Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?: Blogging 101

Carol A. Hand

The need to explain how things came to be is part of the ongoing challenge of being different, of being from a high-context culture. Today’s topic for blogging 101 is no exception. Why this name for the blog in the header? Why this photo? And why this blogging partnership?

I’m curious to know how many people have wondered about a blog administered by partners from different states, one who is semi-retired and living in Minnesota, and one who is on a faculty in Tennessee. We are an odd pair – one is “straight” (a funny label) and of Ojibwe and Anglo-American ancestry, and one is gay. Our friendship was forged on the first day we met and firmly cemented during the test of advocating for a student who was targeted by discrimination. Although we were somewhat successful as advocates, allowing the student to successfully finish her degree, our advocacy cost us our standing at the university. I know I would willingly choose to go down fighting for social justice time and time again. I am grateful to the friend who volunteered to take the lead and withstood the ordeal by my side.

Graduation 2008

Photo Credit: Cheryl Bates and Tom Bates – Graduation Day – May 17, 2008

If I remember correctly, it was a snowy day at the end of March 2008 when I went to pick up Dr. Cheryl Bates for our breakfast interview at the campus where I taught. She was one of the candidates interviewing for a tenure-track position, a grueling ordeal that requires interviews with faculty and administrators, a teaching demonstration, and a presentation of one’s research. As I stood at the hotel desk where she stayed during her campus visit, waiting for someone to appear, I saw a lovely young woman approaching. Instantly, I felt her enthusiasm, humility, and gentle spirit. Our breakfast meeting at a favorite local greasy spoon confirmed my initial impressions. We shared stories and laughed, and of course arrived just on time for her meeting with the dean. She was whisked away by the chair of the department to face this new adventure among strangers. I am grateful she accepted the position, although I know the experiences will probably leave deep scars on her gentle spirit.

Despite her many accomplishments and the crucial perspectives she brought to a homophobic context, she was quickly relegated to the margins. I remember sitting near her in a meeting while other faculty discussed how to respond to the concerns of the national accrediting body with the lack of content in our program’s curriculum on dealing with the “isms” – folks like Cheryl and me. You know, people who were Native or gay or Black. There are several encounters that helped me understand the magnitude of the every day micro aggressions and outright ignorance she encountered. Imagine having each word you utter be misinterpreted as a sexual innuendo by some of the young female students in your class? The same words out of my mouth would not be interpreted in the same way. And how about the eager candidate who came to interview the next year who sought her out to make a memorable impression in hopes that she would recommend him for the open faculty position? “I’m so interested in your research on transgender issues. I was fascinated when I read an article on the history of dildos.” Cheryl met these challenges and many others with humor, humility and grace.

We stayed in touch as one headed to the northwest, and the other to the southeast. When I began blogging with a different partner in June of 2013, Cheryl followed the blog and would share her insights when we spoke on the phone. My former blogging partner negotiated the technical aspects of setting up our site, and although we agreed to the purpose of posting pieces that challenged the status quo, it became clear over time that we had different perspectives on what that really meant. Although open to feedback and suggestions, I grew weary of hearing that my language was too academic, my titles too long, and my insistence on citing references was pretentious. The final straw was an article I wrote about caregivers that wasn’t “good enough to post on our blog.”  I rewrote it in several versions and none of them sufficed. It was then that I turned to Cheryl and asked if she would read the three drafts and let me know if any of them worked. In the conversation that followed, Cheryl said “I’m still laughing at the second version. It’s so funny and it’s good.”

So, despite my technophobia, I created my own blog to post those pieces my blogging partner didn’t feel were good enough. Unfortunately, this move was interpreted by my original blogging partner as the end of our partnership and friendship. I was deeply saddened by the misinterpretation and loss, but I persevered through the first few months. I am so grateful for the blogging friends who supported me (and my former partner) through the rough transition. When Cheryl told me she was taking a class on writing html code, I was excited and asked her if she would like to partner on the new blog. I made it clear that we were both free to publish what we felt was appropriate, but to me partnership meant the chance to make the blog feel like her home, too. She was the one who figured out how to create the header, Voices from the Margins, that now graces our blog, and how to upload the background picture. It’s a picture that has special significance to her, but that is a story I will leave for her to tell – or not.

cheryl

Photo Credit: Jill, Cheryl’s Faithful Companion – Bull’s Gap, Tennessee

For today’s assignment, I’ll simply say that I believe I can now figure out how to create a header and upload a background picture in the Runo Lite theme thanks to Cheryl. So instead, today I’ll work on overcoming my fear of widgets – maybe removing those that make the site a tad too busy. Someday I might even successfully tackle adding the copyright statement to the margins instead of coping and pasting it on every post. 🙂

(A final note – I would like to thank Skywalker Storyteller for inspiring this post. Miigwetch my sister in spirit.)

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand, and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Worlds Apart: The Enduring Significance of Ojibwe Culture

Carol A. Hand

It makes me angry when I hear about cultural competence. There aren’t any cultural differences between the people on the reservation and the rest of the residents in the county. The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past. (County Decision Maker, October 15, 2001)

To say there is not a culture is not true. It justifies them [county social services and court systems] for not learning about us. (Terrence, Ojibwe Community Member, October 19, 2001)

These statements were given voice by Ojibwe and Euro-American community members during a critical ethnographic study in 2001-2002. One perspective carried more weight. Because of the speaker’s gender, ethnicity, and position, the statement symbolizes one of the many ways in which Ojibwe sovereignty continues to be constrained and traditional lifeways, disparaged.

The Ojibwe community I studied had been confined on an ever-decreasing landbase and subjected to the policies and institutions of the dominant Euro-American community that surrounded them over the course of centuries. Although this study was focused on understanding the child welfare system and its impacts for Ojibwe families, the question of culture remained a central issue. The importance of addressing the question of cultural differences became apparent when the County Decision Maker forcefully proclaimed “The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past.” When the person who controls child welfare funding for all county residents, including Ojibwe people, believes there is no culture, what incentive is there to keep Ojibwe families together and keep children within their tribal community? A leading expert in child welfare research criticized the significance of the study not because of methodological flaws, but because, from his perspective, “It was a good thing that we [Euro-Americans] imposed our system on tribes.” As the following essay argues, the assumptions of both the County Decision Maker and the child welfare expert are incorrect.

My research focused on child welfare. What evidence could I draw from the study to address this topic? Fortunately, I had collected evidence about culture. As a new researcher, I wrote down everything I noticed which proved to be a wise practice. The timing of my arrival in the community was serendipitous. It was August 28, 2001, just as the gathering of wild rice was underway in the Ojibwe community, and just before deer hunting season for Euro-American residents in the surrounding county.

ojibwe by river cg

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy

A long description of research would be out of place in this essay, but it is important for me to mention that I chose critical ethnography as my methodology because its focus is liberatory. Like traditional ethnography, critical ethnography typically involves several methods: extended cultural immersion, participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and document review. Yet critical ethnography differs in a crucial way. It is concerned with the ways in which the power of institutions, symbols, and meaning are used to “construct and limit choices, confer legitimacy, and guide our daily routine” (Thomas, 1993, p. 6). The significance of a critical stance in the process of ethnographic work is to explore not only what is, but what could be, to question the “unnecessary social domination” that promotes inequality (Thomas, 1994, p. 5). In the context of the present study, an historical component was added to explore “what was” based primarily on ethnographic interviews and document reviews. Understanding history is particularly important when trying to make sense of present conditions for tribal communities (Weaver, 1999; Flemming, 1992).

Because the question of culture and cultural survival are central to this discussion, it is important to define the increasingly suspect concept of “culture.” Early anthropologists defined culture as a complex whole that included all capabilities and habits people acquired as members of a given society, including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and customs (Asad, 1986). In more recent times, debates have surfaced about the efficacy and morality of “a distinct, bounded, and unifying culture” that is “an embarrassing colonial artifact” (Van Maanan, 1995, p. 27). For the purposes of this discussion, “culture” in the sense of distinct patterns of behavior becomes central when contrasting the beliefs and behaviors of Ojibwe and Euro-American community members who shared their stories and perspectives with me (Wolcott, 1995).

A simpler definition of culture is “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior” (Spradley, 1980, p. 6). This definition suggests that behavior and meaning are learned within the context of one’s family and community. Children learn how to “act” appropriately and what it means to “be” a member of a specific group. The strong sentiments about culture voiced above by the county decision maker and the divergent view expressed by the Ojibwe community member made it essential to determine if there was evidence of a distinct Ojibwe culture in present times. A second important focus was to explore whether there was evidence that at least some members of the Ojibwe community were involved in efforts to preserve and revitalize distinct cultural values and lifeways. A third question related to context was the degree to which there was evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities.

gawboysnowshoedance

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy – Snowshoe Dance

All cultures are complex, multi-dimensional, and elastic (Handler, 1983). Shared cultural meanings and lifeways rely on “a delicate balance … [between] tradition and innovation, inherited forms and creativity” (Handler, 1983, p. 219). It is necessary to distinguish what is shared, by whom, in what ways, and under what conditions: culture is multifaceted ( Dirks, Eley, & Ortner, 1994). Many factors influence shared culture, the most important of which include gender, age, and social status.

There are wide variations among individuals within any given society with respect to the degree to which cultural meanings and customs are internalized and expressed through behaviors and the explanations or rationales behind those behaviors. Yet a cultural gestalt is portrayed and preserved through stories that are passed down to future generations either orally or through written documents. Stories symbolize the shared meanings of life and one’s place in the universe, often expressed through metaphors.

A decade earlier, this essay may well have reflected a balanced attempt to argue from a stance of cultural relativism by including a caveat that it is always inappropriate to portray the ways of one culture as superior to those of another. Times have changed. Within the context of global climate change, endangered species, and the accelerating destruction of forests and wilderness areas, such a stance feels profoundly unethical to me as an Ojibwe scholar. I began my study from a stance of cultural relativism. However, analysis of the findings of the study and additional reflection within a larger historical and global context have shifted my stance. As an Ojibwe researcher and scholar, I admit a biased interpretive perspective. It is important for readers to know this up front so they can determine for themselves if the soundness of the following arguments and the weight of the following evidence, gathered from as many sources as possible with no conscious agenda to substantiate a pre-study bias, withstand the scrutiny of critical readers.

Cultural emersion involved deciding where to live in the focal county, on the Ojibwe reservation or in the local county seat. Given that I am Ojibwe and lived for many years in a different Ojibwe community, it made sense to live within the county seat in order to observe a less-familiar cultural milieu on a daily basis. As sometimes happens with ethnographic research, serendipity played a role in identifying participants and a place to live. I was fortunate to find a “culture broker” within each community, that is, someone who was respected because of their knowledge and positive relationships with others in the community. They served as key participants and as links to others in their respective communities.

Within the Ojibwe community, the person who played this role was from a prominent family in the community, and took me under her wing to introduce me to tribal elders and leaders. In the Euro-American community, my “culture broker” was identified by many Euro-American community residents whom I asked about city and county history. They repeatedly mentioned the owner of a copy shop located in the county seat. Although it took many visits to the copy shop to actually meet the owner, we formed an instant connection and the evolving friendship we developed was profoundly important in many ways. A life-long resident of the area, he had stored newspaper and journal articles from the area for more than 40 years and personally knew many of the Ojibwe tribal leaders and members, past and present, as well as the Euro-American residents. He owned the storefront that housed the copy shop in the center of the small town, above which he had a number of efficiency apartments to rent. He became a study participant and my landlord, opening his collections of historical materials and refusing to allow me to pay for the thousands of pages of documents that he let me copy. From my centrally located vantage point in a second-story apartment that overlooked the major cross-section in town, I was able to learn a great deal about the community and the relationships between community residents and tribal people, especially between the local police and youth from both communities.

Participant observations included regular visits to the tribal elders’ noon meal, visits to elder apartments in the county, and participation/observations of a variety of events and agencies within both communities. Most of the people I spoke with participated in ethnographic interviews. In contrast to one-time semi-structured interviews, ethnographic interviews involve meeting with the same participants periodically throughout the course of a study. Time between interviews allowed me, as the researcher, to learn more and ask clarifying questions, and also allowed participants an opportunity to reflect on the questions asked and their responses in previous interviews. Because of the timing of my study, conversations around the tables at the tribal elder center during lunch often focused on their adventures ricing and hunting. Similarly, if I stopped by the copy shop, the owner and I would sit by the large picture window at a table just inside the front door. Community members would stop by and join us, and the talk would often turn to hunting excursions.

In addition to interviews, document review became one of the key methods for understanding past and present behaviors and meanings associated with hunting and gathering within each of the cultures. As noted above, the owner of the copy shop became a key source for documents both directly as the source of many of the documents and as an ethnographic interview participant who helped explain the significance and meaning of information. He also helped indirectly though his knowledge of both the Euro-American and Ojibwe communities and suggested other people I should interview. Books, pamphlets, newspaper accounts and photos, old maps, and administrative reports all provided a rich context of information for both communities, past and present.

The following discussion highlights one dimension, the economic sphere, to describe both local cultures in terms of the past and the present and to illustrate points of cultural similarity and difference. “Economic sphere” means hunting and gathering activities. There are a number of reasons for focusing on hunting and gathering activities. First, by placing the experiences of one Ojibwe community within a more general Ojibwe historical-cultural context, specific cultural aspects of change, continuity, and complexity become more apparent. Second, given the timing of my study, the economic sphere is the most completely documented for both Ojibwe and Euro-American communities by all three research methods – interviews, observations, and documents. Third, the evidence shows the intergenerational transmission of culture within both cultural milieus in this narrowly defined dimension.

Drawing from observations, interviews, and documents, a number of important findings emerge that provide evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities. Hunting and gathering activities within both the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities were a frequent topic of conversation in the fall of 2001. As the following exemplars from interviews, observations, and documents show, cultural differences between local Ojibwe and Euro-American culture are evident within the narrowly defined economic dimension. There is also evidence of cultural continuity and change within both communities.

Ojibwe Community

A central aspect of the Ojibwe economic sphere was the seasonal round they followed to grow and gather food and manufacture basic necessities within the ecosystems of their habitation (Meyer, 1994; Venum, 1988). Although the specific activities and timing varied depending on the particular geographic habitats of widely scattered Ojibwe communities, the cycle generally involved a congregation of members in summer villages comprised of 100 or more people. Here, they planted family gardens (beans, corn, squash, and pumpkins). In mid and later summer, families traveled to pick berries, and in the fall to rice camps to gather and process wild rice, which for many was the major subsistence crop. They harvested, processed, and cached the produce from their gardens, ricing, berrying, and their summer and early fall fishing and hunting. In the fall, smaller family groups (20 to 25 people) prepared to move to their winter hunting areas, and in the spring, when the snow and icy waterways began to melt, families traveled to the sugarbush to gather and process the sap of maple trees.

The seasonal movements “from one place to another …, [and] the stability in timing and locations gave the cycle great continuity” (Meyer (1994, p. 24). The seasonal pattern also represents an effective strategy for dealing with the natural climate and environment, maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle and assuring a “diverse resource base” in case any resource failed in a given year (Meyer, 1994, p. 27). Despite confinement on reservations in the 1850s, many of these seasonal round activities continue to be of importance for members of the focal Ojibwe community. In the fall, wild rice (Vennum, 1988) and deer hunting (Hickerson, 1988) remain particularly important.

ricing cg

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy: Little Rice River – Madeline Island

Because ricing is such a deeply rooted activity, most Ojibway build harvest time into their annual schedules as a matter of course. Many urban Indians return to their home reservations for ricing; others leave regular jobs in nearby towns for the harvest, even though it can mean financial loss…. Ricing is also an activity that older people continue to participate in…. For cultural reasons alone, the Ojibway people will probably never give up ricing willingly. (Vennum, 1988, pp. 298-299)

Participant-observations, particularly during the fall of 2001, underscored the continuing importance of seasonal round activities (Meyer, 1994). Ricing, hunting, fishing, and to a more limited extent, gathering berries, were a central topic of informal conversations among Ojibwe elders during noon meals. One Ojibwe elder (Mishoomis Thomas, September 9, 2001) drew a series of cartoons about hunting and ricing – including an illustration of the experiences of the Nacomis Xina, cited below, with her head above water next to an overturned canoe with wild rice stems encircling her legs.

I’m lucky to be alive! I went out ricing with [my niece] last weekend. I let her pole while I knocked the rice into the canoe. I didn’t know that she didn’t know how to pole. She pushed the pole in too far and it got stuck in the mud, and when the canoe rocked and spun around, we were both thrown into the water. I was afraid I was going to drown. The rice stalks wrapped around my legs, and the more I kicked, the tighter they became. We were finally able to climb back into the canoe. I usually don’t wear a jacket [life preserver] when I go out, but I had one on that day and it kept me afloat even when the rice was wrapped around my legs…. I’ll never go out again with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing (Nacomis Xina, September 9, 2001).

Escaping danger and humor were common elements of the stories that were shared. Perhaps more central, however, were the remembered social interactions. The accounts always interwove family and community members who shared the activities, and stories of how they worked together to face challenges and danger. As elders competed for opportunities to share their stories, adding details to the stories others shared, the sound of merriment and laughter filled the room.

Although ricing remains central for these tribal elders, they observed that fewer people practice traditional gathering activities than did in the past. At the same time, however, despite inexperience, people in younger generations still do participate. Younger people are still interested in learning, although some of them, like the niece described above, may have to find other teachers. An Ojibwe community member in the next generation shared his story about the importance of ricing.

It is more important for me to be doing what I am right now, processing food as a way to practice the ways of the people. Chimokoman [White Man] has tried to make the people forget, but some of the knowledge has been retained and is now being taught to young people. Hunting is also an important way to practice culture, to harvest when the time is right rather than punching a time clock. Look around [lifting his arm he gestures toward the trees in full autumn colors – bright yellow, red, orange, and gold], this is gold (“Tyler,” October 4, 2001).

Despite the continuing importance of ricing for Ojibwe community members, environmental changes pose concerns for the community.

There used to be a lot of rice on the lake – it was covered with plants – now there are only scattered patches. And there used to be as many as 140 boats out at one time – now there are maybe eight (Mishoomis Raymond, October 10, 2001).

White-tailed or Virginia deer were an important part of the Ojibwe diet in the past (Hickerson, 1988), and remain so today as exemplified by the following interview excerpt. Hunting is a skill that continues to be passed on to younger generations. A more distinctive cultural component, however, is the continuing importance of sharing. The account of Mishoomis Raymond demonstrates how critical hunting and sharing were for family and community survival in the past.

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 (Mishoomis Raymond, September 10, 2001).

Mishoomis Raymond also discussed how he continues to practice the skills and Ojibwe ethics of hunting, and his efforts to ensure that these skills are passed on to younger generations.

There’s a young non-Indian girl here who told me that she couldn’t eat most kinds of meat, fish, or shrimp – it makes her sick. But she can eat venison. So I’m going to give her one of the two deer I shot yesterday. My grandson and I went out hunting with [another Ojibwe community member] and his grandson. The two boys were able to track down a deer that was shot but kept running. When we caught up with the boys, they were already gutting the deer. I was proud of them (Mishoomis Raymond, November 19, 2001).

A number of community documents underscore the meaning and importance of Ojibwe seasonal round activities in more contemporary times. Included in these documents are accounts shared by Ojibwe community elders who have demonstrated and described the steps for processing wild rice, the techniques and timing for gathering birchbark, and the techniques and timing for gathering cranberries.

… [Mishoomis Raymond] recalled his childhood days spent with his cousin … exploring the swamp and snacking on mashkiigiminan (cranberries); the tart flavor forcing their lips to pucker… Two weeks before… [Mishoomis Raymond] and [his cousin] had revisited the footsteps of their childhood to once again gather mashkiigiminan. [Ojibwe Raymond] could not have been happier that his daughter and granddaughter [who went with them] had shown interest in gathering mashkiigiminan (Tribal Publication 1, 2001, p. 10).

The article adds that the Mishoomis Raymond, his cousin, and his friend frequently help and encourage “… youngsters to learn traditional ways. All three elders know the importance of passing their knowledge onto younger generations” (p. 10).

Ricing, one of the Ojibwe traditional practices described by Ojibwe community members, is highlighted in contemporary promotional materials developed to attract tourists. “The annual harvest of wild rice, an essential part of the Indian diet, has altered very little in the hundreds of years that the [Ojibwe] have lived here (Tribal Publication 2, p. 18).

Euro-American Community

Stories gathered within the Ojibwe community are qualitatively different than those of the long-term Euro-American residents in the surrounding community. Hunting and fishing stories were a topic frequently raised by Euro-American men in the community. Some noted that hunting and woodsmanship are longstanding traditions for families from their Euro-ethnic identity who originally settled in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky before moving to the county seat several generations ago.

[People of my ancestry and geographic origin] were outdoorsmen: they could make it on the land and the area here is a lot like the land they knew. They lived off the land like the native peoples, and did almost as well… They could hunt, trap, and fish (Euro-American Community Member, October 25, 2001).

Some of the accounts focused on hunting excursions with sons, or in one case, with a wife. The emphasis of stories was typically on the challenge of the hunt. Only one community member said that hunting for him was more about the chance to be in a remote area to enjoy the natural beauty. Hunting has played an important symbolic role for Euro-American men (Haraway, 1994). The stories told by Euro-American male informants seem to fit with Haraway’s (1994, p. 75) characterization as:

… the tales of a pure man whose danger in pursuit of a noble cause brings him into communion with the beasts he kills, with nature. This nature is a worthy brother of man, a worthy foil for his manhood.

Documents gathered from a variety of community sources provide confirmation of Haraway’s (1994) interpretation of Euro-American sportsmanship. Hunting has been an important part of local Euro-American culture since the days of the first non-indigenous settlers. Promotional materials originally published in the early 1900s to attract Euro-American “home-seekers and investors” to the area emphasize hunting, fishing, and recreation. These materials were reprinted in 2001 to preserve local historical accounts and cultural traditions. One of the publications includes photographs of hunters standing by their slain prey, or scores of deer carcasses hanging from racks, accompanied by the following text:

[The county seat] is the outfitting point for parties bound to the deer hunting grounds…. For several years, the hunting parties have brought back a hundred or more deer each year with now and then a bear and large number of partridges and other small game (Community document, 1906/2001).

deer hanging rack

Photo Credit: Deer Hanging Rack

Another publication appeals for people to settle in the area and farm “cut-over lands,” or lands once occupied by the Ojibwe and other First Nations peoples that had been completely stripped of the virgin hardwood and pine forests by large outside lumber companies (Community Document). One of the enticements for new settlers was the following text:

Every season this section is visited by armies of nimrods from the southern part of the state, and from other states, who always return home with their allotted number of deer…. Ducks are killed in great numbers on the lakes, where they feed on the wild rice beds (Community Document, 1914/2001).

Hunting remains important for local Euro-American residents in contemporary times. Before deer hunting season in 2001, the editorial section of the local newspaper underscored the the importance of this gendered legacy:

THE COUNTDOWN to deer season is well underway. I can tell because of the increased number of phone calls [my husband] gets from his brothers and nephews. They all have to touch base several times in order to plan the big hunt. This annual get together is a tradition in the … family…. (it’s definitely a guy thing). (Community Newspaper, 2001, p. 2)

deer hunt

Photo Credit: Hunting the Trophy Whitetail

Deer hunting was still front page news in the local newspaper during 2001 and 2002. Under the front page headline “Gun Deer Harvest Down in County” is a photo of a successful 13-year-old Euro-American boy grasping the antlers of his kill. The accompanying story notes that only 1,200 deer were killed in the county during the opening weekend of hunting season. Yet there are indications from other sources that hunting is becoming less important than it was in the past, or that there are other recreational competitors. Proposed state legislation to extend deer hunting season was forcefully criticized by the local legislator because it would interfere “with snowmobiling activities and other winter recreation” (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 12). Promotional materials in contemporary times are written to attract a broader selection of visitors. No longer are scores of deer carcasses hung on racks highlighted by photos. Instead, visitors are told:

The hunter, fisherman and trapper feel at home in this forest, but so do hikers, bikers, cross-county skiers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, photographers, campers – the list is endless (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 3).

Ojibwe/Euro-American Cultural Comparison

The stories, observations, and documents convey an important message. In the end, I am left with two contrasting metaphors, a front-page picture in the local newspaper of a young Euro-American man triumphantly holding up the head of the trophy he slaughtered, and the story shared by an Ojibwe community member.

Hunting is not a sport – it’s something that you do for food. It’s not a sport if you leave something for what you take. That’s why we leave tobacco for something we take – we’re being responsible. We are at the mercy of the Great One and the power when we’re out there, but we go knowing that we have to have food to live and we have to do that.

It’s work. I don’t really like to kill. There’s a sadness there for that deer. I don’t hunt just to kill it, and I don’t feel good about killing. Sometimes, the deer doesn’t die right away. That’s why we leave something, to ask forgiveness. That’s why we take it home to feed our family and others who are hungry – out of respect. My brother-in-law and I like to hunt together and we both feel that sadness – that loss or sadness. Ojibwe people have been doing this for thousands of years. My grandmother told me that a lot of our people feel that way – feel that sadness. That’s why we have to eat it all and use all of the parts – out of respect. If we don’t do that, we won’t have that relationship with the deer. That relationship with the deer is important. That’s why we always put mocassins on when we are preparing someone who has died – so that they will have that deer skin on their feet when they take that long journey – so we can walk with deer skin on our feet.

That’s why we leave something – the other society just takes and keeps everything for themselves. Chimokes [White Men] are not respecting the deer, that’s why the deer are sick. The Creator is doing that to teach a lesson (Tyler, January 2, 2003).

Despite past child removal and relocation policies, Ojibwe culture has survived and for that, I am grateful. Many Ojibwe people in the community I studied, each in their own individual ways, are actively working to ensure that cultural practices and values are passed on for generations to come. This is not to say that the community is free of serious problems. Some of those problems – alcoholism, child maltreatment, juvenile delinquency, and incest – are in large measure part of a legacy of oppressive federal and state policies and practices that continue today.

All traditions are created, whether through vision, dreams or an epiphany and they are adopted because they serve some function from the perspective of those who have the power to convince others of the legitimacy of particular ways of seeing their world (Anderson, 1995). The larger ethical (and pragmatic) question is whether a given set of traditions encourages a people to “walk lightly on the earth” by taking only what they need, encourages them to leave the world a better place for their having lived, or whether the set of traditions encourages a people to deplete the earth of resources and create death and destruction in their wake, heedless of the world they will leave for future generations. This is a question to ponder. For the Ojibwe and Euro-American people studied in this small sample, the contrasts were clear, although not consciously chosen nor in most cases, deliberately articulated. Yet, from my perspective, we must learn to be mindful of the impacts our cultural ways have on those with whom we share the earth, now and in the future…

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Carl Gawboy for granting permission to use images of his paintings for this essay. Carl is a renowned Ojibwe artist who was born in Minnesota. His paintings often portray traditional Ojibwe scenes – hunting, fishing, and harvesting – in a style that is realistic and respectful. These are the images I felt best represented what Ojibwe participants shared with me during my study. To view more of his work and long list of accomplishments, please check out some of the following links:

http://www.d.umn.edu/unirel/homepage/11/gawboy.html

http://www.mnartists.org/article.do?rid=151392

http://www2.css.edu/app/events/centennial/blog/?cat=3&art=160

I should also add that he is a gifted storyteller with his own memories of ricing adventures to share – guaranteed to make you laugh.

Note: In order to protect the identities of the people who shared their stories, all names have been changed and all written tribal and community publications lack specific citations.

Definitions:

Mishoomis is the Ojibwe word for grandfather and is used here to denote respect.

Nacomis means grandmother in Ojibwe, and again, is an expression used to show respect.

Works Cited

Anderson, B. (1995). Imagined communities, revised ed. London: Verso.

Asad, T. (1986). The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology. In J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus (Ed.), Writing culture: The poetics and politics of writing ethnography (pp. 141–161). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dirks, N. B., Eley, G., & Ortner, S. B. (Eds.)(1994). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fleming, C. M. (1992). American Indians and Alaska Natives: Changing societies past and present. In Office of Substance Abuse Prevention (OSAP), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Ed.), Cultural competence for evaluators: A guide for alcohol and other drug abuse prevention practitioners working with racial/ethnic communities (pp. 147-172). Rockville, MD: OSAP.

Handler, R. (1983). The dainty and the hungry man: Literature and anthropology in the work of Edward Sapir. In G. W. Stocking, Jr. (Ed.), Observers observed: Essay on ethnographic fieldwork. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Haraway, D. (1994). Teddy bear patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City 1908-1936. In N. B. Dirks, G. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds.), Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 49-95). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hickerson, H. (1988). The Chippewa and their neighbors: A study of ethnohistory (revised and expanded edition). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Meyer, M. L. (1994). The White Earth tragedy: Ethnicity and dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinabe reservation, 1889-1920. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. Fort Wroth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Thomas, J. (1993). Doing critical ethnography. Qualitative Research Methods Series 26. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Van Maanan, J. (Ed.)(1995). Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Venum, T., Jr. (1988). Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Press.

Weaver, H. N. (1999). Indigenous people and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services, Social Work, 44(3), 217-225.

Wolcott, H. F. (1995). Making a study “more ethnographic.” In J. Van Maanen (Ed.), Representation in ethnography (pp. 79-111). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

***

 

 

“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.

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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.

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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.

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Indian Child Removal and the Ga-Ga

Carol A. Hand

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Recognizing the special relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes and their members and the Federal responsibility to Indian people, the Congress finds-–

… that Congress, through statutes, treaties, and the general course of dealing with Indian tribes, has assumed the responsibility for the protection and preservation of Indian tribes and their resources;
… that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe;
… that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions; and
… that the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families.
(The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978)

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Years ago, the director of a child welfare agency asked me to do an in-service training for her staff about Native American child welfare issues. She added “Don’t tell them about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. They already know it. What staff need to know is why they should care.” Because I left my position before I had a chance to respond to her request, this essay is my belated way of addressing her concerns.

boarding school adoptionstar dot com

Photo Credit: Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918) – adoptionstar.com

The most effective way to conquer a nation is to acculturate their children. 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. 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 foreign advance forces that were only interested in claiming indigenous territory and resources.

Although the agents of removal have changed over time, the consequences have been destructive for families and communities for hundreds of years. According to an Ojibwe elder and social worker, social workers eventually merited a name drawn from Ojibwe mythology, the ga-ga, or bogey man. In dangerous environments, Ojibwe parents and elders met the challenge of protecting children from harm in many creative ways because physical punishment and coercion were rare and culturally discouraged. In the most serious circumstances, parents and elders used “scaring stories” that were passed on through the generations, sometimes taking on new meanings. She said that according to oral tradition, Ojibwe parents or elders used to tell children that the bear would take them away if they did not learn to listen and behave. And then, one child was taken by a bear. In order to avoid offending bear relatives and invoke their anger, the ga-ga, a mythical creature like the bogeyman of European fairy tales, was substituted for the bear in the scaring stories.

No one believed that there really was such a creature, until the imposition of colonial domination gave new meaning to this warning. Canada and the United States implemented sweeping policies intended to civilize indigenous peoples by removing children from tribal communities. The agents of removal, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, missionaries, and social workers, became known as the ga-ga. As the Ojibwe social worker recounted, for generations Ojibwe children have been warned.

 I heard the story when I was little. My mother told us that if we did not behave, the ga-ga would come to take us away. They would take kids and put them into other homes or schools. That’s all I remember. (Ojibwe elder, Personal communication, July 5, 2003)

The new nation that emerged on Indigenous homelands didn’t waste much time in asserting their agenda of political, religious, economic, and cultural domination. In 1819, soon after the United States was founded, Congress authorized $10,000 annually to support religious groups and individuals who wished to establish mission schools in tribal communities. Stressing white values, the schools taught boys farming and blacksmithing and girls domestic skills. For the next several decades, Indian education remained the responsibility of the churches, with federal monetary support” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Day schools proved ineffective at dismantling culture and community ties. When the Civil War ended, a new intervention spread throughout the nation, Indian boarding schools. The first federal school, under the direction of the BIA, opened in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. It was not until 1879, however, that the U.S. opened what is probably the most famous boarding school in Carlisle, PA, under the direction of Captain Henry Pratt, a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars in the western United States. By the 1900s, the BIA operated 251 schools, 113 of which were boarding schools, the preferred method for educating Native children even though they were more costly to operate than day schools. “It is the experience of the department that mere day schools, however well conducted, do not withdraw the children sufficiently from the influences, habits, and traditions of their home life, and produce for this reason a … limited effect” (as quoted in Adams, 1995, p. 30).

When children arrived, their hair was cut, they were stripped and scrubbed with disinfectant soap, deloused even if they didn’t need to be, and clothed in the garb of the colonizers, sometimes in cast-off Civil War uniforms. They were stripped of their given names, forbidden to speak their languages, and housed in over-crowded dormitories. They suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and because of crowded housing and poor nutrition, thousands died from tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, and other causes. They were only taught manual trades, to be farmers, tradesmen, or servants, and indoctrinated to value the morality of hard work and the ownership of private property. Those who did return home “were virtual strangers, unable to speak their own language or understand the ways of their own people” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Photo Credit: My Mother before Catholic Boarding School (“Mom age 7 – Grapes of Wrath”)

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Photo Credit: My Mother after Catholic Boarding School (“My 1st Communion”)

After the Great Depression (1934), the federal government shifted the focus of Indian education from the assimilation of Indigenous children through boarding schools to a broader integration approach within the public school system. The Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934 provided funding to cover education for Native youth within local public schools in the White communities that bordered tribal communities. The agents of child removal also shifted, from federal agents to state and local child welfare workers.

By 1976, an alarm was sounded by tribal communities and advocacy groups. The number of Indigenous children who had been removed from their families and communities had reached staggering proportions. Surveys conducted by the Association of American Indian Affairs in 1974 estimated that “approximately 25-35 per cent of all Indian children are separated from their families and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions” (Byler, 1977, p. 1). The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs established a task force to investigate Indian child welfare issues and discovered that foster care placement rates for Native American children were more than five times higher than those of non-Indians. Adoption rates for Native American children, predominantly by non-Native homes, were also significantly higher than those of non-Indians. The task force concluded that “the removal of Indian children from their natural homes and tribal setting has been and continues to be a national crisis [,] … seriously impacts a long-term tribal survival and … Non-Indian public and private agencies, with some exceptions, show almost no sensitivity to Indian culture and society” (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four, 1977, p. 52).

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was passed the next year to end the destruction of tribal cultures through policies that encouraged keeping Native American children who were removed from their families within their tribal communities or Native American homes. In reality, the law only granted tribal courts some say in decisions affecting children, and allowed tribal governments an opportunity to place some children who were removed with families on the reservation rather than with Euro-Americans families in other locations. The law did not return total jurisdiction to tribes to design the types of practices they defined as best to promote safe and healthy families. Despite ICWA, child welfare policies and best practices are still largely dictated by federal and state governments. The illusion of control represented by ICWA, however, has kept many tribes from challenging an oppressive system. And the backlash to ICWA from counties, states, and Euro-Americans who desperately want to adopt Native American children has been unrelenting.

Tribal child welfare workers with caseloads of 50 to 120 families struggle to keep children safe and families intact. Their clients span multi-county communities, states, and the nation as a whole. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the appalling ignorance of the general U.S. population about tribal histories and cultures. An even greater obstacle, however, is the rock-solid assumption among most non-Native child welfare experts and practitioners that they really know what is best for all children. Culture doesn’t matter. Community is irrelevant. What matters is being adopted as part of an insular nuclear family. They argue that nuclear families give children a sense of “permanency,” at least until they reach the age of 18.

Yet culture matters a great deal. Being part of a community with which one identifies matters as well. An exercise designed by Vera Manuel, First Nations author and teacher from British Columbia, demonstrates the profound difference between the Euro-American concept of “permanence” and an Indigenous sense of belonging to a community and culture. She engaged participants in sculpting the organization of a pre-contact tribal community. She placed a small pouch on a chair in the center of the room, explaining that it contained things that were sacred to her. The sacred pouch represented the spiritual beliefs that were the center and foundation of the community. She then asked for volunteers to act out the role of children. She asked them to form a circle facing the sacred bundle. Next, she asked for volunteers to role-play parents and form a circle around all of the children. The next volunteers, encircling parents, were aunties and uncles and other adults in the community. Elders formed the final circle of those community members who were facing toward the children and the sacred center. Around the periphery, facing outward, were the volunteers who agreed to represent leaders and warriors who were responsible for protecting the community from harmful outside forces. Next, a few brave volunteers agreed to play the role of “child stealers,” the ga-ga.

In early times, the ga-ga were federal BIA agents or missionaries. In later times, they were state and county child welfare workers. These agents of churches, the federal government, counties, and states broke through the protective circles to forcibly remove the children. Despite resistance by the leaders, warriors, elders, aunties and uncles, and parents, children were removed from their place at the center of the community and taken away by strangers using threats and force. Participants in the sculpted exercise were asked to act out their reactions to losing their children. Without their children, parents, adults, and elders cast their eyes down and turned inward, wrapped their arms over their heart, turned their backs to the center, or left the circle. Warriors and leaders were deeply shamed by their defeat and also turned inward or left. Their meaning in life was lost. When some of the children returned as adults, the community was often disorganized and unrecognizable. Without a purpose, the circles of care that had surrounded them as children were in disarray.

Most agents of removal may well have sincerely believed that Native children would be better off away from their families and cultures. Removal and outplacement continued for generations, funded and encouraged by federal policies and religious institutions. However, for the Ojibwe community members of all ages who have shared their stories with me, the life-long consequences of removal are clear. Each told me that the experiences he or she shared with me were unique and too painful for others in the community to hear or understand. They suffered silently, alone, with the legacy of self-doubt, pain, and anger. Their families and communities suffered as well. Most internalized the shame and blamed their removal on their parents’ substance abuse or irresponsibility. Few recognized that their experience was part of an enduring and deliberate federal agenda to eradicate tribal cultures, a repetition of what their parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors had survived.

Healing the legacy of widespread government-sponsored abuse of Native American children, families and communities is not an easy prospect. Children who were removed from their families and communities, warehoused and abused in federal and religious institutions, or placed with families of non-Indian strangers who were at best not able to help children be integrated into their tribal communities and cultures, and at worst were cruel and abusive, face special challenges as parents. Each generation has stories to tell about their experiences:

• being kidnapped from a village road at the age of five and delivered to a federal boarding school more than 100 miles away still carrying scars more than 70 years later from punishment inflicted on their first day for speaking the only language they knew, “Indian,”
• being the first of many community children placed in a white foster home where Native children were beaten and sexually abused from the age of nine until they were 18 and old enough to exit care,
• running away at the age of 15 to fend for themselves because system interventions only intensified their abuse,
• returning “home” to the tribal community only to find that the mythic culture they created in their imagination to survive years of exile was not there to welcome them and enfold them in a healing circle.

Tribes have done their best to rebuild communities of care despite centuries of destructive policies, and they have made significant strides. There is much yet to do and tribes need allies who understand the harm that has been done and are willing to work in partnership to help banish the ga-ga once and for all. As I write this essay in 2014, Native American children are still more likely to be removed from their families and communities than children from other backgrounds (Summers, Wood, & Donovan, 2013), and the ICWA provisions that offer some protections have suffered serious setbacks. Still, I believe it is within our power to prevent future generations of Native Americans from losing their connections to family and community, to their languages and cultures, and to their self-respect. It is possible to create policies, institutions, and practice paradigms that prevent abuse and neglect while also preserving families, communities, and cultures if we care enough to engage in constructive dialogue and work together as advocates in whatever ways we can.

circles of care samhsa dot com

Photo Credit: Circles of Care – samhsa.gov

Chi miigwetch to the community members who made me feel welcome and shared their stories, laughter, and pain, and whose inspiring work to improve the lives of the next generations will continue to give me hope despite these troubling times.

Works Cited:

Adams, David Wallace (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience: 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Byler, William (1977). The destruction of American Indian families. In Steven Unger (Ed.), The destruction of American Indian families (pp. 1-11). New York: Association on American Indian Affairs.

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

Summers, Alicia, Steve Wood, & Jennifer Donovan (2013). Disproportionality rates for children of color in foster care, Technical Assistance Bulletin. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Available from http://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/Disproportionality%20Rates%20for%20Children%20of%20Color%20in%20Foster%20Care%202013.pdf

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four: Federal, State and Tribal Jurisdiction (1977). Final Report to the American Indian Review Commission, In U.S. Senate Reports, Vol 1-11, Miscellaneous Reports on Public Bills, XI, 95th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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Living in the Space Between Cultures – Part 2

Carol A. Hand

Sometimes, living between cultures means looking at the world in different ways. As someone who doesn’t look “Indian,” I have experienced how much easier it is to live with white skin privilege. I blend in, at least outwardly, and feel invisible. Yet when I have lived and traveled throughout northern Wisconsin, I noticed that residents in communities that border reservations have a more finely attuned skill at discerning physical differences. I didn’t feel invisible when I walked into a business or restaurant. The scrutiny didn’t feel welcoming or friendly, nor was the treatment I sometimes experienced. “You can’t cash your check here,” said the teller at the bank I had used for years in the White border community. “We don’t know who you are. You need to go to the branch on the reservation.” Nor was the store cashier welcoming when she greeted me loudly so everyone can hear, “You can’t come in here with that bag on your shoulder (a laptop that I couldn’t leave while I waited for my car to be serviced). “It’s too big. You might steal something.” Or the more subtle forms of discrimination. Sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes watching as all of the new White arrivals are served and finally realizing that my wait will be infinite. Sometimes I confronted it, but sometimes I felt shamed, angered, or both by the treatment. (It reminds me of how exposed I felt during the years I lived on the flat farmlands of central Illinois without the presence of trees to shelter me from the elements.)

As a child, I embraced my Ojibwe heritage without shame. In fact, it made me feel special. In my New Jersey community, it was seen as “cool” by my classmates. Still, I worked harder at everything I did out of a sense of responsibility to prove to my mother that being Ojibwe didn’t make us inferior. Feeling proud of my heritage also made me more likely to reach out to others who were “different.” Yet I noticed the importance of “skin-color gradients” on my mother’s reservation. When I stayed with my relatives in the summer, I saw that the cousins whose skin pigmentation was darker were treated differently, more harshly, than those with lighter colored hair and skin. In retrospect, I am grateful that my childhood spared me from that expression of internalized racism. I doubt that I would have survived it.

In school and professional arenas, I felt it was irrelevant and unnecessary to point out my cultural heritage. It didn’t prevent me from using critical thinking in school. It didn’t matter to the nursing home residents I cared for, or the people I served in restaurants. That changed, however, when I had to address the systematic discrimination and entrenched hegemony built into state policies that denied sovereign rights to tribes, or sanctioned agency practices that denied access to those who were most vulnerable.

I felt obligated to publicly disclose my cultural identity and assume a more visible advocacy role not only on behalf of tribes, but also for others who were similarly excluded due to age, class, gender, or ability. It was not a comfortable position. Doing so changed how people related to me, both Whites and Native Americans. Once again, I felt I was standing exposed on the prairie. I was “othered.” Suddenly, every word I uttered or action I took was carefully scrutinized. It seemed as though every contribution or mistake I made was publicly acclaimed and amplified well beyond their significance in ways that made me feel like a trained monkey who could talk, the personification of all the negative assumptions about Native Americans, or like a clumsy purple alien from outer space.

difference

Photo Credit: Gary Larson, The Far Side (1983 FarWorks, Inc.)

My boss introduced me to the Governor and other people in important public positions as “our well-tailored Chippewa.” She also made sure that I received a highly publicized award, not for one of the projects that I knew made a difference for elders in the state, but for a minor tribal initiative that showcased the agency’s commitment to Affirmative Action, confirming for others who were more deserving of recognition that the degrees I earned were not the reason I held my position. Although I found public scrutiny uncomfortable, I was able to maintain a sense of humor and use my position to serve as an advocate for people who would otherwise not be represented. As a state employee, my small successes to target resources to elders with the greatest needs still remained unobserved in the tedious policy documents I produced or the responses I ghost-wrote for the Department Secretary or Governor.

The opportunity to sometimes remain invisible changed, however, when I assumed the role of deputy director for an inter-tribal organization. For the executive branch administrators who were once my superiors in the hierarchy of state government, the “well-tailored Chippewa” had become a vocal advocate who would make sure that marginalized voices were heard in policy deliberations. Socially constructed beliefs about education and titles gave my comments more credibility. The inter-tribal staff who had unquestioningly imposed state and federal restrictions on tribes in the past eagerly shifted when they realized it was their job to represent tribes and question policies and procedures that created undue hardships for tribal people. University faculty who were used to exploiting tribal communities for research projects had to follow more egalitarian protocols and community direction. State funders who had once easily used “divide and conquer” strategies with tribal leaders to avoid awarding reasonable grants to address compelling needs or refused to recognize tribal sovereignty no longer found this approach effective. My Ojibwe boss loved to tease me about my feisty advocacy, asking where my white horse was parked and routinely giving me replicas of the statue of liberty.

super hero

Photo Credit: pagescoloring.net

It was exciting to watch as inter-tribal staff began to consciously challenge hegemony. Yet carrying the responsibility to transform power relations is a lonely life-style, not merely a job. It made me a target for those who wanted to resume their hegemony over tribes, as well as for tribal leaders and community members who wanted to be in the spotlight. I was grateful for an excuse to give up working 12 hour days seven days a week. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to try something new, but that’s another story…

Aadi & bubbles

Photo Credit: Aadi (my grandson) and me, blowing bubbles – 2001

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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.

***

 

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.

frontier-wagon-circle

Photo Credit: themoderatevoice.com

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