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?


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.

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.

Looking Back

Carol A. Hand

An excerpt from a work in progress – 35,000 words so far but many more to go…

we remember rough draft cover page


Thursday, November 19, 2015

As I read through these fieldnotes fourteen years later, I realize that I like the person I was then. But there are things I wish I could tell her. “Don’t worry and don’t be so hard on yourself. Everything will work out. You’ll finish and even be briefly recognized for the significance of this work. More importantly, your life will forever be enriched by what you learn from people here. Please cherish these moments of honest curiosity and respectful innocence.” Of course, I can’t tell my younger self those things.

And sometimes the notes I took just aren’t worth editing for others to read. I did rush off to the elders’ center right after Mr. Wilson shared his stories. I was grateful to him for allowing me to take notes while he was speaking, but when I arrived at the center, I stuffed them in my briefcase and locked it in the trunk of my car for safe keeping. Without even taking a moment to breathe and clear my mind, I rushed in to the dining room.

When I reread my fieldnotes these many years later, what I saw was clearly described but what seemed most significant today were the things that were missing. Looking back I remember the intense pressure I felt to “succeed.” It was such a narrow perspective – “to collect as many stories and experiences as I could, as fast as I could.”

I didn’t take any time to reflect on Mr. Wilson’s story, or my conversations with Maurice and Thomas earlier in the day. I just went rushing from one encounter to the next. It didn’t occur to me then how important it was to take time to debrief and prepare in between ever-changing situations and perspectives. The intensity of deep listening required for an individual interview doesn’t work in a chaotic social setting.

Thinking about the significance of attention and focus reminds of trying to take photographs. Adjusting the lens to capture the details of a flower or honey bee omits much of the surrounding environment from the photo and blurs that which remains to as a way to frame the object of interest. But shifting focus in the context of naturalistic research is much more than this one-dimensional mechanical focus. Good photographers recognize this. They’re emotionally present. Someone who works with people needs to be mindful that even entering a room affects the quality of social interactions. I didn’t take time to consider my state of mind as I walked into the dining room on this day.

Thursday, October 4, 2001 (Continued) …

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.

“Watch, Listen, and Consider …”

Carol A. Hand

Standing in the center of the high bridge between cultures is not a safe, comfortable place. I know I’ve said that in many ways before. Yet, eventually, I reach a point of being grateful for the vantage point. I realize what I share is often misunderstood initially, but I share it any way, hoping that in time, it will make sense.

I promised a while ago that I would let my virtual friends know about the outcome of the play I submitted for review. It was not among those selected to be performed. I can’t say I’m either surprised or disappointed. In the process of writing this piece, I discovered something I might not have otherwise. I have struggled for years with the stories I heard about the abuse of Native American children and the suffering I’ve witnessed. How can anyone make sense of corporate colonial destruction? Sometimes, I have been immobilized by overwhelming grief or rage. Yet writing this play helped be find deeper meaning in the teachings and prophesies of a culture that, at least in principle, recognized the sanctity and oneness of all life. I’m deeply grateful for that discovery.

I’m sharing the play here, now that it’s no longer being considered for publication elsewhere. I know I’ve shared these stories in other ways many times. Yet in the play, the stories are woven together in a new way with a resolution that honors the closest I’ve come to understanding truth and finding a path forward toward reconciliation. Unlike other posts, the only images are words that allow you to tap your own imagination.

Ojibwe Elders Share Their Stories and Future Hopes
A Play in 3 Acts

Character Breakdown (In order of appearance):

  • Cousin Linda: An Ojibwe community member in her middle 40s who agrees to help a researcher make connections in the reservation community.
  • Researcher: An Ojibwe woman in her early 50s who was conducting an ethnographic study of Indian child welfare on the reservation.
  • Uncle Raymond: An Ojibwe elder in his middle 60s. Although he spent short periods of time working off the reservation, most of his life was spent in the community where he was born and raised.
  • Auntie Lucille: An Ojibwe in her middle 60s. Although she was born on the reservation, she was taken away from her family by county child welfare workers and placed in foster care with a White family far from the reservation. She aged out of the foster-care system, leaving the abusive foster family she lived with for nine years. She didn’t return to her Ojibwe community until she retired.
  • Council Members: Two Ojibwe men in their 40s, Nathan and Howard, well-dressed and stately.
  • Young Uncle Raymond: An eight-year old Ojibwe boy.
  • Ogema: The hereditary tribal chief, in his mid-40s at the time, who prevented Uncle Raymond’s removal.
  • White Farmer 1: The 50-year old man who forgave Uncle Raymond for his childhood indiscretion.
  • Young Auntie Lucille: A nine-year old Ojibwe girl.
  • Group: Six Ojibwe elders (3 men, 3 women), Three Ojibwe adults (women), and Two Ojibwe children (1 girl, 1 boy).
  • White Farmer 2: The 40-year old man who headed the family that served as a foster care placement home for Auntie Lucille and other Native American children after they were removed from their homes and community.


  • Scene One – Tribal Office. Desk, computer, several chairs.
  • Scenes Two and Three – Elders’ center dining room. Three tables – one toward front stage right, one middle stage a little toward the back, and one back stage left. See diagram below.

Play diagram

Scene One


A tribal office with a desk, computer and a few chairs.

Cousin Linda:

[seated at her desk turning from her computer to look at the door as the Researcher knocks on the semi-open door and peeks through the opening]

Come in. Have a seat and tell me more about the research you want to do.


First, I want to thank you for agreeing to help me find my way here. [Walking in, shaking hands, and smiling as she speaks.] Basically, I want to learn more about people’s experiences growing up. I would like to look at the child welfare system and see how it fits with tribal views in the past and today. Here are the materials the university requires me to share with people who agree to talk to me. [handing a pile of papers to Cousin Linda]

Cousin Linda:

[laughing as she glances at the papers]

You can’t share these questions with people in the community. They won’t understand them. No one will talk to you! Let’s rewrite them, but we have to hurry to make it to the elder’s center on time.

[Cousin Linda turns toward her computer and begins typing. The Researcher pulls a chair up next to Cousin Linda. The scene ends as they are both looking at the computer screen, talking animatedly and laughing. Lights dim and curtain closes.]

Scene Two


A Tribal Elder’s Center in the congregate dining room. Elders, adults, and children of varying ages are seated at the three tables in the room. Everyone is already eating their lunch.

The dining room is crowded as Cousin Linda and the Researcher enter the room. They sit down at the table Cousin Linda has chosen where Uncle Raymond and Auntie Lucille are seated along with two Tribal Council Members, Nathan and Howard, both in their 40s.

Cousin Linda:

I’d like to introduce a friend of mine who wants to learn more about the community. She’s from the university and wants to study children and families. Here’s some information about the questions she wants to ask community members.

[Everyone at the table becomes quiet as the glance over the papers. Cousin Linda and the Researcher go to the food table to get their lunch and return to their seats. ]

Council Member Nathan:

I’d be willing to share my story. Here’s my card. [handing his card to the Researcher]
Give me a call so we can schedule a time to talk.

Uncle Raymond:

I’d be willing to talk to you, too. [as he’s looking at the Researcher].
Can you come to my house this afternoon?


Thank you both. I will give you a call, Councilman [looking at Nathan].
And I welcome the chance to hear your stories today, Uncle Raymond [looking at Uncle Raymond and shaking his hand].

[Those seated at the tables all leave, except for the Researcher and Uncle Raymond. The two rear tables are moved to create space in the corners. The Researcher remains where she is seated. Uncle Raymond walks to the middle of the stage and sits down on a chair. The spotlight falls on him as he begins his story. The other lights are dimmed.]

Uncle Raymond:

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. [A dreamy look on his face as he remembers] All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone.


I remember one time when I was a young boy, it was winter time, and all of us were really cold. We didn’t have any fire wood. So I had gone off to find some wood, and there was little to be seen. It was cold, and it was getting dark when I came up to a white farmer’s fenced in land. I thought “those fence posts would burn nicely.” So, I cut them and brought them home. We had a fire that night. The farmer was really mad when he saw that his posts were gone and wanted to have the thief arrested.

Ogema found out about it and figured out who had taken the posts. He came to wake me up early the next morning. It wasn’t even light out yet. He told me to get up and get dressed. We were going out to the woods to gather cedar trees. He showed me how to choose the right tress, cut them, and prepare the wood that is sacred to the Ojibwe people, and he taught me how to make posts.

[On the right side of the stage toward the back, a spotlight highlights Ogema kneeling next to the Young Uncle Raymond, showing him how to prepare a cedar post. There is no audible discussion as Uncle Raymond continues his story. The spotlight fades after a minute or two]

[Note – This side scene and others that follow could also be choreographed as a dance with a drum and flute softly playing]

Uncle Raymond [continuing]:

When we were finished, we brought the posts to the farmer and helped him repair the fence. I apologized for taking the posts. Ogema persuaded the farmer not to report me since I realized what I had done was wrong and worked hard to make up for my mistake. The farmer agreed. After that, Ogema knew how many families in the village were cold, so from then on he made sure that the community worked together so there was enough wood for everyone in the village.

[On the left side of the stage, a spotlight highlights Ogema introducing young Cousin Raymond to the White Farmer. The Farmer leans down and shakes Uncle Raymond’s hand. Again, there is no audible dialogue as Uncle Raymond continues]

Uncle Raymond [continuing]:

Ogema also taught me that hunting is not a sport – it’s something that you do for food. It’s not a sport if you leave something for what you take. That’s why we leave tobacco for something we take – we’re being responsible. [He pulls a tobacco tie from his shirt pocket, handling it gently in his left hand, gazing at it wistfully as he remembers]

We are at the mercy of the Great One and the power when we’re out there, but we go, knowing that we have to have food to live and we have to do that.

It’s work. I don’t really like to kill. There’s a sadness there for that deer. I don’t hunt just to kill it, and I don’t feel good about killing. Sometimes, the deer doesn’t die right away. That’s why we leave something, to ask forgiveness. That’s why we take it home to feed our family and others who are hungry – out of respect. My relatives and I like to hunt together and we all feel that sadness – that loss or sadness. Ojibwe people have been doing this for thousands of years.

Ogema and my grandmother told me that a lot of our people feel that way – feel that sadness. That’s why we have to eat it all and use all of the parts – out of respect. If we don’t do that, we won’t have that relationship with the deer. That relationship with the deer is important. That’s why we always put moccasins on when we are preparing someone who has died – so that they will have that deer skin on their feet when they take that long journey – so we can walk with deer skin on our feet.

Cousin Linda:

[Quietly enters the right side of the stage behind Uncle Raymond, highlighted by a spot light while she speaks]

“Ogema” is not the name of a person, it is the Ojibwe word for “leader” or “chief” – a title earned through generosity, wisdom, and actions that bring people together and protect the community. Uncle Raymond’s story shows the enduring legacy of a culture that valued children and all life. They had highly developed and sophisticated techniques for ensuring the education and well-being of the next generations and building alliances with other groups. Sadly, many Ojibwe adults also felt the need to protect children in ways that meant the loss of their language. [the spotlight fades and Cousin Linda exits]

Uncle Raymond [continuing]:

When I was growing up, my cousin and I would follow the elders when they went out into the woods. We would hide behind brush so we could listen to them speak Ojibwe. The elders would come and chase us away so we wouldn’t be able to learn the language. They told us they didn’t want us to suffer the way that they had.

Even though Ogema was there to teach me when I was growing up, my life wasn’t easy. I dropped out when I was a junior in high school. I was kicked out of the house when I turned 18. My sister took me in, but there was no support to finish high school. So I went into the military, and sent money home and hoped they wouldn’t drink it all up.

When I dropped out of school, I got a job and I realized that I needed more education. I went to night school for high school and college credits. I didn’t want to go through the process of getting a diploma with younger kids, so I took the GED test and passed. I went to technical school and college. I took courses in business, accounting, English language, tribal history. I wanted to be able to do my job better. I went as someone who wanted to learn, not for a degree.

I never wanted to be dependent on any authority. I provided for my family, and I provided for myself for years. I still believe this. I don’t believe the tribe owes me a thing. But I still try to follow Ogema’s example by caring for others in the community and try to also pass on the skills and traditions and traditions I learned to the next generations. It’s not always easy.

There’s a young non-Indian girl here who told me that she couldn’t eat most kinds of meat, fish, or shrimp – it makes her sick. But she can eat venison. So I’m going to give her one of the deer my grandson and his friend shot yesterday. My brother and I have been teaching them how to hunt in the right way and I’m proud of them. My daughter and granddaughter go with me to gather cranberries – mashkiigiminan – in the swamp like I did as a child, and my children and grandchildren are learning how to gather and preserve manoomin – wild rice. It’s important for us to remember our ways and pass them on. That’s why I’m sharing my story – so the next generation can remember our ways.

[Lights dim and curtain closes.]

Scene Three


A Tribal Elder’s Center in the congregate dining room a year later. A few elders are left after the desert, sitting at tables. You can hear their animated conversations although it’s impossible to hear much of what they are saying because they’re all talking at the same time to their own table-mates, interspersed with laughter.

At one of the tables, the Researcher is listening to elders share stories about the old days as Auntie Lucille walks up to the table to clear away the remaining dishes as she tidies up the room. She bends down and gently touches the shoulder of the Researcher.

Auntie Lucille:

I grew up in foster care, but you wouldn’t want to hear my story. It’s not a happy one.


I would welcome the chance to hear your story when you have time.

Auntie Lucille:

I don’t know … Maybe today in about an hour after everyone leaves and I’m done with my clean up.


Can I help you finish the clean up?

[The Researcher stands and helps clear the last of the dishes, everyone else leaves. The two rear tables are moved to create space in the corners, The Researcher returns to her seat at the front table when they’re done and Auntie Lucille sits in the center. Auntie Lucille is in the spotlight as the rest of the lights dim.]

Auntie Lucille:

When I was little, with grandma and grandpa, when it was time for doing canoes, I went with them to get bark for the canoes, for the wigwam. I went with grandpa. He always did that. Grandma always taught beadwork. I had to tan hides – I’m glad I didn’t have to clean them [smiling dreamily]. They were spread out on frames in the house – I would scrape them [she lifts her hand and moves it through the air with back and force motions] until they were nice and soft.

The big drum was here and grandma and grandpa were part of it. The drum was presented to grandma. Every time they would have a feast, she’d take me and my brother. I sat on the right side of grandma, and my brother sat on her left. As long as the drum was out, we couldn’t get up or say anything.

[On the left side of the stage toward the back, a spotlight highlights a small group of adults around a drum, playing softly, while a few children, including the young Auntie Lucille, are seated watching them. The light fades and the soft sound of the drum plays in the background for several minutes as Auntie Lucille continues her story.]

Auntie Lucille [continuing]:

My job after school was to go to all of the elders’ houses to see if they needed anything, any work done or water or wood. My job was to do whatever they needed. I guess that’s why I do it now. I always got along better with elders. If they ask for help you give it, or you offer. I could sit and visit with elders and I always felt better. [smiling as she remembers these times]

I had a lot of good times when grandma and I would sit on the porch. She would talk Indian and I could understand what she was saying. My brother and I always knew what she was saying, but she wouldn’t teach us because she said it was going to be a white man’s world. “They’re taking over and I don’t want you to be beaten up for talking Indian.” And she was right. It was our heritage, but we couldn’t learn because the white man’s going to take over. [She frowns as she says this in a rougher tone of voice]

[Suddenly her face lights up and she talks animatedly] We went to ball games. Grandpa would be an umpire and we’d go all over. I was always with grandpa and grandma, going everywhere with them – [her smile fades] – more than with my mom. Mom didn’t care. She’d come home drunk and chase us out of the house at 3 or 4 in the morning. We’d run to grandma’s. [a wistful smile returns].

Grandma always had a crock pot of biscuits by the door, it was covered with a towel, and we’d go in and grab a biscuit and go upstairs to the bed – they always had a bed for us. When grandpa got up in the morning, we’d hear him say “Well our kids are home again.” I could never figure out how they knew we were there, and then one day I realized that my brother never put the towel over the crock pot after he took his biscuits.[laughing softly as she remembers]

My grandparents got up early. In the morning, my grandpa would say “It’s 6 a.m., daylight in the swamp kids.” My grandpa trapped in the winter time. He’d come and wake me up early and tell me to go with him. I’d ask him why he wasn’t taking my brother instead. He’d say “you’re the oldest so you’re coming.” If I wanted money, I’d have to work for it. I’d cut wood, or pump water if I wanted money. If I wanted a nickel or dime, I had to work for it first.

I could always count on them. They always had something to eat and there was always a bed ready. [she sits up straighter and says this with conviction]

[the drumming stops, and emotions of anger and sadness appear on her face, her voice is matter-of-fact as she tells the next stories, sometimes increasing in volume and speed with anger or slowing and quieting with sadness.]

After I was 9, for 9 years I was away from that love, heritage, pride, life. Where’s an Indian supposed to fit in? When you have those values and are denied a chance to practice them? It was just nine years of hell. How to work was all I got out of it. There was no love – no nothing.

I was 9 years old when I was told welfare was going to come and take me and my little brother to a foster home. Grandpa and grandma wanted to keep us but they were told they were too old. They were not willing to have us go away, but the county social workers took us anyway.

We were one of the first ones taken away. They came and picked us up and took us to this farm. I was 9, so I tried to remember the route. I remembered the highway. They said it was 80 miles, but it was more than that. They said that Mom could come and see us whenever she wanted but that did not happen.

The home on the farm had three daughters of their own, but we – the Indian foster kids – had to do all of the work. We had to wait on them all. [anger and disgust in her voice] We were supposed to get $3 a month for an allowance, but we never got it. We didn’t know anything but work and school. We were not allowed to go anywhere else. We couldn’t have any friends. They were mean to us – we were hit and beat by horse straps. We would tell the social worker at our monthly meetings, but for the 9 years my brother and I were there, we never had the same worker twice. They kept changing workers.

[On the right side of the stage toward the back, a spotlight highlights a white farmer with a strap in his hand hitting the younger Auntie Lucille while other children sit and watch. The soft sound of children crying and a drum plays in the background for a minute or two as Auntie Lucille continues her story]

Auntie Lucille [continuing]:

After I was there, they started bringing others – my other brothers, my sister, and my cousins from the reservation community. My grandma told me “You’re the oldest so you need to watch out for the others.” I took a lot of beatings to protect them so they wouldn’t be hit. [her voice firm and angry, her fists clenched and again, she sits up straighter, adjusting herself in the chair]

They only took us in because of the work they could get out of us. They never took me to the doctor or dentist like they were supposed to do. I never went to the dentist until I was 18 and I got out of there.

They had these fields of green beans. They took us there to work in the fields picking beans every day in the summer. We were there from 6 in the morning until they came to get us. We earned 3 cents a bushel, but we never got to keep our money – they took it.

My brothers ran away. I got beat until they came back.

My grandma told me “You’re a survivor – you’ll make it no matter what.” And that kept me going. I had a couple of nervous breakdowns. When I was raising my own kids everything that I went through at that farm – it all started to come back.

[tearing up, you can hear her voice breaking as she struggles not to cry] I can’t have no hate in my heart. If you can’t forgive, take charge of your life, you’re lost. I don’t blame anyone, I don’t blame my mom – she thought she was doing the best thing for us. Mom drank a lot. There were nine of us kids. She was a good mom, other than going and out drinking. She was not a mean mom, but a lot of the reservation thought she wasn’t a very good mother. Her own sister did it to her – reported her to welfare. Her sister later told me that if she had known what was happening in the foster home she never would have done it.

I don’t have anything good to say about the welfare system. I don’t care that much for foster homes because there is no one who oversees the homes. I don’t think Indian children should be raised in a white man’s home. They don’t share our culture, and they don’t want to understand us. The only way is their way. I don’t think that’s right for Indian children.

[Auntie Lucille stands. Cousin Linda slowly enters as Auntie Lucille is finishing her story and stands to the right of Auntie Lucille. Soft drumming begins and continues until the Auntie Lucille stops talking]

Auntie Lucille [continuing]:

I did survive even though it’s been hard. I have lived with the hurt and the shame of what happened to me as a child. I never shared this story before. Now I see that we need to share our stories with each other. As a tribe and community, we need to heal the circle for those like me who return looking for the love we knew or missed as children. We return looking for the sense of acceptance and belonging we remember from our childhood.

I just want to help others who have had hard lives. If my story helps at least one person, then what I went through will be worth it.

[Drumming ends. Cousin Linda gently hugs Auntie Lucille when she stops talking. She stands on Auntie Lucille’s right and speaks firmly, perhaps with tears in her voice]

Cousin Linda:

I’m so glad you came home, Auntie Lucille. [gently, as she looks at Auntie Lucille and smiles]

We have lost so many tribal members through the centuries. First to boarding schools, then to adoption and foster care in White families – far from the reservation. And now we are losing our youth to juvenile detention centers and group homes. We’ve lost families, too, when they were relocated by federal policies to urban areas. We’re lucky that you returned. [smiling, looks at Auntie Lucille and takes her hand]

[looking toward the audience] Only some return like Auntie Lucille. Some died too young, and others never returned. We have lost so many.

[As Cousin Linda is speaking, Uncle Raymond enters and stands next to Auntie Lucille on her left side]

Cousin Linda [continuing]:

We want to thank the Researcher for encouraging us to tell our stories and recording them so future generations can remember both the suffering and strengths of our ancestors and our elders. We survived as Ojibwe people because they did all they could to protect us and teach us our ways.

[the Researcher stands from her seat by the table, where she’s remained during the scene. She gives a tobacco tie to Uncle Raymond, Auntie Lucille, and Cousin Linda to acknowledge her gratitude and hugs each one. The Researcher exits while Auntie Lucille, Cousin Linda, and Uncle Raymond remain standing in center stage.]

Uncle Raymond:

It’s important for us to remember our stories – both the good and the bad. What happened to Auntie Lucille is still happening today. As a tribe, we need to do something about that. The kids are our future people, our tribe. We should have something for them to look forward to. We need to have something that provides a strong sense of connection and foundation. Now, many of them feel lost and invisible. We need to remember what Ogema taught us about being a community and caring for all of our children.

[The spot lights on center stage fade and the spirit of Ogema appears as a hazy projected image on a screen to the left of group.]


My heart is grateful to see the people you have become. You have all lived through difficult times, just like our ancestors, but you have remembered their teachings.

[in a voice of warmth and kindness] Dear Lucille, you are an inspiration to others in the community. Never forget that. You have survived hard times because of your strength and love. Welcome home. Raymond, I remember you as a little boy and I am proud of the man you became. [chuckling]

[in a voice of warmth and kindness]You may not realize how profoundly you have touched the lives of others, but your deeds have helped the people preserve our ways and kept them safe. You have taught them how to hunt and gather and how to respect each other and the earth. And Linda, thank you for helping the community remember their stories and helping the youth reclaim their heritage.

[a more serious tone] But the hardest work is yet to come. The times foretold by our ancestors have arrived. The waters have been poisoned by our disrespect for the earth and each other. As Ojibwe leaders, it is your responsibility to help the community to continue walking on the path of life as an example to other nations.

  • Thank Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit, for all of the wonders around you and the miracle of life
  • Honor elders and you honor life and wisdom
  • Honor life in all its forms and your own life will be sustained
  • Honor women and you honor the gift of life and love
  • Honor promises – by keeping your word, you will be true
  • Honor kindness – by sharing gifts you will be kind
  • Be peaceful – through peace, all will find the Great Peace
  • Be courageous – through courage, all will grow in strength
  • And be moderate in all things – watch, listen and consider so your actions will be wise.

As you have said, Raymond, the children are our future. But remember the lessons you learned long ago. The well-being of Ojibwe children depends on the well-being of all children, and therefore, on the health of our earth. Use the skills you gained in your lives to teach other peoples how to walk the path of life because our lives and the life of our earth are all connected. And remember in the difficult times ahead that the spirits of your ancestors walk with you. [voice becomes ethereal with the final sentence]

[Image fades and the drum plays as the curtain closes on the scene]

Development History

The title of this play, “You wouldn’t Want to Hear My Story,” is drawn from a quote of an Ojibwe elder who shared her story with me. The play itself is based on a critical ethnographic study conducted in 2001-2002 that focused on exploring historical and contemporary child welfare issues from an Ojibwe perspective. Although the stories have been edited to remove any place or name identifiers and for narrative flow, care has been taken to preserve the authentic perspectives and voices of the storytellers. These stories and others have been previously published in a variety of venues:

Hand, C. A. (2003). An Ojiwe perspective on the welfare of children: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? (Doctoral dissertation.) UMI Dissertation Services, ProQuest

Hand, C. A. (2006). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Lessons of the past and visions for the future. Child and Youth Services Review, 28, 20-46.

Hand, C. A. (2015). Native American Issues. Voices from the Margins (blog). Avaialble at

A number of other resources were used to add contextual elements for Ogema’s ending monologue:

The path of life that Ogema shares is based on Basil Johnson (1976), Ojibway heritage (p. 93). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Historical and cultural contexts are supported by online sources:

“The teachings of the Seven fires prophecy also state that when the world has been befouled and the waters turned bitter by disrespect, human beings will have two options to choose from, materialism or spirituality. If they chose spirituality, they will survive, but if they chose materialism, it will be the end of it.” (Source: Wikipedia)

“The Seven Fires Prophecy is an Ojibwe prophecy that encourages the union of all for colours of the human race to ensure a kinship that will lead to peace and harmony. The prophecy warns that without a union of the earth’s people the earth will cleanse itself.” Source: Ojibwe Resources)

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.

Coming Home – The Beginning – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

August 28, 2001. Mavis was nervous. It was her first day visiting the Ojibwe community where she would spend the next nine months. What made it especially challenging was her role there. She wasn’t really sure what it meant to conduct an ethnographic study. Her parents had already had a difficult time figuring out what she did for jobs, but a researcher? People avoided her when they found out what she did for a living, particularly those she knew in the Ojibwe community. “You think you’re too good for us,” they’d say. They never took the time to find out who she really was and they didn’t want her around.

The funny thing about Mavis was that people often thought she was a pushover because they saw her as small, frail, and reserved. But things are relative in more than one way. During the time she spent on the rez as a child, she learned to see herself as tall. She was tall compared to many of her cousins – a gangling Ichabod Crane. And the people she volunteered with in the Kentucky hills, cutting down trees with an ax to build a summer camp, learned to accept her as one of the crew. “She’s small, but damn that teenie bopper can work,” they’d say.

If you watch her carefully, you’ll notice she walks with a confident stride and holds herself tall – all 5’ 3”. She wears her straight dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, thick eyeglasses, no makeup, no frilly clothes. The only concession she makes when she needs to look professional is to put on a tailored jacket over her tee shirt and good jeans.

In a sense, doing this study was a chance for Mavis to go home. Not the one she grew up in and not the rez where she spent her summers as a child. She wasn’t going there expecting anything from others. She was there because she knew that Native American children were still being taken away from their families and communities. Even though federal legislation was supposed to stop the practice that began when the Spaniards first arrived in what is now Florida in the 1500s, the removal of Native American children from their families and communities continued unabated for the next five centuries. It was still going on. Mavis wanted to know why and if it was possible to stop it.

The day was warm sunny by the time Mavis pulled up outside of the old tribal building that served as the center for tribal social services. She found Linda in her office.

Peeking through the open door, Mavis saw Linda typing at her computer, back to the door. “Hey Linda,” she said. “It’s so nice to finally meet your in person.” Linda turned and got up from her chair to shake Mavis’ hand. “I don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am for agreeing to help me learn more about the community.”

“Here, have a seat” Linda said, pointing to a chair by the small round table in her office. “Tell me how I can help you. I’d like to take you to the elders’ center for lunch today. That’s the best way to meet people in the community who might be willing to talk to you. But first, tell me what you want to know.”

Mavis sorted through the pile of papers she brought and handed a pile to Linda, explaining each one. “These are the things I’m required by the university to share with the community. They explain the purpose of the research and the questions I plan to ask. And these are consent forms that people need to sign if they’re willing to let me share what they say. It also promises that their names and identities will never appear in anything I write or say in public or in private.”

Linda quickly skimmed the forms and began laughing. “You can’t share these with elders. They’ll never understand what you want to know. Here, we have half an hour before lunch. Let’s come up with some questions they’ll understand.”

Linda rolled her chair back to the computer and began typing. Mavis dragged her chair closer so she could peak over Linda’s shoulder. With a rapid-fire exchange, Mavis and Linda worked together to write new questions. Linda enlarged the print so elders would be able to read them more easily, quickly made copies, and she and Mavis sped out the door. They hopped into Linda’s old silver 1990 Cadillac, a boat of a car from Mavis’ perspective.

It was that first day when Mavis met many of the elders and community members who would become the most prolific storytellers. Thomas, Raymond, and Lucille, all elders, were there that first day. Each shared stories that would make a lasting impression on Mavis. She would leave the community when her research was done in August of 2002, but the weight of responsibility their stories conveyed would stay with her for the rest of her lifetime.

When lunch was finished, Linda and Mavis left the elder’s center. Instead of driving back to her office, Linda told Mavis she wanted to take her somewhere that would help her understand the community. They drove down winding wooded roads and finally pulled over near an opening in the woods, a grass-covered field. “Come on,” said Linda,” I want to show you something.”

She led Mavis down a well-worn path toward a small lake. “This is a special lake that we see as the center of our community. To us, it symbolizes the home where we have lived as a people for centuries. It’s our home on this earth and in the universe. I come here when I want to pray. It also symbolizes the home where we hope our children can always come in the future to feel the spirits of their ancestors. A place where they can come to remember who they are so they can teach their children and their children’s children where we come from and where we belong.”


Photo: by Drew Geraets

It was an auspicious beginning of a friendship that would last many years, although Mavis and Linda would never meet face to face again after Mavis left the community.

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.

Coming Home? – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

Let me begin by being honest. This assignment proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. I wanted to use the word prompt to draft the beginning of a novel, but I found myself up against decades-long university programming. I just couldn’t break away from the need to write like a distant observer. The only character I could put myself into was my own.

I’m including my first draft, and my after thoughts. I really would appreciate honest, constructive feedback.


Draft “Coming Home?”

Let’s go for a ride. It’s a nice day and I want to show you the house the tribe is building for me,” said Grandfather Thomas.

(I think of him as grandfather. It’s a title of respect for someone who is older than I am. He’s in his late 70s. And in a sense we’re related. We’re both Ojibwe although from different communities. He’s tall, thin, and stately, with silvered hair that’s often covered by a baseball cap. His hearty laughter and ready wit make him seem much younger than his chronological age. But his stooped shoulders and stiff movements make me wonder if he’s in pain although I’ve never heard him complain.)

Grandfather Thomas has always made me feel welcome in this Ojibwe community that is not my own. I wonder if he really understands what it meant when I told him that I was here to conduct a research study. Will it ever be possible for me to remain distant from people like him whom I am learning to care about during my short time here? He eagerly shares his stories and his artwork with me, and all I should really do as a researcher is listen and ask questions. My job is to record his words and write up my observations every evening after our visits when I return to my little efficiency apartment in the neighboring town.

Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to drive? My car’s right over here.”

Yes, I was being polite, but I was also a little hesitant to ride with an elder who is sometimes easily distracted.

We set off, traveling past tribal buildings, past the HUD homes. As we drive, Grandfather Thomas is telling me the history of the people who live in each home. Finally, we come to a fork in the road. The road to the right is paved.

Go left here,” he said.

We travel on the bumpy rutted one-lane dirt road past pine trees, and past birch and aspen trees that are beginning to take on a golden autumn glow.

We’re coming up to the house now. Pull into the driveway.”

His new house is set back from the road, nestled in the woods. I can see a small stream in the backyard. Inside, the house is light and airy. Construction materials are scattered about – and the floors are still uncovered plywood – but it’s easy to see that his new house will be much nicer than the cramped, over-heated apartment he lives in now in the tribal elders’ center.

It is a nice, ordinary ranch house, appropriate for someone in his late 70s. He won’t have to climb too many stairs. But, there aren’t any houses close by and the road will be hard to travel in the winter.

He’s eager and impatient to move, voicing his frustration with the tribal council because it’s taking so long. He wants to move before winter.

As we drive back to town, Grandfather Thomas is quiet. It gives me time to think. Even though the dirt road bears his family name, and even though his ancestors have lived on this reservation land for centuries, I wonder if it really feels like home to him. He’s lived away from this community for almost his entire life. It wasn’t his choice or his family’s decision. When he was just five years old, he was kidnapped as he walked along the village road. The strangers who enticed him into a car in the early 1920s were not the strangers we often imagine taking children. They were missionaries, sanctioned by the federal government to round up Native American children for placement in crowded unhealthy institutions far from their families and communities. There, they would be forced to speak the language and adopt the customs and religions of those who conquered their Indigenous nations long ago. There, they would be taught the skills that would make them productive manual laborers and servants.

Grandfather Thomas was among the lucky. He survived . And he was able to return to the reservation after his wife died ten years ago. I wonder if he felt at home here, though, because he spent so much time away. The community was different than the one he knew as a little boy.

I wonder if he ever felt at home anywhere after he was kidnapped…

It’s a question I can’t ask him. I can only listen to what he chooses to share. Although he never mentions this, the stories he does choose to share continue to affect me profoundly through the years that follow…


After Thoughts

I wonder if the words I wrote convey how deeply I loved the people I was privileged to meet. (It’s not something I’m supposed to admit as a researcher.) They gave me the most precious gifts, their trust, friendship, and their stories. I hope that I can honor those gifts by sharing what I learned to raise awareness about the past and present issues people on the margins face.

What I’ve sketched out here isn’t poorly written, but it seems to lacks substance. As I reflect on this beginning, I keep hearing my university graduate advisor asking me “What do you mean by this term?” In this case, the term is “home.” How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance? How do I describe it in ways that touch the deep human longing we all feel for a sense of connection and belonging? This beginning doesn’t do that for me.

It may meet Hemingway’s advice to begin with one true statement. I think that’s about all it has. It’s missing heart. I want people to feel what it’s like for a child who is kidnapped to lose his home. To feel what it does to the meaning of home for families that lose children to horrifically abusive institutions generation after generation as they watch helplessly. To feel what it does to communities when they are unable to fulfill their most sacred duty – protecting and nurturing children to assure cultural survival – because the children that are supposed to protect have been violently ripped from their care generation after generation.

I want to write something that reaches people so they understand the history of the colonialism and its legacy today. I want them to care. I don’t want to blame anyone for the past. It’s done. Blaming those who carried out these policies in the past does nothing to heal trauma for descendants of the victims or the perpetrators. And it does nothing to end the collective abuse of children today both here and abroad.

As someone who grew up between cultures, I became a boundary-spanner and an ethnographer to survive. Writing a good ethnography is like telling a story. It requires the art of translation, the ability to bring others inside of experiences or a world or a culture that are unfamiliar. I don’t think this first draft does that…


I would like to be able to answer the voice of my advisor that still echoes in my thoughts. What does the word “home” mean? It’s more than a place. It’s more than being surrounded by a group of people who accept us for who we really are, with all of our faults and gifts. Can I remember times in my life when I felt “home”? Maybe the years I lived without electricity surrounded by forest on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation, but it’s something I still need to think about.

ldf winter

Photo: Winter on Amik Lake – sometime in the early 1990s

This exercise has been so valuable. It’s made me think even though I don’t have any answers today. I do look forward to  hearing your thoughts.

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.

Reflections about Indian Child Welfare – July 15, 2015

Carol A. Hand

The most difficult part of any new initiative for me is figuring out where to begin. What is it I hope to achieve with this newest project – a book about Indian child welfare? What can I say that hasn’t already been said, and what do I really know for sure? Who would be the best audience – the audience that would be most receptive and most likely to act in thoughtful ways to address continuing oppression? These are some of the questions I have been pondering as I look at the blinking cursor on my empty computer screen.

Start somewhere,” I tell myself. “You have a title, so draft a title page.” (Yes, I often refer to myself in third person language in my thoughts. I’m not sure why even though I think it’s rather odd …)

rescuing children title page jpg

Photo: Draft Title Page

But how should I begin? Here’s my most recent beginning. I really do welcome your honest comments and suggestions.


Imagine that you were a five-year old boy or girl walking along the road in your village. A village where you knew everyone, where you felt safe because the villagers all watched over you and kept you from being hungry or harmed, until that one day when no adults saw the strangers that drove by and enticed you into a car. You had never ridden in a car before and were curious as many children your age would be. Now imagine that it would be more than a decade before you would see your family or community again. You awoke from the long journey to find yourself in a strange place with many other strange children. More than seventy years later, you still carry the scar on your hand from that day when the adults in that strange new place where you found yourself hit you with a sharp-edged ruler because you asked another child where the restroom was in the only language you knew, “Indian.”

Imagine what you would feel as a parent or grandparent if your child suddenly disappeared. You knew he or she was not the first to be taken by the strangers who had invaded your homeland more than a century before. And he or she would not be the last to be taken by the descendants of strangers whose language and ways were different and who had the power to take your land and confine you to a small “reserved” area of your original homeland after they clear cut all of your trees. Strangers who had the power to outlaw your language, spiritual practices, and ways of life. Now they were taking your children and there was absolutely nothing you or anyone else in the community could do to get your children back or stop the kidnapping. Imagine what all of the relatives, elders and warriors of your community would feel and how profoundly it would forever change the community and how you felt about life.

This is only one of the stories I heard from Ojibwe community members whose childhoods were spent in places far from their families and community. This book shares some of their stories and describes the historical events and contemporary consequences for a system that claimed to be rescuing children from neglect and abuse. I leave it you as the reader to determine if the inhumane and traumatizing child welfare policies that were and are still imposed on Indigenous peoples in what is now the United States are something that should remain unacknowledged, unchanged, and unchallenged.


1. For those who haven’t read prior posts, the photos on the title page are of my mother before and after Indian boarding school.
2. I was inspired to write this reflection after a conversation I had with a dear friend yesterday. She asked me what my purpose for writing the book was and who the intended audience was. This is my first attempt to respond to those questions. I hope you will share your views.

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 Year My Mother Was Born

Carol A. Hand

My mother was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in 1921. I wonder what her world was like then. The photos I have of her as a child convey contrasts between the wealthy whites who flocked to the northwoods lakes to build summer resorts and family retreats and Ojibwe families and children relegated to the land that remained after many broken treaties.

Norma b

Photo: My mother in 1923
(She’s dressed in clothing purchased by the wealthy woman in the picture who wanted to “adopt” her even though both of her parents were alive.)

norma 1

Photo: My Mother in 1928
Titled “Grapes of Wrath” in my mother’s lovely cursive writing on the back of the photo.
(Obviously her clothing allowance ended when my mother’s family refused to let her be taken away.)

My mother was exposed to these contrasts early in life, embittered by her relative material poverty and exploited by resort owners to attract new clientele. She internalized the belief that she was inferior because of her Ojibwe heritage. It’s easy to see why as I read archival documents that chronicle the times.

Norma postcard b

Photo: Postcard for the Rim Rock Lodge – My Mother in 1925-1926?
The caption reads: Our Little squaw at
Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.

These photos were among my mother’s belongings but many details about her life remain incomplete. Fortunately, I have discovered an incredible archival collection for anyone interested in exploring Native American history in the US from 1902 through 1968 – The Indian Sentinel. Housed in the Raynor Library at Marquette University (thankfully available online), the publication offers a fascinating glimpse of tribal cultures as seen through the biased, but sometimes respectful, eyes of those who “felt the call” to minister to the Native heathens and save their souls through their work with Catholic missions. The Sentinel is filled with biographies of priests and tribal leaders, photos of students and buildings, and descriptions of the first reservation in the US and the building of a hydroelectric dam in Pine Ridge, SD in 1919-1920 using the backbreaking labor of students attending the Catholic mission school.

As I work on revising a story about her life, I wanted to know more about the context at the time she was born. I also wanted to see if I could find any records of her time in the Catholic boarding school she attended as a child. The answer is maybe. I have read a short account of my grandfather’s war injury in a student’s essay and found a possible reference to my mother’s school records that will require further archival research. Yet today, I want to share a poem that conveys the historical context for First Nations people during the beginning years of the twentieth century. The myth of the vanishing Native that inspired anthropologists and photographers was still in its heyday in the early 1900s.


Ye say they have all passed away,
That noble race and brave;
That their light canoes have vanished,
From off the crested waves;
That, ‘mid the forests where they wandered,
There rings no hunter’s shout:
Their name is on your waters –
You may not wash it out.

‘Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled;
Where strong Niagra’s thunders wake
The echo of the world;
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west;
Where Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.

Ye say their conelike cabins
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have disappeared, as withered leaves
Before the autumn’s gale;
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.

Old Massachusetts wears it
Within her lordly crown;
And broad Ohio bears it
Amid her young renown;
Connecticut has wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And old Kentucky breathes it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.

Wachusetts hides its lingering voice
Within its rocky heart,
And Allegheny graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock, on his forehead hoar’
Doth seal the sacred trust;
Your mountains build their monument
Though ye destroy the dust.

Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney (1902-1903). The Indian Sentinel, (p. 2). Washington, DC: Bureau of Catholic Missions.

Although Indigenous tribes were no longer visible in the eastern US states when this poem was written, the survivors of removal in the 1930s and Indian wars of the 1850s and beyond were still a presence further south and west. Still souls that needed saving. This was the view the year my mother was born, conveyed by the missionaries that would soon be her teachers.

“Owing to the great affection existing between the Indian parents and their children, the education of the latter is a most effectual means of improving the conditions of the former and bringing about their conversion” (The Indian Sentinel, 1920-1922; Vol. 02, no. 06, p. 257.)

Although her family was able to protect her from removal when she was two, the Bureau of Indians Affairs took her away from her family and community eight years later (or maybe sooner) and placed her in Holy Family Indian Mission boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin, more than 100 miles from her home.


Photo: Holy Family Church – Bayfield, WI

As many life experiences do, this turned out to be a mixed blessing. She lost a sense of connection to her family and community, but she had a chance to internalize a cultural foundation that helped her survive and develop skills that she used to make other’s lives better. She learned to write in her beautiful cursive, graduated as salutatorian of her (almost all white) public high school class, and went on to become a gifted nurse due to the generosity of the woman who couldn’t adopt her when she was two. In 1978, she wrote a grant and accompanied the Tribal Chairman, William Wildcat, to testify before the US Congress to establish the health care center in Lac du Flambeau, the reservation community where she was born. Although the tribe only honored her contributions after her death in 2010, what mattered most for her was doing the best she could to help other people and her community.

norma 2

Photo – My Mother’s First Communion – 1933?

In retrospect, I realize that the work the missionaries did was not all destructive. Their efforts helped people survive and provided a buffer from those in power who wanted to leave only the Indigenous place names and none of the people. Catholic missions, and priests like Father Baraga, helped create the possibility for Indigenous Peoples to assume a veneer of outward assimilation that kept them alive and their cultures hidden for future generations. My mother’s education may have created a distance between her and others of her generation who remained on the reservation, but it also helped her develop the skills to leave an important legacy that helped people in community to survive.

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.

When you think of “health” what comes to mind?

Carol A. Hand

This morning as I greeted a bright but frigid morning, I found myself thinking of one of my many culture-bridging experiences. I was wondering why it is so difficult for us to listen to each other and find our common ground.

Maybe it was one specific job interview years ago that made this so apparent to me. In my younger years, I would often get calls begging me to take on a new project – Indian education, child welfare, or addiction prevention to name a few. I remember reluctantly agreeing to consider working on a federally-funded project to prevent chemical dependency in selected tribes. There was only one other Native American person on the research team, and he wanted to interview me to make sure I was “Indian enough.” He asked me about the research I was planning to conduct on Indian child welfare. When I explained that I was interested in learning how Ojibwe people defined effective and ineffective parenting and the systems and interventions they would recommend to address situations they saw as ineffective, my interviewer became impatient and agitated.

We already know that! Why bother?,” he replied.

I know what I think,” I replied, “but I have no idea how many other perspectives there are among community members, and I would like to know what they think.”

Needless to say, I didn’t pass the “Indian enough” test, but it wasn’t because of my response to this exchange. It was my honesty when I answered the pivotal question.

We have two finalists for the coordinator of the project for one of our tribal sites. One is traditional, and one is assimilated. Who do you think we should hire?”

I knew he wanted me to endorse hiring the person he referred to as traditional, but instead, I was honest.

It depends on the project objectives, the community context, and the fit with candidate qualifications. That really should be left to the community to decide. But honestly, I don’t know what you mean by the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘assimilated’ in this context or why it should matter.”

I wasn’t willing to say that there was only one simplistic choice – his (or mine). The exchange taught me many valuable lessons, among them, the need to ask questions that allowed people maximum freedom to share what they really thought and felt.


Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Diversity Tree

Years in the future, I remembered this lesson when I was asked to do a needs assessment for an urban Indian health center. The center was surrounded by competing factions, each with strong and divergent views of who should be in the leadership position, the types of services that should be provided, and the overall purpose of the center. I agreed to seek grant funding if we could move beyond merely cataloguing health problems and also look at individual and community strengths and visions for the future. As I began writing the proposal, I asked myself how I could use research to attempt to build common ground. Several ideas came to mind. First, we would build a multi-cultural team that would include university faculty and students, health center leadership, and community members. Second, we would use a sampling technique that would maximize the inclusion of diverse perspectives (hermeneutic dialectics). Third, by exploring strengths and future visions, we would be looking for ways to build common ground and community buy-in and excitement. But how does one craft questions that really allow people maximum freedom to answer honestly in such a conflict-ridden context?

Our proposal was funded and we built a multicultural team, although it was challenging to find a community member who was able to honor research protocols. Our first choice didn’t work primarily because it was too difficult for the community representative to respect participant privacy or solicit, respect and convey perspectives that differed from hers. Community members requested that we replace her with Euro-American graduate students who were perceived as more trustworthy for honoring confidentiality and listening carefully to what they had to say. We honored that request. Nonetheless, her help crafting the interview questions did prove invaluable.

Our first question set the tone. “When you think of “health” what comes to mind?” Unlike the questions my interviewer from years ago asked, there was no indication of the “correct” answer. We deliberately avoided defining words like “community” to see how participants would define it themselves. Would they include only their faction of the Native community? Those who shared their tribal affiliation? All Native members who lived in the community, or all residents of the community regardless of ancestry?

The next challenge was figuring out who to talk to and how to maximize inclusiveness. Although the title of the sampling technique, “hermeneutic dialectics,” is too academic and off-putting, it’s really very simple to understand and operationalize (Guba and Lincoln, 1989). At the end of each interview, one simply asks each participant if he or she can recommend someone we could interview who has different views than theirs.

The answers to all of the questions, but particularly the first, made the inclusiveness of our sample very clear.

Definitions of Health

In response to the question “When you think of ‘health’ what comes to mind?,” participants gave many types of responses. The following themes and quotes suggest that the sample of participants was diverse.

✧ Physical

“The state your body is in.”

✧ Personal Responsibility

 “Lifestyle choices.”
“Health is exercising regularly, walking, running. Eating well is healthy too. Eating vegetables, fruits, protein is very important.”
“Health is just something you need to work on all the time.”

✧ Absence of Disease

“Good health would mean the absence of all of these horrible diseases” [AIDS, diabetes, breast/cervical cancer].

✧ Holistic

“Health to me means spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically centered.”

✧ Reliance on the Health Care System

“I have children, so I think of their healthcare coverage, and co-payments.”

✧ Family History

“Family history – diabetes, cancer, arthritis.”

✧ Structural Factors (Limited Income, Health Care System, Environment)

“We don’t eat the best foods – often we have to get what’s on sale.”
“A long wait. . . even when you are sick and in pain, you have to wait to get services.”
“Clean air is very important–like the exhaust from the cars and mills.”

What Was

Participants described the health center in terms of the role it played in the Native Community in the past – as the center of the hub that brought people together and provided a range of services. It was a place where families could bring their children for daycare, elders shared meals, and people would hang out to socialize and have coffee with others. But that changed.

cup past

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

Most of the programs were initially funded in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the War on Poverty. With the leaner, meaner years of Reagan and beyond, funding sources needed to shift to keep the center open, yet most community residents were unaware of the reasons for the changes in the types of services the center provided. They saw the changes in a different light, as a way for one faction to gain control of the center’s leadership and resources.

cup policy

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

What Is

Participants described the present status of the community as one characterized by different factions based on a number of criteria: the amount of time they had been living in the community, their tribal or national ancestry, whether they continued to practice their tribal traditions or chose to fit in more with the dominant culture. Instead of viewing the center as a hub that unified the community, it was now viewed as contributing to the divisions by only serving a select group in power at the time. Yet some participants also acknowledged the work that center staff were doing to bring in additional resources and services, such as mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

cup present

Carol A. Hand, University-Community Partnership – 2007

What Could Be

All of the participants described clear ideas of what the center and community could, and should, be. For many, the future represented the healthiest aspects of the past and present, and the center was described as a hub that would provide not only health services, but also a range of other human services as the agency did in the past – a gathering place that would connect Native American people across generations, especially youth and elders, and across tribal and urban/reservation distinctions.

cup future

Carol A. Hand, University-Community Partnership – 2007

Many participants described a future that moved beyond the Native American community to connect with the urban community as a whole and with tribal communities scattered throughout the state, US, and Canada as well. Their future vision reached beyond ethnic and geographic boundaries, and also across time, to interweave traditions throughout center services and into other health care agencies, child day care, and schools. As participants described these visions during interviews, they often became animated, suggesting these were powerful dreams that generated a sense of hope, excitement, and real possibility.

Putting the Past, Present, and Future Together

cup all

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

I could go on to list the serious challenges the Native American community faced due to centuries of colonial oppression and ongoing discrimination, but those issues are often the only things we hear about peoples on the margins. It’s what researchers tend to study and write about. Maori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001) makes this point very clearly.

hegemony slide

Photo Credit: Quote from Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001)

Instead, I would like to share a story that shows what we miss when we only see people’s problems. One of the study participants first described the many physical conditions that made mobility difficult for her, the financial challenges that made accessing prevention and treatment services so difficult, and the discrimination that made her reluctant to even try. Then, she told a story about the discrimination her son faced in the public school system. White students taunted him, called him names, and pulled his braid. She and her husband met with the principal to share their concerns. The principal promised he would discipline the white youth involved and make sure the bullying ended. She and her husband offered a different solution. As a family, they proposed to share their tribal culture in a ceremony and performance for the whole school so all teachers and students would have a better understanding of their history and culture. The principal accepted their solution. Instead of perpetuating resentment through punishment, the performance did result in improved relationships and understanding. The former bullies befriended their son, as did other students and teachers. To only see this woman as a victim negates her ability to be seen for all that she is and has to offer others.

The second thing I would like to share is a little of the wisdom and future hopes of the community members we interviewed.

“Part of rebuilding the community is utilizing people who want to help. It will take the sense of belonging to the community like the branches of a tree. By doing this reaching out, it makes the community healthy, and it makes the center strong and healthy, and people are drawn to it and want to hang around.”

“I would like my children and grandchildren to learn from the community – for community members to share their tribal values and who they are with my child. It is nice to know a whole range of cultures. They are all different, still all are the same in many ways. It would be nice to visit community members who can share these things about their culture.”

One of the participants prophetically predicted the outcome of this hopeful project.

“Power sources are experts at turning us against each other, then they walk right over us. We are all like a circle, the non-profits working for Indian people. I try to tell people that the money-people toss a dollar bill in the middle and we all scramble for it. And I tell people we cannot do that anymore. When the money-people throw the dollar bill into the center of the circle we have to say “NO.” We must lock arms in the circle and ask for something more. We need to improve all of our lives, not just a handful of our lives. If we could just all get on the same page. It’s not about who is in charge – we are equals. But the power sources would prefer to have us at each other’s throats.”

Sadly, those in power at the county and federal levels were able to divide the community. It was heartbreaking to be aware not only of the serious needs that would continue to go unmet for Native American residents, but also to see the strengths and visions of the community that could be brought to bear to build a more inclusive, healthier, and kinder community. It is far easier to divide and conquer than it is to foster communities that bring elders and youth together, help foster mutual support networks, and encourage all kinds of innovative community-building initiatives. Another outcome was so possible – a community that was respectful and inclusive of all of the residents and visitors, where children and elders were cherished for their gifts, where all people had fulfilling work that paid them fair wages, and where all had equal access to safe and affordable housing, education, nutrition, and health care. A community where all had equal ability to enjoy the beauty of the wild natural areas that surrounded them. That’s what comes to my mind when I think of the word “health.”

Works Cited:

Egon G. Guba and Yvonne S. Lincoln (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Carol A. Hand, Peggy Cochran-Seelye, David Schantz, Eric Diamond, and Sarah Aronson (2007). University-community partnership to improve the health of Missoula’s Native American community members. (Unpublished report, available upon request as a PDF document from Carol A. Hand)

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London, GB: Zed Books Ltd.

Acknowledgement (added May 14, 2016): With explicit permission from the former Executive Director of the Urban Indian Health Center, my dear friend Peggy Cochran Seelye, I would like to publicly acknowledge her essential help with this project. She was a pivotal partner. Without her hard work to improve services, improve community connections, and build toward a hopeful holistic future for the agency, this study would not have been possible. Chi miigwetch, dear Peggy. I miss working with you, sharing tears and laughter and hope. I wish we could have taken this work to the next level for the sake of the community.


Privilege Comes with Such a Heavy Cost

Carol A. Hand

A few days ago, I intended to write a story using the metaphor of sharing a canoe to describe relationships. I spent more than half of my life with a partner I only accompanied on one canoe ride. He built canoes at one point during the years we spent together – works of art built of different colored strips of cedar. But he never took the time to learn how to canoe or build vessels that traveled well on the water. Traveling in a canoe with a partner is not like rowing a boat with two oars, where riders take turns being the one person who does the heavy work. There is usually only one paddle for canoes, although I carried a second just in case on this one and only ride. It turned out to be a wise decision.


Photo Credit: Wetlands

We set off through the narrow channels in the wetland between thickets of water lilies, tall cattails and swamp grass. He was in the front of the canoe, while I sat in back. He used his paddle forcefully, as the canoe lurched from side to side, frequently entangling us in the reeds. He wouldn’t listen to my mild suggestion that he needed to use his paddle gently, alternating it from side to side to guide the canoe slowly through the center of the channel. Finally, I lifted the second paddle to try to buffer the lurching. He quickly decided it was time for us to return home. I think that was my role in the partnership – to steer us on a straight course though the challenges.

I wanted to tell the story of how I first learned to love traveling in a canoe. I didn’t learn about canoes until I was a teenager. Even though my Ojibwe uncles and cousins took me on tours of the interconnected chains of lakes in Lac du Flambeau, they used motor boats, not canoes. (Historically, canoes were one of the primary modes of transportation for Ojibwe people, as were snowshoes in the winter.)


Photo Credit: Lakes Surrounding Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin

My family moved to northwestern Pennsylvania when I was twelve. My parents and brother spent the summer in their new home, the third floor apartment above the 20-bed nursing home my mother bought to administer. I spent the summer with my grandmother on the LdF Ojibwe reservation. I arrived at my new home just in time to attend my new school. I had no friends, the classes were all at least three to five years behind what I had already studied, the summer with my grandmother had eroded my self confidence in profound ways, and my father’s mood swings and abuse escalated. I tried to commit suicide that first year and really did not intend to survive. But I did survive. That was when I began spending time with Clara and other elders in my mother’s nursing home. They helped me find a reason to live, at least for the moment. The next summer, my parents bought a tiny summer cottage on the Allegheny River. Although the cottage smelled of mold and mildew, I loved to spend my summers there. The river became my sanctuary, like the woods that had surrounded my old childhood home.

Our cottage was nestled among a cluster of similar cottages along the shore of one of the many placid wide sections of the river, positioned between islands and eddies on both sides. Some of the channels formed on both sides of the islands were rocky and shallow, and others ran deep and fast. It’s where I learned how to canoe. Perhaps I was motivated by my father’s near disaster. Like my partner in later years, my father was confident that he knew how to canoe. So confident, in fact, that he went on his first trip alone in his best suit and dress shoes. He made it to the middle of the river and proceeded to show off his skill. With a mighty tug on the paddle, he intended to make a quick turn about. He ended up swimming back to shore, swearing, pushing the overturned canoe in front of him.


Photo Credit: Allegheny River – Hemlock Eddy

At first, I used the rowboat. I could leave my family on the shore and drift or travel around the islands to another quiet place. I quickly learned it was wiser to travel upstream first and then let the current carry me home. But the islands and eddies downriver were more interesting because they were shallow and rocky. Sometimes I needed to exit the boat to guide it through the rapids and the river eddies. As my muscles and skills grew, I used the canoe instead. It was lighter and easier to maneuver.

The river was my sanctuary. Until I did a little research online to contextualize this reflection, I didn’t realize that my sanctuary came at a great cost to others. Suddenly I understood many things. Why my mother expressly forbid me to ever mention our Native heritage, why we could afford the cottage and why it smelled of mold and mildew. I wondered why I never heard anyone speak of the dam upriver, except to say it was a good thing that would prevent future flooding. Not one teacher, not one article in a newspaper, nothing.

A few days ago I understood the cost and my heart was heavy.

For My Seneca Relatives

Your villages condemned, your houses and schools and churches burned down
To build the Kinzua hydropower dam, a dam that would flood your homeland,

Land promised in treaties to be yours forever is now your ancestors’ watery grave.
All to protect white towns from (maybe) floods and power their insatiable greed.

My privilege was just downriver – a few mile west of your suffering,
My sanctuary was your hell.
As my horizons expanded, your history was buried beneath tons of water.
As I learned to paddle a canoe, all that you owned was lost.
I didn’t know the cost.
My mother never told me, I doubt if my father cared.

True, I was only a teenager, finding solace downriver while your community disappeared.

I might have stood with you, if only I had known
Please forgive me. I didn’t know…


Photo Credit: Kinzua Dam Recreation Area

A Brief History (an excerpt from David Sommerstein, Seneca Nations New Chief Seeks to ‘Change Course’, 2011, NPR):

In Allegany, one of the Senecas’ two territories in southwestern New York state, there’s an area where a paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. The road is blocked off with concrete slabs. A quarter mile down is an abandoned bridge.

“Old Red House Bridge – that went through the community of Red House,” says Leslie Logan, spokeswoman for the Seneca nation. “Nobody lives down there. It’s a bridge that goes to nowhere essentially.”

Sixty years ago, the road meandered past thriving communities, with Seneca homes along the Allegheny River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.

But in the 1960s, the U.S. government decided it needed the land to control flooding downriver in Pittsburgh. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the villages, burned down the houses and schools and churches, and built the Kinzua hydropower dam. The Senecas had fought the plan in Washington for almost two decades.

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.

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