Tag Archives: research

Coming Home – The Beginning – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

August 28, 2001. Mavis was nervous. It was her first day visiting the Ojibwe community where she would spend the next nine months. What made it especially challenging was her role there. She wasn’t really sure what it meant to conduct an ethnographic study. Her parents had already had a difficult time figuring out what she did for jobs, but a researcher? People avoided her when they found out what she did for a living, particularly those she knew in the Ojibwe community. “You think you’re too good for us,” they’d say. They never took the time to find out who she really was and they didn’t want her around.

The funny thing about Mavis was that people often thought she was a pushover because they saw her as small, frail, and reserved. But things are relative in more than one way. During the time she spent on the rez as a child, she learned to see herself as tall. She was tall compared to many of her cousins – a gangling Ichabod Crane. And the people she volunteered with in the Kentucky hills, cutting down trees with an ax to build a summer camp, learned to accept her as one of the crew. “She’s small, but damn that teenie bopper can work,” they’d say.

If you watch her carefully, you’ll notice she walks with a confident stride and holds herself tall – all 5’ 3”. She wears her straight dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, thick eyeglasses, no makeup, no frilly clothes. The only concession she makes when she needs to look professional is to put on a tailored jacket over her tee shirt and good jeans.

In a sense, doing this study was a chance for Mavis to go home. Not the one she grew up in and not the rez where she spent her summers as a child. She wasn’t going there expecting anything from others. She was there because she knew that Native American children were still being taken away from their families and communities. Even though federal legislation was supposed to stop the practice that began when the Spaniards first arrived in what is now Florida in the 1500s, the removal of Native American children from their families and communities continued unabated for the next five centuries. It was still going on. Mavis wanted to know why and if it was possible to stop it.

The day was warm sunny by the time Mavis pulled up outside of the old tribal building that served as the center for tribal social services. She found Linda in her office.

Peeking through the open door, Mavis saw Linda typing at her computer, back to the door. “Hey Linda,” she said. “It’s so nice to finally meet your in person.” Linda turned and got up from her chair to shake Mavis’ hand. “I don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am for agreeing to help me learn more about the community.”

“Here, have a seat” Linda said, pointing to a chair by the small round table in her office. “Tell me how I can help you. I’d like to take you to the elders’ center for lunch today. That’s the best way to meet people in the community who might be willing to talk to you. But first, tell me what you want to know.”

Mavis sorted through the pile of papers she brought and handed a pile to Linda, explaining each one. “These are the things I’m required by the university to share with the community. They explain the purpose of the research and the questions I plan to ask. And these are consent forms that people need to sign if they’re willing to let me share what they say. It also promises that their names and identities will never appear in anything I write or say in public or in private.”

Linda quickly skimmed the forms and began laughing. “You can’t share these with elders. They’ll never understand what you want to know. Here, we have half an hour before lunch. Let’s come up with some questions they’ll understand.”

Linda rolled her chair back to the computer and began typing. Mavis dragged her chair closer so she could peak over Linda’s shoulder. With a rapid-fire exchange, Mavis and Linda worked together to write new questions. Linda enlarged the print so elders would be able to read them more easily, quickly made copies, and she and Mavis sped out the door. They hopped into Linda’s old silver 1990 Cadillac, a boat of a car from Mavis’ perspective.

It was that first day when Mavis met many of the elders and community members who would become the most prolific storytellers. Thomas, Raymond, and Lucille, all elders, were there that first day. Each shared stories that would make a lasting impression on Mavis. She would leave the community when her research was done in August of 2002, but the weight of responsibility their stories conveyed would stay with her for the rest of her lifetime.

When lunch was finished, Linda and Mavis left the elder’s center. Instead of driving back to her office, Linda told Mavis she wanted to take her somewhere that would help her understand the community. They drove down winding wooded roads and finally pulled over near an opening in the woods, a grass-covered field. “Come on,” said Linda,” I want to show you something.”

She led Mavis down a well-worn path toward a small lake. “This is a special lake that we see as the center of our community. To us, it symbolizes the home where we have lived as a people for centuries. It’s our home on this earth and in the universe. I come here when I want to pray. It also symbolizes the home where we hope our children can always come in the future to feel the spirits of their ancestors. A place where they can come to remember who they are so they can teach their children and their children’s children where we come from and where we belong.”


Photo: by Drew Geraets

It was an auspicious beginning of a friendship that would last many years, although Mavis and Linda would never meet face to face again after Mavis left the community.

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

Coming Home? – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

Let me begin by being honest. This assignment proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. I wanted to use the word prompt to draft the beginning of a novel, but I found myself up against decades-long university programming. I just couldn’t break away from the need to write like a distant observer. The only character I could put myself into was my own.

I’m including my first draft, and my after thoughts. I really would appreciate honest, constructive feedback.


Draft “Coming Home?”

Let’s go for a ride. It’s a nice day and I want to show you the house the tribe is building for me,” said Grandfather Thomas.

(I think of him as grandfather. It’s a title of respect for someone who is older than I am. He’s in his late 70s. And in a sense we’re related. We’re both Ojibwe although from different communities. He’s tall, thin, and stately, with silvered hair that’s often covered by a baseball cap. His hearty laughter and ready wit make him seem much younger than his chronological age. But his stooped shoulders and stiff movements make me wonder if he’s in pain although I’ve never heard him complain.)

Grandfather Thomas has always made me feel welcome in this Ojibwe community that is not my own. I wonder if he really understands what it meant when I told him that I was here to conduct a research study. Will it ever be possible for me to remain distant from people like him whom I am learning to care about during my short time here? He eagerly shares his stories and his artwork with me, and all I should really do as a researcher is listen and ask questions. My job is to record his words and write up my observations every evening after our visits when I return to my little efficiency apartment in the neighboring town.

Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to drive? My car’s right over here.”

Yes, I was being polite, but I was also a little hesitant to ride with an elder who is sometimes easily distracted.

We set off, traveling past tribal buildings, past the HUD homes. As we drive, Grandfather Thomas is telling me the history of the people who live in each home. Finally, we come to a fork in the road. The road to the right is paved.

Go left here,” he said.

We travel on the bumpy rutted one-lane dirt road past pine trees, and past birch and aspen trees that are beginning to take on a golden autumn glow.

We’re coming up to the house now. Pull into the driveway.”

His new house is set back from the road, nestled in the woods. I can see a small stream in the backyard. Inside, the house is light and airy. Construction materials are scattered about – and the floors are still uncovered plywood – but it’s easy to see that his new house will be much nicer than the cramped, over-heated apartment he lives in now in the tribal elders’ center.

It is a nice, ordinary ranch house, appropriate for someone in his late 70s. He won’t have to climb too many stairs. But, there aren’t any houses close by and the road will be hard to travel in the winter.

He’s eager and impatient to move, voicing his frustration with the tribal council because it’s taking so long. He wants to move before winter.

As we drive back to town, Grandfather Thomas is quiet. It gives me time to think. Even though the dirt road bears his family name, and even though his ancestors have lived on this reservation land for centuries, I wonder if it really feels like home to him. He’s lived away from this community for almost his entire life. It wasn’t his choice or his family’s decision. When he was just five years old, he was kidnapped as he walked along the village road. The strangers who enticed him into a car in the early 1920s were not the strangers we often imagine taking children. They were missionaries, sanctioned by the federal government to round up Native American children for placement in crowded unhealthy institutions far from their families and communities. There, they would be forced to speak the language and adopt the customs and religions of those who conquered their Indigenous nations long ago. There, they would be taught the skills that would make them productive manual laborers and servants.

Grandfather Thomas was among the lucky. He survived . And he was able to return to the reservation after his wife died ten years ago. I wonder if he felt at home here, though, because he spent so much time away. The community was different than the one he knew as a little boy.

I wonder if he ever felt at home anywhere after he was kidnapped…

It’s a question I can’t ask him. I can only listen to what he chooses to share. Although he never mentions this, the stories he does choose to share continue to affect me profoundly through the years that follow…


After Thoughts

I wonder if the words I wrote convey how deeply I loved the people I was privileged to meet. (It’s not something I’m supposed to admit as a researcher.) They gave me the most precious gifts, their trust, friendship, and their stories. I hope that I can honor those gifts by sharing what I learned to raise awareness about the past and present issues people on the margins face.

What I’ve sketched out here isn’t poorly written, but it seems to lacks substance. As I reflect on this beginning, I keep hearing my university graduate advisor asking me “What do you mean by this term?” In this case, the term is “home.” How can I portray what home is and means with tactile details that give it substance? How do I describe it in ways that touch the deep human longing we all feel for a sense of connection and belonging? This beginning doesn’t do that for me.

It may meet Hemingway’s advice to begin with one true statement. I think that’s about all it has. It’s missing heart. I want people to feel what it’s like for a child who is kidnapped to lose his home. To feel what it does to the meaning of home for families that lose children to horrifically abusive institutions generation after generation as they watch helplessly. To feel what it does to communities when they are unable to fulfill their most sacred duty – protecting and nurturing children to assure cultural survival – because the children that are supposed to protect have been violently ripped from their care generation after generation.

I want to write something that reaches people so they understand the history of the colonialism and its legacy today. I want them to care. I don’t want to blame anyone for the past. It’s done. Blaming those who carried out these policies in the past does nothing to heal trauma for descendants of the victims or the perpetrators. And it does nothing to end the collective abuse of children today both here and abroad.

As someone who grew up between cultures, I became a boundary-spanner and an ethnographer to survive. Writing a good ethnography is like telling a story. It requires the art of translation, the ability to bring others inside of experiences or a world or a culture that are unfamiliar. I don’t think this first draft does that…


I would like to be able to answer the voice of my advisor that still echoes in my thoughts. What does the word “home” mean? It’s more than a place. It’s more than being surrounded by a group of people who accept us for who we really are, with all of our faults and gifts. Can I remember times in my life when I felt “home”? Maybe the years I lived without electricity surrounded by forest on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation, but it’s something I still need to think about.

ldf winter

Photo: Winter on Amik Lake – sometime in the early 1990s

This exercise has been so valuable. It’s made me think even though I don’t have any answers today. I do look forward to  hearing your thoughts.

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

Whose Perspective Matters Most?

Carol A. Hand

It is my belief that we have an obligation to raise awareness about abuse and oppression and think critically about ways to both heal past harm and prevent future trauma. These days, when I reread interview transcripts and field notes that I recorded during my study of Indian child welfare in 2000-2002, I think about the essential responsibilities researchers carry. And I think of Foucault’s warning about the power wielded by those who judge and record their observations based on culture-bound standards of normalcy. Certainly the child welfare system provides an ideal venue for imposing colonial views and assimilating (normalizing) those who are different, something Canada has, at least partially, acknowledged in recent days.


Photo: 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)

“The judges of normalcy 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, subject to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power.” (Foucault, 1979, p. 304)

After reading much of the diverse literature about Ojibwe culture and thinking about the consequences for Ojibwe people, I became increasingly concerned about the powerful legacy of past research. The narrative and literary works written by Ojibwe people don’t carry the same weight as “objective science” in university settings. Yet it’s crucial to ask if research can ever really be bias-free. Isn’t the preference for objectivity a myth if one really considers how all of us are socialized to accept our class, culture, religion, and gender roles as normal, right, the only way? The five major ethnographic researchers who studied Ojibwe people (Densmore, 1973, 1979: Hilger, 1992: Landes, 1969, 1997: Hallowell, 1967: and Barnouw, 1977) left confusing, decontextualized and ahistorical accounts seen through the lenses of their Euro-American cultures, socio-economic class, and prevailing anthropological assumptions at the time. Reading these works through an emic, or “insider” perspective, raises important questions. It reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cautionary words about “the danger of a single story” (TED Global, July 2009)


The scientists who originally produced the Master works that set the framework for understanding the single story for “exotic” cultures primarily came from the discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists initially saw their work as a race against time to record the remembered indigenous cultures that would soon disappear as the more advanced and superior European culture replaced their simple or savage ways. Referred to as “salvage anthropology,” increasingly the purview of those who were specially trained, the legacy of the body of work they published continues to present cultures as static, frozen in the remote past. These simplistic and incomplete snapshots of complex and ever-evolving patterns of relationships among groups of people in response to changing times and contexts continues to blind us to the diversity, complexity and dynamic adaptive plasticity of people and cultures.

“From some indigenous perspectives the gathering of information by scientists was as random, ad hoc and damaging as that undertaken by amateurs. There was no difference, from these perspectives, between ‘real’ or scientific research and any other visits by inquisitive and acquisitive strangers…. The power of research was not in the visits made by researchers to our communities, nor in their fieldwork and the rude questions they often asked…. The greater danger … was in the creeping policies that intruded into every aspect of our lives, legitimated by research, informed more often by ideology…. It told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs.” (Smith, 2001, pp. 2-3, emphasis in original)


Photo: Actions speak louder than words ( Source )

My overall critique of this scientific description of Ojibwe people was described in an earlier work of mine (Hand, 2003, pp. pp. 44-45).


“Since the late 1960s, anthropological methods and ethnographic accounts have been criticized and contested by both outsiders to the discipline and by scholars within the discipline (Stocking, 1983; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Trouillot, 1991; Vidich & Lyman, 1994). As the era of European colonial imperialism waned, anthropologists came under fire for their tacit complicity with colonial powers and the ethnocentricity embodied in their accounts of “other” peoples (Clifford, 1983; Abu-Lughod, 1991; Van Maanen, 1995). As elite members of ruling colonial powers, their accounts of subjugated peoples became the official record of other cultures. And because of the power tacitly embodied in this association with colonial hierarchies, anthropological scholars were able to publish their descriptions of other peoples, preserving their particular views as those most objective and authoritative (Fox, 1991; Trouillot, 1991; Van Maanen, 1995).

“Critics noted that the methods and descriptive standards of ethnographic work also resulted in a number of problems in terms of how other cultures were depicted. Typically, based on intensive work within one village or community and focusing almost exclusively on the activities and perspectives of men within the community, the written ethnographic accounts claimed to represent an entire ethnic or national population (Clifford, 1983; Abu-Lughod, 1991). By relying on generalizations across individuals, the works also conveyed the impression that “culture,” at least for “other” peoples, was an essentializing force that produced an unthinking homogeneity among all of the members of a group or nation (Clifford, 1983; Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Abu-Lughod, 1991). This “real culture” became frozen in time and place, in whatever ways the anthropologists chose to define time and place (Appandurai, 1991). Little, if any, attention was paid to the historical forces and cultural changes that were reflected in the conditions they observed during their short, time-bounded studies (Abu-Lughod, 1991; Clifford, 1992; Van Maanen, 1995). Added to this list of critiques is the concern that anthropological methods result in highly subjective, fictional accounts, rather than the generation of scientific knowledge (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Sanjek, 1993; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).

“In response to these external critiques and internal self-reflections, cultural anthropologists have been developing innovative approaches (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Fox, 1991; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Van Maanen, 1995). Within this context of reexamination, alternative research methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative) have gained momentum, and a variety of experiments with textual representation have emerged (Brim & Spain, 1974; Johnson & Johnson, 1993; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Despite these innovations, the “‘master ethnographic texts” (Limón, 1991, p. 116) on Ojibwe culture represent the paradigms of earlier eras. As the authoritative descriptions of Ojibwe culture, the scholars, methods, and findings of these works deserve a more in-depth discussion. And, as Smith (2001) points out, research literature may be differently viewed by the Indigenous People it purports to describe. My interpretations and critiques of the research accounts of Ojibwe people, … filtered through a different cultural lens than the majority of previous commentators, may differ from those of earlier reviewers.” (Hand, 2003, pp. 44-45).



Photo: Salvage Anthropology – a Mixed Blessing – Preservation and Perpetuating Stereotypes ( Source )

After carefully studying these “master” ethnographic works carefully, I came to the following conclusions (Hand, 2003, pp. 55-56).


“Smith’s (2001) comment rings true. All of the researchers made a name for themselves and were employed or promoted at least partly as a result of their studies of Ojibwe culture. They have all left a legacy for Ojibwe people as well – in part positive, and perhaps to a larger degree, problematic. Although Hilger’s and Densmore’s works leave an account of past Ojibwe culture that is viewed as accurate and sympathetic, their publications reinforce the view held within and outside of Ojibwe communities to this day – that the only authentic Ojibwe culture is that which was practiced in the past. The work of Landes, Barnouw, and Hallowell also provides support for this view. In addition, Landes, Hallowell, and Barnouw present viewpoints that attribute the problems faced by Ojibwe people to individual pathologies, cultural deficits, or incomplete assimilation….

“Little read as these works may be, Smith (2001) rightly points out that scholarly views find their way into legislation, policies, public attitudes, and frequently into subsequent research. Expert interpretations give added weight to the societal viewpoints from which they emerged. These views of Ojibwe culture as a thing of the past continue to impact Ojibwe communities on many dimensions, internally and externally. Deficit-focused paradigms continue to affect how Ojibwe children and families are viewed in framing child welfare legislation and how they are treated by child welfare and judicial personnel.” (Hand, 2003, pp. 55-56)


I knew as a child that these attitudes had a profound effect on my mother’s internalized racism. To a large extent, she was afraid to disclose her Ojibwe heritage because of her internalized shame – she often felt that her ancestral heritage meant she was inferior to Euro-Americans. Although my study was conducted decades later and tribes were making concerted efforts to counter these attitudes and revitalize languages and cultures, the colonial human services and child welfare systems were firmly guided by Euro-American policies, institutions, and practice paradigms. Many tribal staff and Ojibwe community members didn’t question these systems, nor were they encouraged to think critically about the dissonance of the underlying dominant cultural values and assumptions of child removal in contrast to their own traditional extended family and community practices.

It was even less likely for county child welfare staff to think about the how these discordant values impacted tribal communities. I remember the first county child welfare meeting I attended as the tribal child welfare specialist for a university. As I walked into the conference room, I overheard a conversation. One county child welfare worker loudly commented to another.

“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years, and I have no idea if what I’ve been doing makes any difference.”

In the reading and research I did during my study, I discovered that it does make a profound difference, but perhaps not in the ways this worker intended. When many workers follow policies and unquestioningly implement child removal practice paradigms, the consequences are clear. One need only look at the outcomes for foster children, or listen to the stories of Ojibwe people who spent their childhoods in Indian boarding schools, foster care, or in adoptive homes to know the deep and often intergenerational wounds child removal has left for individuals, families, and tribal communities.


Photo: Public School Mascot – 1989

I still think exposing larger patterns of continuing colonial hegemony for careful scrutiny is a justification for observing and creating a written record of the lives of those who may not be aware of the unquestioned invasive colonial interventions and the significant intergenerational consequences. But it’s never enough to merely catalogue problems. The most difficult and important work is sharing those problems in ways that cuts through resistance from the status quo and highlights viable and culturally appropriate alternatives.

Works Cited:

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 137-162). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Appandurai, A. (1991). Global ethnoscapes: notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 191-210). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Barnouw, V. (1977). Wisconsin Chippewa myths & tales and their relation to Chippewa life. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Brim, J. A. & Spain, D. H. (1974). Research design in anthropology: Paradigms and pragmatics in the testing of hypotheses. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Clifford, J. (1983). On ethnographic authority. Representations, 1(2), 118-146.

Clifford, J. (1992). Traveling cultures. In. L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, & P. A. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural studies (pp. 96-116). New York: Routledge.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. M. (Eds.)(1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Densmore, F. (1973). Chippewa music: Two volumes in one. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, Ins. [original works published in 1910, 1913].

Densmore, F. (1979). Chippewa customs. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. [original work published in 1929].

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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

Fox, R. G. (Ed.)(1991). Recapturing anthropology: working in the present. Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Hallowell, A. I. (1967). Culture and experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. [original work published in 1955].

Hand, C. A. (2003). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Doctoral dissertation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hilger, Sr. I. (1992). Chippewa childlife and its cultural background. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. [original work published in 1951].

Johnson, A. & Johnson, O. R. (1993). Quality and quantity: On the measurement potential of ethnographic fieldnotes. In R. Sanjek (ed.), Fieldnotes: The making of anthropology (pp. 161-186). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Landes, R. (1969). Ojibwa sociology. New York: AMS Press, Inc. [original work published in 1939].

Landes, R. (1997). The Ojibwa Woman. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. [original work published in 1938].

Levi, Sr. C. M. (1956). Chippewa Indians of yesterday and today. New York: Pageant Press, Inc.

Limón, J. E. (1991). Representation, ethnicity, and the precursory ethnography: notes of a Native anthropologist. In R. G. Fox. (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 115-136). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Sanjek, R. (1993). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Smith, L. T. (2001). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books Ltd/University of Otago Press.

Stocking, G. W., Jr. (Ed.)(1983). Observers observed: essays on ethnographic fieldwork. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Trouillot, M-R. (1991). Anthropology and the savage slot: the poetics and politics of otherness. In R. G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (pp. 17-44). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

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

Vidich, A. J. & Lyman, S. M. (1994). Qualitative methods: Their history in sociology and anthropology. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 23-59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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

“You Need to Tell Them How I Was with the Children”

Carol A. Hand

Winter was sometimes warm and mild in the prairie lands where I lived while I taught a double-load of classes and finished writing about my research study on Indian child welfare. The weather was warm and calm on the day I finished my first draft in February of 2003.

I’m not sure how I ever ended up as a doctoral candidate in social welfare, but here I was – finishing what I had started more than a decade before. I printed and collated the 320-plus pages of my draft dissertation as one of my colleagues tried to distract me and draw me into an ongoing intradepartmental conflict. Somehow, I managed to keep my focus on assembling the six thick binders I needed to mail to university faculty, my doctoral committee, who would judge my work as “pass, redo, or fail.”

After visiting the post office to mail six packages, I headed to my little house in the working class section of town. I parked my car in back, the alley side, and started walking toward my house, probably lost in thought. Suddenly, a vision of the Ogema I had heard so much about during my study appeared in the air to my right. He had died long before my visit to the community. I only knew about him through writings, stories, and old photos. When he appeared, all that I saw was his face – it was as if I were peering through a window into another dimension. He was laughing as he said, “You forgot to tell them how I was with the children. You need to tell them this.”

Maybe I was just tired enough for my imagination to play tricks on me, or maybe this was real – an important message I needed to heed. It’s true that the draft I had just mailed off didn’t emphasize the crucial role model he was for all of the elders who shared their stories about their childhood years. Ogema was often a central figure in their accounts.

As March 12 approached, the day I would face a six-member faculty committee to defend my dissertation, I reflected on Ogema’s words, and on the challenge of walking in two worlds. I doubt that many of the Ojibwe elders I had spoken with during my study would find my vision of Ogema to be odd. But what about my committee members? Would they even need to know?

I prepared my presentation for the committee, carefully connecting relevant theory and past research to support my research approach and conclusions. But one never knows beforehand what questions faculty will ask and whether they will need to challenge the merit and trustworthiness of one’s work. As I climbed Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin – Madison the day of my defense, I struggled to balance the obligatory refreshments for faculty and the thick black three-ring binder that held years of work and the key to a future I had never envisioned when I was a child or young adult.

As I walked, I wondered if the years of work compiled in this document would address the concerns one of the committee members raised at the beginning. “Rescuing children or homogenizing America [the short title of my dissertation]? That’s a very provocative title [meaning ‘critical and emotionally charged’]. You’d better be able to defend it.”

A little winded by the climb, I finally arrived. After introductions and small talk, it was time to begin. I’m not sure why I began my presentation as I did, but in the end, it proved to be wise on many levels. I began with the story about Ogema’s appearance and spoke of the challenge of walking in two worlds – white and Ojibwe, the challenge of reading histories of oppression and suffering and past research literature that referred to people in my grandparents’ and mother’s generations as “the children of savages.” And I spoke of the difficulty of remaining objective as I strove to weave it all together after listening to people’s stories and observing present conditions and power dynamics.

Ojibwe speaking communities

Location of all Ojibwe Reservations/Reserves and cities with an Ojibwe population in North America, with diffusion rings about communities speaking the Ojibwe language. (Source)

The defense was a long and arduous process, but I did pass with two unexpected gifts. The faculty member who warned me that I needed to defend my title had tears in her eyes at the end. She hugged me and told me that she was deeply touched by the stories of adversity and resilience, of oppression and Ojibwe innovation and resistance. And a faculty member who had graded another student’s work with pointed critiques in red ink handed me his copy of the draft I had sent him with his penciled comments in the margins – stories his Native American father had shared about his experiences growing up.

Since then, my files and notebooks have been biding their time, waiting for me to share the story about how Ogemawas with the children” with an audience that is larger than the six faculty members who were present during my defense in March of 2003. And perhaps this post is a draft of the preface for the book I’ve begun to tell Ogema’s story…

Imagine what the world would be like if national and corporate leaders were as eager as Ogema was to be remembered for how they treated children during their tenure.

Note: Ogema is not the name of an individual, but is used to designate his position in the Ojibwe community in the past. In his case, the title represented not only his hereditary status as chief, but also a recognition of the respect he earned from community members through his wise leadership, kindness, and generosity. He was kind to the children, he protected them in times of need, and he enacted policies and built alliances to protect them in the future.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the members of my doctoral committee for their support and encouragement, as well as the Chair of the Social Work Department in the prairie lands who provided support and flexibility for me to complete my dissertation.

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

The Street Where I Live…

Carol A. Hand

The challenge of living on the margins is seeing both what is and what could be. Yet using that perspective to raise awareness and inspire people to work together has proven to be a challenge that has gotten me into trouble many times. Sometimes our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. It’s something my friend Maxine Jacobson helped me realize.

“I was anything but an ally during my Native American colleague’s first year in the school. I responded defensively when she commented candidly on the social justice mission of the department as more fluff than substance. I wished she would take more time before making judgments to understand the culture of the department and all the work that had gone into creating what White faculty members believed was an innovative program. In retrospect, I find it disturbing that what I expected from her was something I was not willing to give: I was not at all prepared to see “our” world through her eyes. It was okay for her to direct her critique at the child welfare system. But when she directed it at the organization I had invested inordinate amounts of time building, that was too close to home.” (Maxine Jacobson, 2012, pp. 275-276).

I moved to Duluth Minnesota in October of 2011 to be closer to my daughter and grandchildren. I was also seeking a sanctuary to heal from decades of battle wounds, but it didn’t take me long to see the inequities and divisiveness in my new community, as I described in a post some time ago, Communities of Relatedness. Blogging has helped me work through the wounds and find hope, to remember past lessons and share them with a network of gifted people from around the world. I am deeply grateful for the gift of knowledge, creativity, kindness, and love that blogging has given me. Yet I’ve reached a point where I’m finished telling stories from the past, at least for now. Facing my greatest fears – the possibility that I would lose my sight and perhaps not survive corrective surgery – has awakened my excitement about living and learning new things.


Photo: The view of my house from across the street – March 31, 2015
(It’s the white one in the middle, set back from the street behind the large weeping willow tree)

In the past, I really didn’t always taken the time to understand the newest contexts that surrounded me. And because people sensed my openness to difference and my sensitivity and compassion, they started downloading their troubles as soon as I arrived. I listened to their stories about all of the factions and observed the conflict and power struggles. Of course I felt people’s pain and wanted to do something about it – immediately. I am quick to see oppression and unfairness, but I haven’t always taken time to plan how to deal with inequality and oppression effectively. I have many internal battle scars as a result and I’ve been reluctant to have much to do with “organized” people during the past few years.

But I’m alive. I have some skills and experiences that may be important in these times. Recently, I’ve begun searching for answers to crucial questions. What truly inspires me and ignites the fire in my heart? Two things come to mind. First, I have promises to keep to myself and others. I have begun working on two books that need to be completed: one about my mother’s life, and one about my research study of Indian child welfare. (For more information see Lara Hentz’s blog.) But I know from experience that focusing on past suffering and oppression needs to be counter-balanced by also being involved in initiatives that are focused on future possibilities. This is what I have been pondering for the past few weeks.

How can I use my skills and past experiences to build a foundation for transformative changes without offending others and closing down possibilities for partnerships focused on constructive collective efforts? What can I do to keep learning and contributing by applying the principles of appreciative inquiry and community-based participatory research ?


Photo: A View of the Alley – March 31, 2015

The answers are beginning to surface, forcing me to overcome my fear of failing yet again. It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize others. The first step – learning about the community’s past and present online – doesn’t take courage, merely curiosity and discipline. But do I dare look foolish, an old woman roaming the streets with her camera? Calling strangers and asking them if they have time to tell me about themselves and their organizations? Well, I won’t know the answers to those questions until I try. The possible gains far outweigh the costs.

I want to begin by learning about the history of Duluth, and by exploring the street where I live. I want to take the time to get to know my neighbors beginning with the pastor of the church and the manager of the elder apartments across the street. And next, the principals of elementary school at the end of my alley and the high school just four blocks away. I want to learn about all of the initiatives and agencies that are involved in helping residents and the community development agency that is interested in improving conditions in the most challenged neighborhoods (including the one where I live.) I am beginning to frame out this new initiative and have grabbed my camera to start taking photos of my neighborhood.

So, here goes. I’m leaving my sanctuary to look for people’s strengths and visions for the future. I promise to keep you posted about what I discover on the way.


Photo: Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (Directly across the street) – March 31, 2015


Photo: Faith Haven Apartments for Seniors – March 31, 2015


Photo: Laura MacArthur Elementary School – The view from my back porch – March 31, 2015


Photo – Denfeld High School (a few blocks away) – March 31, 2015

Works Cited:

Maxine Jacobson (2012): Breaking Silence, Building Solutions: The Role of Social Justice Group Work in the Retention of Faculty of Color, Social Work With Groups, 35(3), 267-286. To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01609513.2011.642265

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

When you think of “health” what comes to mind?

Carol A. Hand

This morning as I greeted a bright but frigid morning, I found myself thinking of one of my many culture-bridging experiences. I was wondering why it is so difficult for us to listen to each other and find our common ground.

Maybe it was one specific job interview years ago that made this so apparent to me. In my younger years, I would often get calls begging me to take on a new project – Indian education, child welfare, or addiction prevention to name a few. I remember reluctantly agreeing to consider working on a federally-funded project to prevent chemical dependency in selected tribes. There was only one other Native American person on the research team, and he wanted to interview me to make sure I was “Indian enough.” He asked me about the research I was planning to conduct on Indian child welfare. When I explained that I was interested in learning how Ojibwe people defined effective and ineffective parenting and the systems and interventions they would recommend to address situations they saw as ineffective, my interviewer became impatient and agitated.

We already know that! Why bother?,” he replied.

I know what I think,” I replied, “but I have no idea how many other perspectives there are among community members, and I would like to know what they think.”

Needless to say, I didn’t pass the “Indian enough” test, but it wasn’t because of my response to this exchange. It was my honesty when I answered the pivotal question.

We have two finalists for the coordinator of the project for one of our tribal sites. One is traditional, and one is assimilated. Who do you think we should hire?”

I knew he wanted me to endorse hiring the person he referred to as traditional, but instead, I was honest.

It depends on the project objectives, the community context, and the fit with candidate qualifications. That really should be left to the community to decide. But honestly, I don’t know what you mean by the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘assimilated’ in this context or why it should matter.”

I wasn’t willing to say that there was only one simplistic choice – his (or mine). The exchange taught me many valuable lessons, among them, the need to ask questions that allowed people maximum freedom to share what they really thought and felt.


Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Diversity Tree

Years in the future, I remembered this lesson when I was asked to do a needs assessment for an urban Indian health center. The center was surrounded by competing factions, each with strong and divergent views of who should be in the leadership position, the types of services that should be provided, and the overall purpose of the center. I agreed to seek grant funding if we could move beyond merely cataloguing health problems and also look at individual and community strengths and visions for the future. As I began writing the proposal, I asked myself how I could use research to attempt to build common ground. Several ideas came to mind. First, we would build a multi-cultural team that would include university faculty and students, health center leadership, and community members. Second, we would use a sampling technique that would maximize the inclusion of diverse perspectives (hermeneutic dialectics). Third, by exploring strengths and future visions, we would be looking for ways to build common ground and community buy-in and excitement. But how does one craft questions that really allow people maximum freedom to answer honestly in such a conflict-ridden context?

Our proposal was funded and we built a multicultural team, although it was challenging to find a community member who was able to honor research protocols. Our first choice didn’t work primarily because it was too difficult for the community representative to respect participant privacy or solicit, respect and convey perspectives that differed from hers. Community members requested that we replace her with Euro-American graduate students who were perceived as more trustworthy for honoring confidentiality and listening carefully to what they had to say. We honored that request. Nonetheless, her help crafting the interview questions did prove invaluable.

Our first question set the tone. “When you think of “health” what comes to mind?” Unlike the questions my interviewer from years ago asked, there was no indication of the “correct” answer. We deliberately avoided defining words like “community” to see how participants would define it themselves. Would they include only their faction of the Native community? Those who shared their tribal affiliation? All Native members who lived in the community, or all residents of the community regardless of ancestry?

The next challenge was figuring out who to talk to and how to maximize inclusiveness. Although the title of the sampling technique, “hermeneutic dialectics,” is too academic and off-putting, it’s really very simple to understand and operationalize (Guba and Lincoln, 1989). At the end of each interview, one simply asks each participant if he or she can recommend someone we could interview who has different views than theirs.

The answers to all of the questions, but particularly the first, made the inclusiveness of our sample very clear.

Definitions of Health

In response to the question “When you think of ‘health’ what comes to mind?,” participants gave many types of responses. The following themes and quotes suggest that the sample of participants was diverse.

✧ Physical

“The state your body is in.”

✧ Personal Responsibility

 “Lifestyle choices.”
“Health is exercising regularly, walking, running. Eating well is healthy too. Eating vegetables, fruits, protein is very important.”
“Health is just something you need to work on all the time.”

✧ Absence of Disease

“Good health would mean the absence of all of these horrible diseases” [AIDS, diabetes, breast/cervical cancer].

✧ Holistic

“Health to me means spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically centered.”

✧ Reliance on the Health Care System

“I have children, so I think of their healthcare coverage, and co-payments.”

✧ Family History

“Family history – diabetes, cancer, arthritis.”

✧ Structural Factors (Limited Income, Health Care System, Environment)

“We don’t eat the best foods – often we have to get what’s on sale.”
“A long wait. . . even when you are sick and in pain, you have to wait to get services.”
“Clean air is very important–like the exhaust from the cars and mills.”

What Was

Participants described the health center in terms of the role it played in the Native Community in the past – as the center of the hub that brought people together and provided a range of services. It was a place where families could bring their children for daycare, elders shared meals, and people would hang out to socialize and have coffee with others. But that changed.

cup past

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

Most of the programs were initially funded in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the War on Poverty. With the leaner, meaner years of Reagan and beyond, funding sources needed to shift to keep the center open, yet most community residents were unaware of the reasons for the changes in the types of services the center provided. They saw the changes in a different light, as a way for one faction to gain control of the center’s leadership and resources.

cup policy

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

What Is

Participants described the present status of the community as one characterized by different factions based on a number of criteria: the amount of time they had been living in the community, their tribal or national ancestry, whether they continued to practice their tribal traditions or chose to fit in more with the dominant culture. Instead of viewing the center as a hub that unified the community, it was now viewed as contributing to the divisions by only serving a select group in power at the time. Yet some participants also acknowledged the work that center staff were doing to bring in additional resources and services, such as mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

cup present

Carol A. Hand, University-Community Partnership – 2007

What Could Be

All of the participants described clear ideas of what the center and community could, and should, be. For many, the future represented the healthiest aspects of the past and present, and the center was described as a hub that would provide not only health services, but also a range of other human services as the agency did in the past – a gathering place that would connect Native American people across generations, especially youth and elders, and across tribal and urban/reservation distinctions.

cup future

Carol A. Hand, University-Community Partnership – 2007

Many participants described a future that moved beyond the Native American community to connect with the urban community as a whole and with tribal communities scattered throughout the state, US, and Canada as well. Their future vision reached beyond ethnic and geographic boundaries, and also across time, to interweave traditions throughout center services and into other health care agencies, child day care, and schools. As participants described these visions during interviews, they often became animated, suggesting these were powerful dreams that generated a sense of hope, excitement, and real possibility.

Putting the Past, Present, and Future Together

cup all

Carol A. Hand, Community-University Partnership – 2007

I could go on to list the serious challenges the Native American community faced due to centuries of colonial oppression and ongoing discrimination, but those issues are often the only things we hear about peoples on the margins. It’s what researchers tend to study and write about. Maori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001) makes this point very clearly.

hegemony slide

Photo Credit: Quote from Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001)

Instead, I would like to share a story that shows what we miss when we only see people’s problems. One of the study participants first described the many physical conditions that made mobility difficult for her, the financial challenges that made accessing prevention and treatment services so difficult, and the discrimination that made her reluctant to even try. Then, she told a story about the discrimination her son faced in the public school system. White students taunted him, called him names, and pulled his braid. She and her husband met with the principal to share their concerns. The principal promised he would discipline the white youth involved and make sure the bullying ended. She and her husband offered a different solution. As a family, they proposed to share their tribal culture in a ceremony and performance for the whole school so all teachers and students would have a better understanding of their history and culture. The principal accepted their solution. Instead of perpetuating resentment through punishment, the performance did result in improved relationships and understanding. The former bullies befriended their son, as did other students and teachers. To only see this woman as a victim negates her ability to be seen for all that she is and has to offer others.

The second thing I would like to share is a little of the wisdom and future hopes of the community members we interviewed.

“Part of rebuilding the community is utilizing people who want to help. It will take the sense of belonging to the community like the branches of a tree. By doing this reaching out, it makes the community healthy, and it makes the center strong and healthy, and people are drawn to it and want to hang around.”

“I would like my children and grandchildren to learn from the community – for community members to share their tribal values and who they are with my child. It is nice to know a whole range of cultures. They are all different, still all are the same in many ways. It would be nice to visit community members who can share these things about their culture.”

One of the participants prophetically predicted the outcome of this hopeful project.

“Power sources are experts at turning us against each other, then they walk right over us. We are all like a circle, the non-profits working for Indian people. I try to tell people that the money-people toss a dollar bill in the middle and we all scramble for it. And I tell people we cannot do that anymore. When the money-people throw the dollar bill into the center of the circle we have to say “NO.” We must lock arms in the circle and ask for something more. We need to improve all of our lives, not just a handful of our lives. If we could just all get on the same page. It’s not about who is in charge – we are equals. But the power sources would prefer to have us at each other’s throats.”

Sadly, those in power at the county and federal levels were able to divide the community. It was heartbreaking to be aware not only of the serious needs that would continue to go unmet for Native American residents, but also to see the strengths and visions of the community that could be brought to bear to build a more inclusive, healthier, and kinder community. It is far easier to divide and conquer than it is to foster communities that bring elders and youth together, help foster mutual support networks, and encourage all kinds of innovative community-building initiatives. Another outcome was so possible – a community that was respectful and inclusive of all of the residents and visitors, where children and elders were cherished for their gifts, where all people had fulfilling work that paid them fair wages, and where all had equal access to safe and affordable housing, education, nutrition, and health care. A community where all had equal ability to enjoy the beauty of the wild natural areas that surrounded them. That’s what comes to my mind when I think of the word “health.”

Works Cited:

Egon G. Guba and Yvonne S. Lincoln (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Carol A. Hand, Peggy Cochran-Seelye, David Schantz, Eric Diamond, and Sarah Aronson (2007). University-community partnership to improve the health of Missoula’s Native American community members. (Unpublished report, available upon request as a PDF document from Carol A. Hand)

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London, GB: Zed Books Ltd.

Acknowledgement (added May 14, 2016): With explicit permission from the former Executive Director of the Urban Indian Health Center, my dear friend Peggy Cochran Seelye, I would like to publicly acknowledge her essential help with this project. She was a pivotal partner. Without her hard work to improve services, improve community connections, and build toward a hopeful holistic future for the agency, this study would not have been possible. Chi miigwetch, dear Peggy. I miss working with you, sharing tears and laughter and hope. I wish we could have taken this work to the next level for the sake of the community.


Restorative Justice – Part Two – “Somebody Cares about Us”


Carol A. Hand

“In every community there is work to be done. In every heart there is the power to do it. People will support what they help create.” (Bliss Browne, 1999, p. 10).

compassion greatergood dot berkeley dot edu

Photo Credit: Compassion

Sometime ago, I wrote about my research on the topic of Indian child welfare and described critical ethnographic methodology.

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

Long before I conducted this study I learned the importance of asking questions to understand people and social institutions – to explore the deeper meaning behind behaviors and beliefs. Questions often encourage people to stop and think about things in new ways in order to respond. Ethnographic interviews, repeated sessions with the same people over the course of a study, are one of the greatest strengths of this approach from my perspective. Ongoing interviews provide an opportunity to build trust, rapport, and understanding, and in between interviews, people often take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of what they believe and do.

As Freire (2000) observes, transforming action requires oppressed people to become aware of the creative options that they have the power to pursue. They can dream of the best they can imagine for themselves and their communities. It is not easy for people to question authority or existing institutions if they have been indoctrinated from generation to generation to accept dominant values and institutions as legitimate. The power of critical ethnography as a research methodology within oppressed communities lies in the opportunity and legitimation it gives people to think about “what could be” (Thomas, 1993, p. 20). “The core of critical ethnography is the study of the process of domestication and social entrapment … by which we are made content with our life conditions” (Thomas, 1993, p. 7). Repeated interviews during the course of the study provided Ojibwe participants, as well as system level staff, with an opportunity to reflect critically about what was, what is, and what could be. All of them used that opportunity to begin to identify community strengths and to consider ways to incorporate those strengths into child welfare institutions and approaches.

Although Ojibwe children represented 8-9 percent of the county population under the age of 18 in the community I studied, they were over-represented in the county’s foster care and juvenile justice caseloads. In the year 2000, 27 percent of the county’s child welfare investigations involved Ojibwe families: during the first 8 months of 2001, they represented almost 28 percent (County Staff Persons 1 and 3, August 7, 2002). The county controlled most funding resources and made decisions based on very different assumptions than tribal staff. Thomas Kuhn (1970, p. viii) describes the ways in which blueprints for defining problems and taking action, or “paradigms,” continue to influence professionals from one generation to the next. As a result of rigid and rigorous education in dominant cultural policies and approaches, professionals are prepared and licensed through an initiation process that firmly indoctrinates them to uncritically accept the prevailing paradigms. For example, county social service staff viewed it as their duty to remove an infant from “an abysmal” mother (County Staff Persons 1 and 3, August 7, 2002). Tribal social services staff viewed the same case from a contextual perspective, defining their job as the provision of formal and informal supports to help a struggling but caring family provide adequate care (Tribal Staff Person 1, August 2, 2002).

During the same time periods, county staff noted that 45 percent of the juvenile delinquency referrals were for Ojibwe youth. Situations like the police profiling incident described in the previous post about restorative justice are the situations the county system is equipped to address, primarily by removing children and placing them elsewhere. The police who intervened with Ojibwe youth who came to town at night automatically responded in a confrontational, coercive manner, invoking threats and intimidation rather than seeking information and initiating an opportunity for dialogue. The tribal social service staff person was concerned about Ojibwe teens and their disproportionate representation on the county’s juvenile justice case load. She observed,

The youth now are being taken by the criminal justice system (Tribal Staff Person 1, June 26, 2002).

I asked her what might help. What activities might help provide a positive focus for youth? Were there adults in the community who might be interested in working with the youth? She had positive responses to both questions. Kids wanted the tribe to build a skateboard park, and she was willing to work with them as were several other community members, but the tribe wasn’t interested. And then, a possible resource appeared.

Early on, my study drew the attention of some national child welfare researchers. I was invited to submit an abstract of my study to be considered for possible development as a commissioned research paper that would be presented at a US. Children’s Bureau conference on racial disparities in the child welfare system (Hand, 2002). My study was selected as one of eight in the country, with a cash award for the commissioned paper I was asked to write and present to an invitation-only audience of child welfare experts in the country. (An edited version was later published in 2006.)

When my fieldwork ended and I was officially finished with my research, I contacted the tribal staff person and asked if she thought it would be helpful for her to have some funding to work with the teens on a skateboard project. I offered some of the money I received for the commissioned paper. (The rest went to offset the costs of a study funded only by my university salary.) My offer came with some conditions. First, if she agreed, I would send her a personal check, but I didn’t want anyone to know where the money came from. She could use the money to help support youth, but the youth would have to agree to some structure. Together, we developed some guidelines:

1. The youth would need to find at least one adult to volunteer to work with them on the project.
2. They would need to invite all youth in the community to participate.
3. Using internet and library resources, they would need to conduct research on skateboard park designs and select one that was feasible.
4. As a group, they would need to prepare a formal proposal for the tribal council to ask for additional financial support. And,
5. They would need to present their request during a council meeting.

I was surprised when she called to let me know that the teens were excited and eagerly agreed to all of the conditions. But they were mystified that somebody was willing to provide some money to help them. They were deeply touched that “Somebody cares about us!” Four months later, the tribal staff person called to let me know that there had been no new juvenile justice cases since the youth started working on the project. They had found a community mentor and even included youth from the surrounding Euro-American community. They had presented their proposal to the tribe, and the prospects for help looked promising.

dream catcher

Photo Credit: Dream Catcher

That was the last conversation we had, and I never had an opportunity to find out what the council decided. Yet regardless of the council’s decision, youth did know somebody cared about them, that their views for the future were important to others. And they did have the opportunity to build positive relationship and practice important life skills. Realizing that someone cares about us and our future can help open up transformative possibilities.

“Organizations […] [and communities] are centers of human relatedness, first and foremost, and relationships thrive when there is an appreciative eye – when people see the best in one another, when they share their dreams and ultimate concerns in affirmative ways, and when they are connected in full voice to create not just new worlds but better worlds.” (Cooperrider & Whitney, n.d., pp. 20-21)

Works Cited:

Browne, B. (1999). What is appreciative inquiry? (Crafting Appreciative Questions). Available at http://www.imaginechicago.org/…/Crafting%20Appreciative%20Questions.doc

Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (n.d.). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative Inquiry. Available from http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/uploads/whatisai.pdf

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

Hand, C. (2002, September). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Lessons of the past and visions for the future. Paper presented at the Children’s Bureau Research Roundtable on Children of Color in Child Welfare, Washington, DC.

Hand, C. A. (2006). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Lessons of the past and visions for the future. Children and Youth Services Review, 28, 20-46.

Kuhn. T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr. Richard Grinnell, Chair of the Department of Social work at Illinois State University, for his support. He created a special faculty position that enabled me to have ever-other semester off to complete my field research and writing in exchange for carrying a double teaching load during my on-campus time.

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

Worlds Apart: The Enduring Significance of Ojibwe Culture

Carol A. Hand

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

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

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

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

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

ojibwe by river cg

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy

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

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

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


Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy – Snowshoe Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ojibwe Community

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

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

ricing cg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone (Mishoomis Raymond, September 10, 2001).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro-American Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

deer hanging rack

Photo Credit: Deer Hanging Rack

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

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

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

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

deer hunt

Photo Credit: Hunting the Trophy Whitetail

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

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

Ojibwe/Euro-American Cultural Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Reflections about the Power to Shape “Knowledge”

Carol A. Hand

I wish to express my deep gratitude to Miriam Schacht for helping me be able to admit something that I have carried silently throughout my professional and academic career. Influenced more by my Ojibwe heritage, perhaps because of consciously-obvious contrasts to Anglo-American values, I have viewed my work as a sacred responsibility. As non-rational as it may sound, I seek to understand individuals and communities by listening and observing from a compassionate, nonjudgmental, eco-systems worldview. This is not an easy task, and it has often made me wonder if the lenses I look through to make sense of the world are trustworthy.

I wonder what knowledge or obligations still lead me to challenge the taken-for-granted views and methods of other practitioners and scholars. Yet when I ask whether research and practice interventions improve the lives of individuals, the compassionate cohesion of communities, or the sense of peace and shared humanity in the world, I must honestly admit that the consequences are often justification for ever-increasing levels of oppression through the language of “scientific,” “evidence-based practice.” I realize it is crucial to challenge this paradigm and share what I discover, even though I will never know if what I see is true.  The research I have done feels more trustworthy, respectful, holistic, and authentic than what is currently viewed as “scientific research.” When I share what appears to be “true” from a perspective of deep listening and compassion, I can feel my heart begin to “glow.” That’s when I feel compelled to speak or write, as I do now, even though I have papers to grade and a new course on research to develop.

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)

Miriam’s essay reminded me that it is important to take the time to reflect on the meaning of life and the work we do first. It has helped me reflect once again about the links between research and power (or hegemony), and how important a bi-cultural lens can be. The following excerpt from one of the exam papers I wrote during my graduate studies demonstrates the complexity of walking in two worlds. [1]


Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. [2] In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.


 [My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.

This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy. [3]


Through boarding schools, educational policies, and child welfare institutions, generations of First Nations children were taught, and internalized to varying degrees, the ideologies, attitudes, and behaviors imposed by colonial powers (Bensen, 2001).

Although I had been “trained” in the dominant quantitative research paradigms of my university and social work discipline, the power of experts to frame every aspect of studies troubled me as I reflected on the perspective of the Ojibwe youth who shared the story above. It highlighted the dangers of adopting the methods used by the dominant culture to study less-powerful “others.” Instead, I chose a qualitative approach, ethnography, which would require living within the community I planned to study. Even so, the ethnographic accounts written about Ojibwe people are fraught with misinterpretation and biased representations that only serve to reinforce power differentials, hegemony, and stereotypes. I added another layer of protection from this danger by conducting a “critical ethnographic” study designed to question the role of dominant policies and institutions in creating the problems being investigated. Answering the questions about disproportional representation among Ojibwe children in the child welfare system no longer focused on identifying the problem as one caused by Ojibwe families or communities, but one that was located in the imposition of dominant cultural policies, institutions, and practices — past and present.

Even with extra safeguards, such as asking some of the key Ojibwe people to review what I write prior to publication to check for accuracy, the power of ethnographers to frame other cultures still makes me uncomfortable. As Crabtree and Miller (1999) point out, even with the best of intentions, our gaze is still limited by the lenses we look through. Through the processes of education, socialization, and mass communication, the citizens of nations are programmed to accept the prevailing order, to spontaneously consent “to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci, 1999, p. 12). Despite reflection, I know I still carry years of indoctrination that color what I look for, what I understand from what I see, and the meanings I attribute to what I hear and observe.

In the research project that followed the Ojibwe child welfare study, I worked with an urban Indian center to design a more egalitarian partnership based on the philosophy of community-based participatory research (Israel and colleagues, 1998).


The Indian center was located within an urban community that was palpably anti-Native, with significant disparities in terms of health and income for Native Americans. Diversity based on Tribal heritage and the length of residence in the urban area contributed to the development of distinct factions among members of the Native population, resulting in fierce competition for limited jobs and leadership positions. It was within this context that the Center staff and Board of Directors asked me to conduct a “needs assessment.” I told them I would be willing to help if we could also gather information about community strengths and descriptions of what community members hoped the community would look like in the future. They agreed. Using research as a tool to explore possibilities for identifying common ground, I collaborated with a multi-cultural team comprised of urban center staff, Native American community members, graduate students, and another faculty member. As a team, we worked collaboratively to design every aspect of the study. As one of the community members noted,

 “Part of rebuilding the community is utilizing people who want to help. It will take the sense of belonging to the community like the branches of a tree. By doing this reaching out, it makes the community healthy, and it makes the center strong and healthy, and people are drawn to it and want to hang around.” (Community Member, January 8, 2007).

The information we gathered from a diverse selection of community members gave the team a great deal of hope for successfully uniting the community. But in the real world, things don’t always work out the way we would like them to. Timing was a crucial factor. Before we had an opportunity to share our findings with the community as a whole, I accepted a position at another university to escape the offensive and oppressive politics in my university department. Doing so proved costly for the project and the Indian center. Without crucial support from the university, the agency staff and board members were unable to withstand divisive internal conflicts and external political oppression. Although I tried my best to provide encouragement and support long-distance, the next steps never took place. Ultimately, part of the challenge of community work is to realize that it needs to be a community decision to take the next steps to bring people together. Nonetheless, it is heart-breaking to be aware of the consequences of oppression for marginalized communities, and to realize that we might have made a difference, if only …, but I trust that we all did the best we could at the time.

I am grateful to Miriam, to the Ojibwe youth who wrote his award-winning essay, and to the Indian Center friends who helped me remember what it means to value the sacred gift of caring. For me, the roles of teacher and researcher are humbling reminders of how little I really know, and reminders of the need to honor the sacred obligations embodied in the responsibilities these roles represent. I am reminded of the need to be truthful and compassionate, and to give voice to the strengths, hopes, and visions of those who share their lives with me during our collective journey. Research, a neutral tool, can be used as a force to promote understanding and liberation. Even though the type of research I do is not seen as “scientific” by many in the academic community, it does have the potential to inspire people to envision new possibilities, realize their own strengths, and gain the skills and confidence to transform their lives and communities.


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures



1. Carol Hand (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices, and paradigms: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Unpublished Paper: Preliminary Exam Paper 2 – Relevant Theoretical Literature – Differential Power and Indian Child Welfare. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2. The youth’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited.

3. The terms Native American, American Indian, and First Nations peoples are used interchangeably throughout. American Indian/Alaska Native (or simply ‘Indian,” as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs) is still the dominant term used for administrative purposes by the United States Government, as well as by many tribal elders. The term Native American emphasizes the indigenous status of the population which occupied the Americas at the time of European “discovery,” and served as a focus for unifying the descendants of indigenous peoples across tribal boundaries during the 1960s. First Nations peoples, a term widely used in what is now Canada, underscores the importance of sovereignty as an ideology which distinguishes tribal communities from other numeric “minorities” within societies dominated by the numerically larger Euro-American immigrant populations who have imposed political, cultural, and economic hegemony.

Authors Cited:

Bensen, R. (2001). Children of the dragonfly: Native American voices on child custody and education. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Crabtree, B. E. & Miller, W. L. (Eds.)(1999). Doing qualitative research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gramsci, A. (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds & Trans). New York: International Press.

Israel, B. A., Schultz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173-202.



The Forces of Normalization

Carol A. Hand

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The last decades of my life as an employee were spent in academia as social work faculty. It wasn’t the field of study I ever intended to follow. I chose it after observing the ways in which oppressive institutions robbed people of their human rights and dignity. It was the route I took to learn about community organizing and social policy advocacy. Yet by the time I arrived in academia, the field was well on its way to a narrower agenda – recognition as a clinical profession equal to law, medicine, and psychiatry. From my perspective, this is a repressive agenda that not only robs people of their dignity but also fails to acknowledge the forces of social control that remain unchallenged by a medicated, behaviorally-modified docile citizenry.

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Despite warnings sounded by Harry Specht and Mark Courtney in 1994 (Unfaithful angles: How social work has abandoned its mission), the discipline of social work had continued its accelerating transmutation into a profession with an ever-narrowing focus on helping deviant individuals better adapt to their environments. Initially, I was naïve about academia. When I was first recruited to join a faculty in a department that had recently hired Black, Korean-American, and Muslim members, I paid little attention to the department’s history. As I look back now, I am able to see a disturbing pattern. Unlike the university where I earned my degrees, each of the institutions where I served as faculty had recently added a new graduate program, purportedly to compliment the long-standing baccalaureate degree program.

Because tuition for graduate degrees is higher, universities saw this expansion as a way to generate more revenue. They could add a few more faculty members, not enough to cover the expansion, but the workload for new and existing faculty could be increased to accommodate the change. In the process, the quality of undergraduate programs was compromised by some institutions. Although some institutions initially tried to maintain an equal focus on the larger socio-structural forces that contributed to the challenges individuals, families, communities, and nations faced, money ultimately was not to be made by graduates who challenged structural inequality. Insurance companies, medical model standards, and state professional licensing requirements increasingly dictated which degree-holders could practice and what services they would be paid to provide. It is not in the interest of these gatekeepers to have graduates who think critically about normalizing hegemonic forces.


Photo Source: 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)

I am saddened to say that the college I currently work for as an adjunct has followed this trend by adding a clinically-focused master’s degree. In an effort to help prepare undergraduate students for an easier transition into the new graduate program, faculty are being asked to standardize and reformulate the curriculum to focus on an enhanced clinical foundation. What this means is choosing texts and assignments that will please the gatekeeping accrediting body for social work programs, a body focused more on replicating the status quo than on challenging hegemony. I have been told that the standardized text that all undergraduate faculty will have to use to teach research is designed to prepare students to be producers and consumers of research. Once again, I face the reality that my commitment to work with students to promote liberatory praxis doesn’t fit with an institutional agenda. It is of little consequence that I have more experience as a researcher across a broad range of topics, populations, and methods than those administrators who will choose the required texts. As a Native American, my view will in all likelihood be marginalized rather than accepted as a well-grounded analysis based on an understanding of how research has served as a tool to further careers of the privileged while it added new “objective” dimensions to the oppression and suffering for generations of vulnerable peoples around the globe.

Although the following observation made by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001) specifically mentions Indigenous Peoples, the same can be said for any “objects” of research that have less power than researchers in the prevailing social structure.

A continuing legacy of what has come to be taken for granted as a natural link between the term “indigenous” (or its substitutes) and “problems” is that many researchers, even those with the best of intentions, form their research in ways that assume that the locus of a particular problem lies with the indigenous individual or community rather than with other social or structural issues…. For indigenous communities, the issue is not just that they are blamed for their own failures but that it is also communicated to them, explicitly or implicitly, that they themselves have no solutions to their own problems. (Smith, 2001, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, p. 92, emphasis added)

Oppression is complete when “othered” people believe they are the problem, that their differences make them deviant and their cultures are deficient – when they believe they can only make progress if outside experts take charge. From my perspective, students need to think critically and question these assumptions in published studies and those they may plan to conduct in the future.

Of course, I plan to do what I can to carve out a liberatory space as the program goes through this transition. Although I hope to be more successful this time around, experience has shown me that well-reasoned arguments don’t always prevail. But sometimes, tenacity does.

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