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
Descendants of the rainbow
No matter the circumstances of birth
Regardless of the names assigned
All beautiful humans of immeasurable worth
Carol is the co-editor of the MIX.
I’m Carol Hand, an enrolled member of the Sokaogon Ojibwe Community, one of the 6 bands of Ojibwe people located in what is now the state of Wisconsin. During my early childhood, I spent my school years in New Jersey where I was born, and my summers with relatives on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. My bi-cultural heritage has had a profound influence on my life. My educational background includes a BA, MSSW, and Ph.D., all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my career, I served as social work faculty for universities in Wisconsin, Montana, and Illinois where my primary emphasis included organizational change, community development, and policy analysis and advocacy. Before joining academia, I worked as the aging network supervisor for a state department of health and social services and as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal council. I have also worked in a variety of settings as a program developer, public speaker, grant-writer, program evaluator, and researcher. My passion remains working from a liberatory praxis perspective with individuals and communities that have experienced oppression to transform oppressive social structures through consciousness-raising and non-violent community-directed action. In 2011, I retired and taught part-time for a private college satellite program located at a tribal and community college for several years before I decided to focus on writing. In my free time, I enjoy reading, gardening, listening to stories from diverse cultural backgrounds, and spending time with my family and grandchildren. I have recently learned how much I love reading blogs that teach me about diverse topics from so many different perspectives, and I try to contribute in small ways to the voices of resistance from the margins.
For me, being “Indian” was simply a fact of my birth and my mother’s ancestry and experiences. In New Jersey, it set me apart. To my father’s Anglo-American family, I was a lovely “dark child.” To my mother, I was the “one bright star in her life,” although she wasn’t able to express that because of my father’s jealously and my brother’s emotional needs. But I really didn’t give a lot of thought to what being Ojibwe meant until later years.
It was something that actually didn’t become a conscious focus of my thinking until I was researching child welfare from the perspective of an Ojibwe community. In my work with tribes, I had often encountered the intra-community divides over who was “really Indian.”
Then with the advent of gaming, this became a huge issue. But it was important to many long before. Past colonial policies have left a legacy of “identity confusion.”
I might add many of us (the mixed group of American Indians) had suffered through Eugenics and the ONE-DROP RULE when you were either white or colored. This literally erased Eastern and southern tribes on paper; many are struggling for recognition as sovereign nations today. There was a period where they were measuring “Indianness” by skull size and skin color. It’s not a thing of the past when you have Indians now acting as the identity police.
In my own experience as an adoptee with more than one ancestry, proof, as in paper, was not what the government gave us adoptees. We get amended birth certificates, no medical information and no clue about our ancestry. I was supposed to accept a new fake identity and live my life based on a paper lie. I have made reunion (20 years now) and went full circle and reconnected to my first families. In September 2015 I even went to the Harlow powwow family reunion in Illinois.
For centuries, U.S. policies have focused on assimilation and integration through child removal, federal and public education, relocation to urban areas, and the sterilization of Indian women into the late 1970s. Although federally-recognized tribes have limited authority to decide who their members are, they do so within a framework imposed through federal law.
And tribes do so within a complex context of defending their political existence and the remnants of sovereignty granted by the colonial power of the federal government. Tribes are required to use “blood quantum” as the defining factor for membership, and each tribe has adopted its own definition. Some add current residence on the reservation as a requirement. To prove one is “Indian enough” means relying on records kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs – and sometimes they “lose” key records and claim they never existed.
“Rez” Indians (including subsets of “from-the-Rez” and “Johnny-come-lately” folks), and “off-Rez” Indians.
“As to the latter categories of Indians, while disenrollment legally renders them non-Indian—in countless ways—that does not mean that they are any less Indian than those with enrollment cards. That is because being Indian isn’t about enrollment or “membership,” federal rolls or censuses, or blood quantum or “mixed-blood” racism, at least traditionally; it is about kinship. And as President Cladoosby alludes, kinship is—or was, before membership, per capita and disenrollment—our utopia.”
Disenrollment is predominately about race, and money, and an “individualistic, materialistic attitude” that is not indigenous to tribal communities.
Because many tribes have maintained the IRA’s paternalistic and antiquated definition of “Indian” vis-a-vis blood quantum (as discussed in “An Essay on the Federal Origins of Disenrollment“), tribal membership has largely become “an explicitly racial conception of Indian identity.” Suzianne D. Painter-Thorne, If You Build It, They Will Come: Preserving Tribal Sovereignty in the Face of Indian Casinos and the New Premium on Tribal Membership, 14 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 311 (2010).
The racial construct has worked well for disenrollment as “American Indians have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage in the U.S.” Gosia Wozniacka, Disenrollment leaves Native feeling ‘culturally homeless’, Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2014. LINK
While “blood quantum” may be a reliable way to identify the ancestry of “champion” dogs, does it really measure who is Indian enough? And why should this matter?
This simple question is really quite complex. History has proven that the continued existence of tribes as political entities is always being threatened. Congress has the plenary power to simply legislate them out of existence as happened in the 1950s with disastrous consequences for some tribes during the Eisenhower years. (It was called termination.)
There are also serious consequences for many individuals, particularly those who were removed from their families and communities as a result of boarding schools, out-placement by child welfare (adoption and foster care) and juvenile justice systems, and urban-relocation. Some children are not even told about their heritage. Others are. It may not be important for some, some may feel shame, and for others heritage may become the thing that provides a source of inspiration and resilience as they survive trauma and abuse.
Romantic notions of what it means to be “Indian,” or a member of a specific tribe, give some a reason to hope. They imagine returning one day and being welcomed by a mythical community where people reach out and include them lovingly.
More than ever, it’s time Indians (including adoptees called lost birds) learn the entire truth, what truly happened in history, including mixing, relocations and intermarriages, even how their minds have been brain washed.
“There is a hierarchy of Indian-ness …There is a real battle going on in Indian country and it is the battle of identity. We are battling among ourselves as to who is an Indian. Can’t really blame us for being in that predicament. The governments of both countries, the United States and Canada, tried to eliminate the Indian. They attempted to get rid of the Indian by many different means; genocide, persecution, prosecution, sterilization, and assimilation. Governmental Policy has always been a tool to get rid of the Indian. The latest policies have Indian being killed off by categories.” – Steven Julian
Indeed, Indians of any quantum (defined as “portion”) of Indian blood are by federal design, multi-racial. In addition, “many Native Americans don’t live on reservations, speak Native languages or ‘look’ Indian, making others question their bloodline claims.” In those illustrative ways, Indian conceptions of both race and class converge, with tribal classism are also catalyzing disenrollment. – Gabriel S. Galanda
We have a long way to go, Carol. This discussion is far from over…
Federal policies have always encouraged or forced mixing to reduce blood quantum as a way to finally get rid of the Indian problem. If there are no “full-bloods,” no traditional language speakers, is there really still a tribe? If tribes distribute gaming or other business profits to individuals rather than investing them in collectively-owned projects, is there really a viable culture that should be preserved?
So the issue of identity is important not only on a personal level but also on a policy level. Stephen Cornell (1988) warns about the danger of adopting dominant values and institutions on a daily basis. It makes it harder for tribes to maintain “distinctive communities of culture” (p. 111).
“The protection of sovereignty and treaty rights depends to some extent on public, non-Indian support. If Indian nations come to be viewed not as carriers of distinct ways of life, involuntarily put to risk by the larger society, but simply anachronistic legal residues of an unfortunate past, that support may disappear. In a peculiar way, distinctiveness is a form of security,” (Cornell, 1988, p. 212).
If you identify your heritage as a member of an Indigenous Nation (or Nations), whether enrolled or not, from the rez or not, I hope you realize that the struggle to preserve sovereignty, languages and distinctive culture is yours, too. There is no more effective way to build a stronger sense of your foundation regardless of how others see you. And on another important level, mixing is a mixed blessing. While it may dilute blood quantum and Tribal distinctions, it also can help us understand we are all part of the larger human family. The survival of tribal peoples, like the survival of the earth itself, is dependent on the actions we take to live in peace.
Stephen Cornell (1988). The return of the native: American Indian political resurgence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Mosaic Blog Photos from 2015 (and from Facebook: papergenocide.org)
Don’t Forget! We welcome your writing and poetry and photo contributions about living your mixed ancestry!
EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org (See our guidelines on the top of the blog)
Wishing you all a peace-filled love-filled 2016…
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Two Iowa parents are calling for an educator at Bailey Park Elementary School in Grinnell to be fired for allegedly making racist comments to mixed-race children.
Geoff Burd choked up as he explained to KCCI that his daughter, Nikki, came home from school and recalled that the para-educator had said black people and white people should not be a family or go to the same school.
“It’s an unbelievable situation,” Burd said, sounding defeated. “I work very hard to protect her. I have worked her entire life to protect her.”
According to Burd’s daughter, the educator said that “[b]lack people and white people can’t be family. Black people should not go to this school. Black people should have their own school.”
The educator also confronted Burd’s son, Marquez, on the playground.
“Black people are stupid and don’t know anything,” the woman reportedly told Marquez.
Superintendent Todd Abrahamson said that the educator had been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
“We started a level one investigation, and that just started yesterday and today,” he told KCCI.
Burd said that the only way to protect children from the educator’s influence would be to fire her.
“I worry about their emotional stability,” the father lamented. “You can never take those words back, and she can never retract those words. She can never get those words out of my children’s head.”
Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” Andre Gide (1869 – 1951)
By Carol A. Hand, Co-Editor of the MIX
I remember that I began to question if there really was such a thing as the “one truth” at an early age. As a young child born of two cultures, I went to protestant Sunday school, the faith of my Anglo-American father, and catholic catechism, the religion forced on my Ojibwe mother in an Indian boarding school.
I was curious and inquisitive, and a bit of a rebel even then. Each teacher had repeatedly assured us that only their religion was based on the one and only truth. When they asked us to repeat the “facts” we were supposed to memorize from the lessons of the previous week, I decided to test the “truth.” In Sunday school, I would repeat what I had memorized for catechism class. And in catechism class, I would eagerly raise my hand to share what I had learned in Sunday school. Needless to say, neither one was pleased with my answers – perhaps they merely thought I was a little slow.
By the age of eight, I realized that I needed to learn more before I decided what truth was for myself. I’m still exploring this question more than sixty years later.
What is truth? According to Webster’s dictionary (1989), truth is “conformity with fact or reality…; a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like” (p. 1521). This definition only leads me to ask more questions. What are “facts” and “reality?” These are foundational questions I needed to deal with as a researcher. Interestingly, the answers differ depending on who you ask.
Research paradigms in academia have become a different type of religion. Adherents of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies believe their approach is the only legitimate way to discover what is true.
“On the ontological issue of what is real, the quantitative researcher views reality as “objective,” “out there” independent of the researcher. Something can be measured objectively by using a questionnaire or an instrument. For the qualitative researcher, the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved in the research situation. Thus multiple realities exist in any given situation: the researcher, those individuals being investigated, and the reader or audience interpreting a study. The qualitative researcher needs to report faithfully these realities and to rely on voices and interpretation of informants.” (Creswell, 1994, pp. 4, 6, emphasis in original)
Is truth knowable? One of the examples that struck me in graduate school was a metaphor that Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972) used to describe the importance of one’s position when trying to discover reality. Imagine we are all seated in a large circle. If we place a multifaceted object in the center, say an elephant (drawing on another example), each of us would only be able to see what was in our frame of sight. What we see is tangible and “real,” but it’s only a small part of the whole. Now, take a concept like mental health and place it in the circle. Each of us would interpret what it is differently based on our culture, experiences and education. The version of reality that is accepted as true is almost always that which is held by those in positions of power in any given society and era.
“Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.’” Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)
Why is it so difficult to accept that many truths are possible? So many lives have been lost or destroyed throughout history because people needed others to accept their deeply held notions of truth. I end with the quote by Rumi that inspired this reflection. I believe the world would be a different place today if people had heeded his wise counsel.
“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” (Rumi)
In Storm’s example of the circle and Rumi’s metaphor of the broken mirror, all perspectives and fragments are necessary if we are to understand reality, the first step in discovering truth. It’s also the first step in building peace.
John W. Creswell (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972). Seven arrows. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the English language (1989). New York, NY: Gramercy Books.
TOP PHOTO: Carol A. Hand is an Ojibwe elder and retired professor and academic. Visit her blog HERE.
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Post by MIX co-editor Carol A. Hand (Ojibwe-Euro Scholar-Elder-Retired Professor)
In August, I just took a quick break to contemplate the ending of a play I have been working on this week. As I sat in my garage thinking, the eagerly anticipated rain began to fall. (We’ve been in a two week heat wave without any rain. Of course “heat” here means any temperatures above 80 F degrees.) As I heard the blessed sound of rain hitting the roof and hard ground, a memory surfaced.
I remembered my daughter’s wonderful story, “The Only Raindrop,” with a mixture of pleasure, sadness, and righteous indignation. And I remembered how amazed I was as I read her story for the first time when she asked me to let her know what I thought before she handed it in to her fifth grade teacher. It’s one of those treasures that were somehow lost in our many moves, and one of the very few that I truly regret losing. (Her original story was far better than the following reconstructed adult version.)
It was a story about a farmer in a drought-stricken prairie. Every day the farmer would check on his gardens and his corn field, and his heart ached as he saw the plants wilting and suffering. He tried his best to keep them watered but it just wasn’t enough. Finally, he couldn’t hold in his grief any longer. He stood in his field and wept as if his heart were breaking. And it was. His sobs were so loud that they attracted the attention of a lonely raindrop in the sky. The raindrop felt sorry for the farmer but wondered what possible difference it would make if it fell on the fields. But the farmer’s sobbing was more than the raindrop could bear, so it decided to fall anyway. It dropped right next to the farmer’s feet.
Source: Microsoft Office Clip Art
The farmer was overjoyed. He laughed and jumped and shouted with glee. Other raindrops heard his joyous racket and decided to go down to see what all the commotion was about. And the farmer shouted louder with even greater joy. Other raindrops heard the noise and soon, raindrops were all falling all over his field and gardens. The Only Raindrop did what it could, and because of its sacrifice and the farmer’s joyous thanksgiving, life-saving rain came in time.
Source: Microsoft Office Clip Art
This was an essay worthy of a commendation from my perspective. So when I got the message that my daughter’s teacher wanted to talk to me, that’s the first thing that came to mind. Imagine my reaction when the teacher began by saying she was concerned about my daughter’s work. My daughter needed to learn how to write her own essays. No child could possibly write the kind of stories my daughter handed in without adults helping.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I do know that I let the teacher know that my daughter did indeed write her own stories. And I asked the teacher if her assessment of my daughter’s abilities was based on the fact that her complexion was darker than that of the other students in her class. I let her know that I found her response to my daughter’s creativity and talent insulting and of deep concern. I stood up and told her that I would be carefully watching how she treated my daughter.
How quickly a mother’s pride and joy can turn to anger and concern. Skill and creativity are especially threatening when they come from someone on the margins. But of course, that’s where these qualities are more likely to be found. Is it any wonder that these are also where the worst public schools are located, and the most devastating economic and social conditions? Who knows what the world would become if we eliminated structural oppression and the never-ending assault of macro and micro aggressions?
Well, I need to get back to the play. I did finish the first draft before I fired off this post (You Wouldn’t Want to Hear My Story). Sorry for the rant but this incident still makes me really angry almost forty years later. How could anyone accuse a delightful, talented ten-year old of lying and cheating simply because her skin tone was darker?
Remembering this incident makes me aware of how grateful I am for all of the teachers, bloggers, advocates, and activists who challenge oppression every day. Your actions are like the life-giving rain that finally comes because someone hears what you have to say and spreads the word… Thank you for what you all do!
This post appeared on Carol’s blog VOICES FROM THE MARGINS here
“Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.,” the first study begins. “[They are] young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.”
The Pew survey found that, in the wake of fading taboos about interracial marriage, almost 7 percent of Americans have at least two races in their background. (Note: this extends only to parents and grandparents.)
Moreover, the majority (60 percent) of multiracial adults are proud of their mixed heritage and feel it has made them more tolerant of other cultures. About one in five multiracial adults credited their background as an advantage in life, while the overwhelming percentage (76 percent) said it made no difference whatsoever. Only 4 percent thought of their mixed-race background as a disadvantage.
But there’s a big caveat. A whopping 61 percent of mixed-racial adults — including those with parents of two different races — did not openly identify as “multiracial.”
As a possible explanation, Pew points to evidence of fluid racial identification. In short, about 30 percent of multiracial adults say they have changed the way they describe their race over the years.
But it’s not always as easy as checking a different box on the census.
For Latinos in particular, the bureaucratized guidelines of race and ethnicity have affected how they self-identify. Here’s a key section from the Pew’s findings:
“In addition to painting a portrait of multiracial Americans, the survey findings challenge some traditional ideas about race. The Census Bureau currently recognizes five racial categories: white, black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Hispanic origin is asked about separately as an ethnicity and is not considered a race.
But when Latinos are asked whether they consider being Hispanic to be part of their racial or ethnic background, the survey finds that about two-thirds of Hispanics say it is, at least in part, their race. For the majority of this report, Hispanic origin is treated as an ethnicity, rather than a race, and multiracial Hispanics are those who say they are Hispanic and two separate races (for example, someone who is Hispanic and also chooses black and white as his or her races). This is consistent with how the Census Bureau counts mixed-race Hispanics. However, because Hispanic identity is tied to both race and ethnicity for many Latinos, Chapter 7 of this report explores a broader definition of mixed race.”
The Pew study was conducted from “a nationally representative survey” of 1,555 multiracial Americans ages 18 and older, conducted online from Feb. 6 to April 6, 2015.
Max Marin is a Knight Fellow at AL DÍA News. Previously he has worked as a journalist in the Middle East, covering business, urban development, and human rights issues. His Spanish is pretty limited at the moment, but he says “dame seis meses.”
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At the moment, I am dealing with the challenges that always accompany innovation. For the past two weeks, when I wasn’t working outside on gardens, I was developing a new research class that began yesterday. (This is the main reason why I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to many blogs lately.)
In the process of conceptualizing the class, I reflected on the knowledge and skills that would be helpful to students in the future. Most research is built on what worked in the past in narrow clinical settings with little thought about the current socio-political context or broader future implications. I decided to try my own research experiment by testing out an experiential approach for teaching research that engages students in exploring the impact of climate change for vulnerable populations and the effectiveness of responses to recent disasters. (Duluth is still dealing with the consequences of torrential rains and flooding during June of 2012, so the implications of climate change are also very close to home.)
It took me many days to work out the basic framework and identify resources, but in essence, I’m sharing this discussion for two main reasons. First, I welcome any ideas and resources you want to share about climate change that would be helpful for me and my students. Second, it’s my way of trying to find an effective third alternative for dealing with the conflict that always accompanies paradigm shifts. Some administrators are not pleased by new ways of doing things. It is tempting for me to choose simplistically from the two most common responses to conflict: fight or flight. The third, to stand with integrity and compassion, is the path I need to work out through the process of writing. What does this mean in terms of practical actions? What past experiences can I draw from for clues?
As I ask these questions, two memories come to mind, the lesson of the butterfly and the message of the wind. The lesson of the butterfly is described in an excerpt from story I wrote for my daughter last Christmas.
The Lesson of the Butterfly
As I thought of what I could give you as a gift this year, one of the memories of your early years was actually on a summer’s day when you were Ava’s age – 6. We were living in central Illinois in a tiny town named Cullom in a farmhouse we rented – “Paul Gray’s house.”
Cullom’s downtown was only one block long. It had a restaurant, and this great old variety store that sold an assortment of things farmers needed. It’s where you went to first grade and as I remember, it was one of the few schools where you did not have to deal with overt racism from teachers or bullying from other students.
Despite your relatively benign treatment at school, Cullom was not very welcoming to strangers. I remember that during our year in Cullom, we sometimes went to the restaurant in the center of town. As we walked toward the door, we could hear the loud conversations and laughter. As we entered, the room became absolutely silent as all of the local customers fixed their eyes on us. It remained silent until we left.
When we needed to shop for other things, we had to travel to one of the larger cities – each about 40 or 50 miles one-way – either Pontiac to the northwest, or Kankakee to the northeast. On a warm sunny summer day, we drove the 50 miles or so to Pontiac. Of the two choices, it was clearly the least diverse in terms of population. Although I don’t have a photo of you during those years, there is one that reminds me of this particular day.
Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974
For some reason I am not sure I can describe, this photo captures the same state of being I remember from that day. In Pontiac, it was not a child that you were gently guiding. It was a butterfly that was fluttering around you as you walked down the sidewalk. All of your attention was focused on it as it flitted about, with the same gentle smile on your face as you followed its path down the sidewalk. It was all you saw.
It was not all I saw, however. The prejudice of many central Illinois residents is deeply rooted. Bluntly-said, many long-term residents are pointedly racist. Like the border communities that surround reservations, white residents are acutely attuned to the smallest nuances of differences in appearance that may suggest a different ancestry than theirs. As a child tanned by the sun, with lovely dark curly hair, you were unique among the people who walked down the sidewalk in Pontiac that day.
I noticed an older white couple walking toward us on the sidewalk. I really don’t know what they were thinking, but the expression on their faces when they looked at you was not warm and friendly. They stared intently with their eyes narrowed and the edges of their mouths turned down in any ugly way. I was getting ready to say something to them because the cold disapproval of their demeanor made me angry. Yet, you were so intent on the butterfly, you never noticed. You kept smiling and reaching out gently, and the butterfly responded by fluttering just in front of you as you walked along. You laughed in delight. Then, something amazing happened. The scowls of the couple suddenly changed into broad smiles, as if your joy had melted the hardness of their hearts. Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.
Somehow, despite the challenges you have had to overcome, or perhaps in part because of them, the purity of heart symbolized on that summer’s day has remained. The ability to focus so intently on the wonder of life rather than fears and distractions is still one of the most amazing of gifts you offer others. As I contemplated what to give you for Christmas at this challenging time, all I could think of was to let you know how special you are and have always been. I love you. Miigwetch, my lovely daughter, for your beautiful spirit.
The Message of the Wind
I learned another lesson from my daughter at the end of her school year in Cullom. It was a warm, sunny day, and as always, the winds were strong and gusty in the flat corn-country that surrounded us. I was working in the garden in front of our rented house when the school bus arrived. As my daughter was walking down the steps of the bus, I noticed her arms were hugging the huge pile of papers and pictures that represented her first grade accomplishments. Suddenly, as she walked across a field toward the house, a strong gust of wind pulled the stack of papers from her grasp. I watched with concern as she lost patience and began chasing her work, stomping some papers into the ground with her little feet and crumpling others in her hands. I ran out to help her. I hoped she could learn that it is always more effective and more fun to play with the wind than it is to get angry at things we really cannot change. We couldn’t stop the wind from blowing her papers, but we could make a game of recapturing her treasures.
What can I learn from the butterfly and the wind? I can view this present challenge as a fight with the wind over which I have no control and lose the creative, adventurous spirit of an exciting experiment. I can decide to give up trying to create anything new and live as a recluse, letting the winds scatter the fragments of unrealized possibilities. Or, I can choose the lesson of the butterfly. I can choose to keep my focus on those things that inspire a sense of wonder and hope with such intensity that there is no room for distraction. Perhaps I can learn from the lesson of the butterfly. If I can focus intently enough despite the winds that surround me, the winds themselves will become calm. I owe it to my students to try. Yesterday, they eagerly rose to the challenge of working with me on this experiment even though the lovely early spring weather had finally arrived.
I remember when my daughter, Jnana, was not yet two years old, she was playing in her little plastic pool on a warm summer day. My neighbor brought her daughter over to join in the fun, and I watched with concern as her daughter began pushing and hitting Jnana, trying to claim ownership of all of Jnana’s toys. Of course, my neighbor only noticed when Jnana defended herself from the attack and wanted me to discipline my daughter for her response. I looked at my neighbor calmly and observed, “Your daughter started the conflict, and I decided to let Jnana figure out how to deal with it herself. As a multicultural child, it is a skill she will need to learn.” Predictably, my Euro-American neighbor became angry and replied in a tone verging on a snake hissing “Why did you ever have her then?”
This isn’t an easy question to answer, and at the time, I simply stared at my neighbor silently as she grabbed her daughter and went home, never to return to Jnana’s pool again. I must say, it was a blessing. At the time, we were living in an all-white neighborhood on the shore of the Housatonic River in the sleepy village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in a drafty, moldy summer cottage that my partner’s mother owned. As a Black professional, she had broken through the color line when she bought a summer cottage and out-classed many of the existing residents as a corporate vice president of Children’s Television Workshop. My neighbor tried to overcome her prejudice for the sake of social status, but a mixed-race couple and child were more than she could bear. Of course, she was not alone in her censure.
As I have mentioned in other posts, I was raised in the space between cultures and consequently was drawn to diversity. It was not a stance my parents could easily accept, nor was it easy for my partner’s mother. And despite the Civil Rights movement, my partner and I had already lived through a series of challenging situations before our daughter was born.
I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in 1969. Jnana’s father, David, was a senior and a teaching assistant in the history department at the University of Wisconsin. He was a gentle, quiet, good-looking Black man with an Afro, who appeared to be painfully shy. Yet, he was one of the co-founders of the Black People’s Organization on campus. It is amazing to remember the heightened racial tensions in the early years of 1970s. Even in Madison, I would often see people looking at David and me with disapproving stares as we walked down the streets laughing and holding hands. I would often wonder if there was something strange about our appearance – were our jeans unzipped or was snot hanging out of our noses? “Ah,” I remembered – “people are prejudiced.” A funny thing to forget, and sometimes, dangerous.
When I was about four months pregnant, David decided it would be a good idea for me to meet his mother in New York City. He had an old Ford and another mixed-ancestry couple asked if they could share the ride as far as New Jersey. We set off and somewhere on a rural stretch of interstate along the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, the car developed problems. We pulled off the road in a small town and were relieved to find a garage, at least for a moment. When we pulled into the garage, four large white mechanics surrounded the car, tapping the wrenches they held into their left hands as the owner told us they needed to replace the alternator, which they would do for twice what it normally costs. Of course we agreed although it took almost all of our cash to pay the bill. We were thankful to leave when it was finally done and continued on our way.
All was fine until we reached New Jersey. Just after we dropped off our colleagues and headed north to New York, we were pulled over by a police officer. David was stopped for “looking like a Black Panther.” Unfortunately, despite my warning, he had hidden a small stash of marijuana in the trunk of the car and the officer discovered it during his illegal search. We were driven to the police station and David was arrested and placed in jail. After a lecture on the dangers of associating with someone like David, the police drove me back to David’s car and let me travel on alone to NYC. I had the pleasure of meeting my future mother-in law for the first time and telling her that her son was in jail.
It took several days to get David released. He was a changed person when we picked him up. He had been forced to shave off his hair or face solitary confinement. As he regrew his Afro, we returned to Madison. In the spring of 1970, David, his friend “Nelson” (not his real name), and I rented a house with several others in a “row housing” complex that lined the railroad tracks in an industrial section of town. (I don’t remember all of the ever-shifting housemates.) In August of 1970, David and I decided to get married, although neither of us really felt it was a legitimate social institution. Yet we realized that our child’s life would be difficult enough because of the ignorance, prejudice, and fear of difference that were so pervasive. We were married by a minister of some protestant denomination. (All I remember is that the ceremony took place in a park just west of the campus with two friends of David’s as our witnesses. Fittingly, the white minister’s last name was “Savage.”)
After we were married, I took David and his mother, Evelyn, to meet my parents who were living on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the time. I waited to introduce David until after we were married, knowing that my father held strong prejudices regarding African Americans. Evelyn’s presence and status helped keep my father in line. The most interesting outcome was something I only learned about many years later. An Ojibwe relative told me that my father had been trying to organize a group of Whites and Ojibwe from the community to go with him to burn down the minimum security prison that was being built in a neighboring community in order to keep blacks out of the region. His efforts were beginning to succeed, yet when word spread about my marriage to a Black man, my father’s credibility evaporated overnight and nothing ever came of his plans. So the child who had not yet been born was already bridging differences between people and preventing violence. Yet, the threats were not over.
Back in Madison in our row house, the threats continued. David and I shared a room on the second floor, and Nelson’s room was next to ours. It was late in the evening at the beginning of September, 1970. I was trying to sleep but was awakened by a rough-voiced man hassling one of our housemates downstairs. The voices were loud and increasingly excited, and what I could hear of the conversation was becoming more threatening and heated. I tried to wake David, but he was too far gone, so I was on my way to wake Nelson. We arrived at our hallway doors at the same time. Facing us near the top of the stairs was a Madison police officer, with his gun drawn and pointed at us. “Move, and I’ll shoot,” were the first words he yelled at us. I could read the fear in his eyes, and knew he would shoot. We surely looked like pinko hippies – Nelson, a tall handsome black man with an Afro and goatee, and a small 8-month pregnant light-skinned woman with long braided hair. As I looked at the officer calmly, I noticed the phone on the stand in the hallway that was within my reach. I was amused as I wondered who one could call for help and protection in a situation like this. I was so tempted to laugh, but I knew one of us would probably be shot if I did. “WHERE’S THE GUN,” the officer shouted. I can’t remember if it was Nelson or me who softly responded. “What gun? There aren’t any guns here.” We were finally able to convince the officer that we didn’t have a gun, although his grip on the pistol never relaxed as he backed down the steps. We later realized someone had called in a report of gun shots in our neighborhood. The officer went to the wrong address.
Not long after, our tiny daughter was born at the university hospital, on a Sunday morning, October 18, 1970. My daughter was given a special name, Jnana, a concept that held special significance for me. (In a class I took on Buddhism, “jnana” was defined as wisdom-knowledge, the deeper understanding that knowledge without the wisdom of compassion is incomplete.) As a child whose very creation symbolized the joining together of many ancestries, I felt our child should have a name that transcended differences.
The homogeneity and social isolation of Sandy Hook were more than I could bear. Shortly after the encounter with our neighbor, Jnana and I left with to join a commune to begin a new life. Unfortunately, Jnana has needed the skills her little neighbor helped her develop. When singled-out by her kindergarten teacher who told her “You’re bad because you’re Black,” Jnana stood up and replied “Under Massachusetts State Law I’m not required to be in kindergarten, so I’m leaving.” Half of the class walked out with her. Her exceptional abilities were always questioned – a “dark child” couldn’t possibly be in advanced reading, or couldn’t possibly write such creative stories on her own. Yet with tenacity and intelligence, with knowledge tempered by hard-won wisdom, she survived the racism and bullying. I am honored by the thoughtful, courageous woman she is today.
Our family tradition of bridging divides has continued. My grandson, Aadi, has added Korean ancestry to the mix, and Ava, perhaps more Ojibwe or Dakota. I know many purists from all of the ancestries we represent would not approve, and I wonder what box we should check for our “race” on the U.S. Census questionnaire – “human” is not among the options…
Photo Credits: Aadi, me, Ava, and Jnana – 2008
We are proud to represent the colors of the rainbow – to be as Pete Seeger sings — “all mixed up”
Co-Editor Carol A. Hand (Ojibwe-Euro Scholar-Elder-Retired Professor)
“Just tell me what to do!”
These were dreaded words for me to hear in my roles as a teacher or supervisor. It signaled an internalized belief that only an expert in power could dictate the terms of their life, their work, and their studies. The question implied that the speaker had either been successfully colonized or domesticated, at least superficially, or they were unwilling to take risks to chart their own course – an absence of vision and passion that was deadly. They were willing to wait for someone else, someone smarter, someone with higher “status,” to tell them what to do.
It’s never been easy for me to follow orders, so I am very cautious about giving them. Whether it was in a classroom or a work situation, I have always preferred to explore options through dialogue with the people who were most directly affected by issues and those who had to implement tasks, solutions and innovations. I have often wondered why so many people unquestioningly follow leaders and are unable or unwilling to simply decide for themselves. This inability to recognize one’s own ability to transform at least some parts of one’s environment perpetuates the status quo. We wait for those in power to do what is more effectively done on a local level through face-to-face engagement. Why can’t we decide how to address homelessness or hunger in our own communities? Or end racism and discrimination? Improve schools that don’t teach students what they really need to know? Change hospitals or prisons that don’t help heal people? Or improve social services that don’t even provide effective band aids let alone cures?
Too often, we willingly accept the pronouncements from above that social problems are not due to structural inequalities, they’re due to poor decision making, bad personal choices, deviant people, or deficient cultures.
The generic process of Blaming the Victim is applied to almost every American problem. The miserable health care of the poor is explained away on the grounds that the victim has poor motivation and lacks health information…. The “multi problem poor,” it is claimed, suffer the psychological effects of impoverishment, the “culture of poverty,” and the deviant value system of the lower classes; consequently, though unwittingly, they cause their own troubles. (William Ryan, pp. 5-6)
I remember serving on a technical review panel to uncover the causes of alarmingly high infant mortality rates for Native Americans in Wisconsin. As the only Native American on the review panel, the only one without a medical background, I read the medical records from a different perspective. Where others quickly detected patterns of poor health decisions and potentially criminal behavior, I saw consequences of the legacy of poverty and colonial oppression. The solutions to address deviance and criminality are to increase surveillance and enforce compliance with professional or legal dictates. As the boundary spanner on the panel, my role was to translate another paradigm. My staff and I developed alternatives – programs that worked to reweave connections to support families and create services that community members found welcoming and culturally appropriate. We needed to convince nonbelievers on the panel that this was really a more effective approach. We needed to convince tribal communities that it was possible to be partners in creating new health service paradigms. And we needed to find funders.
Instead of relying solely on medical records to find underlying causes, we asked tribal staff and community members: “What has changed as a result of colonialism?” We listened, observed, and reflected on what we learned and designed a series of projects to respond. If colonialism has disrupted traditional community bonds, diets, governments, spirituality, education, where do we begin? How can we help families so their infants can survive their first year of life?
Our challenge was to walk in two worlds – to reweave traditional community informal supports and re-envision the role of health providers. Our goal was not to change individuals but to work in partnership with each community to rebuild networks of support for families. We created a network of nurses and paraprofessionals with the “dream catcher” as the symbol of our work together. Like the strands of the dream catcher, we would work together to screen out the harmful influences in the lives of children and families and only allow the good influences to come through. With maternal child health nurses, family advocates, and community mentors, we built a network across nine geographically dispersed Algonquin nations, drawing from traditional cultures to create ceremonies that brought people together to share and honor their work.
Our critics were not convinced that this was the best approach. The federal funders for the project wanted to require all of the infant-mortality reduction projects located in poor communities across the country to force participating families and infants to “comply” with medical appointments scheduled in clinics at times that were convenient for healthcare providers. As the federal staff noted at the national meeting in Washington DC, “Those people need to learn how to be more responsible for their own health.” I looked around the room and noticed that the directors and evaluators of the other 35 projects in the room did not appear to be ethnically representative of the communities they were hired to serve. I watched as the majority nodded their approval of this new requirement. I nudged my evaluator, a nationally-renowned child welfare researcher, and whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry if I embarrass you, but I can’t let this pass unopposed.” I stood up and responded. “I’m not sure about the other project directors, but the families I work with are my people. The goal of our project is to help infants survive. We don’t care how families and infants access the services and supports they need, we only care that they do. Let me tell you a story that explains our approach.”
I proceeded to tell the story of a tribal family advocate on her first day of work. She went to a scheduled home visit to check on a newborn. When she pulled into the driveway, the house was quiet. All the curtains were drawn and it looked deserted. Knowing the community, she got out of her car and walked toward the front door. Suddenly, she heard a loud whisper, “Carrie, Carrie, come to the back door. Hurry!” Carrie hurried to the back and walked in. “Duck”, said the mother. “We’re hiding. The health department is coming.” Carrie laughed and replied, “I am the health department.” It makes a difference when communities are able to hire staff that community members trust, people who are welcomed into the homes of community members. As I ended my story, hands went up around the room. All of the project directors had changed their minds. This requirement would have to go.
There were other stories I could have told about the benefits of working in partnership with communities on the projects that affect them. Staff in one community asked elders to make dream catchers for a small honorarium that helped offset their extremely low incomes. Traditional healers blessed the dream catchers and presented them to each new infant. Staff in another community created a women’s crafting circle. The women gathered together to knit, crochet, and sew gifts for infants. As a group, the circle of women presented their gifts to newborns, each holding the new child to welcome him or her into the community. The staff person explained the significance. “By holding the child, each woman creates a promise that she will always be there to watch over the child.”
If we create opportunities and spaces for communities to reweave connections, I’m convinced anything is possible. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. It takes heart and vision.
William Ryan (1976). Blaming the Victim (revised, updated edition). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
This post appeared on Carol’s blog VOICES FROM THE MARGINS HERE
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My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that could not give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.
I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target.
My mother, Norma Angeline Ackley, was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the beginning of the 1920s. Programmed in Catholic boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was 4 and my brother was 1. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born and raised.
I remember that day clearly, although I was only 4-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing, with my brother in her arms, as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.
But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.
Rupert Ross (1992) observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian realities, p. xx). This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I have always found The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran so compelling.)
For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology and French and philosophy before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a donut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, Belchertown State School for the Mentally Retarded.
In my first few weeks there, my helper, Donald, was dealt with in an overly violent manner by one of the long-standing attendants, a large, angry man. Donald, then 21-years old, was referred to as “BoBo” by staff, a nickname that sounded demeaning so I didn’t use it. Donald was born with Down Syndrome. His parents, shamed by doctors into institutionalizing their son soon after his birth, rarely visited. Living in the infirmary was the only life Donald knew. He never went to school, did not have anyone who worked with him, and learned he would only get people’s attention if he had a tantrum. One day, his glasses were rubbing the back of his ears raw. The nurse on duty would not help him, so as I walked by, he grabbed the cart I was using to distribute juice to residents. He was screaming and pounding the floor. I just left the cart and carried things by hand, intending to help Donald when there was nothing left to spill. When I was done, I headed back, just in time to see the angry attendant grab Donald off the floor and knock him into the wall, twist his arm behind his back, and drag him down the hall and throw him roughly into the seclusion room. Donald remained there for hours, screaming and beating his fists bloody.
I spent a sleepless night, pondering what I should do. I knew I would suffer if I reported the incident, but I realized that I could not remain silent. After all, the attendant had violated the institutional rules he agreed to follow, not my self-righteous notions of how one should treat residents. Needless to say, things got a little dicey and remained that way for a while. My punishment came as a promotion to the job of attendant in the heavy-lifting ward. (I think I weighed about 100 pounds at the time.) I actually loved the residents, and it was interesting to see how quickly people who were classified as “total care” and “profoundly retarded” learned to help when I came to lift them. But I felt powerless to change the conditions of oppression that dictated every moment of their lives. I decided it was time to do what I could, little though it might be, to try to change the systems of oppression that continued to wound so many people from generation to generation because they were classified as different and disposable.
Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combing theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.
In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fannon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct.
We cannot change history, although it is often “white” washed in the texts we study. We can only change the future. It is my belief that we can only do so from the liminal space between nationalities and classes and cultures and genders and ages and abilities – and all of the socially constructed distinctions that divide us. I hope enough of us can remember what it is like to be a child who is able to see the beauty in others that they may not be able to see for themselves.
This post (part one) was previously posted on Deconstructing Myths/Jeff Nygen’s Mic Check HERE
The MIX EDITOR Carol A. Hand (Ojibwe-Euro) lives in Northern Minnesota, and is writing two books that include a memoir about her mother (READ HERE). Voices from the Margins is her blog. She is a retired Professor in Social Work and Sociology, an Author and Guest Lecturer.
Her email: email@example.com
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