Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
So much has changed since I began this blog in February of 2014. It’s fascinating to look back on the past year, 2017, to discover the most visited posts. Most were originally posted during 2017, a year when the majority of the work I shared was poetry. The four most frequently viewed posts, though, were published earlier in my blogging adventure.
…. As I work on editing the book manuscript I wrote about my research [on Ojibwe child welfare], I can’t help reflecting on our inability as a nation to learn from history….
A few days ago, the U.S bombed Afghanistan again with “the mother of all bombs.” Operation Enduring Freedom? Other choices are possible and far more likely to be successful if that really is the goal of U.S. international actions….
…. Over the years, I have learned to view so many of you as beloved friends. I look forward to your posts and your kindness. I don’t know how many of you know that I always try to reciprocate. I try to return every visit to my blog with a like, and sometimes when I can find the words, a comment. I do take the time to read what you write before doing so….
…. Final Thoughts. Critical self-awareness is an essential foundation for effective social justice work practice. Before one can “shift center” as Andersen and Collins (2004) recommend, one must be aware of one’s center. Yet critical self-awareness is but one of many steps in the complex, life-long process of understanding and embracing diversity. Relating to diversity is a multi-dimensional endeavor that involves seeing not only one’s position at present, but also reflecting on one’s experiences within the contexts of personal and world history, power differentials, and socially-constructed meanings of difference. It requires understanding one’s privileges and oppression. And it requires the courage to make mistakes and to look foolish, the grace to face conflict, and the desire to find common ground based on honoring the richness of others’ experiences and perspectives.
…. I have tried to use Facebook periodically as a medium to heighten awareness about Native American issues, but invariably the superficiality of exchanges has convinced me that it’s a waste of my time. Yet there are occasions when I cannot refrain from commenting on blatant and dangerous information. The result, of course, is predictable. The wagons circle to protect the comforting illusions that expressing white guilt and denying any complicity for past atrocities is enough. The ultimate show stopper is to call the one Native voice “racist.” ….
…. Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.”
“Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” ….
…. One of the participants prophetically predicted the outcome of this hopeful project.
“Power sources are experts at turning us against each other, then they walk right over us. We are all like a circle, the non-profits working for Indian people. I try to tell people that the money-people toss a dollar bill in the middle and we all scramble for it. And I tell people we cannot do that anymore. When the money-people throw the dollar bill into the center of the circle we have to say “NO.” We must lock arms in the circle and ask for something more. We need to improve all of our lives, not just a handful of our lives. If we could just all get on the same page. It’s not about who is in charge – we are equals. But the power sources would prefer to have us at each other’s throats.”
Sadly, those in power at the county and federal levels were able to divide the community….
I am deeply grateful to all of my virtual friends who have been with me throughout the years, and appreciative for newer friends and followers. You have all enriched my life. I am excited to see what the coming year will bring. I send my blessings and wish to say chi miigwetch to all (Ojibwe “Thank you very much”).
What deeper messages do titles convey? That’s a question that arises as I contemplate a powerful poignant book I just finished reading, Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity by Marijane Huang. I read this work from a unique perspective as an Ojibwe scholar who has studied the history of Indian child welfare, as a descendant of a culture that has survived despite centuries of Native American child removal policies. I reflected on Huang’s experiences as a daughter who witnessed the deep emotional scars my Ojibwe mother carried as a result of the joyless, demeaning years she spent in a Catholic Indian boarding school far from her family and home. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the topic of child removal, particularly adoption, triggers so many thoughts and memories for me. Often, I need to turn to critical scholarly reflection for balance to consider the underlying questions.
Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an “ethnosphere,” a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and aspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. (Wade Davis, 2009, p. 2)
Huang speaks of the “primal wound” adoptees suffer due to “multiple losses, the most significant being the loss of the adoptee’s birth mother, but also that of culture, language, and original family” (p. xvi). Removing children from their families, communities, and nations causes harm on many levels and can be viewed as a powerful form of ethnocide. Huang’s account hints at the life-long suffering of her birth mother and family of origin because her father made choices he felt necessary in a context that wasn’t supportive of children and families. It reminded me of some of the stories I heard during my research about Ojibwe child welfare, aggregated into a poem I later wrote.
…All the child welfare system could do
was take a mother’s children away.
No one ever asked why she always had tears in her eyes.
Although her daughter cried for her beautiful mother every day,
no one ever asked what her mother needed to heal.
So the young girl spent her childhood with strangers,
a grieving mother mourned, and the White strangers felt virtuous.
The Ojibwe community lost yet another child to county removal
and the child welfare system closed the case, its job complete…
Huang’s courage to confront her fear of the unknown and her tenacity to keep moving forward despite so many obstacles are deeply inspiring. It wasn’t too late for her to reconnect to her original cultural legacy and some of the family that she lost as an infant. Her honest, gracious, and moving narrative brought me inside her experiences. She brought me inside her feelings as she discovered her adoption papers when she was in her 40s and learned of her heritage for the first time. And I felt as though I stood with her in the Taipei airport in Taiwan anxiously awaiting her first meeting with her two older sisters who had last seen Huang as an infant.
Huang’s healing journey brings joy and tears. I’m grateful for the chance I had to travel along with her. Her first book ends with a powerful realization.
Without a doubt, the reunion with my birth family has been one of the most significant, life-altering events of my life. (p. 159).
Learning to see the world through different cultural lenses is always s gift, and Huang does such a powerful job taking us beyond two profoundly different cultural worlds to see both the importance of being in touch with our cultural roots and the human bonds that connect us across cultures.
To acknowledge the wonder of other cultures is not to denigrate our way of life but rather to recognize with some humility that other peoples, flawed as they too may be, nevertheless contribute to our collective heritage, the human repertoire of ideas, beliefs, and adaptations that have historically allowed us as a species to thrive. To appreciate this truth is to sense viscerally the tragedy inherent in the loss of a language or the assimilation of a people. To lose a culture is to lose something of ourselves. (Davis, pp. 201-202)
I hope Huang will have an opportunity to return to Taiwan and I eagerly await her next book.
Information about how to purchase a copy of Huang’s book, published on May 8, 2017, is available on her website, Beyond Two Worlds.
Wade Davis (2009). The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto, ON, Canada: House of Anansi Press, Inc.
Marijane Huang (2017). Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
“The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets.” (John Lennon)
Working on a book manuscript that is in part a memoir presents unique opportunities and challenges. In the editing process, I often reach passages that sound so sappy and superficial. “Ah,” I think, “this needs more work. I need to go deeper and get real.”
Few people have read the part of my manuscript that has been edited (150 pages so far), so my vulnerability is relatively unexposed. I still have 75 percent of the manuscript yet to format and edit. Life frequently interrupts that process. I wonder if I allow too many distractions as a way to postpone sharing personal disclosures even though the final work will go out under a pen name.
Even so, it seems my willingness to get ever more “real” sometimes makes me feel as though I have somehow awakened in an alternate dystopian reality that makes no sense. The heartlessness, cruelty, ignorance, and destructiveness manifested in the pursuit of illusions broadcast by media every day are beyond my comprehension. It only takes a moment to witness the wonder and mystery of life that constantly surrounds us. Of course, experiencing those moments takes willingness and discipline.
How deeply I wish I could share what I see with others. That also takes discipline and the willingness to be vulnerable. It seems some people just don’t want to be still long enough to listen deeply and look intently enough to see the miracles of life everywhere – in a dandelion tenaciously growing through cracks in the concrete or the majesty and mystery of cloud formations passing just out of reach overhead.
Although getting real can sometimes be a lonely place, being able to witness beauty where we are conveys its own rewards.
stories passed down from generation to generation,
recorded on stone tablets and sacred birchbark scrolls,
and in bibles, constitutions, and scientific texts
That doesn’t mean the messages are untrue
It simply reminds us that all traditions
should be continually re-examined
in the critical light of changing contexts and times
What we believe to be cast in stone may no longer serve us
Perhaps it’s time to make adjustments
or invent new ways to socially construct
different, peaceful, inclusive possibilities
instead of simply continuing to repeat
the divisive, oppressive, violent ways
we mindlessly use old traditions to justify
A simple but relevant question to ponder:
Why are dandelion fields less valued than well-manicured grass lawns and flowerbeds?
The question of traditions is something I am revisiting as I edit my book manuscript and reflect on old family dynamics that keep repeating. Two helpful resources are listed below if you are interested in scholarly discourse on the topics of invented traditions and imagined communities.
Benedict Anderson (1995). Imagined Communities. London, UK: Verso.
Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger (Eds.)(1992). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
I want to thank Miriam for her though-provoking reflection about the need for resistance in these times. Her example of the Menominee Tribe’s successful resistance to the policy of tribal termination is inspiring. Her reflection sparked my memories about the Menominee Nation, referred to as “The Forest Keepers,” and how carefully they have tended their forest. It’s one of the oldest sustainable-yield forests in the U.S.
With the advent of casinos and gaming resources, the Menominee Tribe invested in their infrastructure, expanding health and educational services. Many Tribal members, who had been forced to move away from their community because there were few jobs, returned. The tribe was faced with a conundrum. There wasn’t enough land or housing to accommodate the influx. Another community would probably have cut down the forest to create new housing developments. Instead, the Menominee Tribe used their resources to buy farmland around the reservation that had already been clear cut. Their wise stewardship is visible in satellite images like the one below.
According to Alan Caldwell, director of the Menominee Cultural Institute,
“the forest provides the Menominee people with a link to their storied past and to the old ways that have allowed them to endure through even the most difficult of times. It provides old medicines, silence, and hidden places to conduct ancient ceremonies.” (Ron Seely, Wisconsin State Journal, October 05, 2003)
Miriam’s reflections also inspired me to think critically about my own views about resistance from a different cultural perspective. Ojibwe history and people have taught me a lot about how to survive the challenges of changing times, reminding me again of the metaphor of trees. Knowing our roots becomes crucial for many reasons. Although unseen, roots provide nourishment and grounding. Making sure our roots are healthy helps us withstand storms.
These are some of the lessons I learned from studying and reflecting about my Ojibwe roots.
“Be moderate in all things; watch, listen, and consider, your deeds will be prudent.”
(Midewewin Code, the Ojibwe “Path of Life,” Basil Johnston, 1976, p. 93)
“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. [Laughing]
“I remember one time when I was a young boy, it was winter time, and all of us were really cold. We didn’t have any fire wood. So I had gone off to find some wood, and there was little to be seen. It was cold, and it was getting dark when I came up to a white farmer’s fenced in land. I thought ‘those fence posts would burn nicely.’ So, I cut them and brought them home. We had a fire that night. The farmer was really mad when he saw that his posts were gone and wanted to have the thief arrested.
“Ogema [the hereditary tribal leader] found out about it and figured out who had taken the posts. He came to wake me up early the next morning. It wasn’t even light out yet. He told me to get up and get dressed. We were going out to the woods to gather cedar trees. He showed me how to choose the right tress, cut them, and prepare the wood that is sacred to the Ojibwe people. And he taught me how to make posts.
“When we were finished, we brought the posts to the farmer and helped him repair the fence. I apologized for taking the posts. Ogema persuaded the farmer not to report me since I realized what I had done was wrong and worked hard to make up for my mistake. The farmer agreed. After that, Ogema knew how many families in the village were cold, so from then on he made sure that the community worked together so there was enough wood for everyone in the village.” (Ojibwe Elder, September 10, 2001)
This account of a life-changing formative experience for an Ojibwe boy illustrates the enduring legacy of a culture which valued children highly and had developed sophisticated techniques for ensuring their education and well-being (Broker, 1983; Johnston, 1982). Unlike most of the children of his generation, the boy in this account was able to remain with his family. Others his age were abducted as they walked along the village road by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents or missionaries and driven more than one hundred miles away to institutions euphemistically referred to as “Indian boarding schools” (Prucha, 1979; Johnston, 1989; Adams, 1995; Szasz, 1999; Child, 2000). Or, they were taken from their families by agents and sent off to live with Euro-American farm families to help with farm chores: they were sent to learn the skills of farmers, the value of private property ownership, and the morality of hard work. The lessons he learned from Ogema, from his family, and from his culture during his formative years during his childhood influenced his life and the life of his Ojibwe community profoundly.
The story reveals pivotal values: respect for other people and their lifeways, no matter how different, and the delicate arts of building cross-cultural relations and negotiating effectively with the larger world that surrounds the Ojibwe community. These lessons, grounded in Ojibwe values, have remained important throughout the lifetime of the elder who shared his story.
This account may not appear at first to be related to the topic of resistance to colonial oppression and Euro-American hegemony. However, differing cosmologies, and the values, ideologies, ethics, and behaviors which emanate from them are at the heart of ensuring the survival of tribal cultures.
Ojibwe children were embedded within everyday lives of the community. By watching adults, listening to stories told by elders, and participating in rites of passage and ceremonies, they learned to live according to the ethics of pimadaziwin (the good life) for the sake of higher ideals and the survival of the people (Hallowell, 1967; Kohl, 1985).
The central core of pimadaziwin was the “doctrine of original sanctity” (Ross, 1992, p. 165). Children were viewed as sacred gifts bestowed on parents and the community as a whole by the Creator. All people were seen as good. Each had their own connection to the Creator and their own specific path to follow to assure not only their own well-being but to ensure the survival of their community and the Ojibwe people overall. There are a number of ethical principles for achieving and maintaining pimadaziwin: (1) the ethic of non-interference; (2) the ethic of conservation; (3) the ethic of expecting excellence; and (4) the ethic of acting when the time is right (Ross, 1992).
The ethic of non-interference means that it was considered an ethical breach for Ojibwe people to correct, criticize, control, or coerce others, including children (Ross, 1992; Densmore, 1979). Physical discipline as a means of socializing children was very rare (Densmore, 1979; Hilger, 1992). Teaching children knowledge, skills, and appropriate behavior was done primarily through stories and example. Humor was sometimes used to curb troubling behaviors, and in cases involving serious risks, scaring stories were sometimes used (e.g., “the owl is going to get you if you don’t stop”). As the opening story illustrates, Ogema offered the youth an alternative set of actions which helped him make restitution for his behavior and heal relationships. It also protected him from police intervention. The youth was not coerced to go with Ogema even though his transgression – stealing someone else’s property – was contrary to pimadaziwin, Ogema didn’t shame or criticize him. Instead, he was taught a new skill, developed self-confidence, gained respect for others, and clearly began to understand the connection between his actions and the welfare of the community as a while. Six decades after the incident, the lessons of Ojibwe “morality” remain important to the elder.
The ethic of conservation makes it inappropriate to show anger of sorrow, or to talk about such feelings in an open or confrontational manner (Ross, 1992; Hallowell, 1967). This was a highly evolved mechanism for building and preserving congenial relationships in small, closely-knit communities. The ethic encouraged withdrawal from conflict and mediated against angry, violent outbursts. Careful deliberation and balance in all actions, even war, were regarded highly by the Ojibwe (Hallowell, 1967). Again, Ogema’s strategy was carefully crafted. Ogema was able to present an alternative to an errant youth in a way that made the youth feel it was his own choice. Ogema didn’t yell at the youth or tell him he was wrong. And he didn’t tell the youth that all “white farmers” were invaders whose property should be confiscated whenever possible. Nor did Ogema yell at the farmer or show his fear of police involvement and all that might mean for the youth.
The ethic of expecting excellence, a requirement for survival in a challenging environment, made the oral expression of praise or gratitude superfluous and inappropriate: excellence is what one is expected to achieve. One’s survival and the survival of the Ojibwe people depend on it (Ross, 1992). Affection and approval flowed, rather, from every day interaction (Densmore, 1979). Ogema showed his concern and affection by seeking the youth out and caring enough to work with him to restore balanced relationships. Ogema chose cedar for the new posts, a wood that had proven resistant to decay in the wetland home of the Ojibwe. He taught the youth how to work with cedar, but didn’t praise the youth for his cooperation, hard work, or skill. Ogema did work alongside the youth until the job was completed and the conflict resolved, a clear indication of his positive regard and commitment.
The ethic of acting when the time is right requires keen observational skills and complex reasoning which considers actions from the perspective of larger social, environmental, and temporal contexts (Ross, 1992). Ogema’s actions reflect an understanding of both the physical environment and the prevailing social context. He knew the BIA would use any excuse as a reason to round up children to meet boarding school quotas (Guthrie, 2001). His intervention was also carefully crafted to minimize the anger and retaliation by the farmer – he approached the youth as soon as he heard about the mischief and made sure they repaired the fence before the police were called. Building peaceful relations with the surrounding Euro-American residents also built a buffer zone around the community as well as a collection of allies who sided with the Ojibwe in their dealings with the state or federal government.
As in any society, transgressions, disputes, and failures in caregiving emerged among Ojibwe people. The goals and methods for resolving differences, however, flow from this constellation of principles.
The goals of addressing conflict were ultimately to restore harmony, to help an “offender” re-establish pimadaziwin, to restore healthy relationships with those he or she has harmed, and to reintegrate the offender into the community. Survival necessitated healing disputes and assuring that all members contributed in positive ways to the group as a whole (Ross, 1992).
(Edited excerpts drawn from a number of essays I have written in the past.)
In these challenging times, it was helpful for me to revisit these ethical roots and once again reflect on pimadaziwin. It helped me remember that effective resistance requires deep and sturdy rootedness guided by thoughtful reflection and prudence.
Of course, I’m merely human. In times of conflict, I try to remember these ethics as I choose paths of resistance. Supportive networks like those of trees in the Menominee forest, with healthy root systems intertwined, add to our collective ability to stand strong. By making sure our community is healthy beneath the surface of things, we are better able to meet challenges in resilient, creative, constructive ways. Remembering our roots, nurturing each other, reflecting on the merits of different courses of action, and acting when the time is right seem to me to be the wisest long range strategies for survival.
The goal that inspires me to act is the possibility of building bridges of understanding and healing rather than reifing walls of conflict and division. This path, demonstrated by Ogema’s example, has enabled the Ojibwe people and many other oppressed groups to survive despite the power of destructive storms.
Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
Broker, I. (1983). Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway narrative. St. Paul, MN: Minnesoata Historic Society Press.
Child, B. J. (2000) Boarding school seasons: American Indian families, 1900-1940. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Densmore, F. (1979). Chippewa customs. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. (original work published in 1929)
Guthrie, M. (2001). Chronology of Lac du Flambeau Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Lac du Flambeau, WI: Lac du Flambeau Tribal Preservation Office.
Hallowell, A. I. (1967). Culture and experience. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (original work published in 1955)
Hilger, Sr. I. (1992) Chippewa childlife and its cultural background. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. (original work published in 1951).
Johnston, B. (1976). Ojibway heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Johnston, B. (1982). Ojibwe ceremonies. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Kohl, J. G. (1985). Kichi-Gami: Life among the Lake Superior Ojibwe. (L. Wraxall, Trans.) St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. (original work published in 1860)
Prucha, F. P. (1971). The churches and the Indian schools, 1888-1912. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Ross, R. (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group.
Szasz, M. C. (1999). Education and the American Indian: The road to self-determination since 1928, 3rd edition (revised and enlarged). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
The circumstances feel eerily similar. Two vastly different cultures collide, one with fear and lethal weapons, and one with hope, ceremony, and prayers. One to exploit the earth for short-term individual profits, and one to protect the earth for all our relations, now and in the future.
Despite all of the tragic lessons of past history, I still hope that love and peaceful solidarity will finally triumph over brutality, oppression and fear. I humbly ask all who read this to please do what you can to let governments, police, and corporations know that the world is watching. Please do all you can to let the Water Protectors know you support them and stand with them in spirit.
Chi Miigwetch. (Ojibwe for “thank you very much.”)
I would like to begin by thanking Rosaliene Bacchus for nominating me to participate in a challenge: “Three Quotes for Three Days.” Rosaliene, who can be found at Three Worlds One Vision, has a fascinating background. She was born in Guyana, later migrated to Brazil where she worked as an international trade professional, and then moved to Los Angeles where she completed her first novel and began work on her second.
The rules of the challenge are:
1. Three quotes for three days. (Done for Day One. See below.)
2. Three nominees each day (no repetition). (Well – this is a problem of paradigms. I much prefer volunteers.)
3. Thank the person who nominated you. (Done. I am truly grateful to Rosaliene for the honor.)
4. Inform the nominees. (See # 2 above.)
5. And it doesn’t have to be three successive days. (Thankfully!)
Out of all of the books I have read over more than six decades, where should I start? I ask myself a simple question, “What fits with messages we need to consider during times like these?” This is what came to mind.
Things will only change when we question the stories we’ve learned and taken for granted as normal, as true. We need to subject those stories to critical analysis from as many different vantage points as we can to see if they still hold true.
It’s not a quote from someone famous as far as I know. But it is based on a synthesis of what I learned from all of those books and a long lifetime of experiences and reflection. I’ve also learned that “minority views,” “views from the fringes,” are important in any era. But I remember the caution of my Chickasaw faculty advisor when I was completing my final degree in a university. “Cite credible sources to say what you want to convey, otherwise you won’t be taken seriously.”
Of course, I didn’t always listen to his wise counsel, insisting instead on learning the hard way too often. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for finding sources that could provide crucial foundations for expressing credible critiques of the status quo. Three stand out in my memory today: Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), and Michel Foucault (1926-1984).
Urie Bronfenbrenner “was a Russian-born American developmental psychologist,” perhaps best known for his “ecological systems theory of child development.” He played a key role in the development of Head Start in 1965, a Federal program that provides early educational enrichment for low-income children under 5. Bronfenbrenner’s research called “attention to the large number of environmental and societal influences on child development.” (Wikipedia)
Thomas Kuhn “was an American physicist, historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term paradigm shift, which has since become an English-language idiom.” (Wikipedia)
Michel Foucault “was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, philologist and literary critic. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions…. His thought has been highly influential both for academic and for activist groups…” (Wikipedia)
Today, Day One of three quotes, I’ll focus on Urie Bronfenbrenner, the first I encountered on my journey of discovery. I remember reflecting on Bronfenbrenner’s framework as I traveled to lead a workshop at a national conference about families. I no longer remember the sponsoring organization, but I do still recall the thoughts going through my mind as I drove the last miles. Bronfenbrenner’s description of individuals embedded within ever larger systems of relationships made sense to me, but I wondered how many people in the tribal communities I worked with at the time had heard of him or his theories. My life had opened up possibilities that many others were denied.
“The ecological environment is conceived as a set of nested structures, each inside the next, like a set of Russian dolls…. The next step, however, leads us off the beaten track for it requires looking beyond individual settings to the relations between them. I shall argue that such interconnections can be as decisive for development as events taking place within a given setting…. The third level of the ecological environment takes us further afield and evokes a hypothesis that the person’s development is profoundly affected by events occurring in settings in which the person is not even present…. Finally, there is a striking phenomenon pertaining to settings at all three levels of the ecological environment outlined above: within any culture or subculture, settings of a given kind – such as homes, streets, offices – tend to be very much alike, whereas between cultures they are distinctly different. It is as if within each society or subculture there existed a blueprint for the organization of every type of setting. Furthermore, the blueprint can be changed, with the result that the structure of the setting in a society can become markedly altered and produce corresponding changes in behavior and development.” (1979, pp. 3-4)
Early in his educational career, Bronfenbrenner had an opportunity to conduct field research in different communities, some familiar and some radically different. His book, The Ecology of Human Development, incorporates some of his crucial discoveries.
“First, it radically expanded my awareness of the resilience, versatility, and promise of the species Homo sapiens as evidenced by the capacity to adapt to, tolerate, and especially create the ecologies in which it lives and grows. Seen in different contexts, human nature, which I had previously thought of as a singular noun, became plural and pluralistic; for the different environments were producing discernible differences, not only across but also within societies, in talent, temperament, human relations, and particularly in the ways in which the culture, or subculture, brought up its next generation. The process and product of making human beings human clearly varied by place and time. Viewed in historical as well as cross-cultural perspective, this diversity suggested the possibility of ecologies as yet untried that held a potential for human natures yet unseen, perhaps possessed of a wiser blend of power and compassion than has thus far been manifested.” (1979, p. xiii)
“The second lesson I learned from work in other societies is that public policy has the power to affect the well-being and development of human beings by determining the conditions of their lives. This realization led to my heavy involvement during the past fifteen years in efforts to change, develop, and implement policies in my own country that could influence the lives of children and families.” (1979, p. xiii)
My awareness of his model demonstrates how those contexts profoundly affect people from different positions within a given society or subculture. As a light-complexioned Native American woman who attended progressive public and private schools, and some that were behind the times, I had the privilege of learning about Bronfenbrenner. As someone on the margins between cultures, I also had the opportunity to view his work from a different vantage point.
I was asked to present at the national conference because of my university degrees and job title, Deputy Director of Health and Human Services for an inter-tribal organization. But those socially-constructed statuses were often barriers in the tribal reservation communities where I lived and worked at the time. There, the most important criteria were based on family and how I behaved toward others. I was Norma’s daughter, Agnes’ and Ray’s granddaughter, responsible for relating to my all relations with honesty, humility and respect.
Unlike the majority of Euro-Americans who attended the workshop, my socialization into the dominant macrosystem paradigm was incomplete. Unconsciously, I had learned another macrosystem perspective from my Ojibwe mother and relatives. Facing the professional Euro-American audience, I described the efforts of the inter-tribal council to address alarmingly high rates of infant mortality by reweaving community connections and informal support systems.
I was well aware of colonial efforts to destroy those connections and the challenges that posed for many families in the past and present. Individuals and families struggled with the legacy of land theft; removal and reservation confinement; child removal and placement in often brutal Indian boarding schools, a trend continued by state and county child welfare that disproportionately removed tribal children and placed them in Euro-American foster care or adoptive homes; and federal relocation programs that displaced tribal people from reservations where they were surrounded by kin to urban areas where they were surrounded by strangers. The list could go on for every system – education, health care, spirituality, self-governance, and dispute resolution.
Not surprisingly, the first audience questions focused on the role of alcoholism as the primary causal factor for infant mortality. I wasn’t surprised. They were only voicing an unquestioned part of the blueprint and structure they were socialized to accept as normal, as true. The logical solution for addressing infant mortality when causality is interpreted in this way is …? Yes, child removal. Continuing to impose oppressive colonial community-shattering policies because that’s all those in power can imagine.
Communicating across different cultural paradigms is not easy. It’s not easy to see the world from other perspectives when we have been socialized to accept the blueprints of our societies or subcultures as normal and superior. The battles we see emerging in post-election USA reflect the ultimate developmental consequences of separate and unequal policies and the profound challenges involved in forging common ground.
Understanding different worldviews requires the ability to shift paradigms. Next, I will turn to Thomas Kuhn to explore the process of “scientific revolutions,” the next step I took in my journey of discovery years ago.
To be continued…
Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.
I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.
From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,
… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)
What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.
Community of Relatedness Collectivity of Strangers
What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.
As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.
Today, my thoughts are with the Water Protectors in Standing Rock who are indeed taking a stand for the earth and all of us, regardless of how we define our relationship to each other. I send them all deep gratitude, love, and prayers. Chi miigwetch.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.