Women of Substance and Heart

Carol A. Hand

“The woman is the foundation on which nations are built. She is the heart of her nation. If that heart is weak, the people are weak. If her heart is strong and her mind is clear, then the nation is strong and knows its purpose. The woman is the center of everything.” (Late Elder, Art Solomon (Ojibwe), For the People: Teachings on the Natural Way) (Source – Shannon Thunderbird)

Across the past three generations in my family, it has been the women who nurtured the children and ultimately ended up as the primary economic providers. We are women of little importance when viewed from the prevailing paradigm that values material wealth, elite status, or fame – a nurse, a social worker, and a teacher. Yet each in her own ways continued to bring health, respect, kindness, and light into the lives of others.

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Photo: Family Photo for my Mother’s 65th Birthday (1986)

None of our lives have not been easy, but somehow we all found the strength to carry on, to love enough to keep going, and to help others as best we could along the way. I am grateful for my mother’s example and my daughter’s courage and resilience.

A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” (Eleanor Roosevelt) (Source)

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Photo: The next three generations – Lake Superior 2010

I believe my granddaughter will carry on the tradition. She stopped her soccer match last evening as she knelt down to console one of the opponents who was injured. Another spectator commented that it is so like my granddaughter to stop the game in order to show compassion for another.

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.” (Tsistsistas, Cheyenne) (Source – Shannon Thunderbird)

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.

 

A Chance Encounter?

Carol A. Hand

Looking back, I wonder if our meeting was really a chance encounter. Who would believe that an hour or so with a stranger could open up compelling possibilities for an unimagined future? Even though it’s hard to remember who I thought I’d become “when I really grew up,” I can hear it in the old cassette recording. Timid, resigned to live in obscurity, and self-effacing. Some days, I’m like that again. And on those days, I feel like a battle-wearied soul in a world gone mad. On those days, I’m convinced there’s absolutely nothing I can do to make a difference. Yet I also hear the soft lovely voice reflecting warmth and kindness on the cassette, carefully modulated but honest thoughtful responses, and the lilting infectious laughter that has sometimes filled airplanes or restaurants with joy. There are days when I feel that, too. I have had the courage to face challenges and conflicts head on with nothing more than the belief that things could change if I did my homework and remained mindful and fully present no matter what I encountered. And sometimes, situations were transformed, and sometimes not. But either way, there was deep satisfaction in knowing that I did what I felt needed to be done to raise awareness about liberatory alternatives and possibilities.

It was the winter of 1977. At the time, I was living in Venice, California, an escapee from a commune that had nearly shattered my belief in people and possibilities. Escape meant starting over from scratch with a six-year old daughter and a partner who couldn’t let go of the past. It meant living in one tiny room in an old hotel near the beach, a disgustingly filthy shared bathroom on the first floor, and cockroaches falling through the ceiling from the room above ours. It meant working as a waitress on the night shift and walking my daughter to and from school in a dangerous neighborhood.

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Drawing: Carol A. Hand

I don’t remember why I decided to see an astrologer, or how I found this particular one, but our one and only meeting proved to be powerfully transformative. I wish I could thank her and let her know how important our conversation turned out to be, but all I have left after so many years and so many moves is a cassette tape-recording without her name.

Why listen to this old tape now? Perhaps it’s because my battle scars are healing, similar to the ones I carried so many years ago when we met. But I really think it’s because I no longer want to feel like I’m sitting on the sidelines in a crazy world that is threatening the well-being of everyone I love. So I pulled out the old tape and typed out the dialogue to see if I could discover just what inspired me to go back to school and finish my degrees four years after the 1977 chance encounter. The message from the astrologer gave me courage to begin to discover the strengths she highlighted.

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Memories from 1983

What can you do when you’re caught in the middle of a dispute about who has access to your volunteer efforts? I remember my first practicum placement as a social work student. One of my tasks was to help organize a new statewide organization for the providers of a relatively new service in Wisconsin, “adult daycare.” At the time, there were several models for providing services for adults who needed somewhere to go during the day because of physical or cognitive conditions that made self-care too difficult. The social model merely provided a place to socialize, meals, activities, and staff to ensure safety. The health maintenance model provided additional services to help with medication and treatment. The third model focused on a blend of social and health maintenance. Obviously, health maintenance models required more professional nursing staff and hence, were more expensive.

On the second day of my practicum placement, I met with the professional staff from the two agencies that were interested in forming a statewide association for adult daycare providers. As they began arguing which agency should host my work, it was clear that this would not be an easy year. They had different ideas about the model that should be the focus of the organization. As the argument grew more heated and appeared to be leading to a final dissolution of any further collaboration, I interrupted to remind them that I was a resource. If they really wanted to create an organization, they would need to agree to work together. It didn’t really matter to me which agency housed my placement, but it did matter that they were both willing to work with me toward a shared goal. They calmed down as we outlined a simple plan for beginning the daunting task ahead.

I discovered that the conflict between the two professionals was mild compared to the dissent among providers across the state. Filling out the necessary nonprofit incorporation papers was easy. Getting people to agree on the purpose and structure of the organization took far more thought and effort. And a funny thing happened. I was tired of the futility of writing papers for classes that never resulted in real world benefits. Because I was also taking a class in interpersonal skills that required being videotaped, I got to know the social work department’s videographer, Dennis. (In these days of austerity, it’s hard to believe that there were ever such positions in the old days!)

I asked Dennis if he ever got to do educational videos. When he said not recently, but he would like to, I asked if he would like to travel through the state with me to interview people and film different adult daycare centers. Of course, I had to get clearance from faculty and administrators, but we found ourselves on the road, often loading his video equipment into my little Honda. We mostly focused on the southeastern part of the state because, like many other resources, centers were located in the most populated areas.

My two field supervisors were supportive and both agreed to be interviewed. One provided an overview of adult daycare. The other showcased her socialization model and explained why she felt it was the most appropriate, cost effective approach. We filmed the two other models and interviewed the directors, and then began the editing process. I wondered why I ever thought this would be easier than a paper! Before we edited our videos, I had to write the script and figure out how to sequence select material from hours and hours of tapes! Yet script in hand, Dennis helped me find a student in the theater department to read the script on audiotape. Then we began the tedious job of arranging clips. When we were finally done, I realized that it took at least one hour to edit each minute of our 33-minute final tape.

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Photo Credit: Aging Wisconsin – 1987

The agency that had finally housed my placement hosted a premiere of the final product: Daycare: Censored for Adults Only! A fascinating and unanticipated thing happened during the well-attended premiere. But first, I want to digress. I saw myself on video for the first time in the interpersonal skills class that Dennis taped. I remember my first reaction. I had never realized that my nose was so pronounced – a sharp beak that reminded me of Cyrano de Bergerac. When I walked up the stairs after seeing the video, I remember being surprised that my nose wasn’t bumping into the walls three feet away. It was truly humbling and left me with this odd ability to see myself from another vantage point whenever I was speaking in public.

I witnessed the same humbling experience among the daycare directors who saw themselves on tape during the premiere. Maybe it wasn’t their first time, but I know they were so shocked that they actually listened to what their peers had to say. Afterwards, they came together humbly to discuss the benefits of each of the models and were energized to support an organization that would include all of the various models.

Now I have to admit that the video is embarrassingly amateurish and endearingly silly, but it did work to bring people together. By the time my internship was done, the incorporation papers were submitted and approved and the new provider organization was ready for another intern to staff it as an organizer and grant-writer to take it to the next level. (And in case you’re wondering, I passed my practicum and classes but Denis and I weren’t nominated for an Academy Award.) Unfortunately, my only copy of the video was lost sometime in the past during one of my many moves, and the one listed in Worldcat disappeared from the library years ago as well. The video did feature a gifted jazz pianist, a van driver, who played for us during our visit to one of the sites. (In the process of hunting for a copy of the tape, I reconnected with old friends and also learned that the organization still exists.)

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I sincerely doubt that I would have discovered these abilities had it not been for my chance encounter with an astrologer. I was so timid and battle weary. She also taught me an even more important lesson by the way she treated me during one of my most vulnerable times. We can use our different kinds of knowledge, our different kinds of skills to either liberate or oppress others. It’s a choice we have every moment. It really never mattered to me whether I believed in astrology or not. What made a difference in my life at that time and for decades to come was someone who used the tools she had with kindness and compassion in order to help someone in need. It’s something I have tried to do consistently in my own life and work through the years. It’s something I know I need to continue to do with renewed intensity during these crazy times.

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Drawing: Carol A. Hand

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.

Finding the Light on Foggy Days

Carol A. Hand

I struggled with the title for this post. Should it be “finding a reason to breathe in times of pain?” Yet as I sat on my back step this morning, it seemed more fitting to view this time of my life based on the metaphor provided by my immediate environment – a warmer morning of dense fog created by the melting snow with the dark skeletal tree branches highlighted against the grey sky. In many ways, this image describes the first three years of my earlier-than-anticipated decision to retire from a job I loved and did well on some levels. I loved the challenge of exposing students to a variety of perspectives so they could think critically about themselves and the world as it was, is, and could be. Retirement has forced me to ask deeper questions. Who am I really? If I could do anything, what would it be? Where are the visions and passion that inspired me to create and survive despite the fog and pain I often had to endure in the past?

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Photo Credit: Duluth, MN – November 23, 2014

I know these questions would not have come to mind without the events of the past two weeks of excruciating physical pain, fear, and frustration. I know I don’t mention the physical challenges that I sometimes deal with that are often simplistically viewed as a normal part of the aging process. Really, that started for me in third grade when I was diagnosed with myopia – near-sightedness. Fortunately the ever-increasing vision loss I have experienced since then could be corrected with eyeglasses. Granted, in grade school, I was often teased with the mocking label “four-eyes.” The only frames available then were made of thick plastic, way too big for my tiny face, and the lenses were ground from real glass. Participating in sports required lenses made of safety-glass – even thicker than real glass – quite attractive with the addition of a heavy metal screen face guard 🙂 . But corrective lenses meant the end of constant nausea and headaches and the ability to read the blackboard without resting my face on my open palms with just the right position to slant my eyes at the outer corner. (This really did help bring the chalk messages into clearer focus.) Yet the most amazing outcome I remember was the ability to see that the tree tops were not really like cotton balls – I could suddenly see the details of individual leaves.

Despite heavy thick glasses I could still read, sing, draw, study snowflakes on my mittens or pond water life under my microscope and see the stars in the nighttime sky. I could ice skate, play softball, run races and ski. And I could still continue attending public school in an era when children with visual, hearing, or cognitive differences that could not be “corrected” with existing technologies were housed in segregated institutional settings. In this public school and community environment, I was unaware of the need to contemplate the reality that we are all at best temporarily able-bodied. (“Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities.” Source)

Often with age, severe myopia places one at greater risk of other conditions, and in my situation, retinal detachment and optic nerve damage. As someone who loves to read, write, and travel, and who lives independently, the threat of losing my sight at this age is indeed frightening. I don’t normally think about it but have tried to diligently engage in preventive strategies, relying on the expertise of ophthalmologists. Moving to a new community meant changing to a new one whose competence I increasingly questioned, so two weeks I got a second opinion from another practitioner that was both hopeful and alarming. The recent vision loss in my left eye is correctable because it’s due to a cataract, not optic nerve damage. When the vision loss is serious enough (more than 20%), Medicare will help cover the cost of an operation (if it still exists at the time.)

In the meantime, reading and driving are challenging but not impossible. But it does make me somewhat clumsier than normal, and so two weeks ago, just before my doctor’s visit, I stubbed my little left toe on a chair leg – HARD – and it broke. Still limping in pain on my swollen foot several days later, I discovered I could still fit my swollen left foot into my overly large winter boots without the heavy woolen sock that could still cover my right foot and went out to shovel snow. I didn’t take into account the delicate movements I always make when I am lifting heavy objects to avoid provoking an old back injury. Because I was dealing with a painful toe by the time I finished shoveling, I failed to recognize the faint muscle twinge in my back that presaged the excruciating spasms that would spread across my entire back by the next morning. Normally, I would have simply applied an ice pack as a preventive caution. The next morning, I awoke in agony. The simplest tasks were excruciatingly painful. All of a sudden my ability to maintain my independence in my own home became uncertain.
The pain was constant and excruciating and made me remember the dream message I shared in a recent post.

“You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”

But what would happen to the little special needs dog I adopted, Pinto, or my parakeets, Queenie and Bud? Pinto has finally learned not to go into the snarling and biting fits in my presence – a condition that made him unadoptable for most homes. And what about my daughter and grandchildren? Yet, what use would I be to anyone in these difficult times if I become totally dependent on others for everyday care?

I had to face these questions and breathe through the pain, sleep, and sit on my exercise bike, the only seat I have with a hard straight back support that can hold an ice pack. Because it didn’t make sense to just sit still, I pedaled – over 50 miles so far. It’s all I could do because I don’t take pain relievers or use medical services other than ophthalmologists or dentists. Pedaling made me feel better, so I decided maybe Yoga would also help, and ended up rolling on the floor in even greater pain, almost laughing at the absurdity as I struggled to find a way to get up off the floor. “Enough’s enough,” I thought. “Either end your life now or decide you’re willing to bear the pain because you love others enough to see if it’s possible to heal.”

The quirks that helped me survive abuse as a child can sometimes be serious flaws – being stubborn and fiercely independent, unwilling to admit that I ever need help from anyone else. I decided to seek the only assistance that I have found valuable in the past. I found a Reiki Master who helped be begin the long journey of deeper healing. She helped me remember that physical pain and challenges provide an opportunity to connect or reconnect with the deeper sense of love that can help guide us through the fog. This morning, I realized that there are still meaningful gifts I can contribute. With this realization, the pain began to ease. The path before me will require endurance and hard work, but I still have promises to keep. I choose to live the time ahead remembering to allow love to light my way through the fog.

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Photo Credit: Mystical Path through a Forest

 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.

 

 

The Lesson of the Butterfly, and the Message of the Wind

Carol A. Hand

At the moment, I am dealing with the challenges that always accompany innovation. For the past two weeks, when I wasn’t working outside on gardens, I was developing a new research class that began yesterday. (This is the main reason why I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to many blogs lately.)

In the process of conceptualizing the class, I reflected on the knowledge and skills that would be helpful to students in the future. Most research is built on what worked in the past in narrow clinical settings with little thought about the current socio-political context or broader future implications. I decided to try my own research experiment by testing out an experiential approach for teaching research that engages students in exploring the impact of climate change for vulnerable populations and the effectiveness of responses to recent disasters. (Duluth is still dealing with the consequences of torrential rains and flooding during June of 2012, so the implications of climate change are also very close to home.)

It took me many days to work out the basic framework and identify resources, but in essence, I’m sharing this discussion for two main reasons. First, I welcome any ideas and resources you want to share about climate change that would be helpful for me and my students. Second, it’s my way of trying to find an effective third alternative for dealing with the conflict that always accompanies paradigm shifts. Some administrators are not pleased by new ways of doing things. It is tempting for me to choose simplistically from the two most common responses to conflict: fight or flight. The third, to stand with integrity and compassion, is the path I need to work out through the process of writing. What does this mean in terms of practical actions? What past experiences can I draw from for clues?

As I ask these questions, two memories come to mind, the lesson of the butterfly and the message of the wind. The lesson of the butterfly is described in an excerpt from story I wrote for my daughter last Christmas.

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The Lesson of the Butterfly

As I thought of what I could give you as a gift this year, one of the memories of your early years was actually on a summer’s day when you were Ava’s age – 6. We were living in central Illinois in a tiny town named Cullom in a farmhouse we rented – “Paul Gray’s house.” Cullom’s downtown was only one block long. It had a restaurant, and this great old variety store that sold an assortment of things farmers needed. It’s where you went to first grade and as I remember, it was one of the few schools where you did not have to deal with overt racism from teachers or bullying from other students.

Despite your relatively benign treatment at school, Cullom was not very welcoming to strangers. I remember that during our year in Cullom, we sometimes went to the restaurant in the center of town. As we walked toward the door, we could hear the loud conversations and laughter. As we entered, the room became absolutely silent as all of the local customers fixed their eyes on us. It remained silent until we left.

When we needed to shop for other things, we had to travel to one of the larger cities – each about 40 or 50 miles one-way – either Pontiac to the northwest, or Kankakee to the northeast. On a warm sunny summer day, we drove the 50 miles or so to Pontiac. Of the two choices, it was clearly the least diverse in terms of population. Although I don’t have a photo of you during those years, there is one that reminds me of this particular day.

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Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974

For some reason I am not sure I can describe, this photo captures the same state of being I remember from that day. In Pontiac, it was not a child that you were gently guiding. It was a butterfly that was fluttering around you as you walked down the sidewalk. All of your attention was focused on it as it flitted about, with the same gentle smile on your face as you followed its path down the sidewalk. It was all you saw.

It was not all I saw, however. The prejudice of many central Illinois residents is deeply rooted. Bluntly-said, many long-term residents are pointedly racist. Like the border communities that surround reservations, white residents are acutely attuned to the smallest nuances of differences in appearance that may suggest a different ancestry than theirs. As a child tanned by the sun, with lovely dark curly hair, you were unique among the people who walked down the sidewalk in Pontiac that day.

I noticed an older white couple walking toward us on the sidewalk. I really don’t know what they were thinking, but the expression on their faces when they looked at you was not warm and friendly. They stared intently with their eyes narrowed and the edges of their mouths turned down in any ugly way. I was getting ready to say something to them because the cold disapproval of their demeanor made me angry. Yet, you were so intent on the butterfly, you never noticed. You kept smiling and reaching out gently, and the butterfly responded by fluttering just in front of you as you walked along. You laughed in delight. Then, something amazing happened. The scowls of the couple suddenly changed into broad smiles, as if your joy had melted the hardness of their hearts. Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.

Somehow, despite the challenges you have had to overcome, or perhaps in part because of them, the purity of heart symbolized on that summer’s day has remained. The ability to focus so intently on the wonder of life rather than fears and distractions is still one of the most amazing of gifts you offer others. As I contemplated what to give you for Christmas at this challenging time, all I could think of was to let you know how special you are and have always been. I love you. Miigwetch, my lovely daughter, for your beautiful spirit.

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The Message of the Wind

I learned another lesson from my daughter at the end of her school year in Cullom. It was a warm, sunny day, and as always, the winds were strong and gusty in the flat corn-country that surrounded us. I was working in the garden in front of our rented house when the school bus arrived. As my daughter was walking down the steps of the bus, I noticed her arms were hugging the huge pile of papers and pictures that represented her first grade accomplishments. Suddenly, as she walked across a field toward the house, a strong gust of wind pulled the stack of papers from her grasp. I watched with concern as she lost patience and began chasing her work, stomping some papers into the ground with her little feet and crumpling others in her hands. I ran out to help her. I hoped she could learn that it is always more effective and more fun to play with the wind than it is to get angry at things we really cannot change. We couldn’t stop the wind from blowing her papers, but we could make a game of recapturing her treasures.

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What can I learn from the butterfly and the wind? I can view this present challenge as a fight with the wind over which I have no control and lose the creative, adventurous spirit of an exciting experiment. I can decide to give up trying to create anything new and live as a recluse, letting the winds scatter the fragments of unrealized possibilities. Or, I can choose the lesson of the butterfly. I can choose to keep my focus on those things that inspire a sense of wonder and hope with such intensity that there is no room for distraction. Perhaps I can learn from the lesson of the butterfly. If I can focus intently enough despite the winds that surround me, the winds themselves will become calm. I owe it to my students to try. Yesterday, they eagerly rose to the challenge of working with me on this experiment even though the lovely early spring weather had finally arrived.

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Living in the Space Between Cultures – Part 2

Carol A. Hand

Sometimes, living between cultures means looking at the world in different ways. As someone who doesn’t look “Indian,” I have experienced how much easier it is to live with white skin privilege. I blend in, at least outwardly, and feel invisible. Yet when I have lived and traveled throughout northern Wisconsin, I noticed that residents in communities that border reservations have a more finely attuned skill at discerning physical differences. I didn’t feel invisible when I walked into a business or restaurant. The scrutiny didn’t feel welcoming or friendly, nor was the treatment I sometimes experienced. “You can’t cash your check here,” said the teller at the bank I had used for years in the White border community. “We don’t know who you are. You need to go to the branch on the reservation.” Nor was the store cashier welcoming when she greeted me loudly so everyone can hear, “You can’t come in here with that bag on your shoulder (a laptop that I couldn’t leave while I waited for my car to be serviced). “It’s too big. You might steal something.” Or the more subtle forms of discrimination. Sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes watching as all of the new White arrivals are served and finally realizing that my wait will be infinite. Sometimes I confronted it, but sometimes I felt shamed, angered, or both by the treatment. (It reminds me of how exposed I felt during the years I lived on the flat farmlands of central Illinois without the presence of trees to shelter me from the elements.)

As a child, I embraced my Ojibwe heritage without shame. In fact, it made me feel special. In my New Jersey community, it was seen as “cool” by my classmates. Still, I worked harder at everything I did out of a sense of responsibility to prove to my mother that being Ojibwe didn’t make us inferior. Feeling proud of my heritage also made me more likely to reach out to others who were “different.” Yet I noticed the importance of “skin-color gradients” on my mother’s reservation. When I stayed with my relatives in the summer, I saw that the cousins whose skin pigmentation was darker were treated differently, more harshly, than those with lighter colored hair and skin. In retrospect, I am grateful that my childhood spared me from that expression of internalized racism. I doubt that I would have survived it.

In school and professional arenas, I felt it was irrelevant and unnecessary to point out my cultural heritage. It didn’t prevent me from using critical thinking in school. It didn’t matter to the nursing home residents I cared for, or the people I served in restaurants. That changed, however, when I had to address the systematic discrimination and entrenched hegemony built into state policies that denied sovereign rights to tribes, or sanctioned agency practices that denied access to those who were most vulnerable.

I felt obligated to publicly disclose my cultural identity and assume a more visible advocacy role not only on behalf of tribes, but also for others who were similarly excluded due to age, class, gender, or ability. It was not a comfortable position. Doing so changed how people related to me, both Whites and Native Americans. Once again, I felt I was standing exposed on the prairie. I was “othered.” Suddenly, every word I uttered or action I took was carefully scrutinized. It seemed as though every contribution or mistake I made was publicly acclaimed and amplified well beyond their significance in ways that made me feel like a trained monkey who could talk, the personification of all the negative assumptions about Native Americans, or like a clumsy purple alien from outer space.

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Photo Credit: Gary Larson, The Far Side (1983 FarWorks, Inc.)

My boss introduced me to the Governor and other people in important public positions as “our well-tailored Chippewa.” She also made sure that I received a highly publicized award, not for one of the projects that I knew made a difference for elders in the state, but for a minor tribal initiative that showcased the agency’s commitment to Affirmative Action, confirming for others who were more deserving of recognition that the degrees I earned were not the reason I held my position. Although I found public scrutiny uncomfortable, I was able to maintain a sense of humor and use my position to serve as an advocate for people who would otherwise not be represented. As a state employee, my small successes to target resources to elders with the greatest needs still remained unobserved in the tedious policy documents I produced or the responses I ghost-wrote for the Department Secretary or Governor.

The opportunity to sometimes remain invisible changed, however, when I assumed the role of deputy director for an inter-tribal organization. For the executive branch administrators who were once my superiors in the hierarchy of state government, the “well-tailored Chippewa” had become a vocal advocate who would make sure that marginalized voices were heard in policy deliberations. Socially constructed beliefs about education and titles gave my comments more credibility. The inter-tribal staff who had unquestioningly imposed state and federal restrictions on tribes in the past eagerly shifted when they realized it was their job to represent tribes and question policies and procedures that created undue hardships for tribal people. University faculty who were used to exploiting tribal communities for research projects had to follow more egalitarian protocols and community direction. State funders who had once easily used “divide and conquer” strategies with tribal leaders to avoid awarding reasonable grants to address compelling needs or refused to recognize tribal sovereignty no longer found this approach effective. My Ojibwe boss loved to tease me about my feisty advocacy, asking where my white horse was parked and routinely giving me replicas of the statue of liberty.

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Photo Credit: pagescoloring.net

It was exciting to watch as inter-tribal staff began to consciously challenge hegemony. Yet carrying the responsibility to transform power relations is a lonely life-style, not merely a job. It made me a target for those who wanted to resume their hegemony over tribes, as well as for tribal leaders and community members who wanted to be in the spotlight. I was grateful for an excuse to give up working 12 hour days seven days a week. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to try something new, but that’s another story…

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Photo Credit: Aadi (my grandson) and me, blowing bubbles – 2001

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Go FISH!

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I was asked to be a keynote speaker for a conference sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The audience would be BIA and tribal social services staff from the U.S., primarily from the Great Lakes and Western states. The speaker’s fee they offered me was offensively large in relation to the $30,000 annual budget my tribe (the Sokaogon Ojibwe Community) received to address the needs of children and families living on the reservation, or in the case of child welfare, throughout the state and country. The truth is I don’t like speaking in public, so I typically look for diplomatic reasons to decline invitations. In this case, I listed some conditions that I hoped would be reasons for the BIA to withdraw the offer. First, I told the BIA administrator that I would be willing to speak if they paid my travel expenses and per diem for meals and lodging. Second, I asked them to create a special contract to award the speaker fees to my tribe to fund flexible services for children and families. To my surprise, the BIA administrator agreed, so I signed the contract.

As the date of the conference neared, I was given additional directions about what I would need to speak about. The newest fad in federal bureaucracies was the management video – FISH – that emerged from the extraordinarily successful approaches used by the Seattle fish market. Staff at the market were encouraged by management to entertain and connect with their customers — the video shows staff throwing fish to each other over the heads of the customers or singing about the unique virtues of different kinds of fish. It is a very funny video and on some levels emphasizes the fact that work should be fun and one’s clients or customers should be the focus of a worker’s attention in public and private service industries.

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Photo Credit: lakesidelodge.co.za

Yet as I reflected on how to interweave the message of “FISH” into a presentation for tribal staff, the prospect became daunting.

1. Play,
2. Make their day,
3. Be there, and
4. Choose your attitude.

I was extremely uncomfortable with the audacity of telling staff whose client loads were over 100 that the way to survive overwhelming responsibilities with inadequate resources, bureaucratic inertia, and racism from surrounding communities was really up to them. All it would take to improve their jobs was their willingness to change their attitudes. Needless to say, I decided I had to not only explain the FISH model, but also critique it from a Native American perspective. And really, I was volunteering my time. The only constraints I felt were to provide useful information to the audience and not embarrass my tribe.

The day of the training, I put on my funny fish-print jumper. At least my appearance would entertain the audience of more than 100 people. Presenters were introduced by the director of the sponsoring Regional BIA Office in a unique themed way — she threw cloth fish our way for us to catch before we were introduced. (Yes, I caught mine.)

The opening remarks were delayed by technical difficulties. But then, I was next up. I decided to use old technology – transparencies – so there was no need to wait for computers and video projectors. I began my presentation, “Of Fish and Families,” by diplomatically discussing the FISH Principles. But I couldn’t ignore the need to explain that the implied goal of the FISH model was to increase corporate profits by maintaining the existing customer base, attracting new customers, selling more products, and decreasing staff turnover. (I could see the Regional BIA Office Director seated in the front row begin to frown, but I kept going.)

It would be nice if tribal social services could increase funding in this way, but that isn’t how tribal social services work – really this only works for for-profit prisons. The goals of tribal governments are profoundly different: preserving sovereignty; protecting people, land and resources; maintaining social order; and preserving culture. Tribal services “customers” are not buying a special treat or even a necessity.  They are neglected or abused children, struggling families and individuals, and foster or adoptive families. The job of tribal staff is to help clients obtain the services and supports they need to heal and become self-sufficient, and healing the community ultimately means working yourself out of a job. (An even deeper frown)

So how do the FISH principles fit with the attributes of successful human service programs? Based on a national study of programs that demonstrated success in improving people’s lives, there are some things that may be helpful for tribes to consider. Some of these principles reflect what we can learn from FISH, highlighted in blue on the list, but some are unique to non-profit services.

Successful human service programs:

  1. Are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering;
  2. See children in the context of their families;
  3. Deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities;
  4. Have a long-term, preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time;
  5. Are well managed by competent individuals with clearly identifiable skills;
  6. Are staffed by people who are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive services; and
  7. Operate in settings that encourage practitioners to build strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.” (Lisbeth B. Schorr, 1998. Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America, pp. 5-10)

How do these attributes and principles fit within the context of tribal sovereignty? (An even deeper frown and arms are crossed)

The problem with policies and programs developed to serve general populations is that they are too often decontextualized and ahistorical. They fail to incorporate a recognition that power, history and culture matter. The external forces tribes deal with make innovation challenging: unequal power relationships between tribes and federal policy makers and funders; the imposition of Euro-American values and ideologies; Federal laws that limit tribal sovereignty (e.g., Public Law 280 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act); Euro-American institutions, organizational structures, and practice approaches; and legacies of colonial oppression. The reality we all face is more than responding to urgent contemporary issues. Many of the challenges tribal people experience now have roots in historical legacies of unresolved trauma.

As a speaker, I always look for ways to involve the audience. In this case, I had decided to experiment by using something I had observed in a workshop conducted with service providers and community members on an Ojibwe reservation. I asked for volunteers to help me illustrate how unresolved grief and loss are passed on from generation to generation. The audience came alive and many hands were raised. I only needed five, so I tried to pick people of different ages in different places around the large room. (The Regional BIA Office Director used this opportunity to get up and walk to the back of the room, where she remained standing for the rest of the session, arms crossed, with an openly angry expression by now)

We “sculpted” the weight of oppression for each succeeding generation, as illustrated in the following figure. For each historical era, the audience was asked to shout out the historical events that occurred for their tribe. The volunteers lined up, all facing the same side wall, each representing one historical era.

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five generations

Contact Era: massive death mostly due to disease, displacement, land loss, massacres, missionary efforts to “civilize” Native Americans

Conflict/Domination Era: massive death due to disease, warfare deaths, removal of children to boarding schools, displacement, land loss, customs outlawed

Assimilation Era: land loss, tribes placed on reservations, U.S. Congress assumed plenary power over tribes, removal of children to boarding schools, more customs outlawed

Integration Era: Corporate form imposed on tribal governments, children forced to attend off-reservation public schools, termination of some tribes, relocation of families from reservations to urban areas, states granted jurisdictional powers over civil issues (e.g., child welfare)

Self-Determination/Self-Governance Era: limited sovereignty returned for tribal administration, justice systems, health and social services, child welfare

(The Five Generations Exercise, Recovery Foundation, 1999, High Risk Kids Workshop Manual, p. 27.)

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For the first era, the time of early contact (1500s-1770s), many spoke of massive death, massacres, and land loss. When it was time to move on, the representative of the first era leaned forward and placed her hands on the shoulders of the next generation, symbolizing the weight of unresolved grief from so many losses that would be carried on the shoulders of the next generation. Again, the audience called out the events for tribes during the era of conflict and colonial domination. As each era was covered, the generational representative would lean on the shoulders of the next in line. By the time we reached the present day representative, he was struggling to stand with the weight of the past on his shoulders. Then, it was time for a change. The present day representative was asked to turn around and face the history. The weight was still there, resting on his shoulders, but our physical bodies are better able to deal with the weight if we are facing it, and so are our emotions. By acknowledging our history, we can bear it. We can understand how the legacy of loss and unresolved grief has affected our families and communities and begin the process of healing. What can we do knowing that our work to help people and communities heal will still remain challenging?

trail of tears

Photo Credit: Trail of Tears, California State University Long Beach

I suspected that my next topic would be the final straw for the Regional BIA Office Director. I shared the story of the starfish. The topic was FISH after all, and we needed to lighten the mood. The starfish story reminds people that whatever they do to improve things does make a difference, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

I ended by tying it all back to simple ways to apply the messages of FISH in our work. “Our jobs may sometimes seem impossible or futile given the number of children and families who need help and the seriousness and complexity of the challenges families face. However, we can remember the story of the starfish. We can choose to do what is in our power – we can be there with people even if we don’t have all of the resources we would like to offer them. When we see others doing what they can, we can offer encouragement, unlike the young man in the story of the starfish. We can join them, and help organize others to help. We can choose our attitude and remember that it is no small accomplishment to improve the quality of the day with simple kindness.”

The audience was gracious and applauded loudly. Most waited to talk with me afterwards, and many wanted to know more about the sculpting exercise – tribal elders, leaders, service staff, and BIA administrators were all eager to share it with others. They told me the presentation touched them deeply because they had an opportunity to glimpse larger historical forces that continue to make their lives and jobs so challenging. It’s no surprise that the Regional BIA Office Director was not among those who were excited. I was never asked to speak again at a BIA conference. Yet in the end, I am glad I made the decision to accept the engagement. My tribe did have a little extra funding to provide services, I had a chance to see a Rocky Mountain city during forest fire season, and I had an opportunity to meet many inspiring people. Oh, and it was the only chance I had to wear my funny fish-print jumper. My daughter has inherited it, and now she will have a story to go with it.

***

 

A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.

By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.

Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.

auditorium

Photo Credit: Onbroadwaytheater.com

The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.

At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?

I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.

Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.

543061_3230615677519_1030432801_32416790_1161756695_n

Photo Credit: Carol Hand, Carlos, José, and children, 1973, photographer unknown

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“The Fool’s Prayer”

Carol A. Hand

Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”

The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”

The room was hushed: In silence rose the
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”

(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671 )

Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class. “You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”

Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.

jester

Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy, Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy on deviantART
lesley-lycanthropy.deviantart.com

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Aadi and the Magic Chair

Carol A. Hand

When my grandson, Aadi, was just learning to talk, there were some sounds that were hard for him to say. He couldn’t say “g” or “r” or “d,” so instead of calling me “Grandma,” he called me “Ahma.” Because it was a special title, I never corrected him. Although he is a teenager now, it is still my name.

When he was 5, I took a job at a university far away from his home. Although we didn’t see each other for two years, we often spoke on the phone. Whenever we talked, Aadi would ask me to tell him stories about our adventures when he was little and stories about where I worked. One of the stories I told him was about the magic chair in my office at the university. When he was 7, he came to stay with me during his Christmas vacation. He was sad because he missed his mother and father, but he was excited to see the magic chair. For a Christmas present six years later, I wrote down some of the stories for him, including the story of his encounter with the magic chair.

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When Ahma was a teacher in a university a long time ago, she was given a very expensive, fancy chair for her office by one of her bosses. It was a chair that was soft and had all kinds of levers to make it move: up and down, from side to side, and to move the back of the chair so it leaned backwards or forwards. Ahma could never figure out how to use the levers. Nothing ever moved when she pushed and pulled the levers, no matter how hard she tried to make them work. She couldn’t get the seat part of the chair to fit under her desk. So, she decided to use the plain old wooden chair in her office. It was simple, with no fancy levers. It was just fine. When she was busy, she really didn’t notice if the chair was hard and without levers. She kept the special chair for the students to use when they came to visit her, still with all of the tags on it showing that it was new.

chair 1

One of her students, Penelope (not her real name), was having a very hard time. Penelope had two children. Because she was taking care of her children by herself and going to school full time, it was hard for her to work enough hours to pay all of her bills. One time, she was being threatened by her landlord. The landlord told her that she and her children would be evicted from their apartment if Penelope didn’t pay the rent. If that happened, they would not have anywhere to live.

When Penelope went into Ahma’s office, she was crying. As she sat on the magic chair, the seat suddenly dropped lower. Penelope was startled, but not hurt. She stopped crying and started to chuckle. It helped Penelope forget her troubles for just a little bit. She was able to look at her problems in a new way. As she and Ahma spoke together, they were able to come up with an idea to help her and her family stay in their apartment. Working together, Penelope and Ahma were able to convince the landlord to let Penelope and her family stay in their home. And they were able to figure out how to help Penelope pay all of the money she owed.

chair 2

Several months later, Penelope came to Ahma when the university wouldn’t let her have a copy of her diploma because she didn’t have the money to pay them. She had to spend all of her money to pay the hospital because her son was rushed to the emergency room when he became very ill. Her diploma was important — it was proof that she had completed her education and that she was qualified to do lots of different kinds of jobs. Because she couldn’t get a copy of her diploma, it was hard for her to find a job that would help her pay her bills. When she entered Ahma’s office, she was crying because she was so scared and sad.

chair 3This time when she sat on the special chair, the back tipped way back when she sat down. Again, she was startled but unhurt, and she started laughing. Again, the chair helped Penelope look at her situation in a different way. Ahma helped Penelope look at all of her strengths and gifts. Penelope was very smart. She was kind to people, and because she had overcome so many challenges in her own life, she was gifted at helping other people solve their problems. When Penelope left Ahma’s office, she felt more hopeful and confident. She was finally able to get a job, pay her bills, and get a copy of her diploma.

The next time Penelope came to visit Ahma, she peeked in the door looking sad. But then, she glanced at the chair and started laughing. She said, “I wonder what it will do to me today!” Because Penelope was laughing, the chair just acted like a normal chair when she sat down. The seat didn’t drop down, and the back of the chair stayed straight. And every time after that when Penelope came to Ahma’s office, she smiled and laughed as she looked at the chair. And the magic chair continued to behave just like any other chair when Penelope sat down smiling. It was just a normal chair when she was happy and not sad.

There were many other sad students after Penelope who experienced the surprises of the magic chair. When they, too, learned to smile when they saw the chair sitting in the center of Ahma’s office, the chair behaved just like every other chair, it just stayed still.

When Aadi came to visit Ahma, he told her that he was excited to see the magic chair. So, one day, Ahma brought him to her office. Aadi eagerly sat on the chair. He worked all the levers and leaned this way and that, but nothing happened. He tried again, and again, but still nothing happened. Finally, he gave up, disappointed. Ahma laughed. She told Aadi it was a magic chair. It only did funny things when people were really sad. It helped make them smile and laugh again. She added that even though Aadi was missing his Mom and Dad, the chair could sense that he was okay. His Ahma and Papa loved him and would take care of him until his mother came soon to take him home. His Mom did come, and he went back home to the shore of beautiful Lake Superior.

When Ahma left her job at the university, she left the magic chair behind, still with its tags. Maybe it is still helping other students who are sad, but we may never know.

chair 1

 

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Why Are You So Different?

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I accepted a position at a university as an assistant professor. I did not know at the time that I was only the second Native American faculty member the department of social work had ever hired for a tenure track position. The first left 30 years before I came because of the anti-Native discrimination she experienced, a perception that the state district court affirmed in a decision that awarded damages. The anti-Native bias was still palpable and unrelenting during the 3 years I spent there. Unlike my predecessor, I chose not to pursue legal action. Doing so would have locked me in an angry, ugly battle for years. Instead, I turned to writing, grateful that I could escape from a toxic environment with such unhappy people. The following essay is drawn from the series of stories I wrote about my experiences and reflections during those years.

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“Why are you so different?,” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who were unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.

As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.

As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led me to engage in authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churkendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose (Berengerg, 1946). “Difference” in this story was simply that – difference. Ultimately, there were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.

thechurkendoose

As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (Those who were excluded were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion. Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.

As a young person searching for a place to belong, for a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churkendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I spent time in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors. Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.

I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment remained her preferred way of relating to me. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” “Perhaps,” I wondered, “is there a possibility of building deeper understandings across our differing perspectives?” Unfortunately, it was not possible with this colleague or others in positions of power at this particular university.

I was reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work, Seven Arrows (1972). If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift promising the possibility of wider, deeper vision and understanding. The alternative is to live trapped in a small prison, much like the hell Sartre (1976) describes in Huis Clos (No Exit), surrounded only by people with whom we feel no affinity, consigned to a life that has little possibility for exploring the wonder that surrounds us every day.

snowflakes

Photo Credit: Google images – snowflakes

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