Time for Transitions

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…

focus 1

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.

***

focus 2

Image: Microsoft Word Clip Art

As always, I welcome your feedback.

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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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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22 Responses to Time for Transitions

  1. How to like someone across the divide of very different opinions and issues. You’ve tapped on something important there. does that make it easier or more difficult then to point out the privileges that lead to perspectives on such issues?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vellissima says:

    I’m not sure how this fits in your big picture (having not seen the big picture!) but it feels both academic and not. Who is your audience? I love the musings on method. In my own research I had to sort out how to interview sympathetically. I wish I had stayed with the more anthropological side of things, but it didn’t happen. Your writing inspires me the think about doing some more of that kind of writing. Anyway, these are just some musings on my first reading, first thing in the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are important questions and insights, Velissima. I decided to write about a critical ethnographic study I did both as a creative non-fiction memoir and an ethnographic account. So it includes both powerful stories, mine included, and some academic information as context in a conversational (how-to) voice.

      I was motivated by one of my disappointing jobs to explore why Native American children were still more likely to be removed from their families and communities in the 1990s. I also wanted to know what Ojibwe community members would like to see for their children in the future. I collected a lot of troubling stories, and some hopeful ones too.

      I’m still writing and plan to go back and edit the whole manuscript when I’m done. It’s too early for me to tell if it makes sense, but I think it does…

      Liked by 1 person

      • vellissima says:

        Fascinating work. It does feel like you’re talking through the academic issues in a way that is accessible. Too little academic writing is, so non-academics get understandably turned off.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree, Velissima. I truly dislike reading journal articles in my field (social work). But I dislike class barriers so I practiced demystifying intimidating academic words when I worked with tribal communities or with first-generation college students. I used the words and told them they already knew what the words meant even if they hadn’t heard the words before. And we talked about the way language is sometimes used to make people feel inferior.

          Like

        • vellissima says:

          Language can be remarkably effective is creating boundaries and barriers. It’s important to humanize academic writing especially for people with different backgrounds than the elite audience.

          Liked by 1 person

        • So true. I think academic language has more to do with the need to appear smart – it’s not really meant to communicate ideas that could eliminate class divides and promote inclusion…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. sojourner says:

    Excellent writing!!

    You wrote,

    “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….”

    “Hard work and discipline:” two of the gods that make up “The American Dream,” the nightmare. And to hell with everything else that makes us unique, compassionate individuals who are in need of each other.

    This is why the world is the way it is and has been for a long time: complacency, a compliant nature and massive emphasis on self (self-involved/self-obsessed/self-actualized survival on the path of least resistance) is how we have been programmed in this illusion most of us refer to as life.

    We have all been programmed, to some degree, to be this way; some of us more than others. If we (humanity) were the opposite of this, then the powers that be would have little to no control over us.

    It’s sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Sojourner. It is sad. The challenge is figuring out how to raise awareness. It’s why I write now. I hope it will help reach some people like Allen – good-hearted people who can make small changes that help those most in need…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. richholschuh says:

    Thank you for these reflections/narrations Carol. Your words rang true and deep, as an arrow through the air. I am becoming more and more aware of the separation between the settler and Native cultures here in New England, and the nature of the slender connections. My eyes are learning to look for the game trails that faintly trace the steep banks and climb the other side, rather than the bold, angular, well-intentioned interventions designed with good intent but lacking in understanding.

    I recall a statement I made at a meeting, whereby I was attempting to convey some information I felt would be helpful. I was called to task by an elder for using a words (or words) that they did not understand and asked to speak clearly and simply. I will never forget that day. My eyes lowered to the ground, quite literally as well as metaphorically, and I learned the importance of being there, feet on the earth and person-to-person. Our connections to each other are indicative of the state of the Great Circle, all of the hoops woven together. Separation is the greatest hurt. The best thing I can do is to be here, now, with my eyes and heart open to Creation, be it the person in front of me or the mountain across the river.

    Peace to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such deep and lovely insights, Rich, and so eloquently said. “Separation is the greatest hurt. The best thing I can do is to be here, now, with my eyes and heart open to Creation, be it the person in front of me or the mountain across the river.” Thank you for sharing profound wisdom.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. desilef says:

    Carol, so much food for thought and valuable insight here, especially in how you respond to Allen James. And I also appreciated your thoughts on tapes, notes, just listening. We learn the most, I think, by just listening, but then we are challenged to present the evidence! Though you’ve changed names and altered some circumstances (or so I suppose), this does read like nonfiction rather than a novel. But that’s OK. Nanowrimo got you to put 50,000 words on paper (or screen). As someone pointed out, you do a wonderful job of addressing what could be theoretical (rather than human) issues and you do it in an accessible way without academic jargon. Maybe thinking of this as a novel has allowed you to write more freely as you go about writing the book you intended and wanted to write all along. ??

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Diane. This has been a difficult project to begin and continue. It’s really not like anything I’ve read or written before, so each chapter presents different challenges. For some chapters at the very beginning it made sense to draw on the observations, stories, and feelings reflected in my fieldnotes. Yet the description of a “good ethnography” kept playing in my thoughts – the need to use details to point out universal connections.

      This thought raises so many more questions! How does a writer make these connections between details and universals? How does one establish one’s credibility and authenticity? How can one provide enough historical and cultural context for the details to be understood? Indian history and policy (and child welfare issues) are not widely known or understood in a critical way. What are the best ways to raise awareness? How can one speak in many voices in a way that flows? Today, I’m tempted to go back and reread what I’ve written. But so far, I’ve decided to keep writing, trying to make the transition to more selective details. I’m afraid I might give up if I go back…

      Truly, this experience has given me enormous respect for fiction writers. I’m struggling mightily without trying to invent new characters!

      Like

  6. They only feedback I can offer, Carol, is praise for the enlightenment of your words, your work. You bring out the latent and dormant nuances of wisdom in this thing we hypocritically call humanity and lay it bare for all to see and recognize. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your thoughtful comments are so timely, Peter, and much appreciated. I have continued to work on this book every day, although on days like today I really question if it will make any difference to anyone else. As people suffer, I type… Yet I have realized that as I type, I often send out my blessings to the people whose stories I revisit. Your kind and deep comments give me another reason to keep working on this. Chi miigwetch, dear friend.

      Liked by 1 person

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