Tag Archives: Adversity and Resilience

“The Fool’s Prayer”

Carol A. Hand

Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”

The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”

The room was hushed: In silence rose the
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”

(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671 )

Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class. “You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”

Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.

jester

Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy, Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy on deviantART
lesley-lycanthropy.deviantart.com

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“Communities of Relatedness”

Carol A. Hand

Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.

I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.

From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,

… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)

What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.

Community of Relatedness                                 Collectivity of Strangers

lp world                       tug of war

What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.

cor graphic

cor cos graphic

As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.

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Grasping Tightly to the Symbols of Power

Carol A. Hand

This morning I awoke thinking about the images that come to mind for three of the ways power is manifested: military/police force, symbolic forms of oppression through the enforcement of conformity, and resistance. Military and police action is the easiest to envision for me, and the list of images that come to mind is long indeed. Images for resistance are also easy to envision, although not as likely to appear in corporate media. Symbolic power is more difficult to envision, but the image that comes to mind for me is from Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics of the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children.

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Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand

(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault (1)

At a university with strong anti-Native biases, I lived under the manifestations of symbolic power – the oppressiveness of invalidating judgments from most of my non-Native colleagues. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claimed to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. Some even thought of themselves as experts on Native American issues, and some of them had authored works that claimed to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time.

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The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future. It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for master’s students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs.

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I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we headed toward the auditorium. I worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture has taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. In any case, my role in this procession was to merely follow. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.

Following our unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.” As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor then noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.

After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.

We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.

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When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white (as mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear).

I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.

I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced. And without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.

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I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned about power from my colleagues at the university. Those of us on the margins are sometimes fortunate to encounter harsh lessons. If we are able to hold onto our foundations from other cultural or spiritual perspectives, we are better able to remember what really matters in life. It helps us resist the temptation to grasp the symbols of power for our given position in the socially constructed hierarchical order. Having options helps us question the limitations of internally programmed and externally imposed norms. It helps us see more clearly the worth of who we really are. It helps us have compassion toward others. And it gives us the tools we need to loosen the ropes that bind us all in the prison of socially constructed categories, roles, and hierarchical relationships.

Work Cited:

(1)   Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, photo inset between pp. 169-170. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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The Dance of Illusions

Carol A. Hand

At this time of year, when many families in the U.S. are celebrating Thanksgiving, I am reminded that it is a fictive holiday. It was initially celebrated in the 1600s by the descendants of European colonizers and immigrants to assert their sense of belonging in a nation founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples, massive land thefts and, in later years, the enslavement of darker skinned peoples from around the globe. For many descendants who describe themselves as a mix of ancestries, a “Heinz 57” of national and ethnic ancestries, Thanksgiving is an important holiday that symbolizes what is unique about their identity as real “Americans.” There is nothing real about nationalism – it is a social construction used to justify oppression and dispossession by “white-washing” history. But how are these descendants of colonizers able to learn the truth about history?

macy-thanksgiving-day-parade-2013us
Photo Source: Daily News, 2013
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 2013

I know from my own experience teaching university classes on diversity, few students have ever read works by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Ronald Takaki (Through a Different Mirror), or James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me). Fewer still have read Black Elk Speaks, Night-Flying Woman, or Custer Died for Your Sins. This indoctrination could be addressed by colleges and universities, but too often, faculty are more interested in convincing students of their expertise on subjects than in promoting critical thought.

Interesting if you think about the word “professor.” The meaning of the root “profess” is – “to affirm, to make a pretense of, to have or claim skill in or knowledge, [or] to affirm belief in” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1983, p. 547). Students are rarely in a position to question those in positions of power who profess to know the real truth. And rarely do those in power admit that theirs is but one possible perspective among many.

When it comes to Native American studies, the professors in colleges and universities are more likely to be descendants of Europeans than indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Some are gifted scholars and teachers who are continually learning and are careful not to perpetuate superficial and harmful stereotypes. Yet others have unfortunately built their careers on superficial work that reinforces ignorance and stereotypes. Some teach “feel-good” history – far more palatable to many students of European ancestry. Fictive feel-good history doesn’t make most students uncomfortable or challenge their preexisting assumptions – these are dangerous things for professors to do if one’s tenure is reliant on favorable evaluations by students. Nor is it wise to question the trustworthiness of the work of other scholars or researchers. It only makes it less likely that scholars who challenge the legitimacy and accuracy of colonial assumptions will ever have their work published by the most prestigious of journals in their field. But what gets published is sometimes not only astoundingly foolish, but also potentially harmful. Following is a story drawn from my years in academia about one such contribution that makes truth less accessible.

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I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening after classes, I entered a dimly lit basement of a student dormitory. I noticed folding chairs facing the podium at the front of the room and a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Because the event was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary, I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome that are omnipresent for Native gatherings. There were no tables laden with food, no warm greetings. There was only an uncomfortable “hello” from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience members were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.)

I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves. This made it clear that the audience was going to be lectured to by an expert rather than invited to participate in dialogue as equals. One of the women present walked to the podium and introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video we would be viewing that evening. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.

The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, still photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. It described the group of people with indigenous ancestry who coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The tribal leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.) These resources were used to help fund the group’s efforts to obtain recognition from the U.S. government as a legitimate tribe.

The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, or the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video. Perhaps my African colleagues were expecting me to speak, but I honestly had nothing positive to contribute so I remained silent.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. (Interesting that knowing one’s own biases is a magic step for some that leads to an understanding of vastly different cultures with little effort! Although I know some of my biases, a commensurate epiphany about other cultures has never miraculously manifested for me. And even with hard work and years of study, I cannot even claim to be an expert on Ojibwe culture.) The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.

The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall. “I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth.

Languages_of_Africa_map_svg

Distribution of the various language families of Africa.

When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”

 

indigenous north america map

Linguistic Map of North America

As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling.

The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation or visited an urban Indian center.

Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents in what I could only see as “the dance of illusions!” Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.

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Many years have passed, and at least for brief moments I feel that I have found my way back home. But, like the title of the video I saw so long ago, it has been a long way. I have learned many new things in the intervening years, yet I am quite certain I will never be able to profess the absolute truths all of my students must believe.

The one truth I can speak is my regret that I could not do more on the way to present alternatives to the never-ending books, articles, research studies, speeches, and videos that perpetuate distorted, misleading, or fabricated histories and cultures and hide the real suffering of indigenous people today.

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Photo Source: Google Thanksgiving Clip Art 

A nation of colonizers and immigrants, built on the blood and the bones of my ancestors, continues to celebrate Thanksgiving year after year in ignorance of the costs to indigenous peoples past and present. I will not be joining them. I will continue to celebrate in my own way. I will remember the suffering of the past and present with rage and sorrow and gratitude because indigenous peoples have survived against all odds.

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Aadi and the Magic Chair

Carol A. Hand

When my grandson, Aadi, was just learning to talk, there were some sounds that were hard for him to say. He couldn’t say “g” or “r” or “d,” so instead of calling me “Grandma,” he called me “Ahma.” Because it was a special title, I never corrected him. Although he is a teenager now, it is still my name.

When he was 5, I took a job at a university far away from his home. Although we didn’t see each other for two years, we often spoke on the phone. Whenever we talked, Aadi would ask me to tell him stories about our adventures when he was little and stories about where I worked. One of the stories I told him was about the magic chair in my office at the university. When he was 7, he came to stay with me during his Christmas vacation. He was sad because he missed his mother and father, but he was excited to see the magic chair. For a Christmas present six years later, I wrote down some of the stories for him, including the story of his encounter with the magic chair.

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When Ahma was a teacher in a university a long time ago, she was given a very expensive, fancy chair for her office by one of her bosses. It was a chair that was soft and had all kinds of levers to make it move: up and down, from side to side, and to move the back of the chair so it leaned backwards or forwards. Ahma could never figure out how to use the levers. Nothing ever moved when she pushed and pulled the levers, no matter how hard she tried to make them work. She couldn’t get the seat part of the chair to fit under her desk. So, she decided to use the plain old wooden chair in her office. It was simple, with no fancy levers. It was just fine. When she was busy, she really didn’t notice if the chair was hard and without levers. She kept the special chair for the students to use when they came to visit her, still with all of the tags on it showing that it was new.

chair 1

One of her students, Penelope (not her real name), was having a very hard time. Penelope had two children. Because she was taking care of her children by herself and going to school full time, it was hard for her to work enough hours to pay all of her bills. One time, she was being threatened by her landlord. The landlord told her that she and her children would be evicted from their apartment if Penelope didn’t pay the rent. If that happened, they would not have anywhere to live.

When Penelope went into Ahma’s office, she was crying. As she sat on the magic chair, the seat suddenly dropped lower. Penelope was startled, but not hurt. She stopped crying and started to chuckle. It helped Penelope forget her troubles for just a little bit. She was able to look at her problems in a new way. As she and Ahma spoke together, they were able to come up with an idea to help her and her family stay in their apartment. Working together, Penelope and Ahma were able to convince the landlord to let Penelope and her family stay in their home. And they were able to figure out how to help Penelope pay all of the money she owed.

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Several months later, Penelope came to Ahma when the university wouldn’t let her have a copy of her diploma because she didn’t have the money to pay them. She had to spend all of her money to pay the hospital because her son was rushed to the emergency room when he became very ill. Her diploma was important — it was proof that she had completed her education and that she was qualified to do lots of different kinds of jobs. Because she couldn’t get a copy of her diploma, it was hard for her to find a job that would help her pay her bills. When she entered Ahma’s office, she was crying because she was so scared and sad.

chair 3This time when she sat on the special chair, the back tipped way back when she sat down. Again, she was startled but unhurt, and she started laughing. Again, the chair helped Penelope look at her situation in a different way. Ahma helped Penelope look at all of her strengths and gifts. Penelope was very smart. She was kind to people, and because she had overcome so many challenges in her own life, she was gifted at helping other people solve their problems. When Penelope left Ahma’s office, she felt more hopeful and confident. She was finally able to get a job, pay her bills, and get a copy of her diploma.

The next time Penelope came to visit Ahma, she peeked in the door looking sad. But then, she glanced at the chair and started laughing. She said, “I wonder what it will do to me today!” Because Penelope was laughing, the chair just acted like a normal chair when she sat down. The seat didn’t drop down, and the back of the chair stayed straight. And every time after that when Penelope came to Ahma’s office, she smiled and laughed as she looked at the chair. And the magic chair continued to behave just like any other chair when Penelope sat down smiling. It was just a normal chair when she was happy and not sad.

There were many other sad students after Penelope who experienced the surprises of the magic chair. When they, too, learned to smile when they saw the chair sitting in the center of Ahma’s office, the chair behaved just like every other chair, it just stayed still.

When Aadi came to visit Ahma, he told her that he was excited to see the magic chair. So, one day, Ahma brought him to her office. Aadi eagerly sat on the chair. He worked all the levers and leaned this way and that, but nothing happened. He tried again, and again, but still nothing happened. Finally, he gave up, disappointed. Ahma laughed. She told Aadi it was a magic chair. It only did funny things when people were really sad. It helped make them smile and laugh again. She added that even though Aadi was missing his Mom and Dad, the chair could sense that he was okay. His Ahma and Papa loved him and would take care of him until his mother came soon to take him home. His Mom did come, and he went back home to the shore of beautiful Lake Superior.

When Ahma left her job at the university, she left the magic chair behind, still with its tags. Maybe it is still helping other students who are sad, but we may never know.

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Why Are You So Different?

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I accepted a position at a university as an assistant professor. I did not know at the time that I was only the second Native American faculty member the department of social work had ever hired for a tenure track position. The first left 30 years before I came because of the anti-Native discrimination she experienced, a perception that the state district court affirmed in a decision that awarded damages. The anti-Native bias was still palpable and unrelenting during the 3 years I spent there. Unlike my predecessor, I chose not to pursue legal action. Doing so would have locked me in an angry, ugly battle for years. Instead, I turned to writing, grateful that I could escape from a toxic environment with such unhappy people. The following essay is drawn from the series of stories I wrote about my experiences and reflections during those years.

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“Why are you so different?,” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who were unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.

As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.

As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led me to engage in authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churkendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose (Berengerg, 1946). “Difference” in this story was simply that – difference. Ultimately, there were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.

thechurkendoose

As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (Those who were excluded were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion. Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.

As a young person searching for a place to belong, for a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churkendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I spent time in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors. Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.

I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment remained her preferred way of relating to me. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” “Perhaps,” I wondered, “is there a possibility of building deeper understandings across our differing perspectives?” Unfortunately, it was not possible with this colleague or others in positions of power at this particular university.

I was reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work, Seven Arrows (1972). If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift promising the possibility of wider, deeper vision and understanding. The alternative is to live trapped in a small prison, much like the hell Sartre (1976) describes in Huis Clos (No Exit), surrounded only by people with whom we feel no affinity, consigned to a life that has little possibility for exploring the wonder that surrounds us every day.

snowflakes

Photo Credit: Google images – snowflakes

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Reflections on River Teeth

Carol A. Hand

Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.

This morning, I awoke with gratitude to Frank Bates, an elder and neighbor from my New Jersey childhood who literally gave me a reason to live. I no longer remember exactly what led to the profound sadness I felt by the age of 4. Perhaps it was the absence of peace, joy, and love in my family. Perhaps it was because of my mother’s emotional distance and disapproval of anything I did. When I was born, my father’s white family in New Jersey commented on the “lovely dark child” my mother gave birth to because of my straight dark hair and dark brown eyes. It reminded my mother of the shame she carried from her years in a Catholic Indian boarding school where she was constantly told that she was inferior to white children and faculty because of her Ojibwe heritage. She preferred to “pass” as white, so my younger brother, with his curly light brown hair and hazel-colored eyes was more acceptable. Perhaps it was because of my father’s emotional volatility, charming to strangers, abusive to family, and sometimes deeply depressed and suicidal, a legacy of childhood abuse and PTSD from his Korean War experiences. Or perhaps it was because of the cruelty and bullying of other children in my neighborhood. When the little white boys beat me up, I would run home crying. My father would kick me out of the house and lock the door, telling me not to come home again until I made the bullies cry. Perhaps all of these cumulative sorrows were too much for me to bear as a 4-year-old.

I only know that by the age of 4, I no longer wished to live, so I stopped eating. I understand from what my mother told me years later that she tried everything to encourage me to eat, but nothing she did worked. I became so weak that she had to carry me everywhere. It was my next door neighbor who worked a miracle.

My special connection with Frank Bates began because of an apple tree that grew just inside our side of the property line, with branches that hung heavy with fruit over his yard. One day, as he was picking an apple from an overhanging branch, I confronted him. “You can’t do that. It’s my “pop-a-tee.” He laughed and acknowledged that I was correct, it was my property, and from that moment on, we became friends. When Frank later learned that I was not eating, he and his wife, Grace, invited me over to their house. I sat at their kitchen table as Frank prepared a special “feast” for me. He peeled the skin from an apple from the disputed tree and placed the spiraling peel in a clear glass of water. I drank it, and the subtle taste of apple flavored the water. During the weeks that followed, I drank many other glasses of this apple water prepared with love and kindness.

Frank then learned that my favorite food was pickles, so his next feast consisted of mashed potatoes filled with slices of pickles. I ate the feast, and many more. As I regained my strength, Frank lost his. He died from stomach cancer soon after saving me from starvation. I never had a chance to thank him while he was alive. (My tears are flowing as I write this.)

This morning I awoke pondering what type of picture I would draw to illustrate this special river tooth from my childhood. Perhaps the branch of an apple tree reaching down from the left corner of the page, a glass of water in the center with its spiraling peel, a cored apple and a peeler below. So, I took my camera out to capture apple tree branches in the morning sunlight… Even if I never have a chance to draw this picture, I am writing to thank my friend from 6 decades ago for the gift of life.

After writing this essay and remembering a river tooth from my past, I found the courage to draw the picture I envisioned. I do not claim to be an artist, but I believe that the act of remembering our river teeth gives us the courage to challenge the socially constructed rules of “good” art, freeing us to express deep gratitude authentically in our own ways.

river teeth (3)

Chi miigwetch , Mr. Bates, for the kindness and compassion that gave me a reason to live. (Chi miigwetch means thank you very much in the Ojibwe language.) I am sorry I never had a chance to thank you in person. I am also grateful to my parents, now deceased, who did the best they could, and better by far than their own parents and caregivers. They gave me the strength to be independent and the opportunity to learn how to stand up to bullies, not by returning their violence but by using intelligence, creativity, and humor.

Author Cited

Duncan, J. D. (2006). River Teeth: Stories and writings. New York, NY: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.

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