Carol A. Hand
It seems that my temporary computer problems were a blessing in disguise. It’s strange that my computer access ended only after I had verified my 50K+ word count for NaNoWriMO. Not that it really matters in the larger scheme of life, but it did matter to me that I had finished something that I started.
The fact that I couldn’t simply keep obsessively writing meant that I had to take a break. I could be present with my family during work and school holiday vacations and do necessary outdoor tasks that had been postponed. I could also take time to think. I’m already more than 100 pages into a book. The first chapters were important, but I needed to figure out how to shift voice.
Here’s my draft transition…
Image: Microsoft Word Clip Art
[Please note: The names of people have all been changed in the following accounts to protect identity, and the names of states and towns have been removed. These stories could come from any of the states where Ojibwe reservations are located.]
Chapter Thirteen – An Interesting Perspective
Monday, October 15, 2001 Memo
Today would be an important foundation for my study. It was my first interview with the director of the country social services department. I got up early to pack and print out the county letter and consent forms. As I turned onto the paved forest road, I realized that I had forgotten my tape recorder bag, so I had to turn around. Then, I headed to the border town. It was a chilly day, with alternating clouds, rain, and sunshine.
I stopped at the motel briefly to check in and organized my things, and then headed to town. Since I was early, I stopped at the variety store to pick up a card for my daughter and grandson, a thank-you note for the Lac du Flambeau tribal preservation staff, and large envelops to mail letters and consent forms to the state staff and administrators I hoped to interview. Then I headed to the county office. To be continued…
Tuesday, November 24, 2015 Reflections
Before I share an edited version of the interview, I feel it’s important to provide a little context. I only tape-recorded the interviews I conducted with county staff. I didn’t make this decision lightly. My prior experiences with qualitative studies had taught me something about the pros and cons of different approaches. Tape-recording only worked in some situations. It had proved effective with most of the older Euro-American men I had interviewed in a study that explored the experiences of caregivers of wives and parents who needed assistance. But it definitely hadn’t worked in interviews with Ojibwe friends when I tested it to complete a graduate research class assignment. My friends either repeatedly “forgot” to show up for scheduled interview dates, or were silenced as soon as the record button was clicked. Taking notes during interviews proved to be a somewhat effective middle-ground, but it was also intimidating and distracting, both for me and the person I was interviewing.
I had also learned something about myself in the process. If a tape-recorder was running, I unconsciously felt that I didn’t need to listen as carefully as I would otherwise. If parts of the recording were inaudible, and that often happened, it was difficult for me to reconstruct what had been said. Note-taking helped, but it also interfered with my ability to simply be present and engaged. And I didn’t always write down the most important information. Of course, I wouldn’t realize that until later.
Without any props, I was present. I learned to listen deeply and observe what was most important. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice were all important clues that were often missing from notes and recordings.
I learned that it’s easier for me to remember stories if I just listen deeply, but listening is not enough if I need to remember details and facts. I learned to use sensory prompts to help trigger memories – sights, sounds, and scents. But for crossing cultures and getting it right, I would need to use technology. Fortunately, county administrators and staff were willing to allow me to record our interviews. They even had to help me figure out how to use the small battery-powered device I used.
Research Interview October 15, 2001
Place: Allen James’s office
Time: 1:30 -4:45 p.m.
Allen came out of his office. “Come on in and sit down, Agnes.”
As I was packing up my papers and equipment, Allen added something that he wanted me to know. “I hope you realize that I say what I think honestly, Agnes. I don’t believe in trying to be politically correct. I believe in being honest. I’m really tired of being forced to attend state trainings on cultural competence. I really hate it when people talk about cultural competence. There is no Ojibwe culture anymore. It has disappeared entirely and there are no differences between people.”
I thanked him for sharing his perspective honestly, and for taking time today to teach me about child welfare policies and issues. He graciously agreed to meet with me again periodically during my time here.
Chapter Fourteen – Walking between Cultures
Tuesday, November 30, 2015
I typed up my fieldnotes for the day before I began the laborious process of typing the transcript from my first tape-recorded interview with Allen James, the director of the country social services department. Despite the many hours I spent on this onerous task, I didn’t recognize how important this interview was at the time. I was too focused on the daily tasks I needed to complete.
Looking back now more than a decade later, I realize that this was the day I really became a “critical ethnographer” and a “researcher.” I had established trust across a cultural divide. I really did learn to see Allen as a sincere and decent person. His honestly at the end of our interview opened up a new understanding of oppression.
It’s funny how time and distance can sometimes help us see larger patterns of significance. The information Allen shared about himself, his experiences growing up, and his family helped me glimpse how hegemony works. Ordinary people with good hearts become comfortable with their lives. It’s easier to accept things as they are. Why question things if one’s own life is comfortable? All too often, questioning the status quo only leads to discomfort, censure, and grief. Allen didn’t need to see that each of us makes choices every day. He didn’t need to think about the fact that the choices he made in his position influenced the lives of Ojibwe people in profound ways.
He really didn’t stop to think about the power he had. He could always blame the state or federal policy makers for imposing mandates his staff and agency had to follow. He could blame Ojibwe people for their predicament. He could sit in his office and hold onto his belief that there was no Ojibwe culture any more. Why take the risk of rejection and discomfort by trying to spend time on the reservation to see if his assumptions were really true?
He didn’t need to question his assumptions because his life had been difficult, too. He made it through hard work and discipline. Ojibwe people needed to learn to do the same. The awareness of privilege never need enter his awareness.
The lesson Allen helped me to begin learning was how to think critically without judging people. I liked him as a person. But my job in this situation was to see his position and the consequences of his actions within the context of a larger system of oppression. It helped me understand that we need to be able to see how our positions and actions support or disrupt taken-for-granted assumptions and systems of oppression. The tools of a researcher – participant observation, recorded interviews, and fieldnotes – can either be used to perpetuate the ways things are or to subject them to critical scrutiny without robbing people of their agency (their right to be seen as decision-makers in their own lives) or their dignity.
From this point onward, my days continued to be filled with new experiences, moving between cultures. I felt it was important to describe the first few days in detail, to bring readers inside the experience of entering new settings as an outsider. By the time I typed out Allen’s interview, I was beginning to feel overloaded with details. I don’t want readers to feel that way. From now on, I plan to list or summarize some of the many highlights. There are some observations, interviews, or insights that will be shared in detail to honor the importance of the experiences and the speaker’s own words.
Image: Microsoft Word Clip Art
As always, I welcome your feedback.
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