The Year My Mother Was Born

Carol A. Hand

My mother was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in 1921. I wonder what her world was like then. The photos I have of her as a child convey contrasts between the wealthy whites who flocked to the northwoods lakes to build summer resorts and family retreats and Ojibwe families and children relegated to the land that remained after many broken treaties.

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Photo: My mother in 1923
(She’s dressed in clothing purchased by the wealthy woman in the picture who wanted to “adopt” her even though both of her parents were alive.)

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Photo: My Mother in 1928
Titled “Grapes of Wrath” in my mother’s lovely cursive writing on the back of the photo.
(Obviously her clothing allowance ended when my mother’s family refused to let her be taken away.)

My mother was exposed to these contrasts early in life, embittered by her relative material poverty and exploited by resort owners to attract new clientele. She internalized the belief that she was inferior because of her Ojibwe heritage. It’s easy to see why as I read archival documents that chronicle the times.

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Photo: Postcard for the Rim Rock Lodge – My Mother in 1925-1926?
The caption reads: Our Little squaw at
Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.

These photos were among my mother’s belongings but many details about her life remain incomplete. Fortunately, I have discovered an incredible archival collection for anyone interested in exploring Native American history in the US from 1902 through 1968 – The Indian Sentinel. Housed in the Raynor Library at Marquette University (thankfully available online), the publication offers a fascinating glimpse of tribal cultures as seen through the biased, but sometimes respectful, eyes of those who “felt the call” to minister to the Native heathens and save their souls through their work with Catholic missions. The Sentinel is filled with biographies of priests and tribal leaders, photos of students and buildings, and descriptions of the first reservation in the US and the building of a hydroelectric dam in Pine Ridge, SD in 1919-1920 using the backbreaking labor of students attending the Catholic mission school.

As I work on revising a story about her life, I wanted to know more about the context at the time she was born. I also wanted to see if I could find any records of her time in the Catholic boarding school she attended as a child. The answer is maybe. I have read a short account of my grandfather’s war injury in a student’s essay and found a possible reference to my mother’s school records that will require further archival research. Yet today, I want to share a poem that conveys the historical context for First Nations people during the beginning years of the twentieth century. The myth of the vanishing Native that inspired anthropologists and photographers was still in its heyday in the early 1900s.

INDIAN NAMES

Ye say they have all passed away,
That noble race and brave;
That their light canoes have vanished,
From off the crested waves;
That, ‘mid the forests where they wandered,
There rings no hunter’s shout:
Their name is on your waters –
You may not wash it out.

‘Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled;
Where strong Niagra’s thunders wake
The echo of the world;
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west;
Where Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.

Ye say their conelike cabins
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have disappeared, as withered leaves
Before the autumn’s gale;
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.

Old Massachusetts wears it
Within her lordly crown;
And broad Ohio bears it
Amid her young renown;
Connecticut has wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And old Kentucky breathes it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.

Wachusetts hides its lingering voice
Within its rocky heart,
And Allegheny graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock, on his forehead hoar’
Doth seal the sacred trust;
Your mountains build their monument
Though ye destroy the dust.

Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney (1902-1903). The Indian Sentinel, (p. 2). Washington, DC: Bureau of Catholic Missions.

Although Indigenous tribes were no longer visible in the eastern US states when this poem was written, the survivors of removal in the 1930s and Indian wars of the 1850s and beyond were still a presence further south and west. Still souls that needed saving. This was the view the year my mother was born, conveyed by the missionaries that would soon be her teachers.

“Owing to the great affection existing between the Indian parents and their children, the education of the latter is a most effectual means of improving the conditions of the former and bringing about their conversion” (The Indian Sentinel, 1920-1922; Vol. 02, no. 06, p. 257.)

Although her family was able to protect her from removal when she was two, the Bureau of Indians Affairs took her away from her family and community eight years later (or maybe sooner) and placed her in Holy Family Indian Mission boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin, more than 100 miles from her home.

Holy_Family_Church_Bayfield

Photo: Holy Family Church – Bayfield, WI

As many life experiences do, this turned out to be a mixed blessing. She lost a sense of connection to her family and community, but she had a chance to internalize a cultural foundation that helped her survive and develop skills that she used to make other’s lives better. She learned to write in her beautiful cursive, graduated as salutatorian of her (almost all white) public high school class, and went on to become a gifted nurse due to the generosity of the woman who couldn’t adopt her when she was two. In 1978, she wrote a grant and accompanied the Tribal Chairman, William Wildcat, to testify before the US Congress to establish the health care center in Lac du Flambeau, the reservation community where she was born. Although the tribe only honored her contributions after her death in 2010, what mattered most for her was doing the best she could to help other people and her community.

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Photo – My Mother’s First Communion – 1933?

In retrospect, I realize that the work the missionaries did was not all destructive. Their efforts helped people survive and provided a buffer from those in power who wanted to leave only the Indigenous place names and none of the people. Catholic missions, and priests like Father Baraga, helped create the possibility for Indigenous Peoples to assume a veneer of outward assimilation that kept them alive and their cultures hidden for future generations. My mother’s education may have created a distance between her and others of her generation who remained on the reservation, but it also helped her develop the skills to leave an important legacy that helped people in community to survive.

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

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16 thoughts on “The Year My Mother Was Born”

  1. “Their name is on your waters –
    You may not wash it out.”

    What great work you are doing Carol. Tubularsock has always been upset with the missionary movement but like you say there were some “good” they did is some areas and some within it were doing their best within their limited view.

    Still, it makes me angry.

    And as for the Bureau of Indians Affairs ……. Tubularsock will not even get started!

    Great post and good luck with the research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always good to hear from you, Tubularsock. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and share your ambivalent feeling about colonial institutions (well – maybe mine are more ambivalent than yours?) 🙂

      Like

  2. This beautiful, candid, and touching story about your mother puts a face to the statistics we hear about regarding Indian “removal” and “assimilation.” Despite the thinking and actions of the whites at the time, your mother managed to nurture in her heart a great love of others and to act upon her convictions. It is apparent in your writing that you have inherited these great attributes from her.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Carol, this is lovely to read, and shows so much sensitivity to the complexity of your mother’s times. I wonder what tales of lost tribes or lost cultures mean? I’ve been thinking about how nostalgia (amongst dominant perspectives) for a lost way of life may exclude the voices of tribal people and a constantly evolving way of being? What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You always ask such thought-provoking questions, Nicci. Thank you, dear friend.

      As I try to understand history better, I find myself ever-more confused. It seems there have always been conflicts – the barbarians ride in and conquer people living stable, sustainable lives. But those who have enough are blessed with an environment that produces enough for them at that moment in time. Perhaps the barbarians are not so lucky and they need to look elsewhere. I know it’s a funny way to flip the perspective of colonial oppression, but on some levels it’s fitting. People who know how to control animals and machines but who don’t know how to live cooperatively still have much to learn.

      I think we all have our “tribes,” although we may not all be conscious of what that means. An example – for the school district that I tried to educate years ago, the tribe that gave people in the community a sense of belonging was their high school football team, symbolized by the team name and mascot. The past they clung to was a derogatory and insulting caricature of Native people. Like this community, too many of us try to hold onto romantic (although not necessarily constructive) notions of the good old days, making it hard for us to do what you suggest – constantly evolve. From my perspective, it’s something we need to be able to do to survive in the challenging times ahead…

      So writing my mother’s story is an attempt for me to honor a promise – to let people in her community (as broadly as that can be understood) know that it is possible to overcome adversity if you care enough about others to try, to learn, to take risks, to have hope that maybe your efforts matter, if not now, then someday in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s such a lovely story, and to me, it shows how she used agency to make a contribution to her community, using what she had, despite how she’d been made to feel inferior about who she was. It sounds like she too understood people on the margains, and cared deeply.

        I’ve been thinking about a video I saw of Native American indians and football teams. The video showed people as tribal and spiritual, and also explained that people do many things but do not play football. And I wondered about the portrayal of people into western stereotypical perceptions.

        Michael Watson spoke about the concept of ‘the noble savage’ which reduces native American people and stops dominant voices from seeing the complexities and the individuality of people. I’ve been wondering, with the return to a nostalgic past that many people (and perhaps I) am taking, does this mean that the current struggles and impacts of colonialism get ignored? If Native Americans are only seen to be nature loving people, or warriors, does this overlook the need to build inclusive communities now, where people who may not be warriors have a right to a say?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I love to read your thoughtful analyses, Nicci. Yes, I think my mother did care for those who were seen as outcasts in the community. She treated everyone with kindness.

          You’ve raised important questions about stereotypes and the degree to which they have been internalized by people in tribal communities. It’s a complex question that I can’t answer simply, except to say that cultural cosmologies, institutions, and ways of being have been under attack for hundreds of years on so many levels. From my perspective, the most important consequence has been the loss of rites of passage to adulthood that helped each individual find their own path to contribute to the overall well-being of their communities. I remember reading an account by a German geographer/ethnologist/travel writer who lived among the Ojibwe in the mid 1800s, Johann Georg Kohl. He was profoundly touched by the vision quest – youth who were willing to exercise discipline and undergo suffering for the sake of their community – not to die in battle, but to learn their special gifts so they could live in ways that contributed to overall well being of their communities and environment. (His book is – Kitchi-Gami: Life among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1985/1860, Minnesota Historical Society Press.) Some might be warriors, some weavers, and others hunters – all were equally important and indispensable to collective well-being.

          Is it possible to reweave communities that honor these practices of old? And in such a world as ours now, would it help us deal with the imminent threats we face? I honestly don’t know. I do know that we need to begin to build bridges – understand, respect, and care about others regardless of superficial differences. We need to care about the earth. We all have special gifts to offer. How many of us are willing to go through the suffering and exercise the discipline it takes to uncover our path for the sake of others and the world?

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Carol~ Your mother and yourself proved to have incredible compassion and dedication to humanity even through the atrocities that happened to the Indian tribes. You have managed to see the good that the misguided missionaries tried to do. It would be incredibly difficult to not hold onto anger and bitterness from what you have discovered and witnessed yourself. I wish you much success in your research into the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I see where you wonderful heart and desire to help others comes from, Carol. Thank you for sharing this amazing story and history of your mother’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reminds me of that Desmond Tutu quote (and he’s an Archbishop!): “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

    Liked by 1 person

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