Carol A. Hand
It makes me angry when I hear about cultural competence. There aren’t any cultural differences between the people on the reservation and the rest of the residents in the county. The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past. (County Decision Maker, October 15, 2001)
To say there is not a culture is not true. It justifies them [county social services and court systems] for not learning about us. (Terrence, Ojibwe Community Member, October 19, 2001)
These statements were given voice by Ojibwe and Euro-American community members during a critical ethnographic study in 2001-2002. One perspective carried more weight. Because of the speaker’s gender, ethnicity, and position, the statement symbolizes one of the many ways in which Ojibwe sovereignty continues to be constrained and traditional lifeways, disparaged.
The Ojibwe community I studied had been confined on an ever-decreasing landbase and subjected to the policies and institutions of the dominant Euro-American community that surrounded them over the course of centuries. Although this study was focused on understanding the child welfare system and its impacts for Ojibwe families, the question of culture remained a central issue. The importance of addressing the question of cultural differences became apparent when the County Decision Maker forcefully proclaimed “The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past.” When the person who controls child welfare funding for all county residents, including Ojibwe people, believes there is no culture, what incentive is there to keep Ojibwe families together and keep children within their tribal community? A leading expert in child welfare research criticized the significance of the study not because of methodological flaws, but because, from his perspective, “It was a good thing that we [Euro-Americans] imposed our system on tribes.” As the following essay argues, the assumptions of both the County Decision Maker and the child welfare expert are incorrect.
My research focused on child welfare. What evidence could I draw from the study to address this topic? Fortunately, I had collected evidence about culture. As a new researcher, I wrote down everything I noticed which proved to be a wise practice. The timing of my arrival in the community was serendipitous. It was August 28, 2001, just as the gathering of wild rice was underway in the Ojibwe community, and just before deer hunting season for Euro-American residents in the surrounding county.
Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy
A long description of research would be out of place in this essay, but it is important for me to mention that I chose critical ethnography as my methodology because its focus is liberatory. Like traditional ethnography, critical ethnography typically involves several methods: extended cultural immersion, participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and document review. Yet critical ethnography differs in a crucial way. It is concerned with the ways in which the power of institutions, symbols, and meaning are used to “construct and limit choices, confer legitimacy, and guide our daily routine” (Thomas, 1993, p. 6). The significance of a critical stance in the process of ethnographic work is to explore not only what is, but what could be, to question the “unnecessary social domination” that promotes inequality (Thomas, 1994, p. 5). In the context of the present study, an historical component was added to explore “what was” based primarily on ethnographic interviews and document reviews. Understanding history is particularly important when trying to make sense of present conditions for tribal communities (Weaver, 1999; Flemming, 1992).
Because the question of culture and cultural survival are central to this discussion, it is important to define the increasingly suspect concept of “culture.” Early anthropologists defined culture as a complex whole that included all capabilities and habits people acquired as members of a given society, including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and customs (Asad, 1986). In more recent times, debates have surfaced about the efficacy and morality of “a distinct, bounded, and unifying culture” that is “an embarrassing colonial artifact” (Van Maanan, 1995, p. 27). For the purposes of this discussion, “culture” in the sense of distinct patterns of behavior becomes central when contrasting the beliefs and behaviors of Ojibwe and Euro-American community members who shared their stories and perspectives with me (Wolcott, 1995).
A simpler definition of culture is “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior” (Spradley, 1980, p. 6). This definition suggests that behavior and meaning are learned within the context of one’s family and community. Children learn how to “act” appropriately and what it means to “be” a member of a specific group. The strong sentiments about culture voiced above by the county decision maker and the divergent view expressed by the Ojibwe community member made it essential to determine if there was evidence of a distinct Ojibwe culture in present times. A second important focus was to explore whether there was evidence that at least some members of the Ojibwe community were involved in efforts to preserve and revitalize distinct cultural values and lifeways. A third question related to context was the degree to which there was evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities.
Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy – Snowshoe Dance
All cultures are complex, multi-dimensional, and elastic (Handler, 1983). Shared cultural meanings and lifeways rely on “a delicate balance … [between] tradition and innovation, inherited forms and creativity” (Handler, 1983, p. 219). It is necessary to distinguish what is shared, by whom, in what ways, and under what conditions: culture is multifaceted ( Dirks, Eley, & Ortner, 1994). Many factors influence shared culture, the most important of which include gender, age, and social status.
There are wide variations among individuals within any given society with respect to the degree to which cultural meanings and customs are internalized and expressed through behaviors and the explanations or rationales behind those behaviors. Yet a cultural gestalt is portrayed and preserved through stories that are passed down to future generations either orally or through written documents. Stories symbolize the shared meanings of life and one’s place in the universe, often expressed through metaphors.
A decade earlier, this essay may well have reflected a balanced attempt to argue from a stance of cultural relativism by including a caveat that it is always inappropriate to portray the ways of one culture as superior to those of another. Times have changed. Within the context of global climate change, endangered species, and the accelerating destruction of forests and wilderness areas, such a stance feels profoundly unethical to me as an Ojibwe scholar. I began my study from a stance of cultural relativism. However, analysis of the findings of the study and additional reflection within a larger historical and global context have shifted my stance. As an Ojibwe researcher and scholar, I admit a biased interpretive perspective. It is important for readers to know this up front so they can determine for themselves if the soundness of the following arguments and the weight of the following evidence, gathered from as many sources as possible with no conscious agenda to substantiate a pre-study bias, withstand the scrutiny of critical readers.
Cultural emersion involved deciding where to live in the focal county, on the Ojibwe reservation or in the local county seat. Given that I am Ojibwe and lived for many years in a different Ojibwe community, it made sense to live within the county seat in order to observe a less-familiar cultural milieu on a daily basis. As sometimes happens with ethnographic research, serendipity played a role in identifying participants and a place to live. I was fortunate to find a “culture broker” within each community, that is, someone who was respected because of their knowledge and positive relationships with others in the community. They served as key participants and as links to others in their respective communities.
Within the Ojibwe community, the person who played this role was from a prominent family in the community, and took me under her wing to introduce me to tribal elders and leaders. In the Euro-American community, my “culture broker” was identified by many Euro-American community residents whom I asked about city and county history. They repeatedly mentioned the owner of a copy shop located in the county seat. Although it took many visits to the copy shop to actually meet the owner, we formed an instant connection and the evolving friendship we developed was profoundly important in many ways. A life-long resident of the area, he had stored newspaper and journal articles from the area for more than 40 years and personally knew many of the Ojibwe tribal leaders and members, past and present, as well as the Euro-American residents. He owned the storefront that housed the copy shop in the center of the small town, above which he had a number of efficiency apartments to rent. He became a study participant and my landlord, opening his collections of historical materials and refusing to allow me to pay for the thousands of pages of documents that he let me copy. From my centrally located vantage point in a second-story apartment that overlooked the major cross-section in town, I was able to learn a great deal about the community and the relationships between community residents and tribal people, especially between the local police and youth from both communities.
Participant observations included regular visits to the tribal elders’ noon meal, visits to elder apartments in the county, and participation/observations of a variety of events and agencies within both communities. Most of the people I spoke with participated in ethnographic interviews. In contrast to one-time semi-structured interviews, ethnographic interviews involve meeting with the same participants periodically throughout the course of a study. Time between interviews allowed me, as the researcher, to learn more and ask clarifying questions, and also allowed participants an opportunity to reflect on the questions asked and their responses in previous interviews. Because of the timing of my study, conversations around the tables at the tribal elder center during lunch often focused on their adventures ricing and hunting. Similarly, if I stopped by the copy shop, the owner and I would sit by the large picture window at a table just inside the front door. Community members would stop by and join us, and the talk would often turn to hunting excursions.
In addition to interviews, document review became one of the key methods for understanding past and present behaviors and meanings associated with hunting and gathering within each of the cultures. As noted above, the owner of the copy shop became a key source for documents both directly as the source of many of the documents and as an ethnographic interview participant who helped explain the significance and meaning of information. He also helped indirectly though his knowledge of both the Euro-American and Ojibwe communities and suggested other people I should interview. Books, pamphlets, newspaper accounts and photos, old maps, and administrative reports all provided a rich context of information for both communities, past and present.
The following discussion highlights one dimension, the economic sphere, to describe both local cultures in terms of the past and the present and to illustrate points of cultural similarity and difference. “Economic sphere” means hunting and gathering activities. There are a number of reasons for focusing on hunting and gathering activities. First, by placing the experiences of one Ojibwe community within a more general Ojibwe historical-cultural context, specific cultural aspects of change, continuity, and complexity become more apparent. Second, given the timing of my study, the economic sphere is the most completely documented for both Ojibwe and Euro-American communities by all three research methods – interviews, observations, and documents. Third, the evidence shows the intergenerational transmission of culture within both cultural milieus in this narrowly defined dimension.
Drawing from observations, interviews, and documents, a number of important findings emerge that provide evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities. Hunting and gathering activities within both the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities were a frequent topic of conversation in the fall of 2001. As the following exemplars from interviews, observations, and documents show, cultural differences between local Ojibwe and Euro-American culture are evident within the narrowly defined economic dimension. There is also evidence of cultural continuity and change within both communities.
A central aspect of the Ojibwe economic sphere was the seasonal round they followed to grow and gather food and manufacture basic necessities within the ecosystems of their habitation (Meyer, 1994; Venum, 1988). Although the specific activities and timing varied depending on the particular geographic habitats of widely scattered Ojibwe communities, the cycle generally involved a congregation of members in summer villages comprised of 100 or more people. Here, they planted family gardens (beans, corn, squash, and pumpkins). In mid and later summer, families traveled to pick berries, and in the fall to rice camps to gather and process wild rice, which for many was the major subsistence crop. They harvested, processed, and cached the produce from their gardens, ricing, berrying, and their summer and early fall fishing and hunting. In the fall, smaller family groups (20 to 25 people) prepared to move to their winter hunting areas, and in the spring, when the snow and icy waterways began to melt, families traveled to the sugarbush to gather and process the sap of maple trees.
The seasonal movements “from one place to another …, [and] the stability in timing and locations gave the cycle great continuity” (Meyer (1994, p. 24). The seasonal pattern also represents an effective strategy for dealing with the natural climate and environment, maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle and assuring a “diverse resource base” in case any resource failed in a given year (Meyer, 1994, p. 27). Despite confinement on reservations in the 1850s, many of these seasonal round activities continue to be of importance for members of the focal Ojibwe community. In the fall, wild rice (Vennum, 1988) and deer hunting (Hickerson, 1988) remain particularly important.
Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy: Little Rice River – Madeline Island
Because ricing is such a deeply rooted activity, most Ojibway build harvest time into their annual schedules as a matter of course. Many urban Indians return to their home reservations for ricing; others leave regular jobs in nearby towns for the harvest, even though it can mean financial loss…. Ricing is also an activity that older people continue to participate in…. For cultural reasons alone, the Ojibway people will probably never give up ricing willingly. (Vennum, 1988, pp. 298-299)
Participant-observations, particularly during the fall of 2001, underscored the continuing importance of seasonal round activities (Meyer, 1994). Ricing, hunting, fishing, and to a more limited extent, gathering berries, were a central topic of informal conversations among Ojibwe elders during noon meals. One Ojibwe elder (Mishoomis Thomas, September 9, 2001) drew a series of cartoons about hunting and ricing – including an illustration of the experiences of the Nacomis Xina, cited below, with her head above water next to an overturned canoe with wild rice stems encircling her legs.
I’m lucky to be alive! I went out ricing with [my niece] last weekend. I let her pole while I knocked the rice into the canoe. I didn’t know that she didn’t know how to pole. She pushed the pole in too far and it got stuck in the mud, and when the canoe rocked and spun around, we were both thrown into the water. I was afraid I was going to drown. The rice stalks wrapped around my legs, and the more I kicked, the tighter they became. We were finally able to climb back into the canoe. I usually don’t wear a jacket [life preserver] when I go out, but I had one on that day and it kept me afloat even when the rice was wrapped around my legs…. I’ll never go out again with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing (Nacomis Xina, September 9, 2001).
Escaping danger and humor were common elements of the stories that were shared. Perhaps more central, however, were the remembered social interactions. The accounts always interwove family and community members who shared the activities, and stories of how they worked together to face challenges and danger. As elders competed for opportunities to share their stories, adding details to the stories others shared, the sound of merriment and laughter filled the room.
Although ricing remains central for these tribal elders, they observed that fewer people practice traditional gathering activities than did in the past. At the same time, however, despite inexperience, people in younger generations still do participate. Younger people are still interested in learning, although some of them, like the niece described above, may have to find other teachers. An Ojibwe community member in the next generation shared his story about the importance of ricing.
It is more important for me to be doing what I am right now, processing food as a way to practice the ways of the people. Chimokoman [White Man] has tried to make the people forget, but some of the knowledge has been retained and is now being taught to young people. Hunting is also an important way to practice culture, to harvest when the time is right rather than punching a time clock. Look around [lifting his arm he gestures toward the trees in full autumn colors – bright yellow, red, orange, and gold], this is gold (“Tyler,” October 4, 2001).
Despite the continuing importance of ricing for Ojibwe community members, environmental changes pose concerns for the community.
There used to be a lot of rice on the lake – it was covered with plants – now there are only scattered patches. And there used to be as many as 140 boats out at one time – now there are maybe eight (Mishoomis Raymond, October 10, 2001).
White-tailed or Virginia deer were an important part of the Ojibwe diet in the past (Hickerson, 1988), and remain so today as exemplified by the following interview excerpt. Hunting is a skill that continues to be passed on to younger generations. A more distinctive cultural component, however, is the continuing importance of sharing. The account of Mishoomis Raymond demonstrates how critical hunting and sharing were for family and community survival in the past.
When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone (Mishoomis Raymond, September 10, 2001).
Mishoomis Raymond also discussed how he continues to practice the skills and Ojibwe ethics of hunting, and his efforts to ensure that these skills are passed on to younger generations.
There’s a young non-Indian girl here who told me that she couldn’t eat most kinds of meat, fish, or shrimp – it makes her sick. But she can eat venison. So I’m going to give her one of the two deer I shot yesterday. My grandson and I went out hunting with [another Ojibwe community member] and his grandson. The two boys were able to track down a deer that was shot but kept running. When we caught up with the boys, they were already gutting the deer. I was proud of them (Mishoomis Raymond, November 19, 2001).
A number of community documents underscore the meaning and importance of Ojibwe seasonal round activities in more contemporary times. Included in these documents are accounts shared by Ojibwe community elders who have demonstrated and described the steps for processing wild rice, the techniques and timing for gathering birchbark, and the techniques and timing for gathering cranberries.
… [Mishoomis Raymond] recalled his childhood days spent with his cousin … exploring the swamp and snacking on mashkiigiminan (cranberries); the tart flavor forcing their lips to pucker… Two weeks before… [Mishoomis Raymond] and [his cousin] had revisited the footsteps of their childhood to once again gather mashkiigiminan. [Ojibwe Raymond] could not have been happier that his daughter and granddaughter [who went with them] had shown interest in gathering mashkiigiminan (Tribal Publication 1, 2001, p. 10).
The article adds that the Mishoomis Raymond, his cousin, and his friend frequently help and encourage “… youngsters to learn traditional ways. All three elders know the importance of passing their knowledge onto younger generations” (p. 10).
Ricing, one of the Ojibwe traditional practices described by Ojibwe community members, is highlighted in contemporary promotional materials developed to attract tourists. “The annual harvest of wild rice, an essential part of the Indian diet, has altered very little in the hundreds of years that the [Ojibwe] have lived here (Tribal Publication 2, p. 18).
Stories gathered within the Ojibwe community are qualitatively different than those of the long-term Euro-American residents in the surrounding community. Hunting and fishing stories were a topic frequently raised by Euro-American men in the community. Some noted that hunting and woodsmanship are longstanding traditions for families from their Euro-ethnic identity who originally settled in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky before moving to the county seat several generations ago.
[People of my ancestry and geographic origin] were outdoorsmen: they could make it on the land and the area here is a lot like the land they knew. They lived off the land like the native peoples, and did almost as well… They could hunt, trap, and fish (Euro-American Community Member, October 25, 2001).
Some of the accounts focused on hunting excursions with sons, or in one case, with a wife. The emphasis of stories was typically on the challenge of the hunt. Only one community member said that hunting for him was more about the chance to be in a remote area to enjoy the natural beauty. Hunting has played an important symbolic role for Euro-American men (Haraway, 1994). The stories told by Euro-American male informants seem to fit with Haraway’s (1994, p. 75) characterization as:
… the tales of a pure man whose danger in pursuit of a noble cause brings him into communion with the beasts he kills, with nature. This nature is a worthy brother of man, a worthy foil for his manhood.
Documents gathered from a variety of community sources provide confirmation of Haraway’s (1994) interpretation of Euro-American sportsmanship. Hunting has been an important part of local Euro-American culture since the days of the first non-indigenous settlers. Promotional materials originally published in the early 1900s to attract Euro-American “home-seekers and investors” to the area emphasize hunting, fishing, and recreation. These materials were reprinted in 2001 to preserve local historical accounts and cultural traditions. One of the publications includes photographs of hunters standing by their slain prey, or scores of deer carcasses hanging from racks, accompanied by the following text:
[The county seat] is the outfitting point for parties bound to the deer hunting grounds…. For several years, the hunting parties have brought back a hundred or more deer each year with now and then a bear and large number of partridges and other small game (Community document, 1906/2001).
Photo Credit: Deer Hanging Rack
Another publication appeals for people to settle in the area and farm “cut-over lands,” or lands once occupied by the Ojibwe and other First Nations peoples that had been completely stripped of the virgin hardwood and pine forests by large outside lumber companies (Community Document). One of the enticements for new settlers was the following text:
Every season this section is visited by armies of nimrods from the southern part of the state, and from other states, who always return home with their allotted number of deer…. Ducks are killed in great numbers on the lakes, where they feed on the wild rice beds (Community Document, 1914/2001).
Hunting remains important for local Euro-American residents in contemporary times. Before deer hunting season in 2001, the editorial section of the local newspaper underscored the the importance of this gendered legacy:
THE COUNTDOWN to deer season is well underway. I can tell because of the increased number of phone calls [my husband] gets from his brothers and nephews. They all have to touch base several times in order to plan the big hunt. This annual get together is a tradition in the … family…. (it’s definitely a guy thing). (Community Newspaper, 2001, p. 2)
Photo Credit: Hunting the Trophy Whitetail
Deer hunting was still front page news in the local newspaper during 2001 and 2002. Under the front page headline “Gun Deer Harvest Down in County” is a photo of a successful 13-year-old Euro-American boy grasping the antlers of his kill. The accompanying story notes that only 1,200 deer were killed in the county during the opening weekend of hunting season. Yet there are indications from other sources that hunting is becoming less important than it was in the past, or that there are other recreational competitors. Proposed state legislation to extend deer hunting season was forcefully criticized by the local legislator because it would interfere “with snowmobiling activities and other winter recreation” (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 12). Promotional materials in contemporary times are written to attract a broader selection of visitors. No longer are scores of deer carcasses hung on racks highlighted by photos. Instead, visitors are told:
The hunter, fisherman and trapper feel at home in this forest, but so do hikers, bikers, cross-county skiers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, photographers, campers – the list is endless (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 3).
Ojibwe/Euro-American Cultural Comparison
The stories, observations, and documents convey an important message. In the end, I am left with two contrasting metaphors, a front-page picture in the local newspaper of a young Euro-American man triumphantly holding up the head of the trophy he slaughtered, and the story shared by an Ojibwe community member.
Hunting is not a sport – it’s something that you do for food. It’s not a sport if you leave something for what you take. That’s why we leave tobacco for something we take – we’re being responsible. We are at the mercy of the Great One and the power when we’re out there, but we go knowing that we have to have food to live and we have to do that.
It’s work. I don’t really like to kill. There’s a sadness there for that deer. I don’t hunt just to kill it, and I don’t feel good about killing. Sometimes, the deer doesn’t die right away. That’s why we leave something, to ask forgiveness. That’s why we take it home to feed our family and others who are hungry – out of respect. My brother-in-law and I like to hunt together and we both feel that sadness – that loss or sadness. Ojibwe people have been doing this for thousands of years. My grandmother told me that a lot of our people feel that way – feel that sadness. That’s why we have to eat it all and use all of the parts – out of respect. If we don’t do that, we won’t have that relationship with the deer. That relationship with the deer is important. That’s why we always put mocassins on when we are preparing someone who has died – so that they will have that deer skin on their feet when they take that long journey – so we can walk with deer skin on our feet.
That’s why we leave something – the other society just takes and keeps everything for themselves. Chimokes [White Men] are not respecting the deer, that’s why the deer are sick. The Creator is doing that to teach a lesson (Tyler, January 2, 2003).
Despite past child removal and relocation policies, Ojibwe culture has survived and for that, I am grateful. Many Ojibwe people in the community I studied, each in their own individual ways, are actively working to ensure that cultural practices and values are passed on for generations to come. This is not to say that the community is free of serious problems. Some of those problems – alcoholism, child maltreatment, juvenile delinquency, and incest – are in large measure part of a legacy of oppressive federal and state policies and practices that continue today.
All traditions are created, whether through vision, dreams or an epiphany and they are adopted because they serve some function from the perspective of those who have the power to convince others of the legitimacy of particular ways of seeing their world (Anderson, 1995). The larger ethical (and pragmatic) question is whether a given set of traditions encourages a people to “walk lightly on the earth” by taking only what they need, encourages them to leave the world a better place for their having lived, or whether the set of traditions encourages a people to deplete the earth of resources and create death and destruction in their wake, heedless of the world they will leave for future generations. This is a question to ponder. For the Ojibwe and Euro-American people studied in this small sample, the contrasts were clear, although not consciously chosen nor in most cases, deliberately articulated. Yet, from my perspective, we must learn to be mindful of the impacts our cultural ways have on those with whom we share the earth, now and in the future…
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Carl Gawboy for granting permission to use images of his paintings for this essay. Carl is a renowned Ojibwe artist who was born in Minnesota. His paintings often portray traditional Ojibwe scenes – hunting, fishing, and harvesting – in a style that is realistic and respectful. These are the images I felt best represented what Ojibwe participants shared with me during my study. To view more of his work and long list of accomplishments, please check out some of the following links:
I should also add that he is a gifted storyteller with his own memories of ricing adventures to share – guaranteed to make you laugh.
Note: In order to protect the identities of the people who shared their stories, all names have been changed and all written tribal and community publications lack specific citations.
Mishoomis is the Ojibwe word for grandfather and is used here to denote respect.
Nacomis means grandmother in Ojibwe, and again, is an expression used to show respect.
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Hickerson, H. (1988). The Chippewa and their neighbors: A study of ethnohistory (revised and expanded edition). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Meyer, M. L. (1994). The White Earth tragedy: Ethnicity and dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinabe reservation, 1889-1920. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. Fort Wroth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Thomas, J. (1993). Doing critical ethnography. Qualitative Research Methods Series 26. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Van Maanan, J. (Ed.)(1995). Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Venum, T., Jr. (1988). Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Press.
Weaver, H. N. (1999). Indigenous people and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services, Social Work, 44(3), 217-225.
Wolcott, H. F. (1995). Making a study “more ethnographic.” In J. Van Maanen (Ed.), Representation in ethnography (pp. 79-111). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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