White Pony Reflections

Carol A. Hand

Fall is really here. It was time to take my little “White Pony” in for a check-up and oil-change today. Yes, my 11-year old car has a name thanks to my granddaughter and an Ojibwe friend I haven’t seen in years. Here’s an excerpt from a poem that describes my car’s naming ceremony.

***

La Joie de la Vie

My Granddaughter Dancing in the Rain – July 2015

“What can we do that’s fun in the rain?
Do you think we should wash the car?”
“Oh yes, oh yes!,” you said.
So I grabbed a bucket and two new sponges,
yours orange and mine purple.

Carefully Washing “White Pony” – July 2015

“Does your car have a name?”
I thought quickly of one of your favorite toys – Pink Pony!
And I remembered an Ojibwe friend from long ago
who teased me about riding my White Pony
when I drove another white car
through the forests, past lakes and farmlands
to tribal communities and the State Capitol
in our work on tribal social justice issues.

So my car was given its predecessor’s name – White Pony.
But this White Pony mostly stays in the driveway now
even though it once climbed mountain passes
as it brought me, in a round-about way, to my new home.

***

I had time to read as I waited for my car to be serviced. The book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Kimmerer, 2013), is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever read. Perhaps it’s because Kimmerer blends science, poetry, and spirit from an indigenous perspective.

“A people’s story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names.” (Kimmerer, p. 36).

Decades ago, when I first entered college, my major was a blend of chemistry and biology. Nature has always fascinated me. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be an ecologist, but that was not a subject the college I attended offered or even recognized. Nonetheless, my advisor and botany professor, Sister Lorita, offered me much more even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I described her lesson in a previous post

***

Teaching and the Wonder of Life…

Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

Wikimedia Commons

***

It would be many years before I would realize what a precious gift she gave me that day. Instead of becoming an ecologist or botanist who saw the wonder of life in plants, I ended up in social work, focusing on gerontology and organizational theory. I finally earned a Ph.D. in social welfare, although it took me an extra ten years. First, life led me “home” to my roots through a series of divergent events. It’s how my first white car ultimately got its name.

I was working as a teaching assistant and official note-taker for a diversity class at the university I attended. As I rushed up the hill to class one day in fall, I was contemplating a successful career in academia. I had just received notice that I was awarded a grant-funded position as a research assistant on a prestigious study. It was a fast track to likely success in the world of academia. Here’s an excerpt from an old post that describes the pivotal event.

***

You Need to Remember…

(There were no public domain photos of the plaque…)

As I crested the top of the hill, I neared the site of the last battle of the Black Hawk Wars. Just shy of the plaque commemorating the war, a tribal elder appeared dressed in an unlikely outfit – blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. He looked at me with severity and simply said, “You need to remember what is really important.” I didn’t have time to reflect on the message then, but in the decades since it is something I contemplate often, although this isn’t a story I share with others for obvious reasons. The challenge of walking in two worlds, one based on rationality and empirical evidence and the other based on a deeper spiritual awareness are not easily reconciled. It turns out that I didn’t finish my degree based on elder caregiver issues. It would take more than a decade and many experiences later to finally complete a study on Indian child welfare, but that’s another story.

***

Reading about Kimmerer’s experience with academia connected me with my own. I made a connection that I hadn’t even contemplated before. Perhaps I would have dismissed the elder’s appearance as too bizarre to consider. It would have been easier to simply ignore the message even though it made me feel a tinge of guilt.

In all likelihood, the study I would have been working on wouldn’t really have made a difference for people who were marginalized. It might, at best, have added to scientific knowledge about caregivers of adult children with mental retardation. But I doubt that I would have based a life-changing decision solely on a “vision” I couldn’t scientifically verify as “real.” At least at that point in my life. Fortunately, life had already set in motion a context that would lead me home in my yet-to-be named White Pony, both to seek refuge and to work on issues close to my heart. Tribal social justice issues. Following are excerpts from older posts that describe the context.

***

We’re Honoring Indians…

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.

A Mixed Message

At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.

My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.

Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.”

***

Memories and Prophesies

When my partner lost his job as an assistant manager of a lumber retail company, in all likelihood a response to my very public and unpopular advocacy, I was forced to withdraw from the university in the final stages of completing my doctorate in order to get a full-time job. I wanted to escape from the world of Euro-Americans for awhile and accepted a position as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. I moved to the Ojibwe community where my mother was born and bought an off-the-grid cabin in the woods…

Amik Lake, Lac du Flambeau, WI – Early 1990s

***

Life circumstances led me to a place where I felt at home. The animals, trees and earth sometimes spoke to me. Although my job was not an easy, I had a clear sense that what I was learning and doing mattered. Perhaps the elder who visited me by Blackhawk’s memorial marker would agree.

“There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of two worlds – the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. Or at least try. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers – to drink nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 47)

My old White Pony drove so many miles she finally had to be replaced. These days, the White Pony I drive doesn’t travel far. I make sure she’s taken care of because I rely on her to get me to and from the tribal and community college where I teach research and co-teach social work macro practice. I often think of Sister Lorita’s example as I try to weave science and wonder together, encouraging students not only to count and measure, but also to see, feel, hear, and sense the wonder of life all around.

Hawk’s Ridge, Duluth, MN – October 13, 2017

 

I am grateful to Sister Lorita and thankful for the memories sparked by Kimmerer’s eloquent book today. I appreciate the opportunity to continue learning from yet another generation and the chance to share some of what I have learned in exchange. Ah. But that reminds me of the papers I have to grade today…

Work Cited

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Advertisements

32 thoughts on “White Pony Reflections”

  1. I had a history teacher who was fond of a certain saying that happens to be only too true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. There are so many points brought out in your article, it makes it difficult to comment, but I’ll tell you what life has taught me about indigenous populations: they needed (and still need) to be destroyed so the globalist agenda of a global police state can move ahead. One may ask, where’s the connection? Simple: the modern “Darwinist” view denies anything that cannot be measured and categorized. Modern societies tend towards increasing materialist values and a corresponding degrading of spirituality. When people were closer to the land; to nature; they needed a sense of spirituality to fulfill their lives. It is this latent spirituality that the “new world order” is committed to eradicating from peoples’ minds. Too often ordinary people fail to sense the greater forces and their agendas they are being forced into. Events repeat because people don’t understand the need to completely break from the ways of the so-called Matrix, or the ruling status quo. Too drastic, too demanding, too frightening. Eventually as the wheel of “progress” turns fueled by the destruction of nature and spirituality, the feared losses will come about anyway. You can’t make deals with “Hitler” – you have to destroy what “Hitler” represents. That will only happen from attrition which will lead to contrition and finally, real change.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree, Sha’Tara. The tension between those who value “scientific objectivity” (an illusion and value-based belief) and materialism, and those who experience and value deeper connections, may be irreconcilable. The reaction to Standing Rock Water Protectors makes that quite clear.

      Genocide and ethno-cide have ever been a response to differences that challenged dominant beliefs created by those in power to maintain their control. As Wade Davis points out in “The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world,” indigenous wisdom holds important clues to human survival.

      “Our [meaning ‘Eurocentric’] economic models are projections and arrows when they should be circles. To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide. To deny or exclude from the calculus of governance and economy the costs of violating the biological support systems of life is the logic of delusion” (Davis, 2009, p. 217).

      Now I write and teach and garden to raise awareness about alternatives. I remember one of my Native students saying that “one cannot imagine alternative possibilities if they only know what has surrounded them all of their lives. People need to see that alternatives are possible.” Clearly, some people prefer to maintain their power and control at the expense of anyone or anything that gets in their way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a journey life is and to think these are just paragraphs from certain chapters. How lucky you are to have had two ‘white ponies’ ha! I’m constantly learning from you, Carol through the inter webs but nonetheless I’m learning. I always come away with an even more fertile mind and sprouting organic seeds of thought. I am cautious about what I read especially on the blogosphere as I sometimes feel ‘watered’ down and disconnected after some. I greatly appreciate all that you bring to the table.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Tori. I am deeply grateful for your words of encouragement for posting pieces that aren’t “watered down,” even though I know they’re not light or likely to be popular. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There is so much depth here. This, obviously, is you, depth.
    The letterhead just flabbergasts me.
    I used to think, this couldn’t happen now. I may have hoped this during Obama, and only dream this now, and then I wake up from sweet (or not so sweet) dreams to the Trump Administration’s living nightmare. Jim Crowe is alive and well in America. Didn’t ya’ hope, just a bit, this was a thing of the past? I did.
    Old Emily tells us, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I so love her.
    Maybe we can continue to fly away from all this madness.
    Or maybe we actually can’t.
    Emily did. I love her for it. But, then, she wasn’t normal, which is the greatest compliment I can ever give a person.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Cindy, thank you so much for such astute comments. Despite the seriousness of ongoing discrimination and the darkness of these times, your comments made me laugh. Perhaps the best we can do is to help others remain afloat, as your comments did for me. 🙂

      Like

  4. You have such an amazing journey to share, and one that is not light, you have paid a price. But I sense no bitterness. I would have loved to meet sister Lorita. I am ever grateful you recommended the book by Kimmerer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Writing has helped me see all of the valuable lessons adversity can teach. Bitterness keeps us forever locked in the past with blame and suffering. I much prefer the opportunity to be grateful for the circuitous path that led me here, now, with so many memories of inspiring people and the “fights I really fought.”

      I think you would have liked Sister Lorita, and I’m glad to hear that you have enjoyed Kimmerer’s work, too. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My Lakota friend called his beater “War Pony” – he joked every car needs a name. My adoptive dad called his Willy Jeep “Betsy.” As for your work, you are one of the most amazing humans I have ever known.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Trace, it is always a gift to hear from you. I agree with your Lakota friend – cars need names. I even named one of my old secondhand vacuums too – Viola. I am certain it helped her live longer.

      As always, I am grateful for your kind and lovely comments. ❤

      Like

  6. Carol, thanks for sharing. When we are faced with the truth of the Other, it is much easier to condemn and ridicule their truth. To do otherwise would require looking deep within at the illusion upon which we have structured our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a wonderful post 😊 I love reading about your adventures and your successes, your discoveries and learning curves. Also loved the quotes from the book and Sister Lorita.
    Some time ago when our oldest grand-daughter was very young, she decided to hold a wedding ceremony for our son and daughter’s old 2 CVs (Deux Chevaux). One was red, called Basil, the other red and white, called Bessie. She decked Bessie in white net curtain for a veil. She even gave them both a good wash and brush-up before the ‘wedding’! She was about 6 or 7 years old. Bessie unfortunately spent more time on the back of a tow-truck than on the tarmac!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful post! Lovely photo of your granddaughter. You can’t stay silent in the face of injustice. You would have kicked yourself much later if you hadn’t written the letter. Sorry to hear of the misguided response from the superintendent and the immediate effect on you and your partners life. As for newspapers they love letters to the editor regardless. Keep in mind, you may have stood alone, but time has proven you right in the minds of many that said different long ago. That’s good. Take care of the White Pony. The winter is coming. Make sure you start her up each day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments, Bob. In the long run, the outcome of my advocacy was worth the cost although it took a long time. Many others helped make sure of that. The school retired the logo and changed the name of its sports team from “Redmen” to “Red Hawks”, the State Attorney General ruled that the statute did apply in cases of discriminatory/derogatory public school team names and logos enabling other parents to challenge school districts, and ultimately a state statute requiring schools to teach Native American history and culture in public schools was enacted. I do have files with hundreds of letters to newspaper editors from those days. 🙂

      The White Pony is ready for winter, and I will remember to start her more often when the weather gets cold. The snow predicted later this week will be a reminder…

      Like

  9. Carol this post brought me to tears. I feel as though I am trying to reconcile two worlds as well right now, more than ever, maybe not….particularly as I mourn my island Puerto Rico, and fear my ancestral roots that have already been tangled and altered may me totally severed by a colonialism and occupation that cannot be reversed. I hope I am making sense about the way in which the experience you shared connects to mine. To be occupied, to be marginalized, and to also try to flourish can do brutal things to the heart.
    And here you are—an inspiring voice.
    Thank you for that.
    M

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s such a gift to hear from you, Marahu. The tragic situation in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking. And the federal government’s callous disregard and inept responses are unconscionably criminal. I can understand why you mourn. I live in an area that was once Ojibwe territory, ceded to the U.S. government in the 1800s in treaties that were not honored by the U.S. and can be abrogated by the U.S. Congress at any time. I mourn my peoples’ many, many losses and worry about our future.

      The historical trauma that is passed down through generations as a result of genocide, land theft and dislocation, and so many other tragic losses is already heavy burden to bear, but it’s accompanied by the very real socio-economic consequences of centuries of continuing colonial marginalization and discrimination.

      Your comments reminded me of a Puerto Rican student I worked with many years ago. During a class on diversity, she remembered a song she had to sing with other children in grade school, honoring Christopher Columbus. As she was completing an assignment on her cultural heritage, she was suddenly overcome with anger and shame about the colonial programming that erased knowledge of and pride in her Taino heritage. It took her time to reconnect with her roots and be proud of who she was.

      But you know, our cultures and marginalized positions have given us gifts that those who live in privilege can’t understand. I see your resilience and strength in the life stories and deep, eloquent poetry you share, and in your caring for others.

      I send my best wishes to you and to the people of Puerto Rico. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s