Tag Archives: Adversity and Resilience

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

Part One: The Early Years

Carol A. Hand

A SONG FOR MY PEOPLE

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

(Crystos, 1991)

Preface

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

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

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

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

The Early Years

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

Main_street_in_Lac_du_Flambeau_Wisconsin_1920

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

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

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

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

Ojibwe migration

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

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

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

Agnes and sisters

Photo Credit: My mother’s photo collection

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

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

Agnes in tree

 

Agnes and friend

Agnes and doves

Photo Credits: From a Relative’s Photo Collection

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

Ray 1Ray 2

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

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Agnes and Raymond – 1920?

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

Authors Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

“All Mixed Up”: The Lesson of the Churkendoose

Carol A. Hand

 “It all depends on how you look at things”
(Ben Ross Berenberg, 1946)

I remember when my daughter, Jnana, was not yet two years old, she was playing in her little plastic pool on a warm summer day. My neighbor brought her daughter over to join in the fun, and I watched with concern as her daughter began pushing and hitting Jnana, trying to claim ownership of all of Jnana’s toys. Of course, my neighbor only noticed when Jnana defended herself from the attack and wanted me to discipline my daughter for her response. I looked at my neighbor calmly and observed, “Your daughter started the conflict, and I decided to let Jnana figure out how to deal with it herself. As a multicultural child, it is a skill she will need to learn.” Predictably, my Euro-American neighbor became angry and replied in a tone verging on a snake hissing “Why did you ever have her then?”

This isn’t an easy question to answer, and at the time, I simply stared at my neighbor silently as she grabbed her daughter and went home, never to return to Jnana’s pool again. I must say, it was a blessing. At the time, we were living in an all-white neighborhood on the shore of the Housatonic River in the sleepy village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in a drafty, moldy summer cottage that my partner’s mother owned. As a Black professional, she had broken through the color line when she bought a summer cottage and out-classed many of the existing residents as a corporate vice president of Children’s Television Workshop. My neighbor tried to overcome her prejudice for the sake of social status, but a mixed-race couple and child were more than she could bear. Of course, she was not alone in her censure.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I was raised in the space between cultures and consequently was drawn to diversity. It was not a stance my parents could easily accept, nor was it easy for my partner’s mother. And despite the Civil Rights movement, my partner and I had already lived through a series of challenging situations before our daughter was born.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in 1969. Jnana’s father, David, was a senior and a teaching assistant in the history department at the University of Wisconsin. He was a gentle, quiet, good-looking Black man with an Afro, who appeared to be painfully shy. Yet, he was one of the co-founders of the Black People’s Organization on campus. It is amazing to remember the heightened racial tensions in the early years of 1970s. Even in Madison, I would often see people looking at David and me with disapproving stares as we walked down the streets laughing and holding hands. I would often wonder if there was something strange about our appearance – were our jeans unzipped or was snot hanging out of our noses? “Ah,” I remembered – “people are prejudiced.” A funny thing to forget, and sometimes, dangerous.

When I was about four months pregnant, David decided it would be a good idea for me to meet his mother in New York City. He had an old Ford and another mixed-ancestry couple asked if they could share the ride as far as New Jersey. We set off and somewhere on a rural stretch of interstate along the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, the car developed problems. We pulled off the road in a small town and were relieved to find a garage, at least for a moment. When we pulled into the garage, four large white mechanics surrounded the car, tapping the wrenches they held into their left hands as the owner told us they needed to replace the alternator, which they would do for twice what it normally costs. Of course we agreed although it took almost all of our cash to pay the bill. We were thankful to leave when it was finally done and continued on our way.

All was fine until we reached New Jersey. Just after we dropped off our colleagues and headed north to New York, we were pulled over by a police officer. David was stopped for “looking like a Black Panther.” Unfortunately, despite my warning, he had hidden a small stash of marijuana in the trunk of the car and the officer discovered it during his illegal search. We were driven to the police station and David was arrested and placed in jail. After a lecture on the dangers of associating with someone like David, the police drove me back to David’s car and let me travel on alone to NYC. I had the pleasure of meeting my future mother-in law for the first time and telling her that her son was in jail.

It took several days to get David released. He was a changed person when we picked him up. He had been forced to shave off his hair or face solitary confinement.  As he regrew his Afro, we returned to Madison. In the spring of 1970, David, his friend “Nelson” (not his real name), and I rented a house with several others in a “row housing” complex that lined the railroad tracks in an industrial section of town. (I don’t remember all of the ever-shifting housemates.) In August of 1970, David and I decided to get married, although neither of us really felt it was a legitimate social institution. Yet we realized that our child’s life would be difficult enough because of the ignorance, prejudice, and fear of difference that were so pervasive. We were married by a minister of some protestant denomination. (All I remember is that the ceremony took place in a park just west of the campus with two friends of David’s as our witnesses. Fittingly, the white minister’s last name was “Savage.”)

After we were married, I took David and his mother, Evelyn, to meet my parents who were living on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the time. I waited to introduce David until after we were married, knowing that my father held strong prejudices regarding African Americans. Evelyn’s presence and status helped keep my father in line. The most interesting outcome was something I only learned about many years later. An Ojibwe relative told me that my father had been trying to organize a group of Whites and Ojibwe from the community to go with him to burn down the minimum security prison that was being built in a neighboring community in order to keep blacks out of the region. His efforts were beginning to succeed, yet when word spread about my marriage to a Black man, my father’s credibility evaporated overnight and nothing ever came of his plans. So the child who had not yet been born was already bridging differences between people and preventing violence. Yet, the threats were not over.

Back in Madison in our row house, the threats continued. David and I shared a room on the second floor, and Nelson’s room was next to ours. It was late in the evening at the beginning of September, 1970. I was trying to sleep but was awakened by a rough-voiced man hassling one of our housemates downstairs. The voices were loud and increasingly excited, and what I could hear of the conversation was becoming more threatening and heated. I tried to wake David, but he was too far gone, so I was on my way to wake Nelson. We arrived at our hallway doors at the same time. Facing us near the top of the stairs was a Madison police officer, with his gun drawn and pointed at us. “Move, and I’ll shoot,” were the first words he yelled at us. I could read the fear in his eyes, and knew he would shoot. We surely looked like pinko hippies – Nelson, a tall handsome black man with an Afro and goatee, and a small 8-month pregnant light-skinned woman with long braided hair. As I looked at the officer calmly, I noticed the phone on the stand in the hallway that was within my reach. I was amused as I wondered who one could call for help and protection in a situation like this. I was so tempted to laugh, but I knew one of us would probably be shot if I did. “WHERE’S THE GUN,” the officer shouted. I can’t remember if it was Nelson or me who softly responded. “What gun? There aren’t any guns here.” We were finally able to convince the officer that we didn’t have a gun, although his grip on the pistol never relaxed as he backed down the steps. We later realized someone had called in a report of gun shots in our neighborhood. The officer went to the wrong address.

Not long after, our tiny daughter was born at the university hospital, on a Sunday morning, October 18, 1970. My daughter was given a special name, Jnana, a concept that held special significance for me. (In a class I took on Buddhism, “jnana” was defined as wisdom-knowledge, the deeper understanding that knowledge without the wisdom of compassion is incomplete.) As a child whose very creation symbolized the joining together of many ancestries, I felt our child should have a name that transcended differences.

The homogeneity and social isolation of Sandy Hook were more than I could bear. Shortly after the encounter with our neighbor, Jnana and I left with to join a commune to begin a new life. Unfortunately, Jnana has needed the skills her little neighbor helped her develop. When singled-out by her kindergarten teacher who told her “You’re bad because you’re Black,” Jnana stood up and replied “Under Massachusetts State Law I’m not required to be in kindergarten, so I’m leaving.” Half of the class walked out with her. Her exceptional abilities were always questioned – a “dark child” couldn’t possibly be in advanced reading, or couldn’t possibly write such creative stories on her own. Yet with tenacity and intelligence, with knowledge tempered by hard-won wisdom, she survived the racism and bullying. I am honored by the thoughtful, courageous woman she is today.

Our family tradition of bridging divides has continued. My grandson, Aadi, has added Korean ancestry to the mix, and Ava, perhaps more Ojibwe or Dakota. I know many purists from all of the ancestries we represent would not approve, and I wonder what box we should check for our “race” on the U.S. Census questionnaire – “human” is not among the options…

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Photo Credits: Aadi, me, Ava, and Jnana – 2008

We are proud to represent the colors of the rainbow – to be as Pete Seeger sings — “all mixed up.”

***

 

Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 2

Carol A. Hand

 (Part 1 Questions)

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone. [Laughing] I remember one time when I was a young boy, it was winter time, and all of us were really cold: we didn’t have any fire wood. So I had gone off to find some wood, and there was little to be seen. It was cold, and it was getting dark when I came up to a white farmer’s fenced in land. I thought “those fence posts would burn nicely.” So, I cut them and brought them home. We had a fire that night. The farmer was really mad when he saw that his posts were gone and wanted to have the thief arrested. [Ogema] found out about it and figured out who had taken the posts. He came to wake me up early the next morning, and he took me out to the woods to gather cedar trees and he taught me how to make posts. When we were finished, we brought the posts to the farmer and helped him repair the fence. I apologized for taking the posts. [Ogema] persuaded the farmer not to report me since I realized what I had done was wrong and worked hard to make up for my mistake. The farmer agreed. After that, [Ogema] knew families in the village were cold, so from then on he made sure that the community worked together so there was enough wood for everyone in the village. (Uncle Raymond, August 28, 2001)

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

When I was growing up, my cousin and I would follow the elders when they went out into the woods. We would hide behind brush so we could listen to them speak Ojibwe. The elders would come and chase us away so we wouldn’t be able to learn the language. They told us they didn’t want us to suffer the way that they had. (Uncle Raymond, September 10, 2001)

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

I dropped out when I was a junior in high school. I was kicked out of the house when I turned 18. My sister … took me in, but there was no support to finish high school. So I went into the military, and sent money home and hoped they wouldn’t drink it all up…. When I dropped out of school, I got a job and I realized that I needed more education. I went to night school for highschool and college credits. I didn’t want to go through the process of getting a diploma with younger kids, so I took the GED test and passed. I went to [technical schools, a university, and a college]. A few were paid for by the BIA, but not through tribal education. Most I paid for myself. I had military benefits I didn’t even know about that would have helped. I took courses in business, accounting, English language, tribal history. I wanted to be able to do my job better. I went as someone who wanted to learn, not for a degree….

I never wanted to be dependent on any authority. I provided for my family, and I provided for myself for years. I still believe this. I don’t believe the tribe owes me a thing. (Uncle Raymond, October 26, 2001: SN)

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

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

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

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

The big drum was here and grandma and grandpa were part of it. The drum was presented to grandma. Every time they would have a feast, she’d take me and my brother. I sat on the right side of grandma, and my brother sat on her left. As long as the drum was out, we couldn’t get up or say anything. My job after school was to go to all of the elders’ houses to see if they needed anything, any work done or water or wood. My job was to do whatever they needed. I guess that’s why I do it now. I always got along better with elders. If they ask for help you give it, or you offer. I could sit and visit with elders and I always felt better….

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

We went to ball games. Grandpa would be an umpire and we’d go all over. I was always with grandpa and grandma, going everywhere with them, more than with my mom. Mom didn’t care. She’d come home drunk and chase us out of the house at 3 or 4 in the morning. We’d run to grandma’s – grandma always had a crock pot of biscuits by the door, it was covered with a towel, and we’d go in and grab a biscuit and go upstairs to the bed – they always had a bed for us. When grandpa got up in the morning, we’d hear him say “Well our kids are home again.” I could never figure out how they knew we were there, and then one day I realized that my brother never put the towel over the crock pot after he took his biscuits.

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

I can’t have no hate in my heart. If you can’t forgive, take charge of your life, you’re lost. I don’t blame anyone, I don’t blame my mom – she thought she was doing the best thing for us. Mom drank a lot. There were nine of us kids. She was a good mom, other than going and out drinking. She was not a mean mom, but a lot of the reservation thought she wasn’t a very good mother. Her own sister did it to her – reported her to welfare. She said [the sister] if she had known what was happening in the foster home she never would have done it. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

************

After I was 9, for 9 years I was away from that love, heritage, pride, life. Where’s an Indian supposed to fit in? When you have those values and are denied a chance to practice them? It was just nine years of hell. How to work was all I got out of it. There was no love – no nothing. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

************

I was 9 years old when I was told welfare was going to come and take us to a foster home. Grandpa and grandma … wanted to keep us but they were told they were too old. They were not willing to have us go away, but they [county child welfare workers] took us anyway.

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

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

After I was there, they started bringing others – my brothers, sister, cousins – from [the reservation community]. My grandma told me “You’re the oldest so you need to watch out for the others.” I took a lot of beatings to protect them so they wouldn’t be hit….

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

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

My brothers ran away. I got beat until they came back. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

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

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

My grandma told me “You’re a survivor – you’ll make it no matter what.” And that kept me going. I had a couple of nervous breakdowns – when I was raising my own kids everything that I went through at that farm – it all started to come back. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

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

I don’t have anything good to say about the welfare system. I don’t care that much for foster homes because there is no one who oversees the homes. I don’t think Indian children should be raised in a white man’s home. They don’t share our culture, and they don’t want to understand us. The only way is their way. I don’t think that’s right for Indian children. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

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

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Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Authors Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Endnotes:

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

***

 

 

Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 1

Carol A. Hand

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

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

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

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

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

The Boarding School Era (1809-1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bird-feather-13486506267nW

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Authors Cited:

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

***

 

In Search of Community

Carol A. Hand

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

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Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would even have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

***

 

For-giving

Carol A. Hand

“Be moderate in all things; watch, listen, and consider, your deeds will be prudent.”
(Midewewin Code, the Ojibwe “Path of Life,” Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage, 1976, p. 93)

forgiveness medinalmeadows dot com

Photo Credit: Medicinalmeadows.com

This morning I was reflecting on the dynamics of forgiving. I remember the first time I consciously moved beyond merely reacting to bullying and began to explore the ways in which I escalated other’s behavior through my own actions. I was a senior in high school. One of my former friends suddenly organized a group of other girls to begin making disparaging remarks about me as we stood in line to get lunch in the cafeteria. Their comments were loud enough for everyone to hear. I have long forgotten most, but the one that comes to mind, hardest to bear as a teenager, was a precursor of cyber bulling. “There she is, that arrogant slut.” The group followed me into classes and in the hallways as a chorus of unrelenting harpies.

Why, I wondered, are they behaving this way? I had never done them any harm. I believe it started as a result of a dispute between my father and the father of the girl who began the taunting. Her family needed access across land my family owned to get to their house on the top of a mountain in northwestern Pennsylvania, which my family granted. But when they wanted to widen and pave the road through the middle of the farm, a battle ensued between my father and my classmate’s father that reminded me of the Hatfields and McCoys. The conflict escalated from shouting to fistfights to an attack on my father with a road-grading tractor that left him bleeding on the road from a partially-severed leg. I knew the conflict was a two-way “pissing match” between two men who were not able to back down and appear “weak” in front of others.

I refused to engage in the conflict even though it angered the rest of my family. I also refused to move from the hilltop home when my family moved to an apartment in town. Although it was sometimes a frightening, I lived alone. I drove the one-lane dirt road around the winding turns up the mountain to my house knowing that I would be able to deal with any challenges on my own. But there were none, at least not at home. The challenges came at school from the neighbor’s daughter, also a senior who was in some of my classes. We had been friends before the conflict, but as it escalated, she stopped talking to me and then began organizing her group of friends to make my life in school hell.

So far, I sound like the virtuous victim, and in my own mind I know I thought of myself that way. I didn’t respond to the nastiness in a like manner. I remained stoic and reserved – “cool.” But I also used abilities I developed to cope with, and then end, my father’s abuse. I learned to read people’s greatest insecurities and fears. For my father, it was being diagnosed as “crazy,” a word he would have used to describe his uncontrollable bouts of depression and violent outbursts.  For my neighbor, it fear was being seen as “lower class” and not as smart as others. She tried to hide her family’s limited income by dressing in expensive clothes, and enrolled in the advanced classes because she was very bright.

I didn’t need to say a word to make her feel bad. I simply had to outshine her as a student and as someone whose family could afford things hers could not. And I could do it in a way that others didn’t think was intentional or mean. I could even fool myself into believing that it was fair to deal with a bully by making her feel small and insignificant. And then, one day, I woke up. I realized what I had done to hurt her, and I knew it was far more harmful than anything she had ever done to me. Waves of grief passed through me for the harm I had caused. There was no way to undo the hurt. I did try to apologize at the time and again years later, but I could never heal the harm that I had done.

Decades later, I had another opportunity to understand lessons about forgiveness more deeply. I accepted a position as a faculty member with a school of social work that prided itself on its unique approach to social justice as the foundation for its new master’s program. What I quickly discovered, however, was that the program was really no different than other social work programs. At first, some of my colleagues welcomed me as an innovative, compassionate critical thinker, but that changed when I didn’t engage in conversations that disparaged vulnerable students or colleagues. The tenured faculty with power functioned as the guardians and enforcers of the status quo, and they did so in ways that left lasting wounds for the most vulnerable and gifted of students and colleagues. When I began to speak in defense of colleagues and students, I was definitely no longer seen as desirable. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they saw me as a threat that needed to be silenced and neutralized because I could effectively buffer many of their targets from their bullying.

Although the four faculty members with the most power often bickered and jostled for power amongst themselves, they quickly created a united front against the threat to their unquestioned hegemony. As a new faculty member, an Ojibwe with a different set of values and approaches for teaching and doing research, I was an easy target. They used the most minor excuses to discredit my teaching skills despite student evaluations that documented otherwise, my scholarship despite publications and new research, and community service despite an overwhelming load of committee work and students advisees. And they got nasty. Again, I sound virtuous, but not necessarily blameless this time because I did serve as an effective advocate where there had been none before.

So they piled extra work on me, belittled me in front of their classes, and tried to force students who were my advisees to falsify my evaluations by fabricating deficiencies in my performance. I still sound like the victim, and I honestly saw myself that way. Going to work became increasingly more painful, and in my mind, I characterized my colleagues as evil incarnate. So I began to use the same defensive skills I had used in high school. I knew that the most frightening thing in academia is to feel you are not as smart as others and to have others find you out. In the midst of personal attacks, I knew how to use my voice, facial expressions, body language, words, and actions to play on those fears. It was clear that I won the popularity contest with students, not because I was easier, but because I was compassionate, supportive of students, and still expected excellence and authenticity. Although my scholarship was not as voluminous as that of some of my colleagues, it was nationally acclaimed. And although I tried to stay away from the spotlight, it’s impossible to do if you’re one of the very few Native American faculty in an institution that purports to serve Native communities.

It was easy to win over student loyalty and community support just by being myself. As individuals, my colleagues were intimidated by my graciousness, intelligence, and dogged refusal to falsely massage their egos by complimenting them on their skills or cultural competence. (I didn’t see any at the time.) I demonized them in my thoughts while I concomitantly struggled with the question of how to create world peace when I couldn’t even live in harmony with my colleagues. They weren’t invading countries or murdering children. Yet I resisted the growing awareness that I needed to forgive them. Then, in a moment of overwhelming grief, resignation, and despair, I realized it was not my colleagues I needed to forgive, it was myself. I needed to forgive myself for transgressing my own values and ethics. Just as I had years before, I had used my defensive skills to wound others in the areas where they were most vulnerable. I had escalated their violence by making them feel they were somewhat dull and uncreative, small and insignificant.

lady justice

Photo Credit: Google lady justice images

It is true that they did this to others, often to those who were the most vulnerable, and their actions left lasting harm. It is also true that they tried to make me feel small and insignificant as a human being, and did their best to destroy my career. But I realized that there was no excuse I could use to justify the way I treated them. I knew that whatever gifts I have been given are meant to lift others up, not to oppress or harm them. I learned that I really need to always remember a universal truth my culture has taught me about moderation and mindful actions.

I am sharing these memories with tears in my eyes in hope they will help others. I cannot undo the harm I have caused others. I could continue to cling to the illusion that my actions were justified, but I know that’s not true. This doesn’t mean that I feel I should ever accept oppression and violence as universal and unchangeable. What it does mean for me is the need to shift my focus from resisting or unseating “oppressors” to one of compassion, seeing individuals who have strengths as well as weaknesses, gifts as well as faults, and relating to them with hope and kindness. I need to work from the same foundation with those who oppress others as I do with those who are oppressed, to try to raise awareness about the systems that oppress us all, to help them see and unlock their potential rather than respond with reifying judgment that locks them more firmly into an identity as the “deficient” or “evil” other.

compassion greatergood dot berkeley dot edu

Photo Credit: greatergood.berkely.edu

There are no guarantees that this will work. I can only try to be more vigilant and mindful in the future as I remember the deep wounds in my own heart, not from the actions of others, but from my own.

***

 

In Gratitude

Carol A. Hand

Although the polar vortex has returned, I awoke on this frigid sunny morning to a clear blue sky. As I looked toward the sky, the rays of the rising sun turned the bare branches of trees to gold. I was filled with a sense of gratitude for friends new and old who have helped me remain hopeful during the long cold winter. It has been a time of learning and a time of loss. I was reminded of a poem I read long ago.

 DSC00315

Duluth, MN – February 25, 2014

Comes the Dawn
(by Veronica A. Shoffstall)

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down mid-flight.
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.

In the spring, I will plant my gardens again because you have all given me hope. You have opened my eyes to new truths, inspired me with your courage and commitment to making the world a better place, and touched my heart with your kindness, depth and beauty. Chi Miigwetch for all that you share (Ojibwe for thank you very much).

DSC00238

Duluth, MN – August 13, 2013

***

 

Go FISH!

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I was asked to be a keynote speaker for a conference sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The audience would be BIA and tribal social services staff from the U.S., primarily from the Great Lakes and Western states. The speaker’s fee they offered me was offensively large in relation to the $30,000 annual budget my tribe (the Sokaogon Ojibwe Community) received to address the needs of children and families living on the reservation, or in the case of child welfare, throughout the state and country. The truth is I don’t like speaking in public, so I typically look for diplomatic reasons to decline invitations. In this case, I listed some conditions that I hoped would be reasons for the BIA to withdraw the offer. First, I told the BIA administrator that I would be willing to speak if they paid my travel expenses and per diem for meals and lodging. Second, I asked them to create a special contract to award the speaker fees to my tribe to fund flexible services for children and families. To my surprise, the BIA administrator agreed, so I signed the contract.

As the date of the conference neared, I was given additional directions about what I would need to speak about. The newest fad in federal bureaucracies was the management video – FISH – that emerged from the extraordinarily successful approaches used by the Seattle fish market. Staff at the market were encouraged by management to entertain and connect with their customers — the video shows staff throwing fish to each other over the heads of the customers or singing about the unique virtues of different kinds of fish. It is a very funny video and on some levels emphasizes the fact that work should be fun and one’s clients or customers should be the focus of a worker’s attention in public and private service industries.

fishing lakesidelodge dot co dot za

Photo Credit: lakesidelodge.co.za

Yet as I reflected on how to interweave the message of “FISH” into a presentation for tribal staff, the prospect became daunting.

1. Play,
2. Make their day,
3. Be there, and
4. Choose your attitude.

I was extremely uncomfortable with the audacity of telling staff whose client loads were over 100 that the way to survive overwhelming responsibilities with inadequate resources, bureaucratic inertia, and racism from surrounding communities was really up to them. All it would take to improve their jobs was their willingness to change their attitudes. Needless to say, I decided I had to not only explain the FISH model, but also critique it from a Native American perspective. And really, I was volunteering my time. The only constraints I felt were to provide useful information to the audience and not embarrass my tribe.

The day of the training, I put on my funny fish-print jumper. At least my appearance would entertain the audience of more than 100 people. Presenters were introduced by the director of the sponsoring Regional BIA Office in a unique themed way — she threw cloth fish our way for us to catch before we were introduced. (Yes, I caught mine.)

The opening remarks were delayed by technical difficulties. But then, I was next up. I decided to use old technology – transparencies – so there was no need to wait for computers and video projectors. I began my presentation, “Of Fish and Families,” by diplomatically discussing the FISH Principles. But I couldn’t ignore the need to explain that the implied goal of the FISH model was to increase corporate profits by maintaining the existing customer base, attracting new customers, selling more products, and decreasing staff turnover. (I could see the Regional BIA Office Director seated in the front row begin to frown, but I kept going.)

It would be nice if tribal social services could increase funding in this way, but that isn’t how tribal social services work – really this only works for for-profit prisons. The goals of tribal governments are profoundly different: preserving sovereignty; protecting people, land and resources; maintaining social order; and preserving culture. Tribal services “customers” are not buying a special treat or even a necessity.  They are neglected or abused children, struggling families and individuals, and foster or adoptive families. The job of tribal staff is to help clients obtain the services and supports they need to heal and become self-sufficient, and healing the community ultimately means working yourself out of a job. (An even deeper frown)

So how do the FISH principles fit with the attributes of successful human service programs? Based on a national study of programs that demonstrated success in improving people’s lives, there are some things that may be helpful for tribes to consider. Some of these principles reflect what we can learn from FISH, highlighted in blue on the list, but some are unique to non-profit services.

Successful human service programs:

  1. Are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering;
  2. See children in the context of their families;
  3. Deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities;
  4. Have a long-term, preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time;
  5. Are well managed by competent individuals with clearly identifiable skills;
  6. Are staffed by people who are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive services; and
  7. Operate in settings that encourage practitioners to build strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.” (Lisbeth B. Schorr, 1998. Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America, pp. 5-10)

How do these attributes and principles fit within the context of tribal sovereignty? (An even deeper frown and arms are crossed)

The problem with policies and programs developed to serve general populations is that they are too often decontextualized and ahistorical. They fail to incorporate a recognition that power, history and culture matter. The external forces tribes deal with make innovation challenging: unequal power relationships between tribes and federal policy makers and funders; the imposition of Euro-American values and ideologies; Federal laws that limit tribal sovereignty (e.g., Public Law 280 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act); Euro-American institutions, organizational structures, and practice approaches; and legacies of colonial oppression. The reality we all face is more than responding to urgent contemporary issues. Many of the challenges tribal people experience now have roots in historical legacies of unresolved trauma.

As a speaker, I always look for ways to involve the audience. In this case, I had decided to experiment by using something I had observed in a workshop conducted with service providers and community members on an Ojibwe reservation. I asked for volunteers to help me illustrate how unresolved grief and loss are passed on from generation to generation. The audience came alive and many hands were raised. I only needed five, so I tried to pick people of different ages in different places around the large room. (The Regional BIA Office Director used this opportunity to get up and walk to the back of the room, where she remained standing for the rest of the session, arms crossed, with an openly angry expression by now)

We “sculpted” the weight of oppression for each succeeding generation, as illustrated in the following figure. For each historical era, the audience was asked to shout out the historical events that occurred for their tribe. The volunteers lined up, all facing the same side wall, each representing one historical era.

************

five generations

Contact Era: massive death mostly due to disease, displacement, land loss, massacres, missionary efforts to “civilize” Native Americans

Conflict/Domination Era: massive death due to disease, warfare deaths, removal of children to boarding schools, displacement, land loss, customs outlawed

Assimilation Era: land loss, tribes placed on reservations, U.S. Congress assumed plenary power over tribes, removal of children to boarding schools, more customs outlawed

Integration Era: Corporate form imposed on tribal governments, children forced to attend off-reservation public schools, termination of some tribes, relocation of families from reservations to urban areas, states granted jurisdictional powers over civil issues (e.g., child welfare)

Self-Determination/Self-Governance Era: limited sovereignty returned for tribal administration, justice systems, health and social services, child welfare

(The Five Generations Exercise, Recovery Foundation, 1999, High Risk Kids Workshop Manual, p. 27.)

************

For the first era, the time of early contact (1500s-1770s), many spoke of massive death, massacres, and land loss. When it was time to move on, the representative of the first era leaned forward and placed her hands on the shoulders of the next generation, symbolizing the weight of unresolved grief from so many losses that would be carried on the shoulders of the next generation. Again, the audience called out the events for tribes during the era of conflict and colonial domination. As each era was covered, the generational representative would lean on the shoulders of the next in line. By the time we reached the present day representative, he was struggling to stand with the weight of the past on his shoulders. Then, it was time for a change. The present day representative was asked to turn around and face the history. The weight was still there, resting on his shoulders, but our physical bodies are better able to deal with the weight if we are facing it, and so are our emotions. By acknowledging our history, we can bear it. We can understand how the legacy of loss and unresolved grief has affected our families and communities and begin the process of healing. What can we do knowing that our work to help people and communities heal will still remain challenging?

trail of tears

Photo Credit: Trail of Tears, California State University Long Beach

I suspected that my next topic would be the final straw for the Regional BIA Office Director. I shared the story of the starfish. The topic was FISH after all, and we needed to lighten the mood. The starfish story reminds people that whatever they do to improve things does make a difference, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

I ended by tying it all back to simple ways to apply the messages of FISH in our work. “Our jobs may sometimes seem impossible or futile given the number of children and families who need help and the seriousness and complexity of the challenges families face. However, we can remember the story of the starfish. We can choose to do what is in our power – we can be there with people even if we don’t have all of the resources we would like to offer them. When we see others doing what they can, we can offer encouragement, unlike the young man in the story of the starfish. We can join them, and help organize others to help. We can choose our attitude and remember that it is no small accomplishment to improve the quality of the day with simple kindness.”

The audience was gracious and applauded loudly. Most waited to talk with me afterwards, and many wanted to know more about the sculpting exercise – tribal elders, leaders, service staff, and BIA administrators were all eager to share it with others. They told me the presentation touched them deeply because they had an opportunity to glimpse larger historical forces that continue to make their lives and jobs so challenging. It’s no surprise that the Regional BIA Office Director was not among those who were excited. I was never asked to speak again at a BIA conference. Yet in the end, I am glad I made the decision to accept the engagement. My tribe did have a little extra funding to provide services, I had a chance to see a Rocky Mountain city during forest fire season, and I had an opportunity to meet many inspiring people. Oh, and it was the only chance I had to wear my funny fish-print jumper. My daughter has inherited it, and now she will have a story to go with it.

***

 

A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.

By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.

Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.

auditorium

Photo Credit: Onbroadwaytheater.com

The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.

At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?

I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.

Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.

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Photo Credit: Carol Hand, Carlos, José, and children, 1973, photographer unknown

***

 

Circle the Wagons – The Natives Are Restless

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I went to a national conference on Indian Child Welfare issues. It is typical for me to feel lost in large urban areas and packed hotels. I easily lose my sense of direction in cities and winding hallways. As I was hurrying to make it on time for a workshop I wanted to attend, I took a wrong turn and ended up in a workshop on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAS/FAE). This wasn’t the one I planned to attend. Because the speaker was just beginning, I didn’t want to appear rude by leaving, so I took a seat in the audience of 50 plus mostly Native American women. As the Euro-American speaker began, she let the audience know that her expertise in this area began when she adopted a child who was born with FAS. At first, she felt overwhelmed, until she remembered her grandmother’s saying, “When times are tough, put your wagons in a circle.” The audience let out a collective gasp, yet the speaker seemed completely unaware of the meaning of the audience’s response. She went on to describe her challenges. Accustomed to ignorance and insensitivity, nonetheless respectful and polite, the audience remained seated and silent during the workshop. They exited quickly at the end, without a word to the presenter. What would be the point of making someone feel bad?

circle the wagons

Photo Credit: Macrobusiness.com

As it happens, this metaphor is still commonly used for contemporary purposes by investors interested in capitalizing on further mining developments and in political commentary. It’s also an automatic response for Euro-Americans who want to flippantly dismiss reminders of the genocide and oppression that resulted in benefits for their immigrant ancestors and the relative privileges they themselves enjoy today.

I have tried to use Facebook periodically as a medium to heighten awareness about Native American issues, but invariably the superficiality of exchanges has convinced me that it’s a waste of my time. Yet there are occasions when I cannot refrain from commenting on blatant and dangerous information. The result, of course, is predictable. The wagons circle to protect the comforting illusions that expressing white guilt and denying any complicity for past atrocities is enough. The ultimate show stopper is to call the one Native voice “racist.” Here are excerpts from the most recent exchange.

White Woman 1: (trying to show that she is supportive of Native American People)

Check through the comments following this post. The photo op has some explaining to do. (a caveat added after my comments)

ACT OF WAR — Obama’s EPA Takes Entire American Town Away From Wyoming and Gives it to the Indians

My Response: a dangerous and untrue story! This is not how it works, folks!

White Woman 1: I will take it down, but where can I find out what really happened?

My Response: The best advice is to check with the Wind River Tribe for more information. Wyoming is an incredibly anti-Indian state, and the Wind River reservation, the only one in the state, is now the focus of pressure from the oil industry because of deposits on their land, and from farmers, ranchers, etc., because the tribe is pursuing avenues to protect its water rights. A couple simple clues from the article itself: first, the EPA has no authority to make decisions related to tribal land. Congress is the only entity that is able to make decisions related to land and resources for federally recognized tribes. Second, Congress has never enacted legislation in favor of tribes that do what this article alleges. Third, it serves the interest of energy corporations and the white elite to turn public opinion against an impoverished tribal nation by spreading inflammatory false information.

Knowing your values, I know you shared this article with the best of intentions. But the fact is that Congress unilaterally assumed “plenary power … over all Indian tribes, their government, their members, and their property” in 1871 when they enacted legislation to end treaty-making (Pevar, 1992, p. 48). I honestly doubt that this Congress would ever consider enacting policies like the ones this article describes, especially given the senators and representative from Wyoming.

White Man 1: http://america.aljazeera.com/…/epa-ruling-sets…

EPA ruling sets up battle over Indian country boundaries in Wyoming | Al Jazeera America
america.aljazeera.com
An EPA ruling on air quality defines the borders of a Wyoming Indian Reservation to include the town of Riverton.

White Woman 2: If there were any breach, it was the other way around: land that was supposed to be reserved for the Native Americans by treaties was built upon by settlers, and Indians were chased away by the Army and posses. The Natives all over the country are asking for what is left of their agreed-upon territories to be protected, and that make them the bad guys in the eyes of the usurpers. In other words, sameo, sameo.

My Response: This morning as I awoke, I remembered the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone people I met during a visit to the Wind River reservation several years ago. I remembered the stories they shared about the challenges they overcame in their lives because they wanted to make a difference for their community, the visions they had for a future where the legacy of genocide and historical trauma could be healed, and the contemporary discrimination that made every day difficult. This empty gesture by the Executive Branch does nothing to address that history or the contemporary challenges the community faces. It appears only as an empty symbolic PR stunt that has backfired, with the real potential for creating even more harm, as evidenced by the racist portrayal by media “a declaration of war” that will take away the property of white residents. The EPA declaration does not mean lands have been returned to the tribe, nor does it mean that the tribe is able to exercise sovereignty over the land and people. Nor does it award federal funding in reparation to help community residents implement their visions for a tribal college that can help community members gain the credentials and skills to walk in two worlds and manage their own affairs, or create innovative programs to help community members develop real alternatives to support themselves and their families. Quite frankly, I am angry that those who purport to be Native American allies know so little about the history of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., the web of distinct federal policies that controls their lives and limits tribal sovereignty, or the contemporary challenges tribes face. It makes me angry because empty gestures do nothing to help earnest, caring people accomplish their dreams to heal a legacy of brutal oppression that creates poverty and hopelessness for many.

White Woman 2: My heart can hold just so much anger toward the injustices perpetuated by mankind upon mankind and the rest of the Earth’s sentient beings, lest I become a hateful person, something I refuse to be. I acknowledge the injustices; I am verbal about them; I participate in their rectifications as much as I can given my limited resources, and I hold hope in my heart that someday humans will succeed in creating a just and empowering society for all instead of the few. I am thankful to … (White Woman 1) for sharing this link that exposed another tool being used to create division among The people. That is how they successfully control them: lies and distortion of the truth. All My Relations, and may the wrongdoers become enlightened.

White Woman 1: Now that all this good discussion has ensued, I don’t know if I should take the post down, or not? Your points, Carol, are not small ones; rather they seem almost insurmountable. In my year here … I have, for the first time, spent time amid the natives people. I feel, as … (White Woman 2) does, that my righteous anger could easily weigh my heart down and I would become unable to help. I also realize that I should not imagine that I have a comprehensive picture of how things stand for Native Americans, now. I am learning, interested, and sympathetic. My ancestors were among the first people to come to American from England. They were English, Scottish, Danish people who may have been out to get rich from this fertile continent. Much more likely, they were peace-loving people who were deserting trouble the only way they could. I want to be proud of them, knowing enough about some of them to sketch out the path of their migration. My family moved into an area of … (New England) where they helped create some early towns there, principally … (one town) and lived alongside the native people in the area. Were we kindly and peaceful with them? I wish I knew. I hope so. This is a question that bothers, if not haunts, many of us. How will we share what’s left is the big question. My fear is that we will not restore Native Americans to some of the lands due them until there is so much ruin, human and territorial, that the point will be moot. I am trying to discover ways to help. Even this isn’t easy. No wonder.

My Response: History is something we can’t change. We can only change the future. Although I wish I could live without anger about injustice, there are times when I simply do not feel I have that option.

White Man 2: (the expert who needs to have the final word in any discussion)
The article is misleading. Here is a link to the Federal Register page describing the action taken. It doesn’t confer any kind of regulatory authority on the tribe; it just makes them a stakeholder in regional air quality activities. https://www.federalregister.gov/…/approval-of…

As an initial reaction anger is understandable and sometimes even useful. It alerts us to a problem. But when it is cultivated it turns into resentment. Terms like “white elite” and “usurpers” are racial slurs. An eye for an eye, and pretty soon the whole world will be blind. It’s regrettable what happened during the conquest of the New World, and even that we call it the New World, but people living now aren’t responsible. It was in a sense inevitable. It wasn’t different in kind from the centuries of genocide and taking others’ lands that had gone on before, without the help of any white man.

This was the conversation stopper. Sound familiar? “It’s not my fault. And really, my ancestors only did to Native peoples what they were already doing to each other. It’s not my problem, it’s yours. You just need to get over it.” None of the voices that had earlier indicated how much they cared about Native American issues responded. They circled the wagons in silence.

Well, I can’t remain silent. I can’t silence ignorance, but I can unfriend and block it from my facebook page. Done. I won’t waste any more time trying to dialogue with folks who believe they already know all the answers. They don’t. But I won’t let them have the last word! They have the privilege of ignoring the suffering of others. I don’t. I carry the pain of past and present generations in my DNA and in my heart. I sometimes live with a rage that is too strong to ignore and a sadness too deep to name. What makes it bearable is to willingly shoulder the responsibility to do what I can to raise awareness and address ignorance and injustice. It will take many voices to break through the protective circles of ignorance, denial, and New Age spiritual platitudes.

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Photo Credit: themoderatevoice.com

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