Tag Archives: cultural differences

Memories of My Father

Carol A. Hand

My father was 76 when he died on April 26, 1994. He was surrounded by strangers on the psychiatric ward of a veterans’ hospital when he passed away. I have a haunting photo of him during his last days. (Even if I could find the photo that I’ve misplaced, it’s not how I would want my father to be remembered.)

I was the only one in my family who could have visited him at that point, but I didn’t feel it would be appropriate. As a responsible daughter who could see no other options, I was the one who had to initiate an involuntary placement in the hospital with an order of protection. He was threatening to kill my mother before he planned to commit suicide. He would hold a loaded gun and point it at her. My mother, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was terrified he would kill her. My younger brother was threatening to kill my father to protect her.

So the responsibility fell to me. Someone needed to intervene in a reasonable and compassionate way. My father’s threats needed to be taken seriously. I had survived his physical and emotional abuse during my childhood and witnessed his violent emotional instability and attempted suicide.

Paradoxically, though, I came to understand his emotional volatility. His bipolar disorder and the deep insecurities he carried given the traumas he experienced during his own childhood made his life so difficult.

***

My Father – 10 years old

***

His years as a Marine during the Korean Conflict added new dimensions to his trauma. I remember times when he cried but couldn’t give voice to the experiences that brought him so much pain.

***

My Father in the early 1940s
My Father – somewhere in the South Pacific

***

I had forgiven him decades before I had to act to protect my family, perhaps because I had educational opportunities that he never had. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that I had embraced my mother’s Ojibwe culture as I eschewed the cold, dour nature of my father’s Anglo-American heritage. He could rarely bait me any more with racist, angry tirades. I had learned how to respond with gentle humor. “Well, Dad, this is an enlightening conversation,” I would say as I smiled. “I think I’ll go see how Mother is doing.”

As I think of him today, I am grateful for the many things I learned from him. Most importantly, I learned how to understand someone who was suffering with compassion and forgiveness. That’s what I remember on this father’s day, along with sadness for people whose suffering may not be healed during this lifetime. I hope his death brought him peace and I hope that wherever he may be he knows that I am grateful to him for doing the best he could with what he was given in life.

***

My Father – 1986

***

May you finally know peace, dear Father.

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What Would You Choose?

Carol A. Hand

We teach the next generations
through our lived example
how to care for the earth
and all our relations
We’re ever creating the world
our children and grandchildren will inherit
across all of earth’s imaginary boundaries
and within diverse fictive nations

The question to consider
is what we want that world to be

Do we teach children to care,
cooperate, and conserve?
Or do we teach them to compete,
conquer, and consume?

The answers matter profoundly
but we need to remember
awareness can’t be imposed
through legislation
It can only be encouraged
through living examples
that offer another kind of education
opening up new possibilities
that demonstrate the value
of compassionate contemplation

A lesson from an “Inchworm”

Note

Sometimes it feels futile and foolish to work on creating healthy gardens on a city lot that has long been neglected. Factories just to the east churn out foul-smelling toxic fumes. My neighbor on one side has spent more than a decade burying garbage along the fence-line. Lately, the garbage has merely been left exposed, joined by plastic toys his children abandon when their interest wanes.

I have tried to engage in reasoned conversations and offered to help create a healthy landscaped transition. My words have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps suggestions from an Ojibwe grandmother (you know, a triple whammy – age, gender, and ancestry) even exacerbated his unwillingness to consider alternatives. The experience has taught me how profoundly cultures and life experiences affect our ability to discern how our everyday choices affect what our children learn and the health of the environments they will inherit.

I’ve been told it’s a matter of perspective. Some prefer landfills that will someday look like manicured lawns despite the toxic or dangerous things that are hidden from sight, while others prefer healthy gardens.

May 31, 2014

May 23, 2018

***

I still wonder, though, how someone who claims to love children doesn’t seem to realize his actions are destroying a child’s garden.

July 3, 2015 – My granddaughter standing next to the garden she helped create.

May 23, 2018 – Damage control in process as the wooden divide grows ever higher to protect my granddaughter’s garden from the growing pile of refuse (including piles of dog feces).

***

May Snippets – 2018

Carol A. Hand

Reflections during My Hiatus from Blogging – May 19, 2018

Unpredictable spring
with two constants
that keep me busy
gardens and a manuscript in process

Landscaping gardens
regardless of weather
one day sweating,
the next day shivering
and yet on another,
grateful for heavy workboots
that keep me grounded
despite fierce gusty winds
hauling logs, branches, and new soil
planting the first of the seeds,
new bushes, and flowers
watering in these days of drought

***

May 19, 2018 – Landscaping the missing Willow’s space

***

It’s hard physical work
that gives me time
to listen
deeply
for bird song and wind chimes
to listen
intently
for deeper truths
to revise the beginning
of the story I began
more than two years ago

I ponder how
one can touch hearts
and raise awareness
about the need to consider
the importance of what can be learned
about human possibilities
from different cultural perspectives
that understand and honor
our inextricable interdependence with nature
and each other
I wonder how one can inspire
collective efforts to heal the legacy
of a brutal homogenizing history
of colonial oppression
with written words alone

Listening deeply
for inklings of answers
kneeling on the earth
hands in the soil
thoughts and feelings
not easily translated
into words

I think about my grandmother
imagining what it was like
to grow up in an era
when the last of the great pine forests
fell
victim to illusions of “progress”
when her people were herded
onto the least desirable land
“reserved” just for them
When Indigenous children
were captured and lost
to abusive institutions
under the colonial guise of
civilizing the children of savages

***

Reflections and My Grandmother Part I – May 11, 2018

When beginning the story of my research about Ojibwe child welfare, I made a decision to be as honest as possible about my experiences and findings. Yet, I changed the name of the researcher who is telling the story. Initially I thought it was purely to protect the identities of the people who shared their memories and lives with me. Choosing among all the possible fictive names for the researcher, though, felt at odds with the goal of presenting a truthful account that honored people’s authentic voices.

Ultimately, I chose to refer to the younger version of myself recorded in my fieldnotes by my maternal grandmother’s name, Agnes Sero. I didn’t realize then how much alike we were and how profoundly the differing circumstances of our births affected our lives.

******

When it came time to edit and revise the very long manuscript that resulted, though, I once again wondered about this choice. Why did I really give my grandmother’s name to the character of my younger self? For the most part, she was a stranger to me. My mother only shared parts of her mother’s story. Agnes was 17 years old when my mother was born, still a child herself. At two weeks old, Agnes gave her first child to her older sister, Anna, to raise.

Agnes’ life wasn’t easy. Her father worked as a lumber jack in the northwoods. Growing up in lumber camps would have been challenging for a beautiful young girl like Agnes, especially without the protection of a community and traditions to guide her path…

***

Reflections about my Grandmother Part II – May 18, 2018

There is a haunting out-of-focus photo of my grandmother as a teenager nestled in a birch tree. The tree stands alone amid a neighborhood of hard-packed scraggly grass-covered earth and newly constructed wooden frame houses. The tall pines that once provided a sheltering home for the Ojibwe people were, by then, only memories that would one day be passed down in stories through the generations.

***

Agnes in the Lone Birch Tree – 1920

***

I sometimes wonder what my grandmother’s childhood was like as a daughter of a lumberjack who was forced by economic and political circumstances to cut down the last of the great pine and hemlock forests in Ojibwe ceded territory. The timber my great grandfather harvested helped build cities to house the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals streaming from Europe every year.

My grandmother was harvested, too, by the settlers who now claimed the land as their own to spend some of her childhood years in a euphemistically named institution, an “Indian boarding school.” There, under the guise of civilizing the children of savages, she was stripped of the relationships, stories and language that gave meaning to life for Ojibwe people just as the earth was stripped of abundant forests that once provided their food, shelter, and a sense of kinship with nature.

To me, as a child, my grandmother’s life seemed as barren as the clear cut that was left behind. She was only 17 when my mother was born. My mother was given to my grandmother’s older sister to raise on the reservation pictured in the photo. By the time I spent my twelfth summer on the reservation with my grandmother, she was a lonely, angry, alcoholic.

I look back on her life with deep sadness and compassion. I am awed that she found the strength to survive despite so many difficulties and losses. And I am grateful to the child she gave away, my mother, for raising me to be proud of the Ojibwe heritage that brought both of them so much suffering and internalized shame. Once again, I vow to try my best to honor their legacy in my humble account of Ojibwe child welfare in hopes that future generations will not suffer the cruelty and discrimination that they both had to survive.

***

Too Busy to Write?

Carol A. Hand

Too Busy to Write
yet an image keeps coming to mind
unbidden
of a younger me
standing in the clearing
by my northwoods’ cabin
in Ojibwe ceded territory
on a warm sunny morning
many years ago
Like many mornings
I am humbly gathering strength
to face challenges with grace
With my fingers laced around the
latch of White Pony’s door
I pray
“Help me walk a path of love and light
and peace and joy
in thought and word and deed”

*

*
My prayer not quite finished
I hear a pounding rhythmic sound
drawing ever closer
my heart automatically beating faster
with surprise and a tinge of fear
“Bears can’t run that fast,”
I think to myself
as the sound grows louder
Suddenly it’s overhead
just behind me
then two bald eagles pass above
inches from my bowed head
flying south over the sunlit creek
I don’t remember what fearful
task I faced that day
walking into conflicts
between worldviews and cultures
but I knew the path
was where I was meant to be
on that day
and I would not be walking it
alone

 

Dealing with Change

Carol A. Hand

Banyan Tree, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Melikamp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 15 November 2009 (Wikipedia)

***

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

***

Banyan Tree Plaque, Lahaina, Hawaii – Photo by Nvvchar, 19 October 2014 (Wikipedia)

***

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

***

Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

***

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

 

Note:

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.

***

Banyan Tree – Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii – 1998

***

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.

***

Surprises from My 2017 Blog Review

Carol A. Hand

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.

The top ten are listed below in ascending order.

***

# 10.  Somedays I Wonder What Is True (February 1, 2017)

Wikipedia – Sky Over Washington Monument

***

….A strange message passes through my mind as I greet the morning.

“I sent my children, prophets, to many nations. They walked the earth teaching peace and love, working miracles to show the power you have within to heal others and create beauty….”

 

# 9. Looking Up (July 2, 2017)

Carol A. Hand – photo by Jnana Hand

***

…. Peace – I look up and stand steadfast, an elder

My spirit one with soaring eagles

knowing no matter what comes

I’m not standing alone ….

 

# 8. History Keeps Repeating (April 19, 2017)

Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Wikipedia photo

***

…. 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….

 

# 7. Integrity vs. Despair (March 30, 2017)

Dancer

***

…. Each one of us who resists despair

adds a bit of light to the world….

 

# 6. Signs of These Times (February 11, 2017)

February 9, 2017

***

…. 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….

 

# 5. Reflections about Then and Now (September 6, 2017)

Lake Superior Shore – 2017

***

Let me take just a moment

to put aside the chaos of the world

seeping into my soul

Remembering ….

 

# 4. Context Matters when Teaching Diversity (January 6, 2015)

Photo Credit: Diversity Tree

***

…. 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.

 

# 3. Circle the Wagons – The Natives Are Restless (January 1, 2014)

Wagon Train by C.C.A. Christensen – Wikipedia

…. 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.” ….

 

# 2. The Fool’s Prayer (January 3, 2014)

Me playing the Jester in My Youth

***

…. 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.” ….

 

# 1. When You Think of “Health” What Comes to Mind? (March 6, 2015)

Carol A. Hand – Community-University Partnership – 2007

***

…. 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’s in a Title?

Carol A. Hand

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.

Works Cited:

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 Challenge of “Getting Real”

Carol A. Hand

The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets.” (John Lennon)

***

Tenacious Life

***

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.

***

Lake Superior – June 17, 2017

***

Although getting real can sometimes be a lonely place, being able to witness beauty where we are conveys its own rewards.

***

Reflections about Invented Traditions

Carol A. Hand

All of the sacred lifeways of the past

that we now revere as traditions

were once newly created, seen as divine messages

passed on through seers and bodhisattvas

around the world throughout human time

Visions were given meaning and substance

from so many different cultural vantage points –

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

***

Dandelion Field – May 23, 2017

***

A simple but relevant question to ponder:

Why are dandelion fields less valued than well-manicured grass lawns and flowerbeds?

Notes:

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.

***

Reflections about Roots and Resistance

Carol A. Hand

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.

Menominee Tribe Reservation, WI - Satellite image
Menominee Tribe Reservation, WI – Satellite image

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.

Manidoo-giizhikens, or Little Cedar Spirit Tree - Grand Portage, MN
Manidoo-giizhikens, or Little Cedar Spirit Tree – Grand Portage, MN

 

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.

“Manido Gizhigans,” “Spirit Little Cedar Tree.” - Grand Portage, MN Credit: CBS
“Manido Gizhigans,” “Spirit Little Cedar Tree.” – Grand Portage, MN
Credit: CBS

 

References:

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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)

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