each alone yet with others on the stage masked, dressed in black, seated in a darkened auditorium in appropriately physically distanced chairs the present-day requirements for COVID-19
scripts in hand – readers of others’ stories – ready to share the painful journey of our ancestors through times of death and suffering to help ourselves and others better understand the forces that molded us centuries before we were born
through the legacy of suffering passed on in our DNA, the inferior social status, powerlessness, and social institutions forced on our ancestors by newcomers who saw us as savages and heathens because they knew nothing about our ways
it’s a heavy burden we’ve carried for a lifetime but we’re learning that our ancestors’ legacy provides a road map of tenacious resiliency that can help us face the sometimes overwhelming grief over what was lost as we strengthen our connections with each other and the earth to heal the past and breathe life into new possibilities
I chose to be present to learn and share despite the frailty of my aging frame bones cold and aching in the chilly auditorium stiffly walking to the podium with my heart glowing resolved to share words of suffering and healing from the depths of my spirit for the sake of all my relations of the past, present and future…
Although there were only three CSS personnel in the audience and a reduced cast of readers because of the accelerating spread of COVID in our state and county, the performance still had a profound effect on those who were present. This poem is my way of thanking Carl Gawboy and the two coordinators of the event, Michelle Robertson and Cynthia Donner (both Assistant Professors at CSS), for their continuing commitment to raise awareness about the legacy of historical trauma that has touched the lives of Indigenous survivors of genocidal policies for centuries in an effort to promote healing of the soul-deep wounds survivors still carry.
Memories of my mother fill my heart this morning
with a confusing cacophony of feelings –
gratitude for the time I had to be with her,
sorrow for the loss, both hers and mine,
and hope that she finally found peace
The day of her birth is rapidly approaching
On March 1, she would have celebrated her 99th birthday
but she was 89 when she died in the early morning on 10/10/2010
a blessed release from a progressive debilitating illness –
I was her legal guardian for the last 14 years of her life
and witnessed a number of things that will stay with me –
the need to protect her from the cruelty of Ojibwe people
who took advantage of her when she could no longer resist
despite the Midewiwin Code – honor elders, wisdom, and life
balanced by the kindness of others who cared for her
along with non-Native strangers who learned to love her
When she could no longer remember who she was,
I wrote down my memories as best I could
interspersed with photos I found in her belongings
to help her recall the old days and remember
how much light she brought into the lives of others
I decided to share the account I wrote about her life in 2006 on this blog now in short chapters
perhaps because the health center she helped create as a legacy
for the Ojibwe tribal community where she was born and raised
is being threatened for momentary financial and political gain
by those who know little of history and don’t seem to understand
the importance of protecting community health and tribal sovereignty for the sake of future generations
or perhaps I’m sharing it just because she has been in my heart
as I find myself missing the place I still think of as home these days
surrounded by old friends who know what historical trauma means
and still dedicate their work and lives
to helping others and speaking truth to power
…but probably it’s a bit of both
Note: The formatting of the original document has been lost in the process of converting it to post on WordPress, and old photos copied many times from various documents are somewhat blurry. Unfortunately, the originals were damaged in a flood years ago. If you click on the photos, though, they enlarge and are a little easier to see.
Preface – ii
Dedication Poem – iii
Norma’s Parents – 1
Norma as a Little Girl – 4
Public School Days – 10
Off to Nursing School and the “Big City” – 16
A New Life Far from Home – 21
A Growing Family – 24
In Search of Safety – 26
Family Reunited – 29
A New Career – Keystone Nursing Home – 33
Another Venture – Log Cabin Tavern – 41
Indian Health Service – Southwest Connections – 44
Life in “Chicken Scratch” – 48
Coming Home: Leadership, Retirement, and Loss – 49
This compilation of photographs and stories has been scanned and assembled with love for my family. Included are photos found in albums, boxes, and donated by relatives, with commentary sometimes written on the backs of pictures. I know of no other way to pass on the stories I have heard about my mother. Unfortunately, the stories are sketchy and incomplete. As my mother enters the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, there is no way I can look to her to fill in the blanks, and many of the elders who could help have already passed on – not uncommon given the shorter life expectancy for Native Americans.
In many ways, my mother’s life has been unexceptional – she has not gained great fame. Yet, in other ways her journey and accomplishments have been extraordinary. There is a saying that applies, although I have long forgotten the source. “It is not what a person achieves that counts, but how far she has had to travel.”
I leave this partial account of my mother’s journey for those who have not heard the stories. May you know that there is hope in the most discouraging circumstances, nobility in the humblest among us, and the possibility to touch lives and leave lasting contributions that make the world a kinder place.
A SONG FOR MY PEOPLE*
whose eyes I wear in my soul
in joyous praise for gnarled hands
precious children laughter in the soup of pain
Everyone of us beautifull
the strong, the fearful, the weary, the angry
the traditional, the assimilated, the ones on both sides
of the bloody borders
playing Bingo, dancing in Pow Wows
How beautifull we are How complete
just as we are
Grief & confusion wail through our hills
Above it I sing a song for my people
How we are beautifull
*Chrystos (1991), Dream On
My mother’s life has been “a song for her people.” As a daughter and niece, as a wife and mother, a nurse and administrator she has walked in two worlds. She has balanced the messages that she was both exceptional and inferior because she was Ojibwe, in a very real sense placing her in the liminal space between cultures. Between worlds, her best friend was a dog, Suzie, whose death she grieved deeply. Dear mother, may you find love, true friendship, and community…
Agnes Sero, Norma’s mother, and Agnes’ two sisters, Margaret and Sarah, spent at least part of their adolescence in a lumber camp where their father, Edward Sero, worked. Agnes’ mother was Angeline Shandreau. Sarah died at an early age. She was a special aunt to Norma, and in Norma’s eyes, she was the loveliest of the sisters. Norma told me many times that the sisters became prostitutes at an early age. Given where they were raised and how lovely they were, perhaps this is true, and if true, perhaps the only way they could exercise some control over their exploitation.
When Agnes gave birth to her first child, Norma, she was 17 years old. These photos suggest she was a playful young woman despite her childhood.
Norma’s father, Raymond Ackley, lived in the Sokaogon or Mole Lake Ojibwe community. He is a direct linear descendant of Chief Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi (Great Martin), Chief Mee-gee-see (Great Eagle), and William Ackley, one of the first white settlers in the area. William Ackley played an important role negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the Sokaogon Ojibwe community.
Norma as a little girl
Ray and Agnes did not stay together after Norma’s birth. At two weeks old, Norma was given to Agnes’ older sister, Anna Graveen, although Ray wanted to raise his young daughter. Anna kept Norma away from her father, creating a distance that would prevent the development of connections for future generations. There are no pictures of Anna in Norma’s papers, only letters that Anna wrote to Norma when Norma was attending nursing school in Chicago, but that is a later story.
For her first five years, Norma was raised by Anna while Anna held a seasonal job for a resort for wealthy tourists. Yet, as the commentaries on the backs of the photographs suggest, Agnes remained a part of her daughter’s life, protecting her daughter, or perhaps from Norma’s perspective, preventing her from being adopted out of her community and culture.
In the early 1900s, it was common practice for local tourist resorts to promote the novelty of Indians as a marketing strategy. Norma has saved two of the postcards from this era that show her as a little girl.
There are a few pictures of Norma as a little girl with friends and family.
There are two stories Norma shared about her early years. When she was very young, she was rounded up by BIA officials with “100 other children.” They were taken to the federal boarding school in Lac du Flambeau and housed in a large room and then, they all had their tonsils removed in an assembly-line procedure. Norma remembered becoming very ill after the operation: her throat was so sore and she was so sick that she knew she would die. One of her aunts (name unknown) came to visit her, saw how sick she was, and brought “Indian medicine” (alum) to heal her. As soon as Norma took the medicine, she got well.
When Norma was about seven or eight, Anna became very ill and Norma was scooped up by the BIA. Instead of sending her to the BIA boarding school in Lac du Flambeau, she was put on a train, alone, to travel to the Catholic Indian boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was a frightening 100- plus-mile trip for a young child. She told me only two stories about that time. She was a good student and in the eyes of the nuns, “not like the other Indians.” And she remembered scrubbing the halls and stairs on her hands and knees with a toothbrush. Only once did I hear her comment that she did not forgive the Catholic church for how she was treated.
Perhaps this photo was taken before she left, or when she was on a vacation from school.
There are few other photos from Norma’s earliest years. These were taken when she was 9 and 10.
A result of Norma’s boarding school experience was her acceptance of the Catholic religion, an important foundation for her earlier years.
Chrystos (1991). Dream on. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Press Gang Publishers. p. 70.
This is the third installment of old posts. Revisiting the post about my third grade experiences made me realize how funny memories can be. It’s as if certain events stand out, disconnected from the chronological order of what went before and after. In the process of revisiting them, connections may sometimes appear.
The connection of The Fool’s Prayer to this week’s older post is clear. In some ways, I consciously chose to be somewhat of a jester when I presented serious information about the legacy of historical trauma carried by First Nations/Native American/Indigenous Peoples. After deciding to repost this account, I wondered about the chronology of last week’s post. Did I convince my mother to come talk to my third grade class about her Ojibwe heritage before or after we shared our our poetry selections? I’m not sure if I will ever know for sure which came first or whether it would have made any difference.
I definitely inherited the legacy of historical trauma, though, from my mother and both of her parents. The shame my mother carried because of her heritage saddened me deeply. It made me want to prove that we were just as smart and gifted as others, more for her sake than for mine. Despite my many self-doubts, my mother’s shame continued to inspire me to keep trying to overcome obstacles, to make her proud. I’m not sure if she ever really knew what I did in my career, but she did tell me at one point that I was “the one bright star” in her life. That’s a heavy responsibility to carry and I’m not sure I did it very well…
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 Chippewa 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 link I watched showed staff throwing fish to each other over the heads of the customers or singing about the unique virtues of different kinds of fish. It was a very funny video and on some levels emphasized 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.
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.
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, amazingly, 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.)
I explained that 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:
Are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering;
See children in the context of their families;
Deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities;
Have a long-term, preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time;
Are well managed by competent individuals with clearly identifiable skills;
Are staffed by people who are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive services; and
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.
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. Thank raises a crucial question.
What can we do knowing that our work to help people and communities heal will still remain challenging?
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, like 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.
“Ojibwe and non-Natives alike, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, are all governed by the great leveler—nature. If we befoul our water, we poison ourselves”(Mary Annette Pember, 2016, September 15)
For more information about the Protect Our Water (Stop Enbridge Line 3) Demonstration in Duluth, Minnesota on September 28, 2019, you can visit the following links:
Water has always been so important in my life. Perhaps the time of my birth on the cusp of Pisces (two fish swimming in opposite directions) and Aquarius (the water-bearer) presaged my sense of wonder and connection to water.
As Nichols (2014, p. xiii) observes,
“One of the many possible ways to describe life would be as a series of encounters with various bodies of water. Time spent in, on, under, or near water interspersed with the periods thinking about where, when, and how to reach it next.”
My life has been blessed by positive connections to water. As a child of two profoundly different cultures, my safe places were the brook and pond near my New Jersey home, and the interconnected lakes I visited in summers on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born in northern Wisconsin. Summers also meant trips to the Atlantic Ocean where I learned how to gather clams with my toes, and camping by Lake Welch in the Ramapo Mountains of New York State. The Allegheny River provided solace during my high school years in northwestern Pennsylvania, and Lake Michigan did likewise during my early college years in Chicago, Illinois. Now, I live near the southwestern shore of Lake Superior to be closer to my daughter and grandchildren who are drawn to the water as well.
I wasn’t conscious of the importance of water throughout my life a year ago when I decided to focus the research class I teach on the connections between access to clean water and healthy communities. I am grateful that my family and students are helping me continue to learn about the increasing importance of this issue for the future world they will inherit. It is heartening to witness so many people of all ages around the globe awakening and unifying to protect the indispensable resources that are a necessity for all life.
Wallace J. Nichols (2014). Blue mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
“Awesome! Ava and I will pick you up in about an hour.”
The annual sale is an event we have often attended, even when I lived far from Duluth. I remember trips with my grandson years before my granddaughter was born twelve years ago. Some years, the weather has meant a sweltering thirsty journey in mid-June as we walked along miles of the narrow roadway crowded with parked cars and new arrivals looking for empty spaces.
This year’s trip was a different story. It was cold in the morning when we arrived. Strong blustery east winds were whipping up waves along the Lake Superior shoreline, making the mid-50 F degree temperature feel more like winter. Warnings were posted, advising visitors to stay out of the water due to the danger of rip currents.
The Park Point neighborhood has a fascinating history. It is located on what was once a narrow seven-mile sandy peninsula that extended into the lake from the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. The Anishinaabe (also known as the Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Chippewa) had established a community, Onigamiinsing – the “little portage.” The first recorded European visitor arrived in Onigamiinsing in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, a French soldier and explorer (Wikipedia; Klefstad, 2012).
“By 1852, the first non-Indian resident, George Stuntz, had established three buildings for a trading post and living space” (Klefstad, 2012, para. 4).
Land for the new city was ceded by the Ojibwe to the United States in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. (More information about the treaty can be found at the following links: Wikipedia and MNopedia.) According to a report based on the U.S. Census, American Indians comprised 2.4% of Duluth’s population by the year 2000 (Gilly, Gangl, & Skoog, n.d.). The authors of the county report suggest that American Indians, like the majority of other people of color, were concentrated in Duluth’s poorest neighborhoods and less likely to live in neighborhoods like Park Point.
The settlers who arrived in the 1800s named their new home “Duluth” in honor of the first European visitor and began transforming the environment.
“By 1871, the long peninsula became an island when Duluth dug out the ship canal that separates the Point from Canal Park, the other part of Minnesota Point. After nearly 20 years, Park Point reunited with the mainland with the 1905 opening of Duluth’s signature structure, the Aerial Bridge, first as a suspended ferry, later as a lift-span roadway” (Klefstad, 2012. para. 7).
I did capture a couple shots of the bridge as we left Park Point on the only road that connects it now to the mainland.
We walked at least a mile or two down one side of the street and back on the other side. We passed the wetlands preserve on the bayside of the island/peninsula.
And we stopped to visit most of the yards and garages where a wide assortment of items were on display – clothing, dishes, art work, photography, toys, etc. I didn’t intend to buy anything but couldn’t resist the wool winter hat hand-crafted for Alaskan winters. I needed it yesterday morning in the cold wind!
Serendipity also led us to a photographer we visited last year when my daughter and I both bought framed pictures from him. This year, we merely stopped to look and chat and met a delightful blogger, Allyson Engelstad, who shares her photos and reflections on her beautiful blog. I encourage anyone who loves to learn about nature to visit her lovely site, penncosect24.
I couldn’t resist the gliding rocking chair for sale at a price far, far less than the battered ones I have seen in thrift stores. (My granddaughter offered to lend me the money to buy it because I left my purse in the car.) It’s sturdy and comfortable. Maybe someday I will change the upholstery on the cushions. Or maybe not. I used to sew and made most of my daughter’s clothes when she was little, but the doll I began making for my granddaughter more than twelve years ago when she was a baby still needs to be finished. (You’ll have to use your imagination to figure out what the upholstery looks like. I don’t think it’s worth a photo…)
Before we left for home, we visited the windy beach on the lakeside of the island/peninsula.
As we headed home, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some of the interesting sights in the city.
I enjoyed the break from working on cleaning up my yard and gardens. There is plenty of work still waiting and a manuscript to finish editing that is haunting me as well. I just wanted to share something along with my best wishes to all before I immerse myself in work again.
I don’t think I ever told you
how much your support and kindness
meant to me during my graduate studies
You taught me so much more than research
with your kindness and artful diplomacy
You showed me how to teach
and stayed the course as my advisor
through so many changing research topics
The one thing I regret is that
someone other than you
is handing me a symbolic diploma
in the photo of my final graduation ceremony
I would guess that your humility keeps you from knowing
that I only attended the ceremony to honor you
on behalf of all of the Native American students
you mentored who were not as fortunate as I
to survive the grueling process you mastered
walking between two different worlds
with a kind heart and joyful spirit intact
All I can say is chi miigwetch, dear friend
I will do my best to honor your gifts
by sharing what I learned from you
with others I encounter on this journey
Reflecting about some of the places I have been where people were harmed reminded me of another one of my first posts. It seems fitting to share it again when I feel the need to remember how important it is for us all to listen to the voices of sentinels among us.
Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards.
Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefited from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.
It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.
When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.
I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.
A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home again to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause.
The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.
It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?
To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?
When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?
The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.
We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.
By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.
In honor of the fifth anniversary of Voices from the Margins, I am sharing one of the first posts I wrote about a life-changing choice I made many years ago to tackle an emotionally laden issue. The essay was originally posted on a blog I shared with the friend who taught me the ins and outs of blogging in 2013 and was reposted here along with other essays when this blog was started on February 12, 2014.
“We’re Honoring Indians!”
More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.
At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action.
But, I was told, there was a state statute, The Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.
The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.
My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.
Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.
After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)
I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.
It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.
I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)
The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.
Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.
The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly.
I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.
Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)
The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.
As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”
Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.
It is sometimes hard to look back on those years without thinking I should be doing more. Still, at this point in my life, it feels far more appropriate to serve in a less visible way, teaching, encouraging, and supporting younger people behind the scenes. There’s much that can only be learned through the experience of taking on issues that light a fire in one’s heart to create a world that could be.