Where does one begin to unpack the factors that contributed to yesterday’s attempted overthrow of the nation’s governing structure? What comes to mind is the profound effect the circumstances of our birth have on how we learn to see and understand the world. Our “positionality.” The time and place of birth matter greatly. Our status in the nations or societies or cultures which we inherit from our parents and ancestors affect the rest of our lives, often in ways we may never see or understand.
Sometimes, those of us born into the liminal space between differing ancestries and cultures learn at an early age how to see the world from differing vantage points. We directly witness the consequences that racism and classism had on our parents and grandparents. At an early age, we begin to question the values and governing structures created by a ruling class that not only allowed an attempted coup to materialize on January 6, 2021, but were also the actual architects that purposefully imposed oppressive structures and policies designed to preserve the power of the Anglo- and European-American capitalist elite.
It’s easy to assign blame for yesterday’s events on “thugs,” “neo-Nazis,” “White-nationalists,” or “domestic terrorists.” It’s easy to blame demented Donald Trump who, himself, is merely a product of a materially privileged, morally bereft, and emotionally abusive childhood. And it’s easy to blame the racism that runs rampant through the nation’s criminal (in)justice systems. Yet through the lenses of those on the margins, none of these simplistic explanations and reactions come anywhere close to explaining or addressing the root causes of yesterday’s events.
What do we expect from the soul of a nation built on genocide, enslavement, and unearned entitlement based on gender, the claim of property “ownership,” and ancestry? Why should it be surprising when the legitimacy of the governing structure of such a nation is challenged by those who inherited their positions on the margins and view themselves as victims of its unfair system?
In a very real sense, all of us have been socialized to accept and internalize our congenital place in a given society. Every aspect of the social values and institutions we encounter is affected by our positionality – our birth, where we live, how our parents parent us, the quality of nutrition, care, and education we receive. We are constantly reminded about our place in the social order. Myths of meritocracy encourage a largely unattainable false hope that we can achieve increased social status if we work hard enough. We are rarely, if ever, encouraged to question the legitimacy of the values or institutions that constrain our life possibilities, though.
The work and resources of people on the margins are essential for the continuing existence and comfort of the parasitic elite. The issue of how to control the vastly more sizeable percentage of the population that is marginalized has been accomplished through a capillary network of discriminatory practices in every aspect of people’s lives by their ability to pay. Education is a crucial dimension in the socialization process. Those who are lowest in the social structure are the least likely to receive an education that prepares them to think critically and aspire to professional careers (other than sports) or leadership positions.
When confronted by events like the one we all just witnessed, I am grateful for a framework that can be used to think critically about the differing ways cultures have conceptualized conflict and operationalized their values in the social structures and institutions that evolved over millennia. A simple question illustrates how profound differing views can be. Does a society seek to help heal individuals and damaged social relations or does it seek revenge by punishing individual offenders? Rupert Ross’s work offers a fascinating contrast to consider.
Contrast between Ojibway/Cree and Euro-Canadian Cultures
Adapted from the work of Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group.
The most important of Ross’ (1992, pp. 165-184) observations from my perspective is that way he characterized cultural differences in fundamental beliefs about human beings. In his role as an Assistant Crown Attorney in Ontario, Canada, he had an opportunity to work with Ojibway and Cree tribal communities and described their belief that children were born in a state of “original sanctity.” In contrast, as a Euro-Canadian, he argues that the cultural view held by most non-Native Canadians is a belief that people are born “in a state of original sin.” He goes on to point out how these differing views resulted in distinctive ways of dealing with conflict that were linked to very specific goals. Simply stated, one culture focused on isolating and punishing deviant individuals and the other cultures were interested in healing individuals and their relationships with others.
The United States is once again at risk of repeating mistakes its made in terms of how the nation responds to conflict. The quick avenging call to action is being sounded to punish the “bad” people. I feel a sense of responsibility today to type these words even though they are unlikely to be read by the people who are in greatest need of wise counsel.
We CANNOT resolve conflict by assigning one-sided blame. How many of us have reached out to try to understand those who have differing values and political views? I am not suggesting it’s easy, believe me. I have participated in activities to find common ground on polarizing issues with people whose views were diametrically opposed to mine. Sometimes the best we could do was to civilly agree to disagree. The positive outcome, though was that no one was harmed and nothing was destroyed in the process.
I have no desire to assign blame to anyone. Perhaps it’s the researcher in me. I just want to understand what we need to do differently as a society to help all people feel they are valued members with a vested interest in our collective, peaceful survival on a world we all need to take care of. I want to do what I can now to help us make that transition.
May we take time to reflect and choose the wiser path to peace and healing.
It has been impossible for me to keep up with blogging this month.
I have missed reading your posts and have been so belated with responses to comments. Occasionally I write, but I hesitate to post because I am so behind reciprocating visits and thanking people for sharing their thoughtful, lovely work and comments.
I began the spring with an ambitious plan to improve the quality of the soil and ordered a LARGE truckload of compost from a cattle farmer who raises his herd humanely without antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical feed. Ten yards of compost, though, is a lot to move, shovel by shovel, wagonload by wagonload, from my backyard driveway down the winding, sloping path to the front yard.
But it’s good, honest work that helps me find moments of peace in these unsettling times. Gardening gives me a chance to reflect about life, traveling though time. Often, it helps me create something that I hope will lift others’ spirits, too.
June 3, 2020
ah, these trying times forcing me to go ever deeper to discover yet more unresolved woundedness
violence, cruelty, duplicity triggering old memories of my socially awkward years as a child, teen, college student
always curious about nature and others from different cultures preferring reading, discovery and solving complex puzzles
and always uncomfortable with superficial people who competed, bullied, and seemed so easily bored when alone
I honestly preferred being alone it’s confusing for someone who reads or feels others’ emotions never knowing which are actually mine
we see the world through lenses programmed by our past experiences expectations and assumptions influencing what we think we see our behavior, expressions, posture affecting how others respond filtered through their unique lenses we’re like marionettes pulled by invisible strings in a reciprocal dance based on assumptions unable to determine what is really “real”
June 15, 2020
Mid-June Reflections 2020
August dry has come early The earth baked and cracked Close-mown lawns brown and brittle Day after day dawns cold and windy Trees and gardens struggling, aching for life-giving rain
It seems a metaphor for the world these days of virus fears and in-your-face denial of state-sanctioned violence revealing cultures that clearly value property and profit more than people and the global ecosphere
So many are struggling to find reasons and ways for simply staying alive during this drought of compassion and intelligence
June 23, 2020
June Reflections – 2020 Visions?
The wisdom of elders seated on downtown benches watching the traffic pass by some measuring the souls of preoccupied walkers too busy to smile or say hello or stop and listen to what they’ve learned from years of living life invisible on the margins
My walks with my dog, Pinto, are often through unexplored territory. No two days are the same as he picks our path through the neighborhood for reasons I cannot discern. This morning, he took us deep into the business district of this part of town, making sure to sniff almost every lamp post and lift his leg to memorialize his passing.
As we neared the light at an intersection, I noticed the elder sitting on a bench smoking his cigarette. His presence brought insights and memories. These days I try to remember to be present and kind. It’s what I can do to counterbalance the alienating fear of others during the era of pandemic social distancing.
I reflect on the term “social distancing.” I remember reading a powerful insight shared by a dear blogging friend a while ago. She noted the difference between “physical distancing” required to slow the spread of COVID-19, and “social distancing.” Social distancing is a prominent characteristic I have often noticed in the U.S. Think about people’s behavior in elevators or on crowded city thoroughfares. People typically don’t make eye-contact or exchange greetings with strangers.
Yet it’s been my experience that elders on downtown benches often do notice others.
“Nice dog,” the elder we encountered said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
Does he bite?,” he asked.
Yes, he may bite,” I replied. “I adopted him seven years ago as a special-needs dog that was abused. He had to learn to defend himself. I used to have to handle him with leather gloves when I first got him. Now, he’s usually gentle with me or people he’s learned to trust.”
“I will never understand how people can abuse dogs.” The elder said. “People can be so cruel.”
“I agree. They can be,” I said. “It’s very sad and troubling.”
“It was good to speak with you. I hope you have a good day,” I said as Pinto and I continued on our way.
June 30, 2020
Gardening is one thing I can do during these crazy, isolating times. Neighbors and strangers stop by to visit when I’m working in the yard. They tell me the gardens make a difference to them and others they know. But it’s a lot of work!
Many trees, bushes, and gardens needed to be saved, repaired, or replaced because of damage from heavy winter snow, hungry rabbits, and the passage of time. Keeping plants alive has also been an increasing challenge during our two-month drought during May and June. Fortunately, we finally got rain for the last two evenings (0.19 of an inch of precipitation which brings our total for June to 0.66 of an inch, and 1.60 inches for May and June*).
The good news is that half of the compost pile has been carefully placed. The bad news? It’s much warmer now. Shoveling and hauling compost is even more work than it was in May and early June.
Gardens may not touch others’ hearts, but they do help me remember what’s most important in my life. I’m deeply grateful to be blessed with a little piece of land and the ability to kneel and touch the earth – to plant food and flowers that will perhaps feed me, my family, and some of my neighbors in the long winter to come. Of course, birds and squirrels demand their share even though fences make it more difficult for rabbits to claim what remains.
The greatest gift of this time, though, has been the opportunity to think deeply, to see more clearly without the distraction of having to relate to others. I’ve had a chance to explore the powerful outrage I feel that has deepened and intensified over the years about the wetiko spirit of this country, the mindless need for ever more power and stuff that has continued to destroy lives and the earth across centuries.
Reflection has led me to the equally deep certainty that this world does not need more anger if we are ever to heal the hubris and ignorance that keeps us from living in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth. All I can do is work on my own thoughts, words, and actions to transmute the power of those raging emotions into compassion, patience, and integrity no matter what others do, moment to moment. To look deeply enough to find the strength to hold center.
Kneeling on the earth with my hands caressing the soil has helped me find and hold center during these trying times. Yes, it’s hard work. It’s a job that carries no guarantees of success or permanence. So many forces are outside of my control. But shovel by shovel, seed by seed, I am grateful for the chance to do something that helps create a healthier world in my little space. It’s the legacy I can leave for the generations to follow, and the gift I can offer to virtual friends I may never meet face-to-face.
I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.
The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.
Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.
For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.
My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.
Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
In Search of Safety
Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.
New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.
I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.
I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.
Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.
Allendale House, 1949
I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.
Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.
Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.
I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.
The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.
Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.
I just couldn’t resist sharing a bit of humor in the face of the present tragic times. Normally, I abhor ad hominem attacks. Sometimes, though, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to confront overwhelming destructive power…
“The Liar Tweets Tonight” by Roy Zimmerman and the ReZisters
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.
Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.
The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions. We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work. It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.
Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.
I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.
An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.
As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.
We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)
It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class:
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.
This is the second installment of sharing older posts while I focus on surviving the beginning of a new semester. It deals with the beginning journey of discovering a philosophy of education.
Sometimes important life lessons are painful. We may learn what we don’t want to be when we grow up. As someone who never entertained being a college professor, I learned a most valuable lesson as a young child about the difference between being an educator who encourages excellence and critical thinking rather than one who serves as an agent of normalization and social control.
I have had the honor of working with students who saw the world through many different lenses. Some were smarter, some kinder, some were better thinkers and writers, and many traveled further or overcame challenges I couldn’t even imagine. It was and still is my intention to encourage others to discover and express their gifts.
I might not have realized the importance of this approach without experiencing a third-grade teacher who did quite the opposite. She led me down a path of critical reflection at an early age and I have learned to be deeply grateful for that lesson.
Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”
The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?
“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”
The room was hushed: In silence rose the
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671)
Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class.
“You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”
Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.
Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy, Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy on deviantART
Life has granted me many more chances to test out ways to share information that feels important. Perhaps others I have encountered on my journey found the ideas timely and helpful. Like the jester, though, my responsibility is merely to share what flows through me in the moment through words, silences, and actions. I may never know whether anyone is listening. That is as it should be for the messages belong to anyone who is paying attention and understands the meaning in their own way…