Tag Archives: cultural differences

A Heartfelt Thankyou

Carol A. Hand

I don’t think I ever told you
how much your support and kindness
meant to me during my graduate studies
You taught me so much more than research
with your kindness and artful diplomacy

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You showed me how to teach
and stayed the course as my advisor
through so many changing research topics

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The one thing I regret is that
someone other than you
is handing me a symbolic diploma
in the photo of my final graduation ceremony

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I would guess that your humility keeps you from knowing
that I only attended the ceremony to honor you
on behalf of all of the Native American students
you mentored who were not as fortunate as I
to survive the grueling process you mastered
walking between two different worlds
with a kind heart and joyful spirit intact

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All I can say is chi miigwetch, dear friend
I will do my best to honor your gifts
by sharing what I learned from you
with others I encounter on this journey

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for G.D.S. with deep gratitude and love

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Revisiting “The Burden of the Sentinels”

Carol A. Hand

Reflecting about some of the places I have been where people were harmed reminded me of another one of my first posts. It seems fitting to share it again when I feel the need to remember how important it is for us all to listen to the voices of sentinels among us.

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Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards.

Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefited from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.

It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home again to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause.

The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.

We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.

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By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.

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Revisiting Where I Began as a Blogger

Carol A. Hand

In honor of the fifth anniversary of Voices from the Margins, I am sharing one of the first posts I wrote about a life-changing choice I made many years ago to tackle an emotionally laden issue. The essay was originally posted on a blog I shared with the friend who taught me the ins and outs of blogging in 2013 and was reposted here along with other essays when this blog was started on February 12, 2014.

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“We’re Honoring Indians!”

More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.

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At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action.

But, I was told, there was a state statute, The Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.

My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.

Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.

After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)

I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.

It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.

I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)

The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.

Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.

The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly.

I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)

The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.

As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”

Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.

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It is sometimes hard to look back on those years without thinking I should be doing more. Still, at this point in my life, it feels far more appropriate to serve in a less visible way, teaching, encouraging, and supporting younger people behind the scenes. There’s much that can only be learned through the experience of taking on issues that light a fire in one’s heart to create a world that could be.

 

November Reflections 2018

Carol A. Hand

November 29, 2018

November has flown by so fast. I apologize for being woefully behind in responding to comments and visiting your blogs. Grading student papers is always a challenge for me because I lose my ability to speak in my own voice so I can focus on helping others find theirs. Yet there is an end in sight. The end of the semester is near and I will have a brief reprieve from teaching during late December and January.

When I took momentary breaks from grading this month, though, ideas for how to edit the beginning of the manuscript I began in 2015 kept flowing. It was hard to put them aside but I had to in order to meet my responsibilities for the students in my class.

Thanksgiving break gave a chance to “unplug” from those responsibilities for a week and I did manage to rewrite the preface and first chapter yet again. In the process, I realized that the reason for continuing to work on the manuscript has shifted. This time around, what struck me were all the things I don’t know about writing and how much more there is to know about things I thought I already knew and understood. Continuing to edit and revise will give me a chance to keep learning even if I don’t finish or publish a final product. That’s enough to keep me moving forward.

Here is an excerpt from the new draft of chapter one.

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Chapter One – Introduction

Greeting the cold, bright November morning, I once again wonder how to begin a book about the welfare of Ojibwe children. Despite the many different cultures and living beings that share this earth, the welfare of all children is the foundation for our collective survival.

As I sit lost in thought, a little chickadee lands close to my feet and peers up at me before taking flight. He reminds me to be present in the moment. To take time to remember where this journey began.

An essay I wrote a while ago comes to mind.

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My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides of my crib, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that was unable to give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.

I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.

I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target.

Programmed in Catholic Indian boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was four and my brother was one. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the reservation where my mother was born and raised.

I remember that day clearly, although I was only four-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing with my brother wrapped in her arms as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.

But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.

Rupert Ross (1992), an Assistant Crown Attorney in Canada observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (1) This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people.

For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology, then French and philosophy, before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a doughnut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, a “State School for the Mentally Retarded.”

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Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combining theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.

In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fanon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci, and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. (2)

Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them constructively ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct….

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Blaming others for the past is a waste of time. We cannot change it. However, it is crucial to understand the history of colonial oppression and the consequences that have continued to affect subsequent generations of subjugated and marginalized peoples. Unfortunately, history textbooks and ethnographic accounts rarely convey experiences through the lenses and voices of populations without power.

Dominant narratives convey messages that help preserve the power of those who benefited from conquest, land theft, enslavement, and the imposition of structures of social and economic inequality. We need to understand the past through other lenses in order to address the legacy of harm and avoid repeating the brutal mistakes of the past. That is not always an easy task on either a national or personal level.

A frantic phone call from my father in the autumn of 1981 presaged my realization that it was too late to hear my mother’s stories about the old days and old ways. “Please come quickly,” he said, his voice filled with panic and tears. “Your mother almost died. She’s home from the hospital now but she is having trouble walking and seems confused.” I told my father I would be there by noon the next day. It was too late at night for me set off on the five-hour trip north to the Ojibwe reservation where my mother and father lived – the reservation where my mother had been born sixty years before.

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Notes

  1. Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON: Canada: Octopus Publishing Group, (p. xx).
  2. Pierre Bourdieu (1994), Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N. B. Dirks, E. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 155-199). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.; Frantz Fanon (2004). The wretched of the earth. (Richard Philcox, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.; Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.; Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.; Antonio Gramsci (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gransci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds. & Trans.) New York, NY: International Press.

 

 

Revisiting A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I revisited one of my first posts and decided to share it. Perhaps this will be one of my last entries. I have joined NaNoWrMo for the month of November to provide structure and motivation for working on final edits for the manuscript I began in 2015. It’s time for me to take the risk that I’ll once again be sharing my authentic voice in a darkened auditorium to the censure of critics. The message the book contains about the importance of preserving even limited tribal sovereignty in order to preserve cultures that value life is too pressing to ignore for me in these times.

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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.

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Microsoft WORD Clip Art

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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

 

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Memories of My Father

Carol A. Hand

My father was 76 when he died on April 26, 1994. He was surrounded by strangers on the psychiatric ward of a veterans’ hospital when he passed away. I have a haunting photo of him during his last days. (Even if I could find the photo that I’ve misplaced, it’s not how I would want my father to be remembered.)

I was the only one in my family who could have visited him at that point, but I didn’t feel it would be appropriate. As a responsible daughter who could see no other options, I was the one who had to initiate an involuntary placement in the hospital with an order of protection. He was threatening to kill my mother before he planned to commit suicide. He would hold a loaded gun and point it at her. My mother, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was terrified he would kill her. My younger brother was threatening to kill my father to protect her.

So the responsibility fell to me. Someone needed to intervene in a reasonable and compassionate way. My father’s threats needed to be taken seriously. I had survived his physical and emotional abuse during my childhood and witnessed his violent emotional instability and attempted suicide.

Paradoxically, though, I came to understand his emotional volatility. His bipolar disorder and the deep insecurities he carried given the traumas he experienced during his own childhood made his life so difficult.

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My Father – 10 years old

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His years as a Marine during the Korean Conflict added new dimensions to his trauma. I remember times when he cried but couldn’t give voice to the experiences that brought him so much pain.

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My Father in the early 1940s
My Father – somewhere in the South Pacific

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I had forgiven him decades before I had to act to protect my family, perhaps because I had educational opportunities that he never had. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that I had embraced my mother’s Ojibwe culture as I eschewed the cold, dour nature of my father’s Anglo-American heritage. He could rarely bait me any more with racist, angry tirades. I had learned how to respond with gentle humor. “Well, Dad, this is an enlightening conversation,” I would say as I smiled. “I think I’ll go see how Mother is doing.”

As I think of him today, I am grateful for the many things I learned from him. Most importantly, I learned how to understand someone who was suffering with compassion and forgiveness. That’s what I remember on this father’s day, along with sadness for people whose suffering may not be healed during this lifetime. I hope his death brought him peace and I hope that wherever he may be he knows that I am grateful to him for doing the best he could with what he was given in life.

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My Father – 1986

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May you finally know peace, dear Father.

What Would You Choose?

Carol A. Hand

We teach the next generations
through our lived example
how to care for the earth
and all our relations
We’re ever creating the world
our children and grandchildren will inherit
across all of earth’s imaginary boundaries
and within diverse fictive nations

The question to consider
is what we want that world to be

Do we teach children to care,
cooperate, and conserve?
Or do we teach them to compete,
conquer, and consume?

The answers matter profoundly
but we need to remember
awareness can’t be imposed
through legislation
It can only be encouraged
through living examples
that offer another kind of education
opening up new possibilities
that demonstrate the value
of compassionate contemplation

A lesson from an “Inchworm”

Note

Sometimes it feels futile and foolish to work on creating healthy gardens on a city lot that has long been neglected. Factories just to the east churn out foul-smelling toxic fumes. My neighbor on one side has spent more than a decade burying garbage along the fence-line. Lately, the garbage has merely been left exposed, joined by plastic toys his children abandon when their interest wanes.

I have tried to engage in reasoned conversations and offered to help create a healthy landscaped transition. My words have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps suggestions from an Ojibwe grandmother (you know, a triple whammy – age, gender, and ancestry) even exacerbated his unwillingness to consider alternatives. The experience has taught me how profoundly cultures and life experiences affect our ability to discern how our everyday choices affect what our children learn and the health of the environments they will inherit.

I’ve been told it’s a matter of perspective. Some prefer landfills that will someday look like manicured lawns despite the toxic or dangerous things that are hidden from sight, while others prefer healthy gardens.

May 31, 2014

May 23, 2018

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I still wonder, though, how someone who claims to love children doesn’t seem to realize his actions are destroying a child’s garden.

July 3, 2015 – My granddaughter standing next to the garden she helped create.

May 23, 2018 – Damage control in process as the wooden divide grows ever higher to protect my granddaughter’s garden from the growing pile of refuse (including piles of dog feces).

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May Snippets – 2018

Carol A. Hand

Reflections during My Hiatus from Blogging – May 19, 2018

Unpredictable spring
with two constants
that keep me busy
gardens and a manuscript in process

Landscaping gardens
regardless of weather
one day sweating,
the next day shivering
and yet on another,
grateful for heavy workboots
that keep me grounded
despite fierce gusty winds
hauling logs, branches, and new soil
planting the first of the seeds,
new bushes, and flowers
watering in these days of drought

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May 19, 2018 – Landscaping the missing Willow’s space

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It’s hard physical work
that gives me time
to listen
deeply
for bird song and wind chimes
to listen
intently
for deeper truths
to revise the beginning
of the story I began
more than two years ago

I ponder how
one can touch hearts
and raise awareness
about the need to consider
the importance of what can be learned
about human possibilities
from different cultural perspectives
that understand and honor
our inextricable interdependence with nature
and each other
I wonder how one can inspire
collective efforts to heal the legacy
of a brutal homogenizing history
of colonial oppression
with written words alone

Listening deeply
for inklings of answers
kneeling on the earth
hands in the soil
thoughts and feelings
not easily translated
into words

I think about my grandmother
imagining what it was like
to grow up in an era
when the last of the great pine forests
fell
victim to illusions of “progress”
when her people were herded
onto the least desirable land
“reserved” just for them
When Indigenous children
were captured and lost
to abusive institutions
under the colonial guise of
civilizing the children of savages

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Reflections and My Grandmother Part I – May 11, 2018

When beginning the story of my research about Ojibwe child welfare, I made a decision to be as honest as possible about my experiences and findings. Yet, I changed the name of the researcher who is telling the story. Initially I thought it was purely to protect the identities of the people who shared their memories and lives with me. Choosing among all the possible fictive names for the researcher, though, felt at odds with the goal of presenting a truthful account that honored people’s authentic voices.

Ultimately, I chose to refer to the younger version of myself recorded in my fieldnotes by my maternal grandmother’s name, Agnes Sero. I didn’t realize then how much alike we were and how profoundly the differing circumstances of our births affected our lives.

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When it came time to edit and revise the very long manuscript that resulted, though, I once again wondered about this choice. Why did I really give my grandmother’s name to the character of my younger self? For the most part, she was a stranger to me. My mother only shared parts of her mother’s story. Agnes was 17 years old when my mother was born, still a child herself. At two weeks old, Agnes gave her first child to her older sister, Anna, to raise.

Agnes’ life wasn’t easy. Her father worked as a lumber jack in the northwoods. Growing up in lumber camps would have been challenging for a beautiful young girl like Agnes, especially without the protection of a community and traditions to guide her path…

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Reflections about my Grandmother Part II – May 18, 2018

There is a haunting out-of-focus photo of my grandmother as a teenager nestled in a birch tree. The tree stands alone amid a neighborhood of hard-packed scraggly grass-covered earth and newly constructed wooden frame houses. The tall pines that once provided a sheltering home for the Ojibwe people were, by then, only memories that would one day be passed down in stories through the generations.

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Agnes in the Lone Birch Tree – 1920

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I sometimes wonder what my grandmother’s childhood was like as a daughter of a lumberjack who was forced by economic and political circumstances to cut down the last of the great pine and hemlock forests in Ojibwe ceded territory. The timber my great grandfather harvested helped build cities to house the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals streaming from Europe every year.

My grandmother was harvested, too, by the settlers who now claimed the land as their own to spend some of her childhood years in a euphemistically named institution, an “Indian boarding school.” There, under the guise of civilizing the children of savages, she was stripped of the relationships, stories and language that gave meaning to life for Ojibwe people just as the earth was stripped of abundant forests that once provided their food, shelter, and a sense of kinship with nature.

To me, as a child, my grandmother’s life seemed as barren as the clear cut that was left behind. She was only 17 when my mother was born. My mother was given to my grandmother’s older sister to raise on the reservation pictured in the photo. By the time I spent my twelfth summer on the reservation with my grandmother, she was a lonely, angry, alcoholic.

I look back on her life with deep sadness and compassion. I am awed that she found the strength to survive despite so many difficulties and losses. And I am grateful to the child she gave away, my mother, for raising me to be proud of the Ojibwe heritage that brought both of them so much suffering and internalized shame. Once again, I vow to try my best to honor their legacy in my humble account of Ojibwe child welfare in hopes that future generations will not suffer the cruelty and discrimination that they both had to survive.

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Too Busy to Write?

Carol A. Hand

Too Busy to Write
yet an image keeps coming to mind
unbidden
of a younger me
standing in the clearing
by my northwoods’ cabin
in Ojibwe ceded territory
on a warm sunny morning
many years ago
Like many mornings
I am humbly gathering strength
to face challenges with grace
With my fingers laced around the
latch of White Pony’s door
I pray
“Help me walk a path of love and light
and peace and joy
in thought and word and deed”

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*
My prayer not quite finished
I hear a pounding rhythmic sound
drawing ever closer
my heart automatically beating faster
with surprise and a tinge of fear
“Bears can’t run that fast,”
I think to myself
as the sound grows louder
Suddenly it’s overhead
just behind me
then two bald eagles pass above
inches from my bowed head
flying south over the sunlit creek
I don’t remember what fearful
task I faced that day
walking into conflicts
between worldviews and cultures
but I knew the path
was where I was meant to be
on that day
and I would not be walking it
alone

 

Dealing with Change

Carol A. Hand

Banyan Tree, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Melikamp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 15 November 2009 (Wikipedia)

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Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy

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Banyan Tree Plaque, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Nvvchar, 19 October 2014 (Wikipedia)

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Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me

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Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

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Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains

 

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What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?

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In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree

 

Note:

This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.

Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.

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Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

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I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.

Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.

”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).

I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.

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