed, always for the worst. But it wasn’t only the Europeans either. It seems to me that all of human society is a decadent construct, expanding by dint of increasing corruption. Too harsh a judgment? For some it is, but not to the observer. Your bit of history can be trusted because it is first hand and though such a tiny part of the full picture, it demonstrates my point. Change might have resulted in some bettering of physical conditions but what is happening now? Where to from here? Is there a “where to” for any of us, native, immigrant, poor? I have a feeling we ran out of bootstraps long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lately, I have been thinking about an article that my colleague and I assigned for the students in our class, “Seeing Wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition.” I thought of it again when I read your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Sha’Tara.

      The thesis of the authors is that “the transmission of ideas … [is] a key determinant of the emergent reality.” They argue that the present “reality” of much of the world today is based on greed and destruction and is due to the spread of an illness of spirit that can best be described by an Algonquin concept, Wetiko, ice-hearted cannibals that feed on others. The illness blinds those who are infected.

      I don’t agree with the authors’ assertion that the increasing predominance of Wetiko behavior and thinking are primarily due to the influence of European worldviews. The fact that the concept was developed by Indigenous peoples in what is now North America suggests that it was something they observed often enough to name. Still, it does seem an apt descriptor of something I have noticed about people’s willingness to bow to authority and set aside their own integrity when surrounded by a culture that normalizes behaviors that are counter to what they believe is “moral.” In case you’re interested, here’s the article citation and link

      Alnoor Ladha & Martin Kirk (2016). Seeing Wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition. KOSMOS – Journal for Global Transformation. Retrieved from:

      Perhaps all we can do is to keep trying to raise awareness. What others do with the ideas we share is something over which we have no control…


      1. Thank you for the link. I had heard of Wetiko before but over time the terminology got lost among others, for example, “ponerology” as expounded by Andrzej Łobaczewski (1921-2007)
        This article alone explains the likes of Reagan, Bush (the Shrub) and of course Trump, and why they were/remain/are so popular.
        Human nature is just that and it will commit its crimes according to the forces it has, or discovers. The Europeans had better weaponry, and carried diseases their opponents had no immunity against. If the roles had been reversed the European’s attempts at hegemony would have been crushed, their people killed or enslaved throughout the earth today.
        “Wetiko, ice-hearted cannibals that feed on others. The illness blinds those who are infected.” That explains today’s billionaire elite and most political and religious leadership.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for sharing the link, Sha’Tara. I never heard of ponerology or Lobaczewski. It was a fascinating article and important topic to study, with tragic consequences for the scholars involved.


        2. When you live as a dissident in a “hard” totalitarian regime such as under Soviet Stalinism, Hitler’s nazism, Mao’s communism you expect that. Under “soft” consumer totalitarianism, as in Israel, the US and Canada, only the officially chosen scapegoats need worry, and most of those are too dummied-down or tired from trying to survive to care.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! Great new look to your blog, Carol!

    As I read this, I realized how little info I have on either of my parents, nor the rest of the family.

    Maybe this is why our family wasn’t very closely tied with each other? Thank you for sharing this with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for noticing the new look, Dave. It was really a gift in disguise. When I posted my newest article, some of the “buttons” (like, comment, reblog) didn’t show up on my screen. After trying to fix it myself, I asked WordPress folks for help and followed their advice. That didn’t work, either, so I decided to try a new free “theme.” I have to say that I really like the change! The text is more readable and there’s much more white space…

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and insights. It is hard for many families whose ancestors came from other nations to talk about their roots. So many were forced to forget their languages and cultures, even change their names, to make it in America. It’s a different kind of historical trauma that makes people vulnerable to political manipulation.

      Those of us with ancestors who were always on the margins needed and need to know our roots to survive. As a parent and grandparent of a multicultural family, it has always felt important to me to make sure to try to raise awareness and respect for diverse roots and worldviews. All of us have “cultures.” Some of us on the margins have to learn at least two different ones to function…

      Sending my best wishes and gratitude, dear friend. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My grandmother was Ojibwa and her grandfather was a chief. He signed one of the treaties. In my name, I have 180 acres of Ojibwa land in the Upper Michigan near Holden. I enjoyed the story and how you made the reader understand this world. Thank you dear Carol for sharing the amazing photos and your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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