A Life Lived as a Song for her People: An Ojibwe Woman’s Story – Part One

Part One: The Early Years

Carol A. Hand


whose eyes I wear in my soul
in joyous praise for gnarled hands
precious children laughter in the soup of pain
Everyone of us beautifull
deeply as young pink birches in high white snowdrifts
the Native woman whose Black pimp stared me down
the many in the alcohol trap chewing off their legs
the strong, the fearful, the weary, the angry
the traditional, the assimilated, the ones on both sides
of the bloody borders
playing Bingo, dancing in Pow Wows
telling stories leaning against a cold fender
How beautifull we are How complete
just as we are
Grief & confusion wail through our hills
Above it I sing a song for my people
who always resist always fight
A song rising in our throats now
A song in our bellies now
A song in our hands now
A dark light in our eyes now
How we are beautifull

(Crystos, 1991)


This account of my mother’s life was originally written before her death, as she struggled with the end stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, an illness that robbed her of the memories of past times. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, for her life was not an easy one. Yet, the stories she shared with me about her experiences bring history to life. I felt it was important to record what I remembered just in case I, too, would forget. I also wanted to see if the stories and picture of past times would delay her cognitive losses, and help my grandchildren understand their heritage.

To me, my mother was remarkable. Although her contributions were modest, she touched the lives of thousands of people with her gentle, healing spirit and helped build a legacy for the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation on which she was born. Those who read portions of my mother’s story during the ceremony that was held after her death in 2010 commented that it was an important account to share. They noted that her story shows that “Indian” people can overcome troubling childhood experiences and challenging circumstances and make a difference to the health and well being of their communities. Even in the final stages of a devastating illness, her gentle spirit continued to touch people’s lives.

This compilation of photographs and stories has been scanned and assembled with love for my family. Included are photographs found in albums, boxes, and donated by relatives, with commentary sometimes written on the backs of pictures in my mother’s elegant cursive script learned in boarding school. I know of no other way to pass on the stories I have heard about my mother. Unfortunately, I began this project as my mother entered the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. The stories are sketchy and incomplete. I could not look to her to fill in the blanks, and many of the elders who could have helped had already passed on.

I leave this partial account of my mother’s journey for those who have not heard the stories. Her life clearly demonstrates that there is hope in the most discouraging circumstances, nobility in the humblest among us, and the possibility for all of us to touch lives and leave lasting contributions that make the world a kinder place. Each one of us was born to be a song for our people, however defined, and for the earth we all share.

The Early Years

My mother, Norma Angeline Ackley, was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the beginning of the 1920s.


Main street in Lac du Flambeau, WI – 1920s – 1930s
Photo Credit: Marquette University Raynor Memorial Libraries
Bureau of Catholic Missions, Display 50

Born at home on the reservation to a 17-year-old mother, she was not issued an official birth certificate until many years later. At that point, she was assigned a birthday, March 1, 1921. It left her wondering when she was really born, a question that remained important to her. It added to her feelings of being inferior and unwanted, a feeling accentuated by many experiences throughout her life.

At the time of her birth, the Ojibwe people (also known as Anishinaabe, Chippewa, and a variety of other designations) had been firmly rooted in their new northern midwest homes for more than 300 years and were spread across five states in the United States (Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) and four Canadian provinces (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan).

Although little is written about the Ojibwe people before European contact, Ojibwe legends recount the journey their ancestors made many centuries before from their original home along the Atlantic Coast. The legends tell of a mysterious illness that killed many of their people. The visions of spiritual leaders led the survivors ever-westward along the St. Lawrence River and the northern and southern shores of the Great Lakes until they discovered the place of their new home, the lands where food grew on water, the land of wild rice.

Ojibwe migration

Photo Credit: Note: From The American Indians: Peoples of the Lakes,
by The Editors of Time-Life Books, 1994, p. 6.

Historical accounts estimate that Ojibwe people established a community in the Lac du Flambeau region by the mid 1700s, although archaeological evidence shows “that Woodland people were living at Lac du Flambeau at least 700 and perhaps 2,000 years ago” (Goc, 1995, p. 11). Ojibwe communities negotiated a series of treaties with the United States in the early 1800s that promised they would retain selected areas in exchange for ceding the majority of lands in the northern section of what would become the State of Wisconsin in 1848. The treaties also promised that the Ojibwe would retain their rights to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice within the ceded territories. In 1850, in response to pressure by the descendants of European immigrants for land and resources, President Zachary Taylor signed an order to remove the Ojibwe west of the Mississippi River. Most Ojibwe refused to move, although hundreds lost their lives during the winter of 1850 as a result of the federal government’s deliberate treachery. During 1854, Ojibwe leaders used this tragedy to negotiate the creation of four reservations in what was then the new State of Wisconsin. One of the reservations was located in Lac du Flambeau.

By the time my mother was born in 1921, the virgin forests had been cut down and more than half of the original land base was in the hands of the descendants of European immigrants (Loew, 2001). My mother’s great grandfather, Edward Sero, was one of the lumberjacks who was employed by the logging industries to help clear cut the northern forests. His daughters, Margaret, Agnes (my grandmother), and Sarah, spent at least part of their adolescence in a lumber camp where their father worked. Agnes’ mother was Angeline Shandreau, a shadowy figure my mother never mentioned. She did speak of Agnes’ younger sister, Sarah. Sarah died at an early age. She was a special aunt to my mother who described Sarah as the loveliest of the sisters, perhaps because of her hazel colored eyes, light brown hair, and paler complexion.

Agnes and sisters

Photo Credit: My mother’s photo collection

My mother told me many times that the sisters became prostitutes at an early age. Given where they were raised and how lovely they were, perhaps this is true, and if true, perhaps the only way they could exercise some control over their exploitation.

When Agnes gave birth to her first child, my mother, she was 17 years old. These photos suggest my grandmother, Agnes, was a playful young woman despite her childhood.

Agnes in tree


Agnes and friend

Agnes and doves

Photo Credits: From a Relative’s Photo Collection

My mother’s father, Raymond Ackley, lived in the Mole Lake Ojibwe community.

Ray 1Ray 2

Ray and AgnesPhoto Credits: From a Relative’s Photo Collection






Photo Credit: Agnes and Raymond – 1920?

My mother recounted her father’s lineage with pride. He was a direct linear descendant of prominent Ojibwe leaders, Chief Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi (Great Martin) and Chief Mee-gee-see (Great Eagle). His lineage also includes legends about his maternal great, great grandmother, Kawehasnoquay, a powerful medicine person (Levi, 1956). Raymond was also a direct descendant of William Ackley, one of the first white settlers in the area. William Ackley, who played an important role negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the Mole Lake Ojibwe community, married Raymond’s paternal great, great grandmother, Ma-dwa-ji-wan-no-quay (Maid of the Forest). Pride in her father’s lineage helped my mother counter-balance the negative messages she heard from whites about the inferiority of Ojibwe people.

Authors Cited

Crystos (1991). Dream On. Vancouver, BC: Press Gang Publishers.

Goc, M. J. (1995). Reflections of Lac du Flambeau: An illustrated history of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, 1745-1995. Friendship, WI: New Past Press Inc.

Sister M. Carolissa Levi, 1956, Chippewa Indians of Yesterday and Today. New York, NY: Pageant Press, Inc.

Loew, Patty (2001). Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of endurance and renewal. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Marquette University Raynor Memorial Libraries Bureau of Catholic Missions, Display 50. Retrieved from http://cdm16280.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p4007coll4/id/1680/rec/816 .

The Editors of Time-Life Books (1994). The American Indians: Peoples of the lakes. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.



Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 2

Carol A. Hand

 (Part 1 Questions)

… Grandfather Thomas focused on helping others. He took me under his “left wing” and shared his stories, photos, and the amazing beauty of his art (paintings, wood carvings, drawings). I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to grow up with his family. I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to attend a school that provided more than abuse, discipline, and training for farming and manual labor. And I wondered what his life would have been like if the government had apologized and offered reparations to the children and families who had been traumatized when agents were sent to kidnap children and place them in abusive institutions simply because they were Native American.

Part 2

State and Federal Child Welfare Initiatives (1935-1978).

The answer to these questions is suggested by the life stories shared by Uncle Raymond, born 20 years later than Grandfather Thomas. Although the boarding school era had ended as an enforced policy in 1935 about the time Uncle Raymond was born, some families still did opt to send their children to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools in Kansas or North Dakota so they would be away from the new threat posed by state and county child protection agencies. The BIA continued its efforts to assimilate Native children through the “outing system” – the removal of Native American children from their homes and families permanently and placement with white families. State and county child welfare agencies joined these efforts. The Child Welfare League of America spearheaded a movement for placing Native children with white families, and in 1958, partnered with the BIA on the Indian Adoption Program to place Native children in white adoptive homes (Fanshel, 1972; Goodluck & Epstien, 1978). Increasingly, state and county workers, rather than BIA staff, intervened to rescue Native children and placed them with white families through either foster care or adoption (Pevar,1992). The evidence suggests that removal was largely due to poverty and cultural differences: cases of child abuse remained rare (Blanchard, Denny, Levy et al., 1979; Byler, 1977).

When Uncle Raymond was a child, removal was still a risk. He shared an account of his narrow escape from removal on my first day in the community. He was at the elders’ center when I arrived with Cousin Linda, and he was one of the elders she introduced. We joined his table, and when I explained my reason for being there, he invited me to come to his house later in the day.

I did go to his house, a house filled with children’s laughter and so much light on this lovely August day. I shared the handout Cousin Linda had helped write, and Uncle Raymond began sharing stories about his life. The first story he shared was about his narrow escape from the attention of county police and child welfare authorities.

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. 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. [Laughing] 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, and he took me out to the woods to gather cedar trees and he taught me how to make posts. 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 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. (Uncle Raymond, August 28, 2001)

Ogema is not the name of a person, it is the Ojibwe word for “leader” or “chief.” [3] As Uncle Raymond’s account underscores, it is a title earned through generosity, wisdom, and actions that protect the community. Uncle Raymond’s story also documents the enduring legacy of a culture that valued children highly and had developed sophisticated techniques for ensuring their education and well-being (Broker, 1983; Johnston, 1982). Sadly, adults also felt the need to protect children in ways that meant the loss of their language.

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. (Uncle Raymond, September 10, 2001)

Uncle Raymond also shared stories of hardship. His mother struggled alone in later years to care for more than a dozen children.

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 highschool 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 schools, a university, and a college]. A few were paid for by the BIA, but not through tribal education. Most I paid for myself. I had military benefits I didn’t even know about that would have helped. 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. (Uncle Raymond, October 26, 2001: SN)

Despite adversity, or perhaps because of the resilience he developed along the way, Uncle Raymond learned to value children, education, generosity, and kindness. He described the sense of responsibility he felt for all children in the community, not just his own, and some of the ways he has served as their advocate, foster parent, or provided financial support in times of need. He and his wife have taken in children from the community when their families were having difficult times. When Ojibwe children were expelled from the local public school, he made arrangements for them to complete their education elsewhere. He passed these values on to his children who all work together to make sure all of the grandchildren have the care, supervision, and financial support they need. Because of Ogema’s actions, he was able to learn many traditional skills and values – hunting, harvesting, and sharing – and now teaches those skills to the youth.

The childhood memories Auntie Lucille shared were very different. Auntie Lucille, also in her 60s, worked at the elder center that I visited regularly. She helped set up the dining room for meals and cleaned up afterwards. And although I saw her almost every time I visited with elders, she remained friendly but distant. As she became more used to seeing me there, she asked me to help her with small tasks – cleaning the tables, sweeping the floor, or counting donations. She was reluctant to talk with me initially, saying only that hers was not a happy story. It was not. When she finally began to share her life experiences, she talked for several hours.

Ogema was not able to protect all of the children at risk of removal, particularly in situations of family disputes. Although it would be easier to blame outside oppressors, Auntie Lucille’s childhood turned into a nightmare because of petty jealousies and disputes among siblings. Her aunt was mad at her sister, Auntie Lucille’s mother, and called welfare agents to get back at her sister. This allegation of abuse set in motion a tragic situation, not only for Auntie Lucille, but also for her siblings and other children from the community.

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). They were spread out on frames in the house – I would scrape them [she lifted her hand and moved 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. 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….

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….

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, 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 – 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.

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….

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. She said [the sister] if she had known what was happening in the foster home she never would have done it. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)


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. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)


I was 9 years old when I was told welfare was going to come and take us 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 they [county child welfare workers] took us anyway.

I was 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 had to do all of the work – we had to wait on them all. 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 we were there, we never had the same worker twice. They kept changing workers.

After I was there, they started bringing others – my brothers, sister, 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….

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. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

Auntie Lucille did not have Ogema to protect her. Her strength came from what she remembered from her Grandmother’s teaching, and from an outside source.

Church was my only out. I was 13 when I accepted God as my savior. That was the only thing that kept me sane – that and what my grandmother taught me – the old Indian way.

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. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

Her assessment of the child welfare system is certainly legitimate given her experiences.

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, July 31, 2002)

Grandfather Thomas, Uncle Raymond, and Auntie Lucille all began their stories with the same statement. “This is my story. Other community members wouldn’t understand it because it is something only my generation lived through.” Each adapted to lives made more difficult by the legacy of discrimination because of their ancestry. All struggled economically, yet all returned to the community that gave them a sense of roots and belonging. All contributed their skills to others to improve the community. Auntie Lucille, the one whose suffering was perhaps the most profound, told me the reason she decided to return and to share her story was because she hoped “to make a difference in at least one person’s life. That will make all my suffering worthwhile” (July 31, 2002). My reason for sharing each of their stories, like Auntie Lucille, is the hope that their stories will touch other hearts as they did mine. I wish I could say that their assurance that other generations did not suffer as they did was correct, but tragically it has continued, as accounts from the next generations demonstrate.


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Authors Cited:

Blanchard, E., Denny, G. M., Levy, P., Robbins, M., Milligan, D., & Ryan, M. (1979). Keeping children out of foster care. Practice Digest, 1(4) 11-13.

Broker, I. (1983). Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway narrative. St. Paul: Minnesota Historic Society Press.

Byler, W. (1978). The destruction of American Indian families. In S. Unger (Ed.), The destruction of American Indian families (pp. 1-11). New York: Association on American Indian Affairs.

Fanshel, D. (1972). Far from the reservation: Transracial adoption of American Indian children. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Goodluck, C. T. & Epstein, F. (1978). American Indian Adoption Program: An ethnic approach to child welfare. White Cloud Journal, 1(1), 3-6.

Johnston, B. (1982). Ojibway ceremonies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

Pevar, S. L. (1992). The rights of Indians and tribes: The basic ACLU guide to Indian and tribal rights, 2nd edition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.



3. Ogema is not the name of the person described in the account. Ogema, which means leader in the Ojibwe language, is used in place of a name to maintain the confidentiality of individuals and to mask the specific location of the community.




Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 1

Carol A. Hand

I awoke early on the morning of August 28, 2001. [1] I had a long drive ahead of me to the northern communities where I would be spending six months, an Ojibwe tribal community and the surrounding county where the majority of the population were now the descendants of European immigrants. [2] My purpose was to study the Indian child welfare system.

The first stop I made was at the tribal social services agency where I met the Ojibwe community member who had agreed to help me meet community members and tribal staff. I will refer to her as Cousin Linda, although that is not her real name. (Because our ages were similar, and because I am also Ojibwe, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that in a sense we were relatives, hence the title “cousin.”) When I arrived at her office, I shared the materials required by my university for “research” studies. After a brief glance, Cousin Linda laughed and said, “You can’t use these to explain what you’re doing. People won’t understand. No one will want to talk to you. Come here — let’s write something that makes more sense. But we have to hurry so we can make it to the elders’ center in time for lunch.”

We did come up with a more community-friendly explanation of what I was doing and the questions I wanted to explore, and headed for the center. That was the beginning of a life-changing experience for me. The stories I gathered during my stay, the various events I witnessed and was part of, and the many things I was given to read, helped me gain a snapshot of the legacy of colonialism for Ojibwe families and communities. It also helped me understand the complex ways in which colonial oppression continues to affect every aspect of Ojibwe people’s lives today.

I realize few people are aware of this history or its continuation. And among those who at least know a little about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, few understand its importance. Even fewer recognize why the law needs to be strengthened and improved. I am sharing the following stories not only to share the suffering of Ojibwe children, families, and communities in the past, but also to share ideas about what can be done to improve the systems that the U.S. created and imposed under the guise of protecting children from harm.

The stories that follow illustrate the direct consequences of everyday heroism, great inhumanity, simple kindness, and mean-spirited pettiness on the lives of Ojibwe children across at least four generations. Yet the stories also show the tremendous resilience of Ojibwe people and the enduring influence of the culture that enabled them to survive in challenging environments as a distinct people for thousands of years. As you read these stories, I ask you to reflect on a bluntly phrased question. Can the removal of children from their Ojibwe homes and communities throughout history be seen as truly in their best interest, or rather, as a form of cultural genocide? The answers to this question are complex. The stories of Ojibwe people, both those who were taken from their communities and those who were able to remain, highlight the fact that simplistic answers to this question only serve to delay authentic tribally-directed solutions.

The Boarding School Era (1809-1934)

Grandfather Thomas was in his late 70s when I first met him at the tribal elders’ center in 2001. He was tall and stately, with silver hair and a finely-chiseled face. Although his gait was sometimes unsteady, he stayed busy, helping clean up the elders’ dining room after meals, teaching children Ojibwe traditions, and driving community members to various appointments in his car. Over the course of our time together, Grandfather Thomas shared many stories about his life. He shared his old photos and some of the amazing artwork he created, and he took me to meet his son and grandchildren. The stories he shared about his childhood will remain in my memory.

He was 5-years-old when he was kidnaped from his community by missionaries and imprisoned in an institution run by the U.S. government. Although the removal of Native American children from their families by the federal government, under the guise of education, did not become official policy in the U.S. until after the Civil War, it was not a new practice. From the earliest accounts of Spanish and English colonizers, Native American children were a special focus of assimilation policies (Bremner, 1970). Removal by force and kidnapping were sanctioned ways of dealing with the children of people who were viewed as heathens and savages, and who were certainly in the way of the invaders who were only interested in claiming indigenous territory and resources. It was in such a setting that Grandfather Tomas spent his youth. (Boarding schools are discussed in a previous post. )

Grandfather Thomas was among the last generation of Native American children who were placed in boarding schools. During a series of conversations over the course of a year, Grandfather Thomas described his experiences and shared accounts he wrote about those years. His story began when he saw a rare sight – an automobile. When the white strangers in the car motioned for him to get in, Grandfather Thomas climbed in out of curiosity – and so began his long life journey back home.

When I was about five, I was walking along the village road and I was picked up by some missionaries who were driving by. I was frightened – I didn’t know where they were taking me. It was a long ride, and I fell asleep in the car. When I woke up, I was in a strange place far from home. [As he was speaking, he held up his right hand to show me a scar that has been with him since then. Laughing, he explained how he got the scar.] I got this when I first got there for talking Indian. One of the school staff hit my hand so hard with a ruler that it broke the skin and left this scar. I accepted the beating because I wanted to know where to go. I was only asking the boy next to me where the bathroom was. Since I didn’t know any English, I asked in the only language I knew, Ojibwe. One of the teachers hit me with a ruler for talking Indian. (Grandfather Thomas, September 6, 2001)


I wasn’t given a chance to say anything to friends or parents, not knowing at the time it was called kidnaped. It seems the white government had decided that the best thing for Indians was to teach them the white way of life. The method would be to start with young children and teach them English, discipline, and how to be farmers. (Written account shared by Grandfather Thomas)


When I was a little boy, before I was taken away to boarding school, I slept on the floor, wrapped in a blanket by the woodstove. When the missionaries came and took me away to boarding school, they pointed out this very high bed [he gestured with his hands to show how high it was – the upper bunk he was assigned was about 5 ½ feet from the floor]. I looked at that high bed, and knew I didn’t want to sleep in it. So I took my blanket and crawled up on the floor under the bed. Then they came and started kicking me, and asked me what I was doing on the floor. They told me I had to sleep in my bed, and stood there until I climbed up into the bed. I didn’t want to be kicked, so I learned to sleep in the bed. I was disciplined. (Grandfather Thomas, November 6, 2001)


In the middle of some nights, and afraid of the dark, I’d have to go down a long dark hall. If I would turn on a light, someone would get mad. So at times, it was much easier to urinate in bed or on the floor. (Written account shared by Grandfather Thomas)


I didn’t know my parents, or that I had sisters. When my aunt and uncle came to visit me at the school, I thought they were my parents. I stayed at school into my teens, when I was viewed as a valuable farm worker. (Grandfather Thomas, September 6, 2001).


We were taught to stand in a straight line at school, and not talk to each other. If I turned to talk to the person behind me when we were lined up waiting for meals, I would be disciplined. It was like when I worked a job and had to be there from 8 to 5, to work for someone else who would take what I made and give me some of it back. I was disciplined to do that. When I was in the army, I was standing at attention and I heard the officer call for the third person in the fourth row to step out: after three calls, I was hit on both sides, and realized that they were calling me. If I had known the officer was calling me, I would have listened because I had learned about discipline in boarding school. (Grandfather Thomas, November 6, 2001)


When Grandfather Thomas left the reservation boarding school as a teenager, he joined the army as a patriotic citizen of the country that had kidnaped him from his family. He married and lived his adult life far from the community where he was born, using the skills he gained, not from his years of schooling, but rather those he learned in the army. The discrimination he experienced because of his darker complexion meant that he was paid less for his skills than Euro-Americans in the same job. He earned enough to support his family, but was forced to retire early to care for his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer. After her death, he finally returned home to be closer to family on the reservation.

Like Grandfather Thomas, generations of Ojibwe children grew up in harsh, abusive institutional settings. Many of these children were not as resilient as Grandfather Thomas and the consequences of childhoods robbed of a nurturing community and loving family left soul-deep wounds. From generation to generation, those who remained or returned to tribal communities witnessed the consequences of cumulative historical trauma. A 1928 study of the conditions on Native American reservations detailed desperate conditions: devastating poverty, widespread disease and malnutrition, and “a life expectancy of only forty-four years” (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81). The study also underscored the consequences of boarding schools (Meriam, 1928).

Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relations to the government …. on the whole government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life. Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other…. The real tragedy … is not the loss by death but the disruption of family life and its effect on the character of both parents and children. The personal care of helpless offspring is the natural expression of affection no less among Indians than among parents of other races. No observer can doubt that Indian parents are very fond of their children, and though the care they give may be from the point of view of white parents far from adequate, yet the emotional needs of both parents and children are satisfied…. (pp. 573-577)

The federal government never apologized to Grandfather Thomas or other Native children for the suffering they endured at the hands of federal staff during their years at boarding schools. There have been no reparations for the children whose lives bore deep scars from their years in loveless institutions. Nor did the government make amends to the family whose 5-year-old child was kidnaped by federal agents. There were no federal efforts to address the harm done to thousands of families that suffered as Grandfather Thomas’ had. Yet, Grandfather Thomas did not express anger or bitterness about his treatment. Despite the years he spent in boarding school, the army, and living and working in communities far from his reservation community, Grandfather Thomas retained important cultural lessons. Reflecting on his philosophy of life, he shared the following observations and insights.

If you travel in any town in this country, you will see all of these churches with different names and people become members. But the great spirit is everywhere. All you need to do is build a relationship with the great spirit.

The people were given all they needed by the great spirit, and everything they needed was free. They wanted to give thanks, and so, since the great spirit gave them voices, they spoke to him. You see all of these pictures of Indians speaking to the great spirit. And they sang and danced to thank him for all he had given them.

People have a choice about how to live their lives. The great spirit doesn’t force them to live in any way. (He raised his arms out to his sides.) There are two wings. The left wing is of the heart – the good wing, but it is each person’s choice which path to choose. You can choose to do whatever you want. I used to tell my sons that they needed to decide which wing they wanted to follow. I could not make them do anything, it was their choice. They could stand on the corner and drink and smoke: that would be their choice. But they grew up and they don’t hang out on the streets. (Grandfather Thomas, October 9, 2001)

Living this philosophy, Grandfather Thomas focused on helping others. He took me under his “left wing” and shared his stories, photos, and the amazing beauty of his art (paintings, wood carvings, drawings). I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to grow up with his family. I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to attend a school that provided more than abuse, discipline, and training for farming and manual labor. And I wondered what his life would have been like if the government had apologized and offered reparations to the children and families who had been traumatized when agents were sent to kidnap children and place them in abusive institutions simply because they were Native American.


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Authors Cited:

Bremner, R. H. (Ed.). (1970). Children and youth in America: A documentary history (Vol. I: 1600-1865). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meriam, L. (1928). The problem of Indian administration: Report of a survey made at the request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior by the Institute for Government Research (the Brookings Institute). Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins Press.

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


1. The timing of my study was significant for two reasons. First, it was the beginning of the season for harvesting wild rice, a traditional ritual for gathering food that was still an important community activity. Second, it was just before September 11, 2001. As the nation mourned the death of the 3,000 people killed by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., tribal elders gathered around the television set in the elders’ center. They wondered why people in the world hated the United States so much. As the nation mobilized to help the families of victims and avenge their deaths, these earlier victims of an alien invasion did not make connections between the tragedy of “9/11″ and their own history. In the case of the Ojibwe, the invaders stayed with many tragic consequences for Ojibwe children, families, and communities.

2. Before European explorers, missionaries, voyageurs, and immigrants first arrived, the county was peopled by Ojibwe and other Indigenous Peoples.



Indian Child Removal and the Ga-Ga

Carol A. Hand


Recognizing the special relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes and their members and the Federal responsibility to Indian people, the Congress finds-–

… that Congress, through statutes, treaties, and the general course of dealing with Indian tribes, has assumed the responsibility for the protection and preservation of Indian tribes and their resources;
… that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe;
… that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions; and
… that the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families.
(The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978)


Years ago, the director of a child welfare agency asked me to do an in-service training for her staff about Native American child welfare issues. She added “Don’t tell them about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. They already know it. What staff need to know is why they should care.” Because I left my position before I had a chance to respond to her request, this essay is my belated way of addressing her concerns.

boarding school adoptionstar dot com

Photo Credit: Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918) – adoptionstar.com

The most effective way to conquer a nation is to acculturate their children. Although the removal of Native American children from their families by the federal government, under the guise of education, did not become official policy in the U.S. until after the Civil War, it was not a new practice. From the earliest accounts of Spanish and English colonizers, Native American children were a special focus of assimilation policies. Removal by force and kidnapping were sanctioned ways of dealing with the children of people who were viewed as heathens and savages, and who were certainly in the way of the foreign advance forces that were only interested in claiming indigenous territory and resources.

Although the agents of removal have changed over time, the consequences have been destructive for families and communities for hundreds of years. According to an Ojibwe elder and social worker, social workers eventually merited a name drawn from Ojibwe mythology, the ga-ga, or bogey man. In dangerous environments, Ojibwe parents and elders met the challenge of protecting children from harm in many creative ways because physical punishment and coercion were rare and culturally discouraged. In the most serious circumstances, parents and elders used “scaring stories” that were passed on through the generations, sometimes taking on new meanings. She said that according to oral tradition, Ojibwe parents or elders used to tell children that the bear would take them away if they did not learn to listen and behave. And then, one child was taken by a bear. In order to avoid offending bear relatives and invoke their anger, the ga-ga, a mythical creature like the bogeyman of European fairy tales, was substituted for the bear in the scaring stories.

No one believed that there really was such a creature, until the imposition of colonial domination gave new meaning to this warning. Canada and the United States implemented sweeping policies intended to civilize indigenous peoples by removing children from tribal communities. The agents of removal, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, missionaries, and social workers, became known as the ga-ga. As the Ojibwe social worker recounted, for generations Ojibwe children have been warned.

 I heard the story when I was little. My mother told us that if we did not behave, the ga-ga would come to take us away. They would take kids and put them into other homes or schools. That’s all I remember. (Ojibwe elder, Personal communication, July 5, 2003)

The new nation that emerged on Indigenous homelands didn’t waste much time in asserting their agenda of political, religious, economic, and cultural domination. In 1819, soon after the United States was founded, Congress authorized $10,000 annually to support religious groups and individuals who wished to establish mission schools in tribal communities. Stressing white values, the schools taught boys farming and blacksmithing and girls domestic skills. For the next several decades, Indian education remained the responsibility of the churches, with federal monetary support” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Day schools proved ineffective at dismantling culture and community ties. When the Civil War ended, a new intervention spread throughout the nation, Indian boarding schools. The first federal school, under the direction of the BIA, opened in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. It was not until 1879, however, that the U.S. opened what is probably the most famous boarding school in Carlisle, PA, under the direction of Captain Henry Pratt, a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars in the western United States. By the 1900s, the BIA operated 251 schools, 113 of which were boarding schools, the preferred method for educating Native children even though they were more costly to operate than day schools. “It is the experience of the department that mere day schools, however well conducted, do not withdraw the children sufficiently from the influences, habits, and traditions of their home life, and produce for this reason a … limited effect” (as quoted in Adams, 1995, p. 30).

When children arrived, their hair was cut, they were stripped and scrubbed with disinfectant soap, deloused even if they didn’t need to be, and clothed in the garb of the colonizers, sometimes in cast-off Civil War uniforms. They were stripped of their given names, forbidden to speak their languages, and housed in over-crowded dormitories. They suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and because of crowded housing and poor nutrition, thousands died from tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, and other causes. They were only taught manual trades, to be farmers, tradesmen, or servants, and indoctrinated to value the morality of hard work and the ownership of private property. Those who did return home “were virtual strangers, unable to speak their own language or understand the ways of their own people” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Photo Credit: My Mother before Catholic Boarding School (“Mom age 7 – Grapes of Wrath”)

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Photo Credit: My Mother after Catholic Boarding School (“My 1st Communion”)

After the Great Depression (1934), the federal government shifted the focus of Indian education from the assimilation of Indigenous children through boarding schools to a broader integration approach within the public school system. The Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934 provided funding to cover education for Native youth within local public schools in the White communities that bordered tribal communities. The agents of child removal also shifted, from federal agents to state and local child welfare workers.

By 1976, an alarm was sounded by tribal communities and advocacy groups. The number of Indigenous children who had been removed from their families and communities had reached staggering proportions. Surveys conducted by the Association of American Indian Affairs in 1974 estimated that “approximately 25-35 per cent of all Indian children are separated from their families and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions” (Byler, 1977, p. 1). The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs established a task force to investigate Indian child welfare issues and discovered that foster care placement rates for Native American children were more than five times higher than those of non-Indians. Adoption rates for Native American children, predominantly by non-Native homes, were also significantly higher than those of non-Indians. The task force concluded that “the removal of Indian children from their natural homes and tribal setting has been and continues to be a national crisis [,] … seriously impacts a long-term tribal survival and … Non-Indian public and private agencies, with some exceptions, show almost no sensitivity to Indian culture and society” (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four, 1977, p. 52).

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was passed the next year to end the destruction of tribal cultures through policies that encouraged keeping Native American children who were removed from their families within their tribal communities or Native American homes. In reality, the law only granted tribal courts some say in decisions affecting children, and allowed tribal governments an opportunity to place some children who were removed with families on the reservation rather than with Euro-Americans families in other locations. The law did not return total jurisdiction to tribes to design the types of practices they defined as best to promote safe and healthy families. Despite ICWA, child welfare policies and best practices are still largely dictated by federal and state governments. The illusion of control represented by ICWA, however, has kept many tribes from challenging an oppressive system. And the backlash to ICWA from counties, states, and Euro-Americans who desperately want to adopt Native American children has been unrelenting.

Tribal child welfare workers with caseloads of 50 to 120 families struggle to keep children safe and families intact. Their clients span multi-county communities, states, and the nation as a whole. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the appalling ignorance of the general U.S. population about tribal histories and cultures. An even greater obstacle, however, is the rock-solid assumption among most non-Native child welfare experts and practitioners that they really know what is best for all children. Culture doesn’t matter. Community is irrelevant. What matters is being adopted as part of an insular nuclear family. They argue that nuclear families give children a sense of “permanency,” at least until they reach the age of 18.

Yet culture matters a great deal. Being part of a community with which one identifies matters as well. An exercise designed by Vera Manuel, First Nations author and teacher from British Columbia, demonstrates the profound difference between the Euro-American concept of “permanence” and an Indigenous sense of belonging to a community and culture. She engaged participants in sculpting the organization of a pre-contact tribal community. She placed a small pouch on a chair in the center of the room, explaining that it contained things that were sacred to her. The sacred pouch represented the spiritual beliefs that were the center and foundation of the community. She then asked for volunteers to act out the role of children. She asked them to form a circle facing the sacred bundle. Next, she asked for volunteers to role-play parents and form a circle around all of the children. The next volunteers, encircling parents, were aunties and uncles and other adults in the community. Elders formed the final circle of those community members who were facing toward the children and the sacred center. Around the periphery, facing outward, were the volunteers who agreed to represent leaders and warriors who were responsible for protecting the community from harmful outside forces. Next, a few brave volunteers agreed to play the role of “child stealers,” the ga-ga.

In early times, the ga-ga were federal BIA agents or missionaries. In later times, they were state and county child welfare workers. These agents of churches, the federal government, counties, and states broke through the protective circles to forcibly remove the children. Despite resistance by the leaders, warriors, elders, aunties and uncles, and parents, children were removed from their place at the center of the community and taken away by strangers using threats and force. Participants in the sculpted exercise were asked to act out their reactions to losing their children. Without their children, parents, adults, and elders cast their eyes down and turned inward, wrapped their arms over their heart, turned their backs to the center, or left the circle. Warriors and leaders were deeply shamed by their defeat and also turned inward or left. Their meaning in life was lost. When some of the children returned as adults, the community was often disorganized and unrecognizable. Without a purpose, the circles of care that had surrounded them as children were in disarray.

Most agents of removal may well have sincerely believed that Native children would be better off away from their families and cultures. Removal and outplacement continued for generations, funded and encouraged by federal policies and religious institutions. However, for the Ojibwe community members of all ages who have shared their stories with me, the life-long consequences of removal are clear. Each told me that the experiences he or she shared with me were unique and too painful for others in the community to hear or understand. They suffered silently, alone, with the legacy of self-doubt, pain, and anger. Their families and communities suffered as well. Most internalized the shame and blamed their removal on their parents’ substance abuse or irresponsibility. Few recognized that their experience was part of an enduring and deliberate federal agenda to eradicate tribal cultures, a repetition of what their parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors had survived.

Healing the legacy of widespread government-sponsored abuse of Native American children, families and communities is not an easy prospect. Children who were removed from their families and communities, warehoused and abused in federal and religious institutions, or placed with families of non-Indian strangers who were at best not able to help children be integrated into their tribal communities and cultures, and at worst were cruel and abusive, face special challenges as parents. Each generation has stories to tell about their experiences:

• being kidnapped from a village road at the age of five and delivered to a federal boarding school more than 100 miles away still carrying scars more than 70 years later from punishment inflicted on their first day for speaking the only language they knew, “Indian,”
• being the first of many community children placed in a white foster home where Native children were beaten and sexually abused from the age of nine until they were 18 and old enough to exit care,
• running away at the age of 15 to fend for themselves because system interventions only intensified their abuse,
• returning “home” to the tribal community only to find that the mythic culture they created in their imagination to survive years of exile was not there to welcome them and enfold them in a healing circle.

Tribes have done their best to rebuild communities of care despite centuries of destructive policies, and they have made significant strides. There is much yet to do and tribes need allies who understand the harm that has been done and are willing to work in partnership to help banish the ga-ga once and for all. As I write this essay in 2014, Native American children are still more likely to be removed from their families and communities than children from other backgrounds (Summers, Wood, & Donovan, 2013), and the ICWA provisions that offer some protections have suffered serious setbacks. Still, I believe it is within our power to prevent future generations of Native Americans from losing their connections to family and community, to their languages and cultures, and to their self-respect. It is possible to create policies, institutions, and practice paradigms that prevent abuse and neglect while also preserving families, communities, and cultures if we care enough to engage in constructive dialogue and work together as advocates in whatever ways we can.

circles of care samhsa dot com

Photo Credit: Circles of Care – samhsa.gov

Chi miigwetch to the community members who made me feel welcome and shared their stories, laughter, and pain, and whose inspiring work to improve the lives of the next generations will continue to give me hope despite these troubling times.

Works Cited:

Adams, David Wallace (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience: 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Byler, William (1977). The destruction of American Indian families. In Steven Unger (Ed.), The destruction of American Indian families (pp. 1-11). New York: Association on American Indian Affairs.

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

Summers, Alicia, Steve Wood, & Jennifer Donovan (2013). Disproportionality rates for children of color in foster care, Technical Assistance Bulletin. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Available from http://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/Disproportionality%20Rates%20for%20Children%20of%20Color%20in%20Foster%20Care%202013.pdf

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four: Federal, State and Tribal Jurisdiction (1977). Final Report to the American Indian Review Commission, In U.S. Senate Reports, Vol 1-11, Miscellaneous Reports on Public Bills, XI, 95th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.



“We’re Honoring Indians!”

Carol A. Hand

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.


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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