Category Archives: Native American Issues

Revisiting Where I Began as a Blogger

Carol A. Hand

In honor of the fifth anniversary of Voices from the Margins, I am sharing one of the first posts I wrote about a life-changing choice I made many years ago to tackle an emotionally laden issue. The essay was originally posted on a blog I shared with the friend who taught me the ins and outs of blogging in 2013 and was reposted here along with other essays when this blog was started on February 12, 2014.

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“We’re Honoring Indians!”

More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.

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At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action.

But, I was told, there was a state statute, The Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.

My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.

Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.

After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)

I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.

It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.

I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)

The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.

Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.

The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly.

I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)

The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.

As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”

Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.

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It is sometimes hard to look back on those years without thinking I should be doing more. Still, at this point in my life, it feels far more appropriate to serve in a less visible way, teaching, encouraging, and supporting younger people behind the scenes. There’s much that can only be learned through the experience of taking on issues that light a fire in one’s heart to create a world that could be.

 

Resistance

by Miriam Schacht (RoteZora)

I haven’t contributed much to this space yet, and that’s in part because things are awful out in the world, and in part because I struggle with depression, and the combination of those two things, well, it’s not great. But I’m working on it. And a good thing, too, because things are bad and getting worse.

I probably don’t have to recount to y’all all the horrible things President Voldemort has done so far, and we’re not even through his first week in office. Things are going to be bad or worse than bad for quite a while. You know what, though? This is what I keep reminding myself of: Things have been bad and worse before. And people resisted. Sometimes, things got better. Even when they didn’t, we still benefited from the examples of fighters who did not give up in spite of immense odds, and in doing so inspired future generations of fighters.

Here’s one example that I’ve always found pretty awe-inspiring. In 1954, as part of an ill-conceived policy called Termination, the federal government ended the Menominee Nation’s status as a recognized Indian tribe. This means that from the standpoint of the feds, Menominees magically stopped being Indians from one day to the next. For many, many reasons, this was awful, and things went from bad to worse over the next two decades.

What did the Menominee Nation do? Well, they did what they’d been doing for the past several centuries, only more so: they resisted. They organized–as “shareholders,” since they could no longer officially organize as tribal members. They held meetings. They planned. They tried to hold everything together in the day-to-day while also trying to bring about massive change.

That kind of thing is unbelievably hard to do, especially because in the moment, you don’t actually know whether anything you do is even going to work. They had no idea that they would eventually be successful, and yet they kept trying, because they had to. Their very existence as a people was on the line.

And even though they were taking on the federal government, and even though that’s not often a situation in which tribes come out with a win, they did not stop, but kept on working and planning and RESISTING.

And they won. It took nearly two decades, but they won. In 1973, President Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act, which re-established the Menominee Nation as a federally recognized tribe.

As a side note, one of the people who was instrumental in this fight was Ada Deer, and if her name is not familiar, you are missing out. (I know that Carol knows her–in real life, even!) Read about her here and here, for starters. If you’re looking for some activist heroes, look no further–and keep in mind that she’d also likely point out how many people fought alongside her, and that they were all heroes, and that she’d be right.

Menominee Restoration happened, against the odds, because people got together in protest and fought for their rights. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun (though I bet there were jokes and laughter at meetings, along with serious business), and it had no guarantee of success–and it was necessary.

That’s the kind of spirit of resistance that we all need right now. Indigenous people have been resisting for over five hundred years, and their struggles are at the heart of everything that happens on this continent. Not coincidentally, the Menominees are the people indigenous to the place where I am writing this right now, and it is right and proper for me to think about their struggles and their rights (including their rights to the land I am on right now) and acknowledge my debt to them as we all move forward in resistance.

So as we think about how bad things are going to get, let’s also remember that resistance is never futile (contrary to what the Borg Collective would have you believe). It may take years, or decades, or even centuries, but each act of resistance breeds more resistance, and more power, and so each act of resistance is vital.

And if you haven’t already, go learn about the ways the nations in your area have resisted colonization. Because the Indigenous people of this continent are, and should be, the wellspring and heart of resistance, and all of us need to recognize and honor that in order to move forward together. In resistance.

Open Letter to White People at Standing Rock

By Miriam Schacht (RoteZora)

I wrote this note while staying at the Two Spirit Nation camp within the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock about a week ago. I originally drove out there to help someone else out, but without the intention of staying, because I take seriously the critiques that suggest that white activists have been taking over the protests. However, I stayed much longer than I intended because it turned out that there was important work to do as a white accomplice–work that addressed precisely the issue of white activists at these camps and these actions. Part of the necessary work of white accomplices is to lessen the burden on people of color. At camp that meant I was asked by Two Spirit folks to give white visitors “allyship 101” or “Two Spirit 101” lectures; this letter is my attempt to keep that work up, and keep taking on some of the burden, even when I’m not at the camp anymore. As requested, I’ve sent hard copies to the folks at camp (there’s barely any internet access there), but I’m also re-posting it here. 

Read this, please, with an open heart. If you start feeling defensive, take a moment to reflect on why that is before returning to reading.

The first and perhaps most important thing to understand is that this protest is not about you. Yes, we are all affected by what happens here, and we should all serve the earth as stewards and protectors. But this camp and this resistance is first and foremost Indigenous. This movement comes out of countless thousands of years’ relationship with this land. It comes from 500 years of colonialism that tried not only to take this land, but to eliminate every Indian person on it, and when that didn’t work, tried to kill off the cultures of the hundreds of Indigenous nations of this continent. This movement comes out of centuries in which Native sovereignty has been ignored, during which Indigenous nations with thousands of years of history have been reduced to “domestic dependent nations.” This movement comes in response to the centuries of genocide that have made the United States what it is today. It comes from hundreds of Native nations who live within the country that stole their land and stole their children and stole their culture and keeps on trying to steal everything they were and are. It also comes from the prophecies of many different tribal traditions, as well as an ancient and contemporary relationship between the people and this land.

For these reasons and many more, this protest is fundamentally Indigenous.

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Indigenous protesters, faced by riot police

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What does this mean for white people at Standing Rock?

For starters, we are not and should not be the leaders here.

Native community structures, and especially leadership structures, may not look like what we as white Americans are familiar with. What may look, at first glance, like an absence of leadership is not that at all, but instead the presence of leaders who are humble, who don’t announce their leadership role, who understand that leadership is facilitating the will of the people around you rather than putting yourself forward. Many people here who are leaders probably don’t consider themselves that way, because Indigenous leadership is all about putting away your own ego and serving other people. Leaders might just as easily be cooking dinner or clearing trash as running meetings or heading an action. Trust that the community knows and recognizes who they are.

Instead of trying to lead, ask how you can serve. Do the work that needs doing, not just the work you want to do or that is most visible. Be humble. Accept corrections and advice. Make yourself useful outside of the spotlight.

That also means don’t charge to the front of actions unless specifically asked to do so. Do not simply do your own thing at an action. Don’t rush to be interviewed or filmed. The world has heard enough white voices and seen enough white faces. We do not need to be the representatives of this movement or this place. Even if the Native voices are quieter than yours–in fact, especially then–they should be the ones to speak. If a reporter asks you for a quote, ask them if they’ve spoken to Indigenous demonstrators. If they haven’t, facilitate that. Emphasize and understand that everything here is happening because Indigenous people and tribal nations decided to resist.

We as non-Native people are here for support, not for recognition.

Do things because they need doing or because you are asked to, not because you want someone to thank you. Do your best to bury your ego. This may be harder than you expect, because regardless of how much we might think we’ve left mainstream whiteness behind, we’ve grown up in a world where white people are always at the center. It’s hard to be on the margins; practice being on the margins here, behind the scenes rather than on stage. Understand that Indigenous people, like other people of color, are nearly always pushed to the margins and made invisible. See what that space feels like.

We’re also taught that we have a right to everything. All knowledge should be shared, all culture belongs to everyone, the world should be open-source. This in particular can be extremely difficult to unlearn, but it’s also extremely important. Don’t assume that you are invited everywhere. Especially when it comes to ceremonies, ask humbly if you are welcome instead of assuming, and always be willing to accept “no” as an answer. This is not about you personally; accept that fact with grace and understanding. Some spaces or events are for Native people only. Not all knowledge is for everyone. Not all ceremonies are open to all. Respect that.

Learn what the protocols and expectations are, and follow them.

We are guests here. Following the guidelines set up for the camp and for the actions is appropriate and respectful. This isn’t a question of following authority or being a rebel by disregarding it; it’s about respecting our hosts in ways that white society, in general, has never done. (In fact, if you value rebellion, consider that respect for Native protocols is the ultimate act of rebellion against the US government.)

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“This is a ceremony. Act accordingly” puts it beautifully and succinctly

If someone else fails to follow protocols–even someone Native, even someone local–don’t take that as permission to disregard them yourself. Respect the community that established these guidelines.

Understand that you are in a place where the expectations for behavior may be different than what you’re used to, and that’s OK–ask when you’re unsure. Some things to know: Elders hold a place of great respect in Native communities; listen to what they have to say, defer to their experience and knowledge, offer to get them food, give them your chair, let them go ahead of you in line. Ask if it’s OK to enter someone’s campsite. If folks are in a circle, don’t join until you are asked. Don’t add things to the fire unless you know what’s what–some things around the fire might be sacred medicine, and wood might be rationed for specific purposes. Be a part of things appropriately and with respect.

This note from the Sacred Stone Camp FAQ is also helpful:

When you are at Sacred Stone Camp, you are a guest of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota nation. If you are told to do or not do something according to tradition, please be respectful and comply. Photography is not allowed during ceremony or prayer. If you are a woman, you are asked not to attend ceremony, including sweat lodges, while you are on your moon (menstruating). Certain traditional events, items, and clothing are only to be attended/used/worn by Native people. Please ask before collecting sage, berries, or any other plant from the area. When in doubt, ask an elder or local.

Think of yourself as a student, not a teacher, and spend more time listening than talking.

Share your expertise if and when you are asked, but don’t ever assume you are the only expert in the room (or around the fire). Educate yourself as much as you can, and cut yourself some slack, too; learning means making mistakes, and everyone here will make some mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and they’ll become valuable experiences.

Recognize, too, that no amount of education gives you license to explain Nativeness to Native people.

Understand that you are not Native.

Non-Natives in this country have a long history of claiming a Native identity that is not ours to claim, whether it’s colonists dressing up as “Indians” for the Boston Tea Party, Boy Scouts holding supposedly “Indian” rituals in the Boy Scouts’ Order of Arrow, Grateful Dead fans calling themselves the Society of the Indian Dead, summer camps naming themselves after Native nations, or New Age practitioners laying claim to ceremonial and sacred Native practices. All of these are ways of claiming tribal identity without being Native, and all of them are colonialist practices that work to erase the continued existence of this continent’s Native people.

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Well-intentioned though it might be, this sign is not, ultimately, helpful. (Picture taken on a bus to a protest) 

Even if some people (even some Native people) tell you that we are all Native, understand that many others not only disagree, but see this viewpoint as a way for colonizers to appropriate Native identity–yet another way for whites to steal Native culture. For non-Natives to claim some form of Native identity reinforces the pain of colonialism for many Native people. Even if you are not wholly convinced by this, please understand that this can hurt people deeply. If, in spite of this, you still think that your right to claim Nativeness trumps the right of Native people not to feel hurt and erased by your behavior, then you should think about what your goals are and whether you belong in this camp.

It is true that we are all indigenous to someplace, and that there are indigenous European cultures that were wiped out by Christianity. This does not mean that those of us who are of European descent are not also colonizers on this land. Additionally, Christianity’s rise to dominance in Europe happened in a very different historical context well over a thousand years ago, and did not involve racial genocide; please avoid suggesting that it was in any way the same thing as what has happened with Native people on this continent.

Don’t make assumptions about other peoples’ identities.

For decades Hollywood has shown us what Indians look like. The problem is that some of Hollywood’s most prominent Indians were actually Italian…and some actual Native people couldn’t (and still can’t) play Indians in Hollywood because they don’t “look Indian.” That should tell you all you need to know about whether you can tell who is Native simply by looking. Native people today are extremely diverse. Sure, some look like Indians do in movies, but plenty don’t. There are blond Indians with pale skin, and black Indians with afros. There are Indians with straight hair, curly hair, no hair. They’re tall, short… you get the point. Nativeness isn’t always something you can see, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Carry this recognition into the rest of your life as well.

Remember to take care of yourself.

You cannot help others well if you are not trying to be healthy and balanced yourself. You will hear people talk about doing things the right way; taking care of yourself and keeping yourself in balance is an important part of that. Don’t do anything that goes against your values or beliefs, or that makes you feel unsafe. You deserve the same respect as every other person in camp.

Understand that genocide and colonialism are not just history; they are the present.

We are all part of a system built on genocide (and slavery, and more), a system that has benefited us as white people whether we want it to or not. There is no way to opt out of white privilege. Some parts of your identity may mean you are oppressed in other ways, but even if you are transgender or grew up poor or speak with an accent, you still have white privilege. Even if you are not from the US, you still have white privilege. You may choose to live in ways that challenge this system, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live outside this system. We have white privilege, no matter what. It doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty about it, but it does mean we need to take responsibility for our place in the world, and decide what to do with it. Acknowledge your privilege, understand it, and then put it to use to help break down this system of colonialism and white supremacy we all live in.

The Journey Home, by a Special Guest Author

Today, I’m posting an article written by a special guest author, my daughter. She graciously agreed to allow me to post an article she wrote and originally shared on Facebook.

Jnana Hand
(Originally posted on Facebook, September 6, 2016)

North Dakota has always been a place I have rushed through in search of what I thought were better things… visits with family, first glimpses of mountains, ocean tides, big trees. I approached this trip with a sense of curiosity, trying to understand what it would feel like to be of and from this place. I was searching for the feelings that inspire the deep sense of peace and connectedness to this land, the kind that necessitates taking a stand to defend. At first we were struck by the wetlands and the huge numbers of ducks, herons, and cranes that lived there, the colors on the autumn fields, the gradual transition from woods to plains.

That was the first day.

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Through a comedy of errors, delays, twists of fates, our trip was delayed by a day. This was good for a few reasons, the weather, dog attacks, and I didn’t really know where I was going or how to get there. On this extra night, friends advised me on camp conditions, weather conditions, and this extra time let me map out our trip. On the second travel day, my check engine light came on 5 minutes after leaving the hotel, and as I weighed turning back, driving 350 miles home, I decided to lay my trust that this trip was meant to be and that maybe my mechanic was right, this was only a minor issue with the car. So on we went, though a little more unsure that we would make through the next 150 miles, and far more unsure that we would make it back.

When we got to Bismark, we passed the easy route because we heard there was a police blockade and so we took long winding road up and down hills and river-cut valleys for that extra half hour. We saw a helicopter speed by overhead, strange sight for farm and ranch land. We were repeatedly passed by racing trucks with extreme tints on their windows. We saw the place where the pipeline digging had already come through, leaving scars in the fields in both directions for a reason that is still unclear. This was when the beauty of the land really started to hit me as well as the profoundness of this moment.

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Even though I had our trip mapped out, the roads seemed to be longer than I thought and all along I was hoping I was turning the right way, taking the correct roads, because if I wasn’t, there was no one to ask. One sign we were going the right way was a police car at a T, parked, facing out, likely taking down plate numbers, perhaps taking pictures of anyone coming through. We entered and left Standing Rock Reservation, at the boundary saw a small camp, a river, then tipis and tents, flags, protest signs. As we came through security, we could see that hundreds, maybe a thousand were here.

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I did take some pictures, but the most profound moments are not on film. They were the conversations with defenders, side by side work with volunteers, the beauty of the diversity of tribes coming together, the rainbow shades of people there, sights of prayer being made on the top of the hills, the words of poets, songwriters and speakers, and the magic of knowing people are here for as long as it takes. This place is so special, anyone able to come, please do, and please support in any way you can. This is our chance to take a stand. There is power in our numbers, strength in our prayers, hope in our unity. Protect our future generations, honor indigenous rights to live in healthy communities, protect our rivers from permanent contamination. Our reasons: our water and our children. Peace and solidarity with Standing Rock.

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***

 

Reflections – The Legacy of Continuing Loss…

Carol A. Hand

A child kidnapped from the village road –
lured by strangers with the promise of a new adventure –
a ride in an automobile, a luxury rarely seen here.
He awoke hours later in a foreign place far from home –
held captive in a federal Indian boarding school.
He still carries the scars more than 70 years later –
one visible on his hand where he was struck on that first day
for speaking the only language he knew, Ojibwe;
the other hidden – a deep loneliness and longing for the home, family and culture
he vaguely remembered and imagined during the six decades he spent among strangers

***

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School – 1879-1918 (Wikipedia)

***

All the child welfare system could do
was take a mother’s children away.
No one ever asked why she always had tears in her eyes.
Although her daughter cried for her beautiful mother every day,
no one ever asked what her mother needed to heal.
So the young girl spent her childhood with strangers,
a grieving mother mourned, and the White strangers felt virtuous.
The Ojibwe community lost yet another child to county removal
and the child welfare system closed the case, its job complete.

***

Before-After Indian Borading School npr

Before and After (California Indian Education.Org)

***

Only some of the many lost finally returned home in their third, fifth or seventh decade
to discover the community forever changed as close-knit ties had begun to fade,
suffering from the continuing loss of its children to foster care, adoption or school
year after year throughout the centuries of tightening colonial rule.
Yet I found many reasons to hope.
Despite enduring structures of colonial hegemony,
memories and stories of long ago, clear visions of what yet could be
provide blueprints for reweaving an inclusive healing circle of caring community.

***

 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Carol A. Hand

You came to our home uninvited
Said the little canary
We took pity on your desperate condition
And shared our food and shelter
Believing we could live in peace
As good neighbors
Ah, how naïve we were

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Photo: Bromstone Canary (Wikipedia)

Your numbers grew and you demanded more
You wanted all we had
Said the little canary
Your diseases and weapons killed my people
You shot us for sport
Scalping and plucking us as trophies
To display your might and power
And then you confined those who survived in cages
As you ravaged the beauty of our land

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Image: Caged Birds (Microsoft WORD Clip Art)

Unless you wake up, you will suffer the same fate
As we are now, so shall you be
Breathing the toxic air of all you wrought
Just like the miner’s canary
Who will notice, who will hear our plea?

It’s time to end endless wars
It’s time to stop corporate greed
It’s time to turn away from hate
Caring for each other and the earth
Will give us all we need
Said the little miner’s canary

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Photo: Miner’s Canary (Wikipedia

Background:

This poem was inspired by history and contemporary Native American concerns. In the past, noted legal scholar, Felix S. Cohen, referred to Native Americans in the U.S. as “the miner’s canary.”

“Cohen, it seems, was quite fond of his paragraph saying that oppression of Indians, like the dropping of the miner’s canary in a mine shaft, was the warning sign of poison in the society. He was so proud of it he used it twice, with some difference in wording…. Here is what Cohen wrote in 1953:

“It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”” (Source: Indian Country Today Media Network)

(Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2006/09/06/getting-bead-felix-cohens-miners-canary-128609)

Today, Bernie Sanders is the only U.S. presidential candidate who has explicitly addressed Native American issues and taken a progressive, compassionate stand to honor sovereignty and address the serious issues they face – the legacy of dispossession, attempted genocide, and the imposition of colonial oppression for more than 500 years. To learn more about Bernie’s efforts, here are some links to explore.

https://twitter.com/BernieSanders?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

https://www.facebook.com/nativeamericansforberniesanders

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/02/15/are-you-going-honor-treaties-clyde-bellecourt-asks-bernie-sanders-163429

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/03/21/bernie-sanders-expands-native-inclusion-163829

http://feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-native-american-rights/

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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Carol A. Hand

This morning, it occurred to me that it might be helpful if I provided some background for my previous reblog, Go FISH!

In designing a critical ethnographic study of Ojibwe child welfare, I gave some thought to the meaning of “critical” in this context. Where should one focus a “critical gaze” if the purpose is to discern the ways in which hegemony over Native American tribal communities has been imposed and perpetuated? Most research only considers contemporary consequences rather than the complex historical structural forces that have left a distressing legacy of harm. Many “blame” tribes, counties, or states for the continuing over-use of child removal and non-Native placements as the preferred responses to situations of child neglect and abuse.

I decided it was crucial to consider the federal government’s past and present role as well, and interviewed Theresa Edwards (not her real name), the regional child welfare specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). I headed out to the distant city where she was located on a hot day at the end of June in 2002. Theresa graciously shared valuable information about the BIA, tribal child welfare issues, and Ojibwe culture. She also shared personal stories and insights into her past and present experiences and initiatives.

It was clear that Theresa was an incredible resource for tribes. She played a crucial role as an ally and advocate within an oppressive bureaucracy. In response to my observation at the end of our interview, “Tribes are so lucky to have a resource like you!,” she told me that she has been able to remain within the bureaucracy largely because of her relationship with the tribes in the region. “The decision-making structure in the regional office is focused largely on micro-management, but it doesn’t bother me if someone wants to change the wording of my letters as long as it isn’t a matter of ethics.”

Seal_of_the_United_States_Bureau_of_Indian_Affairs.svg

Image: BIA Seal (Source Wikipedia)

Few outside of Native American tribal communities know about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. Yet the BIA has played a pivotal role in the lives of indigenous people in the United States since its creation in 1824. Fewer still have an opportunity to learn about the history of the Federal relationship with indigenous tribes that emerged with the very creation of United States, summarized briefly below.

  • 1775 – The Continental Congress created a Committee on Indian Affairs.
  • 1789 – The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8 defines the power of Congress “to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states.” Tribes were considered foreign nations at that point.
  • 1789 – Congress placed the responsibility for dealing with Tribes in the newly created War Department.
  • 1819 – Congress created the Civilization Fund, the first federal policy to affect the education of children, to provide grants to churches and private agencies to “civilize the Indian.” (Source: Idaho.gov)
  • 1824 – The Office of Indians Affairs was created in the War Department to oversee and carry out federal responsibilities for trade and treaty relations with Tribes.
  • 1849 – The Office of Indian Affairs, or BIA, was transferred to the Department of the Interior, responsible for overseeing federal lands and natural resources. The BIA assumed new responsibilities to administer the distribution of supplies to Tribes to address the disease and starvation that resulted from their removal and confinement on reservations.
  • 1867 – The Commissioner of Indian Services told Congress that the only way to effectively deal with Indians “was to separate Indian children completely from their tribes.” The era of missionary and federal Indian boarding schools gained more resources. (Source: Idaho.gov)
  • 1921 – As a result of the Snyder Act, all federal Indian services became the responsibility of the BIA. “Expenditures were authorized for health, education, social services, law enforcement, irrigation, and for the administration of the BIA.” (Sharon O’Brien, 1989, p. 273)
  • 1954 – BIA responsibilities for Indian health were transferred to Indian Health Services, located now in the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • 1958-1967 – The Indian Adoption Project, a partnership among the BIA, the Child Welfare League of America, and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, placed almost 400 Native American children from western states with Euro-American families, primarily in Midwestern or eastern states. (Source: University of Oregon)

The BIA website provides an overview of this history.

“Since its inception in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been both a witness to and a principal player in the relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages. The BIA has changed dramatically over the past 185 years, evolving as Federal policies designed to subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives have changed to policies that promote Indian self-determination.

“For almost 200 years, dating back to the role it played in negotiating treaty agreements between the United States and tribes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the BIA has embodied the trust and government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and the Federally recognized tribes. Over the years, the BIA has been involved in the implementation of Federal laws that have directly affected all Americans. The General Allotment Act of 1887 opened tribal lands west of the Mississippi to non-Indian settlers, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted American Indians and Alaska Natives U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, and the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 established modern tribal governments. The World War II period of relocation and the post-War termination era of the 1950s led to the activism of the 1960s and 1970s that saw the takeover of the BIA’s headquarters and resulted in the creation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. The Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 along with the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act have fundamentally changed how the Federal Government and the tribes conduct business with each other.” (Source: BIA)

The current mission posted on the BIA website highlights important sentiments.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission is to enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.” (Source: BIA)

Both historically and at present, serious critiques of the BIA come from many sources (e.g.,  the American Indian Movement occupied BIA Headquarters in 1972). One of the most damning criticisms was penned by Felix Cohen, the lawyer and scholar whose work (1933-1947) cataloged and profoundly shaped Indian law and policy.

“Indian Bureau rhetoric about winding down its supervision of the tribes accompanied a vast expansion of its actual control and its payroll. ‘In long-range terms,’ wrote Cohen, ‘we find that between 1851 and 1951, a century in which the Indian Bureau kept talking about working itself out of a job and turning over responsibility to the Indians, congressional appropriations to Indian tribes decreased by approximately 80 percent, while appropriations to the Indian Bureau (chiefly for salaries) increased by approximately 53,000 percent.’” (Source: Indian County Today Media Network, Staff Reports, 9/6/06)

Bia-sit-in

Photo: 1970 National Indian Youth Council Protest. (By Denver Public Library – The Native American Experience)

Nonetheless, the BIA continues to play an important double-edged role as both a tool of continuing colonial oppression and as a constant reminder of “the trust and government-to-government relationships” between the U.S. and the 566 federally recognized tribes (BIA). The range of issues they address include:

  • Office of Indian Services – general assistance, Indian child welfare, tribal government, Indian self-determination, and reservation roads program.
  • Office of Justice Services – law enforcement, tribal courts, and detention facilities on federal Indian lands.
  • Office of Trust Services – management of trust lands, assets and resources.
  • Office of Field Operations – oversees 12 regional offices and 83 agencies that carry out the BIA mission at the tribal level. (BIA)

Staff like Theresa are a valuable resource for tribes. She has continued to provide a level of support and technical assistance that would not be available otherwise to the Ojibwe community I studied. Neither the county nor the state understood the importance of preserving tribal sovereignty and tribal cultures. Yet there are no guarantees that the staff person who replaces her when she retires, if she is replaced at all, will be as respectful of people, as committed to inter-tribal collaboration, or as supportive of tribal sovereignty.

 

Work Cited:

Sharon O’Brien (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

 

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Choosing Hope Isn’t Always Easy

Carol A. Hand

There are days when revisiting old stories gathered during my research on Ojibwe child welfare makes me feel like I’m descending into a dystopian world. Sometimes the feeling is intensified when I look out of my front window in winter.

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Photo: The View from My Window – January 17, 2016

I once again feel the weight of hopelessness that I felt when I first listened to stories about loss and suffering, and stories about the hopelessness of those hired as healers and helpers. I could walk away from that world, although the next worlds I encountered were not necessarily an improvement. Still, I had the option to leave while they remained.
Now I have the time to revisit those memories recorded in old fieldnotes and look for insights and solutions that I’m certain I missed. I struggle with how to explain the context that gives these stories meaning and significance. Take the issue of substance abuse. There are ingrained stereotypes about “drunken Indians” that are used as an excuse for continued colonial oppression. Here’s an excerpt from an earlier post that presents a more thoughtful analysis.

***

Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. (Please refer to Endnote 1 for more information about the request to include this work in my writing.) In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.

WHAT [MY COMMUNITY] WOULD BE LIKE WITH NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS

[My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.

This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy…

Endnotes:
1. The young man’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited. (Hand, 1999/2015)

***

My role as a researcher in the community was to simply ask questions without challenging the reality of those who shared their responses. Sometimes that was difficult. Take for example the present interview I’m editing in the context of recent events in the community. (Please note that all names have been changed to protect identity, and all place names have been removed.)

***

Research Field Notes Thursday, November 8, 2001

It was a cloudy morning. It had rained during the night, and it was gray and chilly. I was still in pain and tired from my troubled sleep, but I really felt that I needed to keep my appointments, so I took another Tylenol and got ready for the day. I left early (8:40 a.m.) this morning for a scheduled interview with Karen Daley, the alcohol and drug treatment coordinator for the tribe. I was a few minutes early and waited patiently while she took care of some paper work. As I was waiting, I overheard a discussion about a death in the community last night – tribal programs would be closed on Friday as a result. When Karen was ready, she came and led me to her office.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Karen. Can you tell me about child and family welfare issues from your perspective?”

Karen replied. “Dealing with drug and alcohol addiction is the beginning – we need to deal with them first. The substance is still controlling people. They will give up their families before their jobs – jobs provide the income they need to buy substances. Their job is the last thing to go, when they can’t make it.

“Suicide is linked to substance abuse. When sober, people may think about it, but don’t do it until they are high.

“Here, kids – teens – are supposed to be men. Their parents are getting drunk on binges for days, and they are locked out of the home for three days. Who’s monitoring them? Kids can’t control their environment. They don’t want to be pulled out of their homes. They take care of the family – they feel responsible for helping their parents with their substance abuse problems. Kids feel responsible for “keeping the secret” that everyone else knows about the abuse.

“A community member, 50 years old, died last night. One of her daughters held a funeral ceremony yesterday.

“An ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] client was in court yesterday trying to get her kids back. It would be great for the mom to get her kids back – she is doing well. I hope the court can make the right decision.

It seemed important to know more about Karen’s background, so I asked her when she began working for the tribe.

“I started part time in 99. Case managing is a big part of the job. I put in six billable hours per day in case management. The clients I see have a problem that is identified by social services, by court orders for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, or schools. Only one client is a self-referral. I was working with ICW trying to place kids when there was no ICWA worker. A list of Native American foster homes in the state would be helpful, and even in the surrounding states. Now we have to call every county, every tribe, trying to plug kids in the right place.

“In patient treatment for kids is easy. We send kids to a tribal treatment center in South Dakota. The regional IHS [Indian Health Service] staff has been very helpful. Now, we send adults to a tribal treatment center in the state – moms can bring up to three of their children and can stay with them. Women don’t have to go to treatment or leave early because of kids. The tribal treatment center helps arrange school and has on-site nurses. It is arranged like a college campus. Singles are separated from moms, and they receive treatment in the on-site out-patient center. They provide a continuum of care. The centers fax us reports weekly. It is easier to know where to pick up treatment when they come back.

“We are working on a new phone book of clinic and other providers – the environmental building, economic support, social services, domestic violence. It will help us integrate services or do wrap around. We will be better able to help the whole family with all of their needs. So much of the service provided by the system is shame-based. We are interested in finding ways to make people feel good – to succeed. In my last job, I was working on a pilot project with a health care provider in this part of the state.”

Karen shared copies of the assessment and service forms she developed to help identify needs and track follow-up and outcomes. She also shared a number of other materials, some AODA and some general service delivery.

At this point in the interview, I stopped taking notes. Karen began speaking of her own family’s history of substance abuse, as well as her own use in the past. She began talking about her mother’s recent death and her relationship with her siblings. She was very upset, and often in tears as she related the history. It seems that the death of the community member yesterday reawakened memories and the interview provided her with a safe environment to share her pain. I listened and comforted her as best I could.

She also spoke about a gathering she holds at her house, located on the river in a nearby town. She described it as “a Native American-like ceremony for healing.” She is not happy with her home because of a bothersome neighbor and doesn’t seem to want to stay here. She is from the southeastern part of the state and misses it.

She seemed genuinely relieved to have someone safe to talk to, and as we walked out at the end of the interview, she said she would like to get together for dinner some time.

I left feeling ambivalent about the non-Indian professionals who find their way to Native American communities. Sometimes, they are wounded and unhappy and seem to be looking for something to believe in, and people who are even more powerless that they can save.

Perhaps things will change as spring comes. I wonder if there is the possibility for this tribal community to develop a stable political environment and a clear and compelling future vision that brings community factions together to work toward a common purpose – the well-being of future generations. Yet, even this begins to sound like judgmental and empty rhetoric. I wish Karen well and know that her job is challenging.

***

It continues to trouble me when I encounter professionals who don’t transcend the narrow boundaries of their discipline to understand how their own life experiences affect the types of services they provide or the crucial influence of socio-cultural contexts on clients’ ability to benefit from what they provide. As I revisit this interview, what seems to be missing is an understanding of ecosystems theory, described in an earlier post.

***

The elegance of Uri Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) approach to human development rests in both its multidimensional complexity and its emphasis on the transactional and reciprocal nature of relations between people and their changing environments. As illustrated in figure 1 below, which somewhat oversimplifies Bronfenbrenner’s model, individuals are “nested” concentrically within a series of environmental relationships.

ecology of human development

Figure 1: The Ecology of Human Development

The “microsystem” includes those immediate aspects of the environment “that are most powerful in shaping the course of psychological growth”: “a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22). For infants, the primary microsystem is usually their home setting with primary caregivers, simple activities, and a limited set of roles. Development through childhood and beyond involves an increase in the number and complexity of roles, relations, and activities, as well as the addition of new microsystems, such as daycare, preschool, school, etc., in which a developing person is embedded. As individuals move into additional settings, linkages are created between microsystems, resulting in what Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 25) refers to as “mesosystems,” or “a system of microsystems.”

While the developing individuals directly participate in both microsystems and mesosystems through their relationships with parents, teachers, and other significant persons, their development is indirectly influenced by systems outside their own experience. Parents, teachers, and other relatives are all embedded in a series of settings (for example, parents’ work, parents’ networks of friends, teachers’ unions, local school boards, etc.) that influence how they relate to the developing individuals. This indirect, external set of influences is labeled the “exosystem” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 25). All of these systems are embedded within the “macrosystem”, defined as “consistencies, in the form and content of lower-order systems (micro-, meso-, and exo-) that exist, or could exist, at the level of the subculture or the culture as a whole, along with any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies” (p. 26). Macrosystems are the blueprint, or the overarching cultural paradigm (Fleras & Elliott, 1992), which determines the content, structure, and goals of the lower level systems in which individuals are embedded.

Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 26) notes that the macrosystems which exert influences on developing individuals “differ for various socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and other subgroups, reflecting contrasting belief systems and lifestyles, which in turn help to perpetuate the ecological environments specific to each group.” Individuals not only sustain the blueprint, or ‘macrosystem’ in which they are embedded, but are also capable of modifying its content and structure.

Bronfenbrenner does not speak to the relations among macrosystems, nor does he note power differentials between competing “blueprints” which exist among different social classes or ethnic groups within or among nations. Power, in his conception, is located within a macrosystem and manifested in “roles” or “power settings.” At the level of roles, he hypothesizes that: “The greater the degree of power socially sanctioned for a given role, the greater the tendency for the role occupant to exercise and exploit the power and for those in a subordinate position to respond by increased submission, dependency, and lack of initiative” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 92). (Hand, 1999/2015)

***

Given the layers of connection that influence people’s beliefs and behaviors, I doubted that Karen’s interventions with individuals would ever successfully address an understandable, although unhealthy, coping mechanism that temporarily numbs pain in a fog of euphoric forgetfulness. The consequences of oppression and losses are palpable here – an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  Of course, it is easier for professionals to “treat” individuals than it is to “heal” collective historical trauma and effectively resist ongoing colonial oppression that affects every person in the tribal community.

So today, I’ll continue to return to an earlier dystopian time. Even though the view from my window is similar to the one a few days ago, I can remember the view on a summer’s day.

DSC00937

Photo: The View from My Window – Summer 2015

The memory of creating gardens where little grew a few years ago helps me find hope. Transformation is possible – even in the places where we once saw only futility…

Works Cited:

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.

Fleras, A. & Elliot, J. (1992). The ‘nations within’: aboriginal-state relations in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press.

 

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

No One Ever Asked …

Carol A. Hand

All the child welfare system could do
Was take a mother’s children away
No one ever asked why she always had tears in her eyes
Although her daughter cried for her beautiful mother
No one ever asked what her mother needed to heal
So the child spent her childhood with strangers
A mother mourned and the strangers felt virtuous
The community lost yet another child to removal
And the system closed the case, its job complete

Carlisle_pupils

Photo: Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Wikipedia

Can the circle of caring community ever be mended?

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.

Still Writing despite Questions and Doubts

Carol A. Hand

The national writing event ended November 30, 2015, but I’ve continued to write almost every day. It’s a relief not to feel pressured to make an overall word count. Instead, I can try to make those words I write worthwhile regardless of the number. But I still encounter the same recurring questions and doubts. Here’s part of my latest chapter, 17, appropriately titled “Thankfully It’s Friday.” It wasn’t easy to always feel like an intrusive outsider. And I still wonder what to do with what I learned.

[Please note: The names of people have all been changed in the following accounts to protect identity, and the names of states and towns have been removed. These stories could come from any of the states where Ojibwe reservations are located.]

***

Research Field Notes Friday, October 19, 2001

….

I packed my things and checked out about 10:15, and headed to the tribal community.
First, I stopped at the tribal center, and noticed what appeared to be a meeting in the large room directly in front of the entranceway. I could see Greg, the tribal social service administrator in profile seated at the table, so I decided it would be a good time to see if Carrie Abrams (child welfare) or Trevor Evans (tribal preservation) were available. When I pulled into the old school parking lot, it appeared to be pretty empty. I noticed that Linda’s car wasn’t there. I did wish I could just touch base with her, but in some ways it was good to be on my own. I couldn’t really share anything I had learned so far.

I entered the building and walked past Greg’s office and asked the man seated at a desk in the next office where I might find Trevor.

“I’m Trevor,” he replied.

“Hi, Trevor. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Agnes Sero and I’m doing a study on Indian child welfare here. Molly, the tribal preservation director at Lake Tribe Reservation, suggested that I talk to you.”

“Come on in and sit down, Agnes.”

I told him briefly about my study and explained that I had met with Molly and other tribal preservation staff to learn more about the boarding school. I was interested in learning more about the school since elders here had described their experiences in a similar institution.

“Would you like a cup of coffee? I’m just brewing a new pot.”

I accepted and asked him if he was interested in learning more about the study. He said he was, so I ran out to my car to get a copy of the revised introduction and questions.

Trevor is a handsome man, with the front of his hair cut short, the left side is silver (naturally), with a bound pony tail in the back which extends beyond his waist. The walls of his office were covered with flip chart sheets containing Ojibwe words. He pointed to the sheets and explained that some were numbers, food, clothing. As he spoke, he was often leaning back in his chair, feet held in front of him off of the floor.

As soon as Trevor looked at the questions, he began speaking.

“When I was growing up our elders were still pretty active, but I was between two worlds. Some elders were jumping into contemporary society. Some were holding back, trying to retain the culture despite the reorganization act and removal. They were moving around and going into the melting pot.

“I came from a dysfunctional family. My father drank, my mother didn’t drink. I came from a big family with six sisters and three brothers. Two of my sisters were older, and I was the oldest brother. I spent most of my time with my grandfather and grandmother. They lived on top of a hill in a two-story house. There was no running water, or gas. There was a pump in the basement, a woodstove, and my grandmother cooked on a woodstove. We lived in the big pines. When they were young, my grandparents lived in a small community in the southeastern part of the county in the national forest. My grandmother and grandfather lived there and made their living by selling food and pies to loggers. My grandfather worked as a guide.

“My grandmother and grandfather were fluent in the Ojibwe language. I don’t remember my grandfather well. I was about three when I remember him, and he died when I was 7 or 8. I was born in 1953, and in 1962 or 63 my grandfather died.

“I remember growing up as small children, my parents had so many children, and the younger kids got most of the attention. I got attention from my grandmother and grandfather. I felt content being around my grandmother and grandfather. There was always an extended family, the biological family, aunts, uncles, friends, relatives. That’s how it was in the old days in the community.

….

“I’ve been talking a lot, Agnes. I’m interested in knowing what kinds of policy changes might result from your work. There are so many important issues we need to resolve.”

“I’m not sure, Trevor,” I replied. “It’s too early to tell. I can’t predict what I will find because there is so much more for me to learn. I can promise that I will share my findings with the community to make sure my interpretations represent what the community would want others to know about them. It’s also a difficult time in history. After September 11, all bets are off about social service policy. War often ushers in a time when social programs are cut and civil liberties compromised.”

“I agree, Agnes. These are uncertain times but it’s ever been so. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry – it’s after 1. I need to go get something to eat.”

As we walked out of the building together, he invited me to lunch with him. I told him I had another interview to go to, and I saw him drive off in his red truck.

….

Reflections Monday, December 9, 2015

Even though I’m sharing these stories now, I have kept the promise I made to Trevor and others to protect identities. As mentioned earlier, the names of people have all been changed in this account, and no specific place identifiers or local documents are cited. Still, I wonder about the wisdom and ethics of publishing these accounts.

But I keep thinking about all of the incredible people I met who willingly shared their lives with a stranger. Why was that easier than sharing their experiences – good and bad – with others in their community? How many suffered alone, believing that they or their families were ultimately the cause for their abandonment and abuse? Why couldn’t people share their stories and histories with those who lived just across the tribal-town divide? How many failed to bridge the cultural divides between the tribe and county because of fear and past rejections and disappointments?

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Photo: A Daughter and Mother Who Sometimes Share Stories – 2015

Sharing stories can bring people together in wondrous ways. It’s what can help us all begin to rebuild a genuine sense of community. Now, I live in a residential neighborhood in a predominantly Euro-American city where neighbors avoid each other. I’ve heard some of their stories. Many hark back to decades of contentious interactions and feuds that still continue. So each household does things on their own. I’m sometimes the exception. I offer to help or stop to say hello, but that doesn’t do anything to bring them together. This makes me I wonder if anything I learned in this research project can help people see the possibilities of healing old wounds through stories that promote understanding and shared hopes for the future.

For now, those thoughts are enough to encourage me to keep writing. There’s a lot more to write. I’m sure I will confront these questions and doubts many more times before I’m finally finished.

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