Revisiting Where I Began as a Blogger

Carol A. Hand

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.


Questioning the Status Quo

Carol A. Hand

I do try to look at the lighter side these days, but that doesn’t always work. Life intervenes in the oddest ways at inconvenient times. Recently I received an email from a Euro-American Dean at the college where I teach as an adjunct. Her email informed me that I was REQUIRED to take an online training on diversity. My response to her was honest and direct. “I have no intention of participating in this training.”

That doesn’t mean I think I know all there is to know about diversity. Living all my life in the liminal space between Anglo-American and Ojibwe cultures taught me a great deal, as did my interest in taking every chance I could to learn about diverse cultures and people. Mostly, I learned not to accept simplistic stereotypes that supposedly fit all. There is always more to learn about the rich diversity of people who share the earth – but standardized online trainings are definitely not the best way to do so. Learning for me only comes through leaving my relative comfort zone, if such a place exists for those of us who live between cultures, to enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care.

As a serious scholar, I have studied cultures and histories from many perspectives. Not surprisingly, I discovered how biased so many accounts of “others” are. I wonder how many Euro-Americans have had the same opportunity to see their cultures and themselves through other lenses.

Thinking about the Dean’s email, I remembered an amusing article I read as a young person in an introductory anthropology class, Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner (1956). (Links to the full public domain article can be found here and here.)

Wikipedia provides the following overview:

“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”

By the way, did you notice that “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards?

The Dean’s email also brought to mind a book that a friend gave me years ago, Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, by Beverly Slapin and Annie Esposito (1990). Miner’s article and Slapin and Esposito’s book remind me how often I have read ethnographies that describe Ojibwe people in my mother and grandmother’s generations as “children of savages,” or make sweeping generalizations about Ojibwe people on the basis of limited samples superficially portrayed through colonizers’ lenses.

I wonder if the Dean has ever seen her culture described through different lenses. Here are a few excerpts from Slapin and Esposito’s satirical work that provide an example of what that looks like.


Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook


“…. This book leads us along a fascinating trail. Its pages are alive with the tang of smoke-filled caucus rooms, the sound of beat boxes, and the swift flight of Stealth bombers. In it, Beverly Slapin has caught the magic of the Caucasian. May her “talking leaves” add to your store of knowledge and take you into the Caucasian world of mystery and beauty.” (Doris Seale, Curator, Museum of the American Caucasian) ….

Caucasian American Education

“The way Caucasians prepared their youth for adulthood (a-dult’-hud) was by educating (ed’-yew-ka-ting) them. The education rites were held in cavernous gray temples call schools (skoolz), which often resembled cavernous gray temples called prisons (pri’-zonz). Both kinds of temples were used for similar purposes. These rites began when the youth were quite young, often as young as five years old, and continued until the children reached adulthood! Imagine how long schooling must have seemed to them!

“In school, the youth learned such important customs as standing in line (stan’-ding-in-lyn), raising a hand (ra’-zing-uh-hand) when they wanted to speak, holding bodily functions (hol’-ding-bod’-uh-lee-func’-shunz) until a certain time called recess (ree’-cess), ceasing all thought (cee’-sing-awl-thawt) when a bell rang at certain intervals (in’-ter’vulz), and learning the right answers (rite’-an’-serz) in order to pass tests (tests)….

“The right answers were inscribed in textbooks, which were considered sacred, and contained all the answers the Caucasians thought necessary to succeed in life. One of the most important lessons in life for Caucasian children was to learn never to question the veracity (ver-a’-ci-tee) of the teacher or the textbooks….

Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

Caucasian American Government

“Caucasian Americans had a very strange way of choosing their leaders. Their main leader was usually chosen by the people in a strange ritual called an election (e-lek’-shun). In order to be a leader, a person had to have three qualities (kwal-it-eez): he had to be a man, he had to be Caucasian (kaw-kā’-shun), and he had to have rich family connections (kun-nex’-shunz). If he had those qualities, he would ask a council of old trusted men to sponsor (spon’sor) him. These men were called bankers and businessmen (bank’-erz and biz’-ness-men). If the council decided that he was suited to lead the people, he would promise to obey (o-bay’) them, and they would campaign (kam-pāyn’) for him by paying great amounts of money (muh’-nee) to the media (mee’-dee-a) to buy advertisements (ad-ver-tiz’-mentz) to convince people that he was the one they wanted to lead them. The leader would make lots of promises (prom’-is-ez) to the people, and then the people would vote (vot) for him. Once he was elected, he was called the president (prez’-ih-dent) and lived in the White House. His house was called the White House because all of its inhabitants (in-hab’-i-tents) were white.

“Once the leader became president, he would go back on his promises and tell lots of lies to the people. Sometimes the people would find out about these lies, and they would be angry….

The president almost always consulted with the council before making a decision that concerned the whole tribe. But sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would just talk with another council of powerful war chiefs called generals (jen’-er-ellz), and he would make war, often without telling the people. The only people who knew about many wars were the young men who were sent to fight in them.

“Making war on other people would make the president feel good and strong, even though he didn’t do any of the fighting. It would also make the bankers and businessmen feel good because it would bring them great amounts of money. These war chiefs were very strange people, indeed, and their system of government was very strange.

Caucasian American Leaders
(keep in mind that this book was published in 1990!)


“Probably the greatest Caucasian American leader of all time was Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s father, also chief of the Great Council of Bankers and Businessmen, taught his son all the qualities he would need to become a leader of his people: extreme self-confidence (self-kon’-fi-dens), greed, lust, and delusions of grandeur (de-looz’-unz-of-grand’-ur). As he grew up, Trump became a great admirer of the Mogul Empire (mō’-gul-m-pīr), and when he became an adult, named one of his commercial palaces (kom-mer’-shul-pal’-u-sez) after their famous shrine, the Taj Mahal (tadj’-ma’hal’). Trump fought well in battles against other business chiefs, and soon became a famous warrior and the most important Caucasian leader in New York (noo-york’). He was savage in battle, and believed in the common Caucasian practice of putting prisoners to death. Although many considered him a ruthless (rūth’-less) leader, Donald Trump provided many jobs by keeping the scandal mills (skan’-dul-millz) going.”

Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook


I hesitate to share satire because it stereotypes and often pokes fun at or demeans groups of people despite the tremendous diversity within any “group.” Rarely do I find it funny. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end and we have more than enough meanness in the world today.

Yet I often learn from the wisdom of my students. One of my Ojibwe students asked me how they could be expected to imagine something different than what they had always known. A profound question, isn’t it, that gets to the heart of diversity.

How can a Euro-American Dean in a Euro-American-led institution in a predominantly Euro-American culture know what it feels like for people who have lived their difference every day to be told that they don’t know enough about diversity? That decades of study and work with diverse groups on program, policy, and curricular innovation mean nothing? That sitting alone staring at a computer screen wearing headphones is the right way to learn what diversity means?

Some battles are just not worth my time, though. I’ve said all I have to say on this topic to those in power who believe their comfortable versions of truth are the only ones that matter. There are many far more important issues to focus on these days.

Work Cited:

Beverly Slapin & Annie Esposito (1990). Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook. Berkeley, CA: Oyate. (a joint project of Oyate and the Teaching Peace with Justice Task Force)


Grading Papers

Carol A. Hand

Grading student papers is not an easy job. It’s the reason I haven’t been on WordPress often these past weeks.  Yet I have learned how important it is to grade mindfully, because the words we use can change lives – for better or worse.

I’m posting a poem my colleague shared with me tonight that speaks to this truth with power and eloquence.

My Name Is Not Those People, a poem by Julie K. Dinsmore, read Danny Grover on YouTube:

A Different Kind of Kindergarten Lesson

Carol A. Hand

“White people call us ‘dirty Indians
“But you got these bugs from one of the white children in your class
“Now you have to take baths with this special soap everyday
“I have to boil your clothes and bedding
“Don’t’ get too close to them, they’re not like us
“They think we’re dirty Indians
“You have to show them that we’re not
“You have to be better than them in everything you do
“You have to show them we’re worthy of respect.”

me 2

Overcoming the legacies of oppression and prejudice is not an easy task.


How Dare the Media Reframe History?

Carol A. Hand

The first thoughts that came to mind when I read the headline “The Deadliest Mass Shooting In U.S. History” (Huffington Post) were about the Wounded Knee Massacre in the winter of 1890 (Wikipedia). To be sure, the senseless murders of people in Orlando, Florida, because they are somehow “different,” are tragic. We should grieve the loss. But this tragedy happened in an historical context, just like Wounded Knee.


Photo: Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the conflict at Wounded Knee Creek (Wikipedia)

Fear and hatred of people because of sexual orientation have been deliberately manipulated in the current divide and conquer approach to deflect attention away from growing rampant corporate oppression. Just as fear and hatred against indigenous peoples helped unify a nation after a divisive civil war and give an idle military somewhere else to use their guns.

In Orlando, we are told that we can blame a lone Afghani-American gunman. How convenient in an era of growing angst and violence against Muslims. We forget the past and shift our gaze from the role of the US in millions of senseless deaths here and around the globe that continue year after year.

As we grieve, let us do so remembering history and vowing to do what ever we can to create a different future. It’s the reason I felt compelled to write and share this post today.


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.

Reflections about Social Control

Carol A. Hand

My career as an academic came later in life. It wasn’t something I had ever envisioned myself doing, but teaching seemed like an important way for me to share what I had learned. It was a natural progression from my work as an advocate with systems change initiatives for elders, tribes and marginalized communities.

Fortunately, I had the benefit of working as a teaching assistant for my graduate advisor. He was a charismatic Chickasaw scholar of international acclaim, an award-wining “master teacher,” and a kind, ethical, and humble man. He allowed me the freedom to do things my way as long as I followed the rigors of critical thinking and supported my work on the basis of empirical objective evidence. With a model like his to follow, it’s not surprising that I choose to teach from a foundation of liberatory praxis, or critical pedagogy. I have described this approach in other posts, but honestly it’s now become cumbersome for me to try to find them on my own blog.

The word “liberatory” is easy to understand without much of a definition. But as Freire (1998, 2o00) argues, to be ethical and effective, our efforts to improve conditions in the world need to be based on knowledge and respect for others and what they already know – praxis. Simply put, teaching from this foundation means meeting people where they are to engage in dialogue about the systems that oppress us all. Rather than forcing students to blindly memorize and regurgitate existing theories and beliefs, liberatory praxis provides students with opportunities to look at taken-for-granted circumstances and asks them to think critically about meanings and alternatives.

Yesterday, I was reminded of a framework I used in the past to teach social welfare policy. I had to renew my car registration and driver’s license, an unappealing annual task that required visiting two separate drab bureaucracies. As I waited in line or at the counters, I listened and observed. And I imbibed the depressing atmosphere, aware that staff were doing the best they could to function kindly despite the constraints of social control that the rules of their positions demanded. Again, I wondered about alternatives.

Social Work Frameworks

Image: Policy Alternatives (C.A. Hand 2008 PowerPoint Slide)

Intuitively, many of us sense that the policies and institutions that constrain our lives limit our freedom. And they do so in ways that makes us feel shamed, demeaned, devalued, or judged as inferior on some dimension. It shouldn’t be surprising. The values and assumptions built into many social welfare policies in the United States are based on sixteenth and seventeenth century British Elizabethan Poor Laws. These laws were meant to control people who were disinherited and displaced as the feudal system dissolved during the era of industrialization. Tenant farmers and artisans who were evicted from the land and their homes flocked to cities in hopes of finding some way to support themselves and their families.

“… Few of this population had the skills to earn a living wage, and as their numbers increased, pauperism became a national problem. The first attempt to correct this problem was the enactment of voluntary alms to be collected in each parish. When this enactment did not alleviate the problems, an act was passed that required severe punishment for vagabonds and relief for the poor. This act led to an attempt to discriminate between the criminal population and the poor. Finally, the Poor Law of 1601 provided a clear definition of the “poor” and articulated services that they were to receive. This legislation is the foundation for the current social welfare system existing today in Great Britain.” (Source)

Notice how even this historical overview of the context of massive displacement and human suffering fails to mention the profit motive behind the plight of those who found themselves without the means to survive because they had been separated from the land and labors that had been theirs for generations. Notice also the ease with which the blame for their circumstances has been labeled as an individual deficit, “pauperism,” rather than a critique of the system that forced them to survive in whatever ways remained open.

Following is a brief overview of the major provisions of the law that codified these assumptions and the punitive measures that were imposed in response.

elizabethan poor laws

Image: Elizabethan Poor Laws (C.A. Hand 2013 PowerPoint Slide)

And consider the mechanism for enforcing these laws. The “Overseers of the Poor.”

“The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 required each parish to select two Overseers of the Poor. The Overseer of the Poor was under the supervision of the Justice of the Peace. It was the job of the Overseer to determine how much money it would take to care for the poor in his or her parish. The Overseer was then to set a poor tax and collect the money from each landowner. The Overseer was also in charge of dispensing either food or money to the poor and supervising the parish poorhouse. While this may sound like a great job, these Overseers were actually unpaid and generally unwilling appointees.” (

What a great tool this was to control the rabble in the old and “new” world! As in Britain and elsewhere, there have always been far greater numbers of people who are poor and propertyless than there have been among the propertied ruling elite. These assumptions about human worth – who is worthy and who isn’t – are built into the institutions, policies, and more importantly, the unquestioned values people are socialized to see as right and normal.

Some of our social welfare policies were grudgingly enacted to ameliorate suffering. But many have been eliminated or significantly reduced of late. The oppressive net has been becoming ever more controlling and deficit-focused in recent years, and sadly, those who are next in line to be displaced have internalized the same assumptions about the individual-deficit causality of poverty.

childs pose

Image: Dancer 1 (by C.A. Hand)

Shame is a powerful way for the few to rule the many.

These were among the thoughts that flowed through my mind as I watched well-meaning staff refuse to help people who couldn’t produce the required documentation to prove they were who they claimed to be. It would mean they couldn’t vote, or get jobs, or travel as they chose. I watched as some grew angry and others walked away with shoulders hunched. But I repeated my mantra, “be patient, be kind.” As I neared my turn, I added a new refrain. “See if you can brighten the day by helping these poor staff smile.”

But social control is never a laughing matter. We have choices. I have seen the hope and excitement that is possible if programs are based on a foundation of life enhancement, using liberatory praxis as a method to open up possibilities. The powerful transformations that can and do happen in people’s lives have been profound.


Image: Dancer 2 (by C.A. Hand)

Works Referenced:

Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Paulo Freire (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 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.


Deciphering Meaning

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I reluctantly emerged from a hypnagogic state. I wanted to remember my strange dream. It was laden with meaning that I knew would escape me as soon as I awoke fully. Yet the early morning sun streaming through the eastern window and singing parakeets called. It was time to get up. Still, I lingered a few moments and then scribbled what I could remember in the margins of the cryptogram puzzle book by my bedside – the only paper available.

I saw a word floating in the air of my dream – shibboleth. It seemed important, but it’s not a word I ever remember using. I’m sure I’ve read it and looked it up more than once. I’ve probably written it many times before in the margins of some of the obscure texts I was trying to decipher. I have a habit of sitting with my unabridged dictionary on my lap at such times, scribbling words and definitions in the margins of my texts. Sometimes, it’s easier for me to keep writing definitions than it is to find the ones I’ve already written many times.

Does this word offer a clue to help me continue working out a tricky transition in the book about Ojibwe child welfare I’m working on?

Shibboleth – (noun shib·bo·leth \ˈshi-bə-ləth also -ˌleth\) – an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue; a word of a way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group. (


A shibboleth, in its original signification and in a meaning it still bears today, is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.

In contemporary usage the word has acquired an extended meaning which is often cited first (and sometimes even exclusively) in shorter dictionaries, namely, an old belief or saying which is cited repetitively or unreflectively but which is, or may be, fallacious or untrue… (Wikipedia)

What does the word shibboleth imply about the liminal space between the Ojibwe and Euro-American settler cultures I studied years ago and continue to ponder today? Certainly the past continues to influence the present.

“I understand what you want . . . from the few words I have heard you speak,” said Chief Flat Mouth of the Pillager Band of Ojibwe to a group of U.S. government officials in 1855. “You want land.” (National Endowment for the Humanities)

Ojibwe US 1855 meeting11_12_statements6

Photo: President Andrew Johnson and American Indian delegates – 1867. (NEH)

I honestly don’t know what to make of a dream where the word shimmered in the air just as I awoke. The notes I scribbled in the margins of my cryptogram puzzle book don’t seem to offer much.

All people create separate worlds in the past where they can revisit. [I think this is what I was doing in my dream.] Some get caught there, and others are stuck halfway in-between. The worlds we create can tell us a lot about who we are and the things that matter most to us.

I couldn’t even remember how to spell shibboleth when I awoke, so I gave it my best guess and Google did the rest. Honestly, this is something I will need to think about more. In the meantime, the final cryptogram puzzle I solved before going to sleep last night reminds me of one of the pressing tasks I need to do today.


I welcome any thoughts about the meaning of shibboleth, or solutions for the cryptogram puzzle. (I do remember one of my virtual friends hates word puzzles. I hope he doesn’t feel obligated to comment, although I do welcome his thoughts about the meaning of shibboleth. 🙂 )


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.

Reflections on Being Different in a Place Called “Normal”

Carol A. Hand

Yesterday, I finished drafting the first half of a book I’ve been writing. I know it’s just half because I reached a transition point. I had to alternate between living “in the field” for several months to conduct a study of child welfare in an Ojibwe community with living in a distant Euro-American city to teach at a university. The first field immersion adventures are now written and a double teaching load is about to begin in this past reality. I’m not sure what if anything to include from those days at the university.

At this point in the telling, I remember how difficult those transitions were. In many ways, I was still an outsider. Only the context had changed. I relied on the same critical ethnographic frame of mind and habits to make sense of my time in academia. I continued to write fieldnotes, just in a different setting. After experiences in several different universities, I had collected a series of stories. But no journals were interested in publishing them, even though I felt the messages were important. Finally, I gave up trying. It’s one of the main reasons I began blogging.

This morning, I revisited the last version of the manuscript and decided to share it here even though it’s rather long. My experiences trying to find a publisher actually influenced the title and brief “About” statement for this blog.

This is a place for important creative and critical works that question the status quo. Academic journals and media tend to serve as gatekeepers, enforcing standards that limit works to those that reflect “the ways things have always been done,” thereby screening out creative works (prose, poetry, art and pieces that interweave different media). The intention for creating this blog is to encourage dialogue about possibilities and support for alternate ways of communicating that celebrate the inclusiveness of diversity.

I did share edited versions of some of the stories in earlier posts when I began blogging almost three years ago. This morning I realized how much I have always regretted the need to separate them from the context.


Although universities have been proclaiming their commitment to diversity in recent years, evidence shows that disparities still exist for faculty of color, particularly for Native Americans. This is true for social work programs as well, despite a professional code of ethics that professes an emphasis on social justice. The values that guide the hiring, performance evaluation, and promotional policies of universities and social work programs are often incongruent with those from cultures other than the professional class of Euro-Americans in positions of power. Descriptive data paint a bleak picture of the difficulties faculty of color face in academia, but these data do not capture the multidimensional challenges for those whose cultures differ. This essay interweaves a series of essays that are drawn from the participant observations of an Ojibwe scholar in academia in order to illustrate the individual and institutional costs associated with discrimination and exclusion.

[A heartland university] offers a supportive and diverse environment for its students, faculty, staff and visitors. The Office of Equal Opportunity, Ethics, and Access … is responsible for administering and monitoring the University’s equal opportunity and diversity-related policies pursuant to … relevant federal, state and local statutes.      – (name withheld to protect identities)

[A western university] capitalizes on its unique strengths to create knowledge, provide an active learning environment for students, and offers programs and services responsive to the needs of [state citizens]…. The University also educates competent and humane professionals, and informed, ethical, and engaged citizens of local and global communities; and provides basic and applied research, technology transfer, cultural outreach, and service benefiting the local community, region, State, nation and the world.     – (name withheld to protect identities)

[A midwest university] will be a national model as a responsive, progressive, and scholarly public service community known for its accomplished record of engaging people and ideas for common good…. We believe that a university community connects the perspectives and backgrounds of diverse social and academic groups of people. To meet this aim, a university community must be inclusive in its composition and support a civil atmosphere and a tolerant environment for learning…. Our learning community is distinguished by a pervasive commitment to diversity and inclusivity, international perspectives, support for those with disabilities or special needs, and engaged in community service.      – (name withheld to protect identities)

Despite these lofty proclamations, my experiences as an Ojibwe scholar in academia have made me realize that universities are not as accepting of differences as they claim to be. I know that my experiences as a scholar of color are not unique. In general, faculty of color have continued to be under-represented in academia. In 1980, less than 5 percent of full-time faculty were African American, less than 2 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian, and less than 1 percent were Native American, when cumulatively people of color composed about 20 percent of the U.S. population.[1]

By 2003 people of color were almost 33 percent of the total population, and the proportionate representation of faculty of color within “predominantly White colleges and universities” was even more troubling: 5 percent of full-time faculty were African American, 5 percent were Asian, 2 percent were Latino, and less than 1 percent were Native American.[2] Faculty of color tended to be “heavily represented … at the lower ranks of lecturers and assistant professors” merely because they were different.[3] These numbers often mean that a faculty member of color may be the only person of color in their department at a given university, and one of only a few in the overall institution.

To address the lack of diversity, universities have focused on recruiting faculty of color. Often, these new faculty are expected to meet not only the universal requirements for all faculty (teaching, scholarship, and service), but also to shoulder the university’s diversity initiative.[4] This “shadow curriculum” means extra duties–to sensitize White faculty and administrators on diversity issues, teach diversity courses, serve as tokens on university committees as the minority voice, present workshops on topics of diversity, and advise students of color.[5] In essence, some scholars of color see this approach as harmful window-dressing that marginalizes or ghettoizes the responsibility for implementing diversity programs, placing the burden on faculty of color without making necessary institutional changes or providing necessary recognition and supports for these additional expectations.[6]

Faculty of color also face challenges as they perform their required duties. Their scholarship is viewed as suspect by White colleagues because it often focuses on issues of concern to communities of color, challenging dominant paradigms in their disciplines and critiquing colonial hegemony.[7] As teachers, they are more likely to face discrimination from students, faculty, and administrators, and less likely to be able to find collegial support and mentorship.[8] Given this context, it is not surprising that faculty of color are more likely to report “lower levels of success and job satisfaction.”[9]

The situation for Native American faculty is particularly challenging. For decades they have represented less than 1 percent of full-time faculty.[10] They are also less likely to attain tenure than members of other ethnic groups.[11] In an effort to highlight the experiences of Native scholars in academia, a special issue of the American Indian Quarterly focused on the accounts of Native American students, faculty, and staff and their allies.[12] Many Native Americans in academia “have found themselves in tough situations because of their political views, teaching styles, and quite simply, because of their race and/or gender.”[13] Author after author described how they were systematically marginalized by those in power in university settings.[14] Other Native American scholars also described negative experiences in academia.[15]

In part, as Shawn Wilson argues, these experiences reflect contrasting epistemologies.[16] Indigenous peoples operate from a foundation of relationship, while those of European immigrant descent, who compose the majority of tenured faculty and key administrators, value competition and emotionally distant objectivity. Perhaps these differences also reflect deeper cultural contrasts, as Rupert Ross suggests.[17] The Ojiway and Cree peoples Ross served as an Assistant Crown Attorney operated from a belief that children were born in a state of “original sanctity,” as gifts from the Creator, as “good,” a profound contrast to the belief of Euro-Canadians that children were born in a state of “original sin,” as evil.

The institutions that develop from these profoundly different worldviews likewise differ. One nurtures and protects without coercion, and the other polices and corrects. One builds supportive networks around those who are experiencing difficulties because they are viewed as important members of the community, the other rejects those who do not fit because they are viewed as easily replaceable. One views leadership as a sacred responsibility to exercise wisdom, generosity, and mercy to ensure the well-being of all one’s relations, the other views power as a symbol of personal superiority and a divine right to exercise dominion over other people and the natural world for one’s personal gain.[18]

I hoped the academy would be more aware of these cultural contrasts and more accepting of differences in my chosen discipline, social work, particularly given the centrality of social justice, one of the six core values listed in the code of ethics.[19] The Code further states,

Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.[20]

Like the majority of Native American graduate students Gordon Limb and Kurt Organista studied, I entered the field because I was drawn to the compelling traditional mission to help disadvantaged people while working to address structural inequalities and oppression.[21] As the following stories illustrate, what I experienced and observed in three different universities was definitely not in accord with my expectations. I wrote these stories as a way for me to make sense of my experiences and observations, and sometimes, as a way to survive by interpreting events through a different cultural lens, seeing the lessons, absurdity, and humor in situations where I had very little power to prevent individual or community harm.[22] My purpose for sharing these stories is to heighten the awareness of faculty and administrators to the view of academia from a different lens in hopes that together, we can create a more inclusive future.


Lest I forget, I want to record my impressions and reflections of this living experience. As a new assistant professor, rather than trying to find an apartment in a strange community, I chose to stay in small, dark concrete graduate student apartment complex. This proved to be a short stay given not only the oppressive administration but also the health dangers posed by monthly pesticide spraying and the wall-mounted furnace that belched out long, hairy, black dust. Even renting this place was an affront to my spirit–an adult who has held many responsible positions in my career. I was made to feel like an errant child without agency or legitimacy by the omnipotent “office of residential life,” and by the department chair who had to advocate on my behalf.

For someone who is used to feeling a sense of vision and freedom that comes from living with a vista of wetlands, forest, and sky, in a home where no one may enter without approval, the loss of privacy and freedom was all the more notable. The loss of beauty was all the more acute. And being treated like a child was all the more hurtful and angering.
These feelings have relevance to the topic of my research: institutions and the paradigms on which they are founded. For a people who are prepared to be competent and self-sufficient in a challenging environment, with finely tuned skills and sensitivity, Euro-American society and institutions are indeed an affront to the spirit. The rigidity, the belief that people need to be policed in order to work or live according to arbitrary behavioral and material standards is insulting and oppressive.

It was not only the ugliness, the architectural heaviness of this structure, and the absence of light and windows to the world, but how it was reflected in the social structures, the everyday interactions with those in petty bureaucratic positions that were also an affront to the spirit. For people who have been acculturated to live according to the path of life, the oppression of all types of judgments and the loss of freedom is especially acute. This theme runs through Euro-American social structure, with its rigidity, heaviness, negative judgments of the basic nature of people, and policing functions.

The very foundations of Euro-American social structures and institutions limit choice, vision, and joy. You work and strive and behave to achieve a superficial outward appearance of conformity because you must–otherwise others will judge you as deficient and further limit your rights.

The question becomes how to communicate this profound paradigm difference. I should be grateful for the experience of living and working in a situation where these dynamics are excruciatingly apparent. And perhaps I am–the fact that I have become conscious of some of the dimensions and complexity of oppressive macrosystems is at least for now a way to cope. But I am afraid I will forget–hence this memo. Experience has taught me that the brutality of some institutions (such as state agencies) and the pettiness of the bureaucrats who staff them (perhaps because this is how they can best cope with their own oppression) can have soul-deep negative effects. I want to remember and to continue to reflect on these forces of hegemony.


I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening, I entered a dimly lit basement with folding chairs and saw a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. This was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary. I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome. What I encountered was quite different–an uncomfortable hello from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.) I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves.

One of the women present introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.

The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. A group of people coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.)

The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.

The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall.

“I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth. When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”

As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling. The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation, or visited an urban Indian center.

Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents!

Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.


Let me write about a metaphor of power before I forget. In this story, I lived under the oppressiveness of invalidating judgment for over two years. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claim to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. In fact, some of them have authored works that purport to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time. The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future.

It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for MSW students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs. I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we walked toward the auditorium, worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture had taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.

Following my unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.”

As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor than noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.

After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.

We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.

When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white. (As mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear.)

I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.

I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced, and without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.


This morning I awoke with a memory of a symbolic experience that has remained dormant for more than a year. The setting was the annual college retreat. It was a time of significant turmoil in the school of social work. One colleague had made an unfortunate decision. He did not cite the sources he used to create a fairly unimportant bureaucratic document, although he did insert a blank page entitled “Acknowledgments” at the beginning of the document. He was pilloried behind his back by faculty for his oversight and proceedings were initiated by the school to sanction him in the upper reaches of the university. It was a hurtful, ugly time–and the response was so out of proportion to the alleged offense.

There was an unacknowledged context. This colleague, relatively new to the system, was different in notable ways. Perhaps it was a legacy of working-class roots. Yet all he really wanted was to belong, to be respected. From the start, his difference and his desire to fit in were a point of vulnerability. The response of the system was to marginalize him, to isolate him, to deny him the very things he most wanted. From the margins, he produced the document. No one helped, although a number of other people were responsible for collaboration and final oversight. The “breach of professional ethics,” or “plagiarism” as it was labeled, was defined as his alone. And the system set out to sanction him in the most profound ways.

It was the beginning of my second year. I tried to find less hurtful solutions—solutions that would enable people to resolve differences in a way that promoted face-to-face honesty and healing. My pleas went unheeded. To pathologize an individual for one misjudgment is hardly an example of “strength-based and empowering practice.” We are all more than one mistaken action. My colleague also was good at research, kind to students, and supportive of the newer members of the faculty. Yet his strengths were not acknowledged by the system; only his deficits were the focus of hallway and closed-door conversations.

His plight was particularly salient for me. I was also isolated. As the sole faculty person of color in the school, an Ojibwe in a state that was particularly prejudiced against Native Americans, I was on the margins like my pilloried colleague. He had been consistently kind and welcoming to me despite his treatment.

With this divisive turmoil brewing, social work faculty attended the college retreat. It was a divided college, attempting to merge unlikely disciplinary partners who had little in common with social work. In an effort to promote greater understanding of each other’s profession, the chair of each school briefly addressed the assembled audience of more than 100 faculty and staff. The chair of social work talked about the teamwork and unity of the school, how supportive faculty were of each other. I wondered what planet I was on as I looked around and could see the various social work factions seated in distant corners around the large auditorium. The speakers droned on for the entire morning.

And then there was lunch. The dean announced that the theme of lunch was to bridge the disciplinary divides. Staff and faculty were expected to sit at tables arranged by month of birth. This would give people an opportunity to interact with others whom they did not know. So, alone, I headed for the dining room. For some reason I can no longer remember,

I was a few minutes late arriving. The tables were all filled, making it hard for me to see the centerpieces that specified the birth month. Finally, after circling the room a number of times, I discovered “February.” I approached the table and noticed that it was full. Two of the people at the table, one a colleague from my school and one from another discipline, spoke in unison. “There isn’t any room here. Why don’t you sit at the overflow table.” On the margins was the overflow table, empty of place settings and occupied by a sole colleague from the college. He was not faculty, he was support staff–an unacknowledged source of divisions. He was a computer technician originally from China. And he looked so alone. I asked him if it was okay for me to join him. He did not say no, so I sat down. We talked as we sat alone through the meal, and it was an interesting, although uncomfortable, conversation across cultural, language, disciplinary, gender, and age divides.

As lunch ended, my pilloried colleague sat down with us as well. The misfits by virtue of race, class, and status in the hierarchy shared a table on the margins. This symbolic encounter remains with me, although my colleague is no longer here. It is symbolic of why I feel it is so hard to stay. In the intervening year, I still sit on the margins although I have tried everything I can to bridge divides without compromising my integrity. I am accepting the likelihood that it may not be possible for me to find a place at the table here. I know there are other tables in other settings where differences are welcomed, and even celebrated. And I know there are many in this world who go hungry, who have no table that welcomes them. Those with privilege have a responsibility to remember that their work is to make sure that hunger and exclusion are ended.


Why are you so different?” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question has contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who are unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.

As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.

As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked “Why are you so different?” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself “Why are you so different?” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led to authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churckendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.[23] Difference in this story was simply that, difference. There were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.

As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (These were the people who were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion.

Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.

As a young person searching for a place to belong, a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churckendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I lived in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors.

Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.

I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment has remained. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, is there a possibility of building understanding? As long as I am here, I am willing to try to model a sense of wonder and openness to new experiences and different ways of seeing the world that are liberatory. The lesson of the Churckendoose has served me well for a lifetime. I hope that I am able to bridge the divide between those who see the need for predictability, stability, and a degree of certainty, and those who welcome ambiguity and the as-yet-unknown as an opportunity to explore a more inclusive world.

I am reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work.[24] If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift of wider, deeper vision and understanding. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” It is, hopefully, the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.


When I am almost 60, I discover a new avocation: washing little rocks that I have excavated as I dug gardens and a small pond in my yard. Although time consuming, I want to line the little pond with rocks that came from that very spot. It has given me time to reflect on many things. I am sure my neighbors, if they see me, will think I am crazy as I sit for hours scrubbing decades or centuries of dirt from something that appears, at least in this cultural context, to be so worthless and ordinary. Yet, as I watch dusty brown lumps transform into multi-colored, uniquely textured, and variously shaped stones, I begin comparing it to the work I do as a professor.

I realize one of the principles that guides my work with students involves taking time to look for the inner beauty and strength of students whom many others might overlook, or even dismiss. Like the rocks, many have been covered with years of dust, yet underneath each is lovely and unique. And like the stones that dry after their washing, they retain only a little of their lovely colors in an arid environment. Yet, put them in water, and their rainbow colors are visible once again. So too, the right environments allow beauty and uniqueness to shine through people as well. The question I ponder is how to create those environments, not only for students and the professionals they will become, but also for the clients they will serve. There is a Taoist saying that suggests an answer:

The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.[25]

I have also wondered about the paradox of too much knowledge and naming. I have not ever had a course in geology–strange, given that I have taken courses in almost everything else. I cannot name any of the rocks: I don’t know when, where, or how they were formed. I wonder, if I did know, would I be able to appreciate their loveliness without cataloging, ranking, or judging in some way? Would I be able to see each individual stone in its uniqueness from a more educated, scientific perspective? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I have not run off to buy a book or enroll in a geology course.

I can usually (but not always) apply this principle of nonjudgment when I work with students. I can rarely apply it when I work with colleagues. Again, I ponder this difference. And I do run off to buy more textbooks to understand how I might do a better job of respecting those who have power and use it to oppress others, always with the goal of becoming more effective at ending oppression, but the answers still continue to elude me.

I also ponder the journey these stones made. What was the world like as they formed? Where did they begin their journey? Where have they traveled? And what have they experienced that has polished the surfaces of some and splintered others that are jagged and sharp-edged? (The ones with jagged edges don’t go into the pond: they serve as a ring around the edge.) Is this the difference, at least from the perspective of an Ojibwe academic, between students and colleagues? Is it that I can see the smooth surface of those with less power, and only the jagged edges of those with power? Is my response to power differentials related to an automatic resistance to the legacy of colonial oppression? Or is it related to the Tao saying, a recognition that status is really only a social convention maintained by those in power for their own short-term benefit that is ultimately unfulfilling? Have the hard times experienced by those without power polished their surfaces, while those with privilege remained jagged for lack of transformative challenges?

I wash rocks and take the time to get to know students, but my colleagues tell me I should be more “productive.” Yet, to find the beauty in everyday life, to plant gardens that have begun to transform my working class neighborhood, is not wasted time. It has expanded possibilities. To help students believe in themselves, and to model how to work with clients in an authentically empowering way, will perhaps be of greater benefit than yet another journal article or conference presentation. It is the living art of washing rocks, or touching lives, that lets the best in others shine through. Taking the time to find beauty in others is surely needed in present and future times.

I have continued to try to understand why I am able to be sensitive to the experiences of those with the least power in any given setting, but maintain a judgmental stance toward those who have power. Not all people in positions of power need to be resisted. There are many colleagues who use their power mindfully to help students or clients see their own beauty and uniqueness. However, there are also colleagues who use power to tumble away all uniqueness, to judge difference as deficiency or deviance. Often this seems to be due to deep insecurities, perhaps unconscious or well-intended, to help those who are different to adjust or acquiesce to the demands of the “real world.”

It is probably wiser to help students develop their own capacities to challenge accepted social constructions that limit opportunities for all of us to express our inner beauty and celebrate the inner beauty of others. The difficulty is to be in that liminal space between those without power and those who use power in oppressive ways, to buffer those without power from harm without harming those who use power in hurtful ways, to be like water and benefit all. Can it be that this buffering, like the power of water, will wear down and smooth the jagged edges?


It is tragic that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students are grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees.[26] Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic.

With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, the whole troop was dead from an undetermined cause.

The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.

We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with others. Encouraging awareness and sensitivity places students at risk, doubly so because the interventions described yesterday are so inadequate from my perspective.


These are not evil people I have described. They all have many strengths and have made some important contributions in their fields. Yet, as these stories show, those who unconsciously serve as gatekeepers to protect the status quo can shatter the self-confidence of individuals with less power, destroy promising careers, or even contribute to the despair that leads some people to commit suicide merely because they are different.

Administrators and faculty with privilege in positions of power carry a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of their actions. These stories are my attempt to underscore the urgency for those with power in academia to become aware of the costs associated with exercising power and privilege in ways that are disempowering and oppressive, rather than ways that are liberating and enlightening.

I have witnessed the consequences of gatekeeping for gifted faculty colleagues, whose differences in culture and sexual orientation made them vulnerable. Many were pathologized and forced out of academia because they just “didn’t fit.” The racism or homophobia they faced in classrooms (and among White heterosexual faculty) was attributed to their inability to teach, rather than as an opportunity for multicultural teams of allies to dialogue with students about issues and solutions to the problems of discrimination.

The challenges my colleagues faced as publishing scholars were due more to the shadow curriculum they shouldered as “the” diversity program that Brayboy writes about, rather than to their lack of competence or commitment.[27] I have witnessed dedicated students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to obtain an education to help others in their situation, only to be told that they were not “graduate material” for specious reasons.

And I have witnessed other sensitive students driven to despair, and sometimes, to suicide. These are not individual pathologies. These are serious structural issues we need to address if academia is to live up to its aspirations to contribute to a future that is more welcoming of the wondrous diversity that characterizes our nation and world.

As I pondered these reflections over the years since they were written, I now view them as acts of everyday resistance to the colonial privilege that dictated how everything I said and did was interpreted. When faculty and administrators in a social work program publicly refer to those in their midst who are different as “isms,” (i.e., the targets of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism), something is amiss in terms of an authentic commitment to respecting diversity and working toward social justice.

Like bullies on a playground, the status quo in academia has the power to dictate the rules of the game and the terms and limitations for inclusion of those who are outsiders, those who are different in some way. While outsiders often know the rules and the consequences for resistance, they may choose, as I did, to stand in integrity, to protect those most at risk as best they can for as long as they can from arbitrary abuses of power, and to give witness to the everyday injustices, describing them through their own lenses. But it will take far more than one or two faculty members to provide support and encouragement for colleagues of color, to collaborate on innovative ways to transform discrimination into learning opportunities for students, to advocate for students who are facing discrimination, and to serve as whistle-blowers when all other avenues fail.

There are costs for those who choose to stand in integrity. Comparing the experiences of the only two Native American faculty who were hired by a western university and denied promotion, Maxine Jacobson notes that, although there was a thirty-year gap between the first and second faculty member, their experiences were eerily similar.[28] As the ally of the second Native American faculty member, she observes

“Why do you have to be so different?” This was asked of my Native American colleague during our last year. It was asked because she presented alternative perspectives at faculty meetings and challenged procedures and practices that were not at all congruent with the stated social justice mission of the program. The question seems innocent on the surface, but it gets at the very core of what was wrong–an organizational culture comfortable in its White privilege and content with the easy road of pathologizing and punishing those who do not comply. It is a question that keeps change at arm’s length by requiring it only from others.[29]

Not all academic institutions are so willing to waste valuable resources represented by faculty and students of color. For instance, Smith College has spent more than ten years transforming not only its social work department, but the entire college. Administrators, faculty, staff, and students have been transforming every aspect of their program to be not only more inclusive, but also to incorporate an anti-racist stance, a perspective that goes beyond merely incorporating differences by acknowledging privilege and power disparities.[30] Their student and faculty make-up, curriculum, and relationships with outside constituencies have all been reviewed and changed to be more inclusive.

Transformation takes the courage to look at one’s own biases and privileges and the willingness to shoulder the hard work of confronting the procedures and practices that keep hegemony firmly in place from one generation to the next.[31] It is my hope that these simple stories will touch readers’ hearts and inspire change.


  1. U. S. Census Bureau, Population by Race. Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair,” 385.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Profile of the United States”; Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
  3. Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
  4. Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity”; Corntassel, “An Activist Posing”; Dua and Lawrence, “Challenging White Hegemony; Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power.”
  5. Brian M. J. Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity.”
  6. Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Brayboy, “The Implementation of Diversity”; Dua and Lawrence, “Challenging White Hegemony.”
  7. Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power”; Russell, “From the Bottom of the Education Barrel”; Stanley, “Coloring the Academic Landscape”; Fenelon, “Indians Teaching about Indigenous.”
  8. Essien, “Visible and Invisible Barriers”; Iseke-Barnes, “Racist Hierarchies of Power”; Smith, “The Tyrannies of Silence.”
  9. Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy,” 5.
  10. Exum, “Climbing the Crystal Stair”; Alex-Assensoh, “Race in the Academy”.
  11. Cross, Brown, Day, Limb, Pellebon, and Weaver, “Status of Native Americans.”
  12. Devon A. Mihesuah, “Introduction.”
  13. Mihesuah, “Introduction,” 46.
  14. Calhoun, “It’s Just a Social Obligation”; Corntassel, “An Activist Posing”; LaCourt, “Descriptions of a Tree”; Mihesuah, “Activism and Apathy”; Nunpa, “Native Faculty”; Trucks-Bordeaux, “Academic Massacres”; White and Sakiestewa, “Talking Back to Colonial Institutions”; Younger, “A Painful Time.”
  15. Deloria, “Reforming the Future”; Russell, “From the Bottom.”
  16. Shawn Wilson, Research Is Ceremony.
  17. Ross, Dancing with a Ghost.
  18. Although I usually avoid simplistic cultural contrasts, evidence from the accounts of Native American faculty cited in this article clearly show evidence that these differing paradigms are significant. The contrasts also reflect the synthesis of an extensive review of literature related to Ojibwe culture and history drawn from ethnographic and historical studies, accounts of explores and administrators, and novels, narratives, and recorded accounts by Ojibwe people. The list of sources is too extensive for this article and is available in Hand, An Ojibwe Perspective.
  19. National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics.
  20. National Association of Social Workers, “Code of Ethics,” 1, para 2
  21. Limb and Organista, “Comparisons Between Caucasian Students.”
  22. The observations that resulted in these stories were recorded from 2001 to 2011. I began recording them as fieldnotes, a habit developed during my doctoral research, a critical ethnographic study of the child welfare system. For more information on fieldnotes, see Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. For more information about the distinctions between traditional ethnography and critical ethnography, see Thomas, Doing Critical Ethnography.
  23. Berenberg, What Am I.
  24. Storm, Seven Arrows.
  25. Dreher, The Tao of Inner Peace, 90.
  26. Hartmann, “Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees.”
  27. Brayboy. “The Implementation of Diversity.”
  28. Jacobson, “Breaking Silence.”
  29. Jacobson, “Breaking Silence,” 277.
  30. Basham, Donner, Killough, and Rozas, “Becoming an Anti-Racist Institution.”
  31. Stanley, “Coloring the Academic Landscape”; Tatum, “The Complexity of Identity.”


Alex-Assensoh, Yvette. “Race in the Academy: Moving Beyond Diversity and Toward the Incorporation of Faculty of Color in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.” Journal of Black Studies  34, no. 1 (2003), 5-11.

Basham, Kathryn K., Susan Donner, Ruth M. Killough, and  Lisa M. Rozas, “Becoming an Anti-Racist Institution.” Smith College Studies in Social Work  67, no. 3 (1997), 564-585.

Berenberg, Ben Ross. What Am I? New York, Wonder Books, 1946.

Brayboy, Brian M. J. “The Implementation of Diversity in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.” Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 1 (2003), 72-86).

Calhoun, J. Anne. “It’s Just a Social Obligation: You Could Say ‘No’.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 132-154.

Corntassel, Jeff J. “An Activist Posing as an Academic?” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 160-171.

Cross, Suzanne L., Eddie F. Brown, Priscilla A. Day, Gordon E. Limb, Dwain A. Pellebon, Emily C. Proctor, and  Hilary N. Weaver. Status of Native Americans in Social Work Higher Education, 2009. Council on Social Work Education, (accessed September 25, 2012), .

Deloria, Vine, Jr. “Reforming the Future, Where the Academy Is Going.” Social Science Journal 39 (2002), 325-332.

Dreyer, Diane. The Tao of Inner Peace: A Guide to Inner and Outer Peace. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.

Dua, Enakshi and Bonita Lawrence. “Challenging White Hegemony in University Classrooms: Whose Canada Is It?” Atlantis 24, no, 2 (2000), 105-122.

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Essien, Victor. “Visible and Invisible Barriers to the Incorporation of Faculty of Color in Predominantly White Law Schools.” Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 1 (2003), 63-71.

Exum, William H. “Climbing the Crystal Stair: Values, Affirmative Action, and Minority Faculty,” Social Problems 30, no. 4 (1983), 383-399.

Fenelon, James V. “Indians Teaching About Indigenous: How and Why the Academy Discriminates.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 177-188.

Hand, Carol A. An Ojibwe Perspective on the Welfare of Children: Rescuing Children of Homogenizing America? Unpublished Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.

Hartmann, Thom. “Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees.” Thom Hartmann Program, 22 November 2006. (accessed January 20, 2009)

Iseke-Barnes, Judy M. “Racist Hierarchies of Power in Teaching/Learning Scenarios and Issues of Educational Change.” Resources for Feminist Research 31, no. 3 (2006), 103-130.

Jacobson, Maxine. “Breaking Silence, Building Solutions: The Role of Social Justice Group Work in the Retention of Faculty of Color.” Social Work with Groups 35, no. 3 (2012), 267-286.

LaCourt, Jeanne A. “Descriptions of a Tree Outside the Forest: An Indigenous Woman’s Experiences in the Academy.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 296-307.

Limb, Gordon E. & Kurt C. Organista.“Comparisons Between Caucasian Students, Students of Color, and American Indian Students on Their Views on Social Work’s Traditional Mission, Career Motivations, and Practice Preferences.” Journal of Social Work Education 39, no. 1 (2003), 91-109.

Mihesuah, Devon A. “Native Student, Faculty, and Staff Experiences in the Ivory Tower.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 46-49.

Mihesuah, Devon A. “Activism and Apathy: The Price We Pay for Both.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 325-332.

Miller, Joshua and Susan Donner. “More than Just Talk: The Use of Racial Dialogue to Combat Racism.” Social Work with Groups 23, no. 1 (2006), 31-53).

National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from (accessed on December 17, 2012 )

Nunpa, Chris M. “Native Faculty, Higher Education, Racism and Survival.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 349-364.

Ross, Rupert. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group, 1992.

Russell, Steve. “From the Bottom of the Education Barrel.” Indian County Today, (2008, March 14).

Smith, Pamela J. “The Tyrannies of Silence of the Untenured Professors of Color.” U.C. Davis Law Review 33 (1999-2000), 1105-1133.

Stanley, Christine A. “Coloring the Academic Landscape: Faculty of Color Breaking the Silence in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.” American Educational Research Journal 43, no. 4 (2006), 701-736.

Storm, Hyemeyohsts. Seven Arrows. New York: Ballentine Books, 1972.

Trucks-Bordeaux, Tammy. “Academic Massacres: The Story of Two American Indian Women and Their Struggle to Survive Academia.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 416-419.

Tatum, Beverly D. “The Complexity of Identity: Who am I?” In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Casteñada, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (eds.), Readings for Diversity in Social Justice: An Anthology of Racism, Anti-Semitism, Sexism., Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism (pp. 9-14). New York, NY: Rutledge, 2000.

Thomas, Jim. Doing Critical Ethnography. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1993.

U.S. Census Bureau. CensusScope – Population by Race. Retrieved from (accessed December 22, 2012).

U.S. Census Bureau. Race and Hispanic Origin in 2005. Population Profile of the United States: Dynamic Version. Retrieved from (accessed December 21, 2012)

White, Carolyne J. and Noreen Sakiestewa,. “Talking Back to the Colonial Institution: Hopi and Non-Native Scholars.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 433-440.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Hallifax & Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.

Younger, Virginia C. “A Painful Time: Tenure Trial.” American Indian Quarterly 27, nos. 1 & 2 (2003), 456-458.



Choosing Hope Isn’t Always Easy

Carol A. Hand

There are days when revisiting old stories gathered during my research on Ojibwe child welfare makes me feel like I’m descending into a dystopian world. Sometimes the feeling is intensified when I look out of my front window in winter.


Photo: The View from My Window – January 17, 2016

I once again feel the weight of hopelessness that I felt when I first listened to stories about loss and suffering, and stories about the hopelessness of those hired as healers and helpers. I could walk away from that world, although the next worlds I encountered were not necessarily an improvement. Still, I had the option to leave while they remained.
Now I have the time to revisit those memories recorded in old fieldnotes and look for insights and solutions that I’m certain I missed. I struggle with how to explain the context that gives these stories meaning and significance. Take the issue of substance abuse. There are ingrained stereotypes about “drunken Indians” that are used as an excuse for continued colonial oppression. Here’s an excerpt from an earlier post that presents a more thoughtful analysis.


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. (Please refer to Endnote 1 for more information about the request to include this work in my writing.) 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…

1. The young man’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. (Hand, 1999/2015)


My role as a researcher in the community was to simply ask questions without challenging the reality of those who shared their responses. Sometimes that was difficult. Take for example the present interview I’m editing in the context of recent events in the community. (Please note that all names have been changed to protect identity, and all place names have been removed.)


Research Field Notes Thursday, November 8, 2001

It was a cloudy morning. It had rained during the night, and it was gray and chilly. I was still in pain and tired from my troubled sleep, but I really felt that I needed to keep my appointments, so I took another Tylenol and got ready for the day. I left early (8:40 a.m.) this morning for a scheduled interview with Karen Daley, the alcohol and drug treatment coordinator for the tribe. I was a few minutes early and waited patiently while she took care of some paper work. As I was waiting, I overheard a discussion about a death in the community last night – tribal programs would be closed on Friday as a result. When Karen was ready, she came and led me to her office.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Karen. Can you tell me about child and family welfare issues from your perspective?”

Karen replied. “Dealing with drug and alcohol addiction is the beginning – we need to deal with them first. The substance is still controlling people. They will give up their families before their jobs – jobs provide the income they need to buy substances. Their job is the last thing to go, when they can’t make it.

“Suicide is linked to substance abuse. When sober, people may think about it, but don’t do it until they are high.

“Here, kids – teens – are supposed to be men. Their parents are getting drunk on binges for days, and they are locked out of the home for three days. Who’s monitoring them? Kids can’t control their environment. They don’t want to be pulled out of their homes. They take care of the family – they feel responsible for helping their parents with their substance abuse problems. Kids feel responsible for “keeping the secret” that everyone else knows about the abuse.

“A community member, 50 years old, died last night. One of her daughters held a funeral ceremony yesterday.

“An ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] client was in court yesterday trying to get her kids back. It would be great for the mom to get her kids back – she is doing well. I hope the court can make the right decision.

It seemed important to know more about Karen’s background, so I asked her when she began working for the tribe.

“I started part time in 99. Case managing is a big part of the job. I put in six billable hours per day in case management. The clients I see have a problem that is identified by social services, by court orders for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, or schools. Only one client is a self-referral. I was working with ICW trying to place kids when there was no ICWA worker. A list of Native American foster homes in the state would be helpful, and even in the surrounding states. Now we have to call every county, every tribe, trying to plug kids in the right place.

“In patient treatment for kids is easy. We send kids to a tribal treatment center in South Dakota. The regional IHS [Indian Health Service] staff has been very helpful. Now, we send adults to a tribal treatment center in the state – moms can bring up to three of their children and can stay with them. Women don’t have to go to treatment or leave early because of kids. The tribal treatment center helps arrange school and has on-site nurses. It is arranged like a college campus. Singles are separated from moms, and they receive treatment in the on-site out-patient center. They provide a continuum of care. The centers fax us reports weekly. It is easier to know where to pick up treatment when they come back.

“We are working on a new phone book of clinic and other providers – the environmental building, economic support, social services, domestic violence. It will help us integrate services or do wrap around. We will be better able to help the whole family with all of their needs. So much of the service provided by the system is shame-based. We are interested in finding ways to make people feel good – to succeed. In my last job, I was working on a pilot project with a health care provider in this part of the state.”

Karen shared copies of the assessment and service forms she developed to help identify needs and track follow-up and outcomes. She also shared a number of other materials, some AODA and some general service delivery.

At this point in the interview, I stopped taking notes. Karen began speaking of her own family’s history of substance abuse, as well as her own use in the past. She began talking about her mother’s recent death and her relationship with her siblings. She was very upset, and often in tears as she related the history. It seems that the death of the community member yesterday reawakened memories and the interview provided her with a safe environment to share her pain. I listened and comforted her as best I could.

She also spoke about a gathering she holds at her house, located on the river in a nearby town. She described it as “a Native American-like ceremony for healing.” She is not happy with her home because of a bothersome neighbor and doesn’t seem to want to stay here. She is from the southeastern part of the state and misses it.

She seemed genuinely relieved to have someone safe to talk to, and as we walked out at the end of the interview, she said she would like to get together for dinner some time.

I left feeling ambivalent about the non-Indian professionals who find their way to Native American communities. Sometimes, they are wounded and unhappy and seem to be looking for something to believe in, and people who are even more powerless that they can save.

Perhaps things will change as spring comes. I wonder if there is the possibility for this tribal community to develop a stable political environment and a clear and compelling future vision that brings community factions together to work toward a common purpose – the well-being of future generations. Yet, even this begins to sound like judgmental and empty rhetoric. I wish Karen well and know that her job is challenging.


It continues to trouble me when I encounter professionals who don’t transcend the narrow boundaries of their discipline to understand how their own life experiences affect the types of services they provide or the crucial influence of socio-cultural contexts on clients’ ability to benefit from what they provide. As I revisit this interview, what seems to be missing is an understanding of ecosystems theory, described in an earlier post.


The elegance of Uri Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) approach to human development rests in both its multidimensional complexity and its emphasis on the transactional and reciprocal nature of relations between people and their changing environments. As illustrated in figure 1 below, which somewhat oversimplifies Bronfenbrenner’s model, individuals are “nested” concentrically within a series of environmental relationships.

ecology of human development

Figure 1: The Ecology of Human Development

The “microsystem” includes those immediate aspects of the environment “that are most powerful in shaping the course of psychological growth”: “a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22). For infants, the primary microsystem is usually their home setting with primary caregivers, simple activities, and a limited set of roles. Development through childhood and beyond involves an increase in the number and complexity of roles, relations, and activities, as well as the addition of new microsystems, such as daycare, preschool, school, etc., in which a developing person is embedded. As individuals move into additional settings, linkages are created between microsystems, resulting in what Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 25) refers to as “mesosystems,” or “a system of microsystems.”

While the developing individuals directly participate in both microsystems and mesosystems through their relationships with parents, teachers, and other significant persons, their development is indirectly influenced by systems outside their own experience. Parents, teachers, and other relatives are all embedded in a series of settings (for example, parents’ work, parents’ networks of friends, teachers’ unions, local school boards, etc.) that influence how they relate to the developing individuals. This indirect, external set of influences is labeled the “exosystem” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 25). All of these systems are embedded within the “macrosystem”, defined as “consistencies, in the form and content of lower-order systems (micro-, meso-, and exo-) that exist, or could exist, at the level of the subculture or the culture as a whole, along with any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies” (p. 26). Macrosystems are the blueprint, or the overarching cultural paradigm (Fleras & Elliott, 1992), which determines the content, structure, and goals of the lower level systems in which individuals are embedded.

Bronfenbrenner (1979, p. 26) notes that the macrosystems which exert influences on developing individuals “differ for various socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and other subgroups, reflecting contrasting belief systems and lifestyles, which in turn help to perpetuate the ecological environments specific to each group.” Individuals not only sustain the blueprint, or ‘macrosystem’ in which they are embedded, but are also capable of modifying its content and structure.

Bronfenbrenner does not speak to the relations among macrosystems, nor does he note power differentials between competing “blueprints” which exist among different social classes or ethnic groups within or among nations. Power, in his conception, is located within a macrosystem and manifested in “roles” or “power settings.” At the level of roles, he hypothesizes that: “The greater the degree of power socially sanctioned for a given role, the greater the tendency for the role occupant to exercise and exploit the power and for those in a subordinate position to respond by increased submission, dependency, and lack of initiative” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 92). (Hand, 1999/2015)


Given the layers of connection that influence people’s beliefs and behaviors, I doubted that Karen’s interventions with individuals would ever successfully address an understandable, although unhealthy, coping mechanism that temporarily numbs pain in a fog of euphoric forgetfulness. The consequences of oppression and losses are palpable here – an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  Of course, it is easier for professionals to “treat” individuals than it is to “heal” collective historical trauma and effectively resist ongoing colonial oppression that affects every person in the tribal community.

So today, I’ll continue to return to an earlier dystopian time. Even though the view from my window is similar to the one a few days ago, I can remember the view on a summer’s day.


Photo: The View from My Window – Summer 2015

The memory of creating gardens where little grew a few years ago helps me find hope. Transformation is possible – even in the places where we once saw only futility…

Works Cited:

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.

Fleras, A. & Elliot, J. (1992). The ‘nations within’: aboriginal-state relations in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press.


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.

Unity in Diversity

Carol A. Hand

Métis, Melungeon, Mulatto
Mixes of many nations
Often shamed and assigned
To societies’ lowest stations

Sometimes produced by conquest
Other times by choice
Signifying shared humanity
Giving diversity – a unified voice

It’s time to stand together
Clothed with wisdom and pride
Leading the way to understanding
Overcoming distinctions that divide

rainbow 2

Photo: Embroidery by Carol A. Hand

Descendants of the rainbow
No matter the circumstances of birth
Regardless of the names assigned
All beautiful humans of immeasurable worth


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.

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