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.
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.”  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
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.