Revisiting “We’re Honoring Indians!” One Last Time

Editing a manuscript about Ojibwe child welfare that I finished writing almost seven years ago has, in some ways, brought me back to the beginning of my blogging adventure. It reminded me of the first reflection I posted here. And it reminded me of the community of visionary, supportive critical thinkers who greeted me. It felt as though I was surrounded by a creative community.

Over the years, though, most of my original virtual friends left the blogosphere. A few changed focus. And I finally found myself less inclined to blog. I no longer felt like I was part of a community that reminded me of my college days or first jobs when everyone I knew was struggling to make ends meet but was still excited to share with others – to share whatever they had with others in times of need. And eager to share sorrow, joy, wonder, laughter, and ideas about how to create a kinder world. I miss that.

I didn’t realize how out-of-touch I’ve become with the world around me until my grandson’s birthday in early January. The things that interest my family, the mainstream media, and much of the blogging world, don’t feed my spirit, or my sense of curiosity and wonder. Why should they? I’ve learned it’s okay to be different. I have no need to try to make others be like me or think the way I do. We each have our own path to walk, our own lessons to learn, and our own gifts to share.

As I say my final goodbye to blogging today, I am sharing my first post. It describes a choice I made that changed my life. I remain grateful I had the courage to try something I never could have imagined.

Thank all of you who visit this blog on the margins of things. I wish you all a chance to find the path that leads you to the place you are meant to be…

***

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

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At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly. I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Reflections November 2022

At this point in my life, I greet each morning with gratitude for all of the gifts I’ve been given and for the ancestors and wise beings who have been a guiding and protective presence. I ask only that they help me hold center with compassion, patience, and integrity in good times and bad as I walk my path, perhaps chosen consciously in a previous lifetime. I try to follow the wisdom conveyed by the Ojibwe principle of “doing things when the time is right,” and I hope that this is the right time to share where I am in my manuscript editing journey.

This morning I awoke with a deep but gentle sorrow and tears in my eyes thinking about what my ancestors endured, and what too many people around the globe are experiencing now because we have failed to learn from the past.

In a few days, November 24, 2022, people in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday meant to honor the sharing of food and companionship between colonists fleeing from oppression in England and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (now referred to as North America). But a mere three centuries after that romanticized celebration of unity, the following excepts describe the consequences of hospitality for those who helped the new arrivals survive.

This post will not be an easy read for those with tender hearts. It’s drawn from the chapter that stopped my editing process eight years ago. I often say I stopped because I was too busy teaching. That’s partly true. Mostly I stopped because it was too difficult for me to set aside my deep sorrow each week in order to be fully present for students. Yet my muse tells me it’s time to move on, and time to share these excepts with others.

***

Although centuries of colonial domination affected all aspects of the lives of Native American people, the effects were, in Peter’s* language, “off the radar.” Few outside of tribal communities knew about the dire conditions Indigenous people endured before 1928. That was the year the “Miriam Report” was published, 891 pages in length, documenting the social and economic conditions of tribes. The report,

… revealed an existence filled with poverty, suffering, and discontent. Indians suffered from disease and malnutrition, had a life expectancy of only forty-four years, and had an average annual per capita income of only one hundred dollars. The report reached two basic conclusions: (1) The BIA ** [Bureau of Indian Affairs] was inadequately meeting the needs of Indians, especially in the areas of health and education; and (2) Indians were being excluded from the management of their own affairs. (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81)

            The conditions for children and families documented in the Miriam Report have direct links to the present issues that Carrie* [the tribal child welfare coordinator], Peter* [a State regional field representative who worked with countries and tribes], and Karen* [the counselor for the tribal alcohol and drug addiction treatment program] described in their interviews. Given the crucial importance of the issues the Miriam Report researchers covered, excerpts from the report follow. The excepts also illustrate how prevailing beliefs and perspectives at the time the study was conducted influence the interpretations and analyses reported by otherwise highly qualified and objective researchers.

***

Family and Community Development. The Indian Service has not appreciated the fundamental importance of family life and community activities in the social and economic development of a people. The long continued policy of removing children from the home and placing them for years in boarding school largely disintegrates the family and interferes with developing normal family life. The belief has apparently been that the shortest road to civilization is to take children away from their parents and insofar as possible to stamp out the old Indian life. The Indian community activities particularly have often been opposed if not suppressed. The fact has been appreciated that both the family life and the community activities have many objectionable features, but the action taken has often been the radical one of attempting to destroy rather than the educational process of gradual modification and development” (p. 15) …

Strains Imposed by the System of Education. Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relation to the government. Some of the projects of the government, notably the appointment of field workers to deal with home conditions, have tended to strengthen family bonds. But on the whole government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life.

Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other. The theory was once held that the problem of the race could be solved by educating the children, not to return to the reservation, but to be absorbed one by one into the white population. This plan involved the permanent breaking of family ties, but provided the for the children a substitute for their own family life by placing them in good homes of whites for vacations and sometimes longer, the so-called “outing system.” The plan failed, partly because it was weak on the vocational side, but largely by reason of its artificiality. Nevertheless, this worst of its features still persists, and many children today have not seen their parents or brothers and sisters in years… (pp. 573-574) …

The real tragedy, however, is not loss by death but the disruption of family life and its effect on the character of both parents and children. The personal care of helpless offspring is the natural expression of affection no less among Indians than among parents of other races. No observer can doubt that Indian parents are very fond of their children, and though the care they give may be from the point of view of white parents far from adequate, yet the emotional needs of both parents and children are satisfied… (p. 575)…

Effects of the System upon Children. The effects of early depravation of family life are apparent in the children. They too are the victims of an arrested development. The experience of the white race abundantly demonstrates that institutional children, even with the best of care, have greater health and personality difficulties than children in families. Affection of an intimate sort is essential to development. Recognizing this fact the better societies for the care of dependent white children have for many years been placing their wards out in families as rapidly as the very delicate adjustment involved can be made. Even in institutions for the care of dependent white children the children are there because they have no homes or because normal home life is impossible, and very few are taken forcibly from their parents. But many children are in Indian schools as the result of coercion of one kind or another and they suffer under a sense of separation from home and parents. Since initiative and independence are not developed under the rigid routine of the school, the whole system increases the child’s sentiment for dependence on parental decisions and children in their teens go back to their mother with a six-year old’s feeling for her.

Under normal conditions the experience of family life is of itself a preparation for future parenthood. Without this experience of the parent-child relation throughout the developmental period Indian young people must suffer under a serious disability in their relations with their own children. No kind of formal training can possibly make up for this lack, nor can the outing system when the child is half grown supplement what he has missed in his own family and with his own race in earlier years. (pp. 576-577).

***

This is just an except from one chapter of a rather long manuscript to try to show a small part of the legacy of loss that has continued to affect each generation of Native Americans in the US, as it did for me this morning and many other times in my life. It’s a deep, often unhealed, wound survivors of genocide and colonial domination carry and pass on to the next generations.

I don’t have the answers for resolving these issues. Perhaps I will have a few ideas when I finish editing my manuscript. But for now, I offer this post in hopes that it will inspire others to be both grateful for the gifts they have been given and compassionate for those who suffer.

*

* Note that these are not people’s real names.

** Here’s a link for more information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): https://www.bia.gov/bia

Works Cited

Sharon O’Brien, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp.  80-81.

Lewis Meriam and Others, The Problem of Indian Administration. Report of a Survey Made at the Request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and Submitted to Him, February 21, 1928. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).

Acknowledgement

In loving memory of my mother, a gentle and gifted healer, who was born on an Ojibwe reservation on March 1, 1921, and died on October 10, 2010, just before what would have been her 89th Thanksgiving.

mother 1

 My mother, age 7, before removal to a Catholic-run Indian Boarding School

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My mother on her Confirmation Day. It wasn’t until her later years during the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease that she told me how much she hated the Catholic Church because of what they did to her. She never shared those stories.

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My mother at home after Boarding School. She was the first Ojibwe from her reservation to attend the local public high school in the nearby Euro-American border town and, despite discrimination, or perhaps because of it, graduated as salutatorian of her class.

mother 4

Retirement from the tribal clinic she helped establish on her reservation.

Late June Reflections – 2022

June 22, 2022

One can’t predict air quality on the southwest side of the city where I live. It depends on the time of day, which way the wind blows, and whether residents decide to build bonfires that smolder during times of thermal inversion when the smoke and smell will continue to linger in stagnant air. Obviously, that creates challenges for those of us who rely on open windows and fans in the summer rather than on air conditioners. But last night after a couple uncharacteristically hot days, the air was clear and sweet. The intake/exhaust window fan worked. But it needs to be removed in the morning before the heat of the day arrives.

This morning, the process of removing the fan provided a vantage point to witness a wee drama unfolding. The raucous calls of crows filled the air. Three crows came into view and landed on the power lines, crying out excitedly as if in warning just as a rather large skunk came waddling across my neighbor’s backyard. The crows seemed to be chasing and terrorizing the skunk, usually a nocturnal animal, perhaps a mother trying to find food for a hungry brood. She briefly disappeared amid the tall weeds behind a shed, and emerged by the left back corner and began digging furiously. She was able to find momentary safety and the crows took flight and quickly disappeared.

skunk sanctuary june 22 2022

The shed sanctuary has been home to skunks and rabbits in past years so I’ve learned to be attentive when venturing out at night, especially when my little dog, Pinto, was with me. His brief encounter with a baby skunk during his first spring here taught me how important that was. Fortunately, the baby skunk hadn’t yet learned how to aim his/her spray but it was still a very stinky adventure.

***

This may be the last post on my blog for a while. These days, it’s hard to find time to blog, as the following post I began a few days ago explains. Today, I decided to share these brief reflections along with a post from eight years ago. Although most of the links no longer work, the old post still seems relevant now. I truly wish things had changed for the better since then. We haven’t made much progress coming together as communities to work collectively as an inclusive team on the crucial issues we all face. I’m not sure what to do to help that happen.

June 16, 2022: Rainy Day Respite – Revisiting the Past

Mid-June, and the garden plants are still struggling to emerge. May was cold and rainy, and early June was dry. I had to replant bean and cucumber seeds, and I may have to do the same for chard. The weeds have been hardy and prolific, though, covering every inch of soil. But still, I am grateful for the gift of a piece of land once peopled by my Anishinaabe ancestors, and before them, the Dakota. I’m grateful for the chance to try to try to revitalize the soil and provide a safe haven for my plant and animal relations. It’s not an easy undertaking these days when too few seem to understand the responsibility we all carry to be wise stewards for the sake of future generations.

lilac late june 2022

But today, it’s too wet to garden or mow an overgrown lawn.

I need to transition cultures anyway to work on a manuscript I began in 2015 that’s still waiting to be edited from beginning to end. I’ve edited the beginning chapters at least 30 times but I want to revisit the beginning again. I’m not the same person featured in the most recent draft of the introduction. And authentic ethnographic work needs to include an honest accounting of who the author is in order to help readers discern the trustworthiness of what is being presented as “truth,” at least as seen through the author’s lenses.

A few days ago as I was beginning my transition, I noticed something that symbolized differences in cultures. Two plants still constrained in planters that are slowly dying. It hurts me whenever I notice living beings struggling – earth, lakes and rivers, flora, fauna, and humans.

The effects of being unaware of other beings and the metaphor of constrained roots inspired me to venture into my file cabinets to find a paper I wrote years ago. It was about my commune experiences for a course I was taking on organizational theory. I briefly contemplated sharing the paper. It describes how changing positions within an organization, the commune, affected what I saw and understood about being true to one’s roots. It was a descriptive assessment of the impact of power and positionality on peoples’ ability to view “reality” and their consequent responsibility to be aware of how their behavioral choices affect others’ wellbeing.

***

In Search of Community

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

*

Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would ever have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

***

french lilac june 21 2022

Postscript:

Allowing others in power to tell us to do things that we feel or know are harmful was all too common for commune members during my time there. It was something I had hoped to escape, but it seems to be a universal issue regardless of cultural or organizational context. I believe we are still responsible for the choices we make. Those in power are responsible for theirs only, not ours. Our best hope for a healthier future is directly connected to our willingness to make choices that nurture the health of the earth, each other, and all our relations.

Reflections – February 9, 2022

A lifetime lived in the liminal space

between those with petty power

and those whom they would oppress

perhaps without conscious awareness

parents

please believe me when I tell you

it’s not an easy place to be

sometimes a clown or trickster

other times deliberately deferential

with a mousy well-tailored demeaner

soft-spoken and mild-mannered

and a focused observant presence

looking for any possibilities

for building common ground

yet unwilling to compromise integrity

even when it means disregarding

threats and demeaning disrespect

silently healing a bruised ego

because that’s not what is important

when others’ wellbeing is at stake

*

recognizing that one has many choices –

deep sorrow, self-righteous anger,

or patience and compassion for all involved

over lost opportunities to come together

in the exploration of creative, liberating

possibilities based on reason and grace

*

recent events served as a reminder

that my worldview and values

don’t fit well with those of colonial institutions

and those of the gatekeepers and overseers

posted as guards to enforce conformity

often unknowingly – reminding me once again

of the words of Michel Foucault (1979, p. 304).

“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. This carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observations, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of normalizing power.”

*

normalization 3

Drawing by Carol A. Hand (based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault, 1979, inset # 10 between pp. 169-170).

*

It may well be as Foucault suggests

that only some of us are fortunate enough

to know that we are not completely socialized

and carry the responsibility to teach

by thinking critically and “walking our talk”

*

Work cited:

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975)

Reflections about the Art of Researching

Life is full of surprises. If we’re lucky, it takes us to places we never imagined. As a child, I was curious about the world around me, although I don’t ever remember hearing the word “research” until I was in college. When I did, it was often, but not always, in the context of incredibly boring classes that required me to memorize formulas, the assumptions of the Central Limit Theorem, and the differences among various types of variables that are subjected to research studies and analyses (independent, dependent, control, discrete, interval, nominal, ordinal, etc.).

I never saw myself as a teacher then, let alone as a teacher of research. Yet, I have been so at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in colleges and universities periodically for the past 20 years. I realized it could be exciting for me, and sometimes, for students. I think I have gotten better over the years at figuring how to make it both interesting and relevant.

During the past few years, I have had a chance to develop and continue refining a new experiential approach that focused on a crucial issue, the link between access to potable water and community health. The small, diverse cohorts of students I worked with each semester have done exciting work. The cohort last semester was especially notable. Their work has real-life implications for addressing health and crucial environmental issues on a local level.

I’ve tweaked the class a little for the semester that began last Saturday. The even smaller diverse cohort I met with seemed excited to learn, unlike the first cohorts at the beginning of past semesters. Access to potable water has gained increasing attention, highlighting its significance as an issue that is particularly relevant for all of us, and especially for vulnerable populations.

It’s likely, though, that this may be the last time the research course is delivered this way over two semesters. It may well fall victim to the quest for standardization and economic efficiency. Few people think of research as a core foundation for future work, and, from my perspective, for life in general. Like me, their prior experiences in courses on the topic may have been something they merely survived to earn a degree.

But research is important. The word “research,” both a noun and a verb, involves paying attention to the world around us, as well as exploring our own ways of perceiving and making sense of what we see.

research perspective crabtree and miller

“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

My perspective of research and teaching has rarely fit within “mainstream” approaches. That’s not surprising to me. My parents were from very different cultures, although both came from economically disadvantaged roots. They taught me to see the world from two cultural perspectives – Ojibwe and working-class Anglo-American. It inspired me to continue to observe and critically reflect about those different ways of seeing throughout my educational journey and professional career.

What I discovered are profound differences on many levels which directly affect how one approaches education. I learned what feels most comfortable as both a learner and educator. The table below is a simplistic but heuristically helpful way to illustrate those differences.

NCLB Program Contrast to Native American Education

Source: Starnes, 2006, p. 389

These differences point out an indispensable first step when developing any course or curriculum. Ultimately, we first need to answer a central question. What is the purpose of education? Is to mold docile citizens who can memorize and regurgitate answers on fill-in-the-blank tests? Who can perform robot-like jobs without ever questioning authority? Or is education’s purpose encouraging observant presence, curiosity, and critical thinking skills? Providing an understanding of broad historical dynamics and tools that have proven effective for building inclusive, healthy communities? For equipping students with methods for thinking about and exploring creative ways for responding to an array of complex crises we face globally?

Six years ago, my colleagues and I answered that question with the second choice. We began discussing how to implement an alternative – an integrated model of teaching and learning. We created links in content across courses and experimented with collaborative course delivery. The research class was especially challenging.

Students in their junior year had variable levels of the foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed within one semester. Many had never read a research article or learned how to find scholarly resources, and few had written academic papers. We experimented with a groups’ approach for assignments to reduce the workload. That proved unsuccessful for a number of reasons, so we decided to try a different approach.

We split the course in half and spread it over two semesters. The first semester allows students to learn basic knowledge and skills, and the second provides an opportunity for them to apply what they learned. The course still requires hard work, but it proved to be effective for the majority of students pre-Covid. The COVID transition year (2020) necessitated moving to a remote delivery model that was especially difficult for Native American students. The creation of a new assignment and small group approach that meet via Zoom helped build a supportive network that enabled those who participated to successfully complete the course. Because the new assignment proved so successful, it was integrated into courses for the following years.

CSS SWK 3385 a & b

We were able to fly beneath the radar for years because our site serves a unique population of students. But the current colonial corporate agenda is one of increasingly repressive measures in education (and governance). That agenda places our flexible, experiential approach in the limelight and threatens its survival. Our site, located within a tribal and community college, is not like the other campus satellite sites which serve different populations. There seems to be little acknowledgement or interest in considering the importance of culture and context in curriculum delivery, especially by national higher learning accrediting bodies and those who don’t have the will, skill, and/or courage to risk challenging them.

I honestly believe that each voice from the margins matters. This post is the beginning of the journey which may signal the end of my formal teaching career. It is my belief that children are born curious.

curiosity 1

My grandson at age 2

Some continue to hold on to a sense of wonder, curiosity, connection, and gratitude in their adolescence.

curiosity 2

My granddaughter at age 14

The approaches we use in education can help support those gifts or extinguish them. Even in college years, my experiences have shown me that the remnants of curiosity and wonder remain and can be rekindled. But it takes intention, patience, flexibility, and dedicated work to do so in ways that are interesting, relevant, liberatory, and effective.

I hope the decision the college makes regarding the future of education takes into consideration how important these gifts are for our collective survival and well-being on the “pale blue dot” planet we all share (Sagan, 1994/2014).

References:

Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller (eds.). Doing Qualitative Research., (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.

Carl Sagan (1994/2014). Pale blue dot. Random House. /Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot OFFICIAL, aired on Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. Cosmos Studios, Inc.

Bobby Ann Starnes (2006). What we don’t know can hurt them: White teachers, Indian children. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (5), 384-392.

Revisiting “Communities of Relatedness”

At the beginning of each new semester, I contemplate what more can be done to help students make sense of complex courses. This year has been no different.

*

december 2021

A view from my side of the city – December 14, 2021

*

For more than a decade, I taught courses about social welfare policy for undergraduate and graduate students. It was an arduous task, but often rewarding in unanticipated ways. Nonetheless, it took discipline to stay on top of often disheartening news about legislators’ continuing reliance on unexamined assumptions about economic inequality based on 16th and 17th century views of poverty in Great Britain –  The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601.

elizabethan poor laws

The U.S inherited the disparaging views of people who were poor. Even though there were distinctions between the “worthy” and “unworthy poor,” poverty was viewed as an individual problem rather than the result of structural inequalities that benefited landed aristocracy at the expense of those who served them. People who were unhoused and unemployed due to rapidly shifting social institutions and technologies were forced to migrate in search of work. When they arrived in cities, destitute and desperate, reduced to begging for alms, they were viewed as a threat and nuisance. Their circumstances were attributed to their laziness and immorality. Their “pauperism” was seen as a cultural class deficiency that was passed down through the generations. Only strict punitive laws and interventions would “save” them and their children.

We can see the same views playing out at all governmental levels in the U.S. today as legislatures argue who is deserving of “welfare” assistance. They willingly bail out banks and corporations while ignoring the situation for so many individuals and families who are unable to afford housing, food, and health care. It is important for students to know this history in order to critically analyze existing policies and work toward more socially just policies in the future. True, analyzing policy is not the most exciting work initially, but it can be rewarding to build partnerships to end and prevent unnecessary suffering.

I returned to an older post for ideas on how to help and inspire students and decided to share the post again. Sadly, the message is still relevant today.

***

December landscape 16 2017

Communities of Relatedness

Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.

I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.

From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,

… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)

What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.

contrast collective vs strangers

What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.

contrast collective vs strangers 3

contrast collective vs strangers 2

As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.

***

Work Cited

Jared Diamond (1997). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W.W. Norton & Company.

Mid-November Reflections – 2021

November 4

Greeting a cold bright morning

watching a shower of golden leaves

falling steadily from the popple and cottonwoods

frost glistening on wilted grass

listening to the whir of traffic, a distant crow call,

and the rustle of crispy leaves

as they blanket the earth

*

mid-November 2021 1

*

November 14

Yesterday, I wrote down words that flowed through me, a poem of sorts. If it’s accepted for publication, it won’t be posted here. Yet I wanted to share some of the things I realized in the process of trying to explain thoughts and feelings about what we have all lived through during the past two years. I asked a friend to listen to the poem before I sent a draft to the potential publisher. She pointed out that the poem highlighted the advice I shared with her a while ago that had helped her through a difficult time. I didn’t realize how consistently the strategy I shared with her has helped me face challenging situations in my own life.

I learned to repeat a simple mantra in my thoughts.

Just breathe,” I told myself when I faced an audience of 50 people or more, when I stood before State legislators to present testimony, when I lost someone dear, or when I had to resolve conflict in contentious situations. It’s a mantra that helped me survive the challenges of asthma, anxiety, and allergies that have periodically forced me to consciously focus on breathing. It helped me survive an undiagnosed illness in mid-March 2020 that left me struggling for breath for more than a week, returning periodically for several months afterwards. Hopping on a self-propelled treadmill, I forced myself to keep breathing. “Just breathe, just breathe, just breathe.”

It worked. I am here to write these words, grateful to my daughter who delivered groceries to my doorstep when I was too sick to go out and was unwilling to expose others to whatever I had.

As I wrote my poem of sorts yesterday, I relived heartbreaking events. I thought of the Corona virus that continues to strike indiscriminately, disabling and killing millions around the globe as it attacks people’s ability to breathe. And I thought of the masks that make breathing harder but may protect others which have caused so much controversy. I thought of George Floyd’s words as he lay dying during a painful, brutal, police execution on May 25, 2020. “I can’t breathe.” I thought of the fires raging around the globe making the air unbreathable thousands of miles away and devastating so many lives in the process. I thought of the discharges from industries that fill cities with toxic pollution, often located in the poorest neighborhoods throughout the nation and the world. Breathing clean air is a luxury that so many people do not have. Being able to breathe free of oppressive forces interwoven throughout social institutions is even rarer still.

There’s not much, if anything, I can do to change global conquests for control that leave so many people gasping for breath or thirsting for safe water to bathe in, drink, and share with crops to feed families and communities. But I can set aside time each day to breathe and reflect, to envision practical ideas for raising awareness, encouraging caring, and inspiring local solutions that just might mobilize others to engage in concrete, constructive efforts to live with greater care for each other and the earth.

For now, I am grateful I can “just breathe,” and do work that may help others do so, too.

mid-November 2021 2

A loss of innocence

Tell me again to just look inside

and envision prosperity

so my life will be easier

But I ask you to tell me

how pursuing my own comfort

will change a world of want and suffering

as unimaginable horrors

are visited upon the earth

and on so many people whose only crime

is to be born in places

that are coveted by those in power

by those who will do anything

to consume

and destroy

the wisdom of how to live a life

in peace with each other

honoring earth’s bounty by sharing

grateful for moments

of togetherness,

belonging,

joy,

and beauty

grateful for the chances

to live a simple, meaningful life

walking lovingly and gently upon the earth

*

innocence 1

*

Tell me how we can work together

to banish the windego

that blinds us to other’s suffering

as we mindlessly and heartlessly pursue

our own pleasures at any costs

*

innocence 2

*

Acknowledgement

In gratitude to David for sharing the following information and film and for inspiring this reflection:

https://www.creativespirits.info/resources/movies/our-generation

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.

*

logo 4

*

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

*

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.

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