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.
YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO HEAR MY STORY
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.
A tribal office with a desk, computer and a few chairs.
[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]
[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.]
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.
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.
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.]
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.
[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.]
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.
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.
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.]
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]
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.]
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]
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 https://carolahand.wordpress.com/native-american-issues/.
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.