Who would believe that the mixed ancestry which made my life and that of my descendants so challenging is a phenomenal gift?
It represents an inheritance of courage from ancestors who challenged strongly held social conventions in acts of resistance and diplomacy to forge and cement peaceful alliances between cultures and nations in contested spaces during times of conflict and war.
This inheritance is not an easy one to carry. It conveys a sacred responsibility to walk the bridging, healing path of inclusion and peace in a world so easily divided by powerful fears of those who are different.
It means living in a world that reifies distinctions between cultures, nations, religions, and political views, to name but a few of the differences, often demonizing those who dare to challenge social conventions and the ruling elite.
Yet the legacy passed down from the builders of bridges created new possibilities for peaceful coexistence – hybrids, if you will, who carry the legacy of courage and a sense of responsibility for living in harmony with others and the earth within their blended DNA. *
Sharing with deep gratitude for the participants in yearning circle dreaming who inspired these reflections.
January 21, 2021. The blustery, gusty winds that were twisting and rattling the bare branches of trees this morning mirrored the volatility I sense in the world at the moment. It was hard for me to center on hope and possibility. And then I remembered gifts from other times. It felt important to share one of them this morning even though I will not have time to reciprocate visits or reply to comments for a while. The classes I will be teaching begin tomorrow and I still have a lot of work to do developing and uploading content online.
December 13, 2014. This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues, “I’m in this alone”? This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying. Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
Photo Credit: Duluth December 13, 2014
I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elder’s “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
Photo Credit: Sending Light to the Four Directions from Duluth, MN – December 13, 2014
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
There was really nothing remarkable about her appearance small and thin – if truth be told, a bit ordinary and mousey perhaps a blessing in disguise – it made her invisible Her voice was soft and melodic – with a hypnotic quality that created space where those who were too loud, quieted, and leaned forward to listen intently when she spoke She didn’t think this had anything to do with her in particular
Her laughter, though infrequent, created sparkling crystal light thawing and healing wounded hearts or invoking fear among those who were filled with darkness Her gaze was focused and intense – a reader of souls People who were relegated to marginal status were often drawn to her light like moths to a flame sensing a compassionate presence others could not see
She sometimes felt the power within and hid from it knowing that power brought overwhelming temptations aware that an ill-spoken word hurled with anger or rage could leave legacies of lasting harm and would certainly cut her most deeply
Life taught her to hone her voice, gaze, and presence though she somehow intrinsically knew only to use them responsibly on behalf of others in times of great need or danger and spirits watched over her helping her learn to only use her gifts in ways that would not draw attention from the watchers who wanted to stifle compassion, wisdom, joy and the loving spirit of ordinary people in order to keep them afraid, confused, angry, and divided and unable to express the transformative beauty they carried within
Imagine life in COVID for such a one with months spent largely in isolation unable to use abilities that were gifts intended to help others on the margins to be seen and heard, to have their voices matter in decisions that affect their lives and all our relations The regenerating effects of energy shared between humans through the magic of presence, smiles, and touch now taboo forcing reliance on distancing technologies and online platforms as the primary means for communicating through virtual words
Yet nature provides a way for her to stay connected to the world with the gentle winter kisses of snowflakes – each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty reminding her to be grateful because she can still share from her heart even with distancing technologies even in the midst of suffering, loss, and darkness
She hears a message for herself and feels compelled to pass it on to others
“Be kind and gentle with yourself and others each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty rekindle the light within and envision the best you can imagine for the new year just beginning – let it be a time of healing and a time of freedom from bondage to fear, suffering, and separation”
I am sharing the poem that sang through my heart this morning before my last classes.
Choosing to focus on compassion brings gifts. This morning, I realized the gift of myopia (nearsightedness)…
As a child, I couldn’t see the sharp boundaries that separated one thing from another. I could only see the way things blended together at the margins of their physical beings. Now I realize the power of learning to see the world through that perspective. At 8, I got powerful lenses that helped me see that leaves on tress were distinct and separate not a massive cotton-ball sitting on top of their trunk.
Yet I can’t go back and unsee their connections –
to each other,
to the tree trunk,
to the earth that gives the tree footing and sustenance,
to the sky that is above and surrounds them,
to the winds that sometimes caress and whisper through them, and other times ravage the branches they cling to tenaciously,
to the birds and squirrels that seek connection and sanctuary amid a leafy home,
and to those who take time to observe them with wonder and gratitude.
Sometimes the things others call deficiencies turn out to be among our most precious gifts if we are fortunate enough to be able to overcome the limitation they may impose.
My childhood was not easy. It forced me to find inner strengths to survive…
I hope you are able to remember how you learned to see the world as a child.
each alone yet with others on the stage masked, dressed in black, seated in a darkened auditorium in appropriately physically distanced chairs the present-day requirements for COVID-19
scripts in hand – readers of others’ stories – ready to share the painful journey of our ancestors through times of death and suffering to help ourselves and others better understand the forces that molded us centuries before we were born
through the legacy of suffering passed on in our DNA, the inferior social status, powerlessness, and social institutions forced on our ancestors by newcomers who saw us as savages and heathens because they knew nothing about our ways
it’s a heavy burden we’ve carried for a lifetime but we’re learning that our ancestors’ legacy provides a road map of tenacious resiliency that can help us face the sometimes overwhelming grief over what was lost as we strengthen our connections with each other and the earth to heal the past and breathe life into new possibilities
I chose to be present to learn and share despite the frailty of my aging frame bones cold and aching in the chilly auditorium stiffly walking to the podium with my heart glowing resolved to share words of suffering and healing from the depths of my spirit for the sake of all my relations of the past, present and future…
Although there were only three CSS personnel in the audience and a reduced cast of readers because of the accelerating spread of COVID in our state and county, the performance still had a profound effect on those who were present. This poem is my way of thanking Carl Gawboy and the two coordinators of the event, Michelle Robertson and Cynthia Donner (both Assistant Professors at CSS), for their continuing commitment to raise awareness about the legacy of historical trauma that has touched the lives of Indigenous survivors of genocidal policies for centuries in an effort to promote healing of the soul-deep wounds survivors still carry.
I wish to begin with the humorous side of life in these times…
I spent much of yesterday harvesting, and this morning, after beginning to draft this reflection, I put some of my little tomatoes on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Then, I went out to water the little arbor vitae in my backyard, planning to water the gardens in my front yard next. (We’ve had very little rain here this year, making watering an essential part of gardening.) Instead, I decided to squirt my 14-year-old car in the back driveway while the hose was on to see if some of the dirt would come off. It’s been covered by nine-years of burning embers and soot from my neighbor’s bonfires.
Despite trying to scrub the dirt off by hand-washing my car every year in the past, the soot and burn scars remained. I finally gave up earlier this year and just started taking my car to an automated car wash. The process never really cleaned the car, but at least it was coated with multiple layers of a protective wax cover. Today, though, I decided to test out whether some of the soot would come off if I just rubbed it with a paper towel when it was wet. Lo and behold, much of it came off. It took me several hours to finish. Then, it was time to walk Pinto.
Where does the time go? Soon it will be Pinto’s supper time (my little papillon-chihuahua dog) which requires my presence in order for him to eat, and lately, to be prepared to hand-feed him if necessary. Then, it’s Queenie’s movie time (my parakeet), a computer-based endeavor. While Queenie’s busy, I will have time to wash the chard I harvested yesterday. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it safely.
When I looked at the afternoon sun in the sky today, here in northeast Minnesota more than a thousand miles from Oregon, California, and Washington state, it was clear how connected we all are despite geological distances.
September 20, 2020
The courses I’m teaching this semester began on Saturday, September 12 – research and community practice. Preparing has meant significant adjustments to respond to a world that has changed drastically since the cohort of students began their studies several years ago. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college. Yet most were able to successfully shift to completely online classes mid-semester in the spring. This year, the courses for our hybrid satellite program are all online. Our bi-weekly classes that were once face-to-face will meet via Zoom.
This semester, I’m also co-teaching community practice with a dear friend and colleague. My colleague and I decided to focus on one issue – the connection between access to safe water and community health, the focus of my research class as well.
The community where we live is located on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, one the five interconnected freshwater Great Lakes of North America that comprise part of the border between the United States and Canada.
“The Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—form the largest-surface freshwater system in the world, together holding nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater” (The National Wildlife Foundation).
My colleague and I met during the summer to discuss how and what to teach students so they will be able to work with communities in a future world we can’t even imagine. What will they need to know to weather the challenges they will face? What knowledge and tools will provide a foundation for them so they can help their families and communities come together to adjust to ever changing difficulties and possibilities?
During these days of “social distancing,” it is becoming ever more obvious that many people are no longer willing to reach out to bridge differences with others. Polarities divide us in these times. Yet addressing the serious issues we are facing now will require all of us to understand and respect others despite differences, to care enough about the future of our world to be able to put differences aside so we can work together. Those who engage in community practice need the skills to bring people together for productive dialogue to explore possibilities for finding common ground.
I shared an experience with my colleague that I had as a participant/observer of a polarized community exchange, described in an older post, “Alternative Futures – Who Chooses?. Six years ago, I attended a public hearing designed to give community members a chance to voice their views of a proposed expansion of the amount of tar sands oil that could be pumped in a pipeline along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. Looking at the issue from a purely logical perspective, it’s a very bad idea. Tar sands oil is laden with toxic chemicals and the corporation that owns the pipeline has a troubled safety record. The location already threatens the safety and quality of the Great Lakes.
“… important perspectives were voiced to support and oppose the proposal.
“I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speak to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.
“As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community…
“This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides.”
My colleague and I discussed how we might help students develop the skills they would need to create environments where community members could explore common ground around polarizing issues and developed the following assignment.
Given that we cannot meet in person to undertake the work that lies ahead, we are organizing three dialogue groups of students that will provide opportunities to learn and practice dialogue and group skills that are foundational to effective and respectful community practice.
Each of the three groups will focus on different community values and beliefs associated with water and healthy community that are present in Northern MN, and will embark on the community assessment process from that general lens. Each member will be asked to understand the mindset and values of those who fit into one of the following three perspectives:
i. Profit from the water or land adjoining waterways ii. People in tribal communities who depend on water iii. Preservation of the Natural Environment as a primary consideration
Groups will then use that lens to assess a specific community. We are hoping that the group assignments will be made by consensus in our next class meeting.
The expectations for each student are that best efforts are made to negotiate and dedicate time in the weeks ahead to connect and engage with the respective dialogue group in the community assessment process. As a group you will be given assignments and introduced to tools for planning and carrying out how each will gather and contribute information needed for the assessment. Together you will be sharing and analyzing the individual discoveries and reflecting on the implications for communities from the particular ideological vantage point of the group’s assigned perspective. The group dialogues and collaborative work should support the collective and individual learning and development, and contribute to information each person can draw from in the final Community Assessment Report.
The final challenge will be for each of the groups to present what they learned about a local water issue and themselves when they looked through the lens of “Profit, People, or Preservation.” Understanding how others see the world and why is essential for building inclusive communities. My colleague and I hope the discussion that results will reflect suggestions for how we can better bridge “cultures” in more effective, respectful ways to establish inclusive partnerships on firm common ground.
Water issues connect us all and are in the news almost every day – too much water due to hurricanes and deluges, too little resulting in catastrophic fires, and too unsafe to drink or swim in due to undeveloped or aging infrastructures and widespread pollution. Without water, all life as we know it will cease.
But I can work with others to raise awareness by writing and teaching, not only about the issue, but also about the need to find ways to promote bridge-building among groups with strongly held values that get in the way of understanding and inclusive collaboration on solutions.
Ever sensitive to the metaphors nature provides, I was able to catch the wonder of an evening sunset.
September 22, 2020
The sun will rise again tomorrow, of this I’m sure. I’m also certain that the world it greets in the morning will have changed yet again in ways I could not have imagined when I witnessed this wonder. Hopefully the things I have learned will provide the foundation I will need to work in partnership with my family, colleagues, students, and friends to continue working toward a day when the sun will rise on a verdant, peaceful planet where all life is respected and nurtured for the irreplaceable and invaluable wonders all represent.
Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.
The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions. We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work. It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.
Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.
I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.
An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.
As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.
We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)
It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class:
In honor of the fifth anniversary of Voices from the Margins, I am sharing one of the first posts I wrote about a life-changing choice I made many years ago to tackle an emotionally laden issue. The essay was originally posted on a blog I shared with the friend who taught me the ins and outs of blogging in 2013 and was reposted here along with other essays when this blog was started on February 12, 2014.
“We’re Honoring Indians!”
More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.
At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action.
But, I was told, there was a state statute, The Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.
The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.
My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.
Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.
After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)
I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.
It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.
I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)
The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.
Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.
The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly.
I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.
Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)
The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.
As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”
Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.
It is sometimes hard to look back on those years without thinking I should be doing more. Still, at this point in my life, it feels far more appropriate to serve in a less visible way, teaching, encouraging, and supporting younger people behind the scenes. There’s much that can only be learned through the experience of taking on issues that light a fire in one’s heart to create a world that could be.
As I watched the electoral maps change when the election results were tallied this week, the micro-divisiveness within and among states was so obvious. So much for “the united states!” I was momentarily saddened because the “blue wave” that was supposed to end poverty, war, hunger, homelessness, imprisonment of migrant families, police brutality, and oppression didn’t happen. And then I realized that many of the races, especially at the national level, were almost equally divided between the “blue wave” and the “red tide.”
From the perspective of someone who has witnessed the divisive effects of 50/50 “democracy” for Indigenous forms of consensual governance, that’s not surprising.
While watching the maps change, I thought about the students I have taught in the past and continue to work with now who come from many of the slightly tinged “red” or “blue” communities. It’s a nation divided. It’s not what I want the next generations to inherit.
To be honest, I don’t have time to write a thoughtful well-researched analysis. But I do want to make a point about the value of education. Hopefully, education can help pass on the knowledge and skills that enable us to reach across divides to understand each other and build common ground. We do, after all, need to work together if we really want a peaceful world and healthy environments and communities.
These reflections bring to mind Jane Addams and the women of Hull-House. Their legacy is often unknown, even among newer generations of social work students. Together, they demonstrated how to work with knowledge, empathy, and passionate compassion to build solidarity and create respectful, inclusive alternatives to discriminatory, divisive, and punitive policies. They lived among the poorest new immigrant arrivals in Chicago. Instead of fostering divisions, they brought people together to learn and share. Among the issues they successfully addressed were child labor, unfair treatment of workers, infant and maternal mortality, tenant rights, city sanitation, and the creation of juveniles courts.
My hope is that the students I work with will learn from the examples of the Hulll-House women. Students are already familiar with life in divided communities in the forgotten little towns of this nation.
These are the kinds of students I prefer to teach. Early in my late-life career when I entered academia to become a scholar and educator, I made an important decision. Instead of choosing to work in prestigious research universities that served students from privileged backgrounds like the schools I had attended, I chose settings with students from backgrounds similar to mine. My father had a 9th-grade education, and although my mother did have a degree as a Registered Nurse from a prestigious university, she grew up poor on an Ojibwe reservation. Her education was made possible by the kindness of a wealthy Euro-American woman who owned a resort where my mother had worked as a teenager.
My mother repaid this gift by sending me off to school in the city where she studied decades before. Chicago. It was there that I met the educator who showed me how to teach, Sister Lorita. I wrote about her gift in an older post, “The wonder of life in a blade of grass.” Her example and caring affected me more profoundly than I realized at the time. I was my grandson’s age then, 19.
I am much older now. And I am very fortunate to still be able to teach a subject that is perhaps the most important foundation for life, research. As a former colleague, Maxine Jacobson, observed, we are born researchers, inquisitive about the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder and curiosity as we age, though, through the processes of socialization. My job as an educator is to try to unlock those gifts once again, to help students remember how to be curious. To notice, explore, observe, reflect, and test the limits of what they’ve been taught and what they know.
I wonder what would happen in all of the “red” and “blue” communities if the people who lived there had a chance to be curious. The phenomenon I would like them to consider and explore is the miracle of life in a drop of pure water. Water is something that connects all life on our plant. We can’t live without it. I wonder if there is a way to refocus peoples’ attention on things that really matter.
This semester, my colleague and I are trying an experiment. Students are working as teams to explore the quality of water in their communities by designing little research studies, talking to community members and staff in local agencies in charge of water treatment about the quality and threats for this resource, and planning community awareness activities. As “emic” (insider) researchers in their communities, what they learn is more likely to be useful to other residents including their own families.
I also wonder what would happen if education focused on awakening curiosity sooner than college. Youth would grow up more aware about the health of their communities. That is exactly what happened in a Photovoice study of water that involved Indigenous youth. I wonder if similar initiatives during elementary and high school years could bring the children from red and blue families together to understand, care about, and protect a precious resource they all need in order to live.
I do envision the possibility of a “blue wave” in the future, but it isn’t one that divides people along political ideological lines. It’s one that unites us to care for each other and the “pale blue dot” we all share in common.