Reflections about the Importance of Knowing Our History

Years ago, when I was forced to confront the egregious representation of Indigenous People in the public school my daughter had attended, I read an interesting book by David Wrone and Russell Nelson, Jr. (1982). “Who’s the savage?” The school district decided to sue me, along with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as a co-defendant, to prevent the use of “The Pupil Nondiscrimination Statute” to end the demeaning name and cartoonish images they used to promote their high school.

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I spoke with Dr. Wrone, who, along with a distinguished list of other scholars, agreed to be an expert witness in the case. They were never called to testify. I was not allowed by the judge to testify, either. Only the courageous pro bono attorney from ACLU who agreed to represent me was allowed to speak on my behalf as I sat silently beside her. The school district won the case, but lost the larger battle in a later ruling by the State Attorney General. Although I could not use the statute to end the school district’s use of racist caricatures, others could use the statute to challenge local school districts in the future, and many did. (My first post on this blog describes the process in more detail.)

I was reminded of this experience when I watched the following video that features a friend, Carl Gawboy, an Ojibwa scholar and artist.

What’s killing Minnesota’s moose?

YouTube suggested two more.

Why the US Army tried to exterminate the bison

And

How the US stole thousands of Native American children

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I leave you with a question that, tragically, is still relevant today. “Who’s the savage?” Who will benefit by erasing history about the true costs of invasive colonialism across the globe?

Work Cited

David R. Wrone & Russell S. Norton, Jr. (Eds.). Who’s the Savage? Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

History Keeps Repeating – A Reblog

The news about Afghanistan this morning was heartbreaking and decontextualized. How easily we forget the tragic U.S. and global actions that led to so much needless devastation, suffering, and death. It brought to mind my memories from the aftermath of September 11, 2001, almost 20 years ago. It seems important to reblog something I wrote in 2017. I hope it helps provide another perspective in these troubling times when news seems so one-sided.

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History Keeps Repeating

(April 19, 2017)

I wonder how many have experienced being a sensitive child born into a world of chaos and abuse. Perhaps your first memories are similar to the ones described in a post I wrote years ago for a friend’s blog.

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

Thus began a life lived in the tragic gap between what is and what could be. A life straddling cultures, socio-economic classes, and religious beliefs. Surviving childhood abuse and rape as a sensitive soul brings powerful insights and abilities as well as deep wounds that may take more than one lifetime to heal. Compassion, sorrow, and rage at callous injustice compete in ongoing inner struggles. “Breathe. Detach. Reflect. Do what you can to inspire others to see their own beauty and create new possibilities even though you know it’s not an easy journey. Try anyway, even though you don’t always see yourself worthy of walking this path.”

Events like the bombing of Afghanistan – again – remind me why it’s important to try anyway. History keeps repeating itself. Maybe this time I’ll be able to communicate the message in a way that can be heard.

In 2001-2002, I conducted a critical ethnographic study of child welfare in a rural Ojibwe community. The topic was important to me because Native American children continue to be removed from families and communities in disproportionate numbers. Removing children is a continuing form of cultural genocide. Many previous studies of Native Americans offered justification for this practice. They portrayed Native communities as though they were isolated from the rest of the world, and cultures as if frozen in the long ago past destined to inevitably disappear. I still wonder how anyone could ignore the obvious and profound effects that colonial subjugation has continued to have for Indigenous communities and cultures.

The past and present socio-political context of U.S. Indian and child welfare policies were an important part of my research. I wanted to understand the community and culture from as many different vantage points as possible during my time “in the field.” My first week, I was lucky. An Ojibwe elder shared a story about his childhood that provided a crucial framework and foundation for my study. The information would have remained significant in any case. But the date of our conversation, September 10, 2001, made it clear that even in remote areas global issues have profound effects.

As I work on editing the book manuscript I wrote about my research, I can’t help reflecting on our inability as a nation to learn from history. Two weeks ago, I edited and revised the following excerpt.

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Research Fieldnotes: Monday, October 8, 2001

I’m eager to return to the border town and reservation. The morning is cool and clear as I set out for the long drive. But my heart is heavy with news from the world far from the ceded territories of the Ojibwe. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began yesterday as the U.S. and its ally, Great Britain, launched an intensive bombing campaign. Retaliation against a poor nation that is not responsible for 911 is so senseless. There will be no positive outcomes for killing other innocent people. “Operation Enduring Freedom,” as the invasion is named, will not bring freedom. I fear it will only result in more death and suffering.

As I drive, I remember President Eisenhower’s observations from so many years ago.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. (Chance of Peace speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, DC on April 16, 1953)

War will affect the hopes of all of the children in the U.S. and Afghanistan. I have no words to express the deep sadness I feel. So I sing, belting out verses of songs and prayers for peace as tears stream from my eyes. I notice the bald-headed eagle flying above my car, circling overhead as I pray and sing. I wonder. “Is the eagle’s presence merely a coincidence? Or is it a sign that what I’m doing will forge a path to build understanding and peace?

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Present-day Reflections. I don’t remember ever learning anything about Afghanistan in school, even though it’s been inhabited for at least 50,000 years and is the location of some the oldest farming communities in the world. It has been a predominantly Muslim country since 882 CE comprised of diverse indigenous tribes ruled by a central monarchy. Despite its land-locked location, Afghanistan has remained an important connecting point between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

In recent history it once again became the site of competing interests. In the mid-1800s, Great Britain imposed colonial rule over Afghanistan’s neighbor, India, leading to an ongoing struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union for control of the area. Internal conflicts within Afghanistan between those with differing views of governance, monarchy versus communism, erupted into civil war. Both the Soviet Union and United States provided cash and weapons to aid and arm competing armies. In 1979, the Soviet Union finally sent in troops and took control of the country. It’s estimated that 1 million Afghan people were killed by Soviet troops and their Afghan allies. Many more Afghan people fled to other nations before the Soviet Union withdrew their forces in 1989 (Admin, PBS, 2006).

During the 1980s in the U.S., funding was significantly reduced for the social welfare safety net programs intended to help poor families and children with access to health care, education, housing, income security, and nutrition (Karger & Stoesz, 2010). At the same time, billions of dollars flowed into Afghanistan to arm and support insurgent anti-communist forces that were fighting against Soviet occupation (Coll, 2005).

Due to ongoing wars, Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world when Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001. Between October 7, 2001 and January 1, 2002, an estimated 1,000 to 1,300 civilians were killed as a direct result of bombing (Conetta, 2002a). By mid-January, 2002, another 3,200 had died of starvation, exposure, illness or injuries related to invasive bombing by the U.S. and Great Britain (Conetta, 2002b).

Eisenhower’s warning proved to be true. Children and families in both nations have continued to be affected by the costs of war on many levels.

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Research Fieldnotes: Monday, October 8, 2001 (continued)

The eagle and long drive give me a chance to compose myself before I reach the reservation.

I arrive at Henry’s house at about 10:40, only ten minutes late for our scheduled meeting….

Community members gathered at the elder’s center the next day for lunch, as they did most weekdays. “I can’t understand why the Afghani people don’t like us,” Maymie says. The elders talk of anthrax, gardens, and making apple cider. They don’t seem to be concerned about the threat of terrorism here, but they do express their confusion about why others in the world seem to hate Americans.

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A few days ago, the U.S bombed Afghanistan again with “the mother of all bombs.” Operation Enduring Freedom? Other choices are possible and far more likely to be successful if that really is the goal of U.S. international actions.

I honestly don’t know how to effectively communicate with those who don’t seem to be able to listen or hear. Sometimes all I can do is find moments of beauty despite the deep sorrow I feel. Other times, I just cry, as I did on my first Christmas. Today, I choose to share this message along with my prayers for peace despite the risk of being ignored, criticized or misunderstood.

Works Cited:

Admin (2006, October 10). The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. PBS Newshour. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/asia-july-dec06-soviet_10-10/.

Coll, Steve (1005). Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Conetta, Carl. (24 January, 2002a). Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a higher rate of civilian bombing casualties. PDA: Project on Defense Alternatives. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from http://www.comw.org/pda/0201oef.html .

Conetta, Carl. (30 January, 2002). Strange victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war. PDA: Project on Defense Alternatives. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from http://www.comw.org/pda/0201strangevic.html.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. (1953, April 16). Chance of Peace. Speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chance_for_Peace_speech on March 15, 2015.

Karger, Howard Jacob & Stoesz, David (2010). American social welfare policy: A pluralist approach, 6th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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Reflections from the Margins – August 15, 2021

Honestly, there are times

when I prefer not to bridge cultures

to make thoughtless people feel comfortable

for behaving in ways that are childish,

offensive, invasive, or disrespectful to others

because they take their unearned

unquestioned privilege for granted

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I reserve the power to simply walk away

without a glance or comment

and let them think what they will

but sometimes I feel called to stand

with others in solidarity against insanity

the sad fact is that self-absorption

has a toxic impact on everything else

and threatens life-sustaining connections

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Protect Our Water (Stop Enbridge Line 3) Demonstration in Duluth, Minnesota on September 28, 2019 – an ongoing issue https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/10/protesters-line-3-minnesota-oil-gas-pipeline

Edited to add an important information shared by Diane Lefer:

August 17th (this Tuesday) there will be solidarity actions in several cities around the US. (Especially for health and science workers, but all are welcome) Check out the map and links, please: https://sites.google.com/view/healthagainstline3/home?emci=1785537b-51f9-eb11-b563-501ac57b8fa7&emdi=4f4f27c2-1dfa-eb11-b563-501ac57b8fa7&ceid=155049

Disunited States – Reflection on the Morning After

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.

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May we take time to reflect and choose the wiser path to peace and healing.

June Reflections 2020

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.


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June 3, 2020


Unresolved Woundedness

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”

 

Columbine blooming in an unlikely place

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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

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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

One of the few photos I have of my downtown neighborhood, taken January 1, 2016


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.

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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.

* Notes

Information about precipitation came from Weather Underground

The article, “Seeing Wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition” by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk, was published in 2016 in the Spring/Summer issue of Kosmos.

July Afterthoughts (July 9, 2020)

a brief visit with my grandson, July 3, 2020

Still finding it difficult to abandon silence and solitude,

preferring the company of plants, birds, and dragonflies

that remind me what it means to simply be present

to hold center

with compassion, patience, and integrity

 

Overcoming Adversity – Part Five

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.

“To have a child is to decide to have your heart forever walk around outside your body”

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.

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Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Part Five

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.

Aunt Margaret & Grandpa


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.






The Power of Humor

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

Overcoming Adversity – Part One

Carol A. Hand

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 –
Alzheimer’s

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.

***

Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Born March 1, 1921

Written and Complied by

Carol A. Hand

November 2006

© 2006

Table of Contents

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
Appendices

Preface

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.

Dedication Poem

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

Part One

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…

Norma’s Parents

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.

From left to right Sarah, Margaret, and Agnes

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.

***

Work Cited:

Chrystos (1991). Dream on. Vancouver, BC, Canada:  Press Gang Publishers. p. 70.

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