The old nokomis eagerly anticipates spring
after another long bitterly cold winter
She plans to plant gardens again
even though harvesting is always uncertain
She will prepare the soil
and carefully plant each seed
despite hands, once supple,
now gnarled with age
rough and clumsy from so many years
of hard work, washing, and winter weather
She will wait for the new life
that springs from the soil miraculously
when she isn’t looking
and she will nurture the seedlings
through drought and deluge
until they mature and bear their fruit
As she reflects about gardens past,
she remembers the anxiety she always feels
from the plant beings at harvest
it’s as if she hears their cries in her heart
when she kneels on the earth before them
“Please be gentle with us, nokomis”
She will remember this year
when she touches their delicate leaves
as lovingly as clumsy hands will allow
giving thanks to them for their beauty
deeply aware that her survival
comes at the cost of other living beings
She knows someday she too
will once again be part of the earth
that feeds future generations
in this inextricably interconnected
ongoing cycle of universal life
Of course she knows
this may just be fanciful thinking
She doesn’t know where she was,
or even if she was,
before she arrived on earth
in a much smaller younger physical body
She doesn’t know where her spirit will go
when she is finally released
from a stiffening, sometimes painful
but still, it’s comforting to believe
something of her will remain
nourishing new life
and maybe even traveling
to distant constellations
carrying the essence of the plant relations
that fed her while she was here
This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues? “I’m in this alone.” This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying.
Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
During the past week, I have been reviewing some of my December posts from past years. Many carry important messages that I have decided to share again. Following is a reflection posted on December 12, 2013. Not much has changed for the better in my neighborhood or the world since then.
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 RelatednessCollectivity 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.
The research class I teach class meets every other week for 2 hours on Saturdays. During the intervening weeks, students have online activities and assignments to complete. That may sound easy, but it’s actually quite challenging. Establishing and maintaining interpersonal connections, building meaningful online content, and creating and grading strategically-designed sequential assignments, are thought-provoking, time-intensive jobs.
We begin our face to face classes with a check-in. The first question has already become a ritual. “Name one interesting thing that you noticed today.”
Students are now eager to share as soon as the Power Point slide appears. “I knew you were going to ask us that today, so I made it a point to pay attention and notice things this morning!”
Hearing that is music to my heart!
It’s so important to listen to the different perspectives around the room as we reconnect with each other after the weeks we spent living our everyday lives in different places. Building meaningful connections with others and “doing re-search” both require attentive presence. Noticing what’s around us is a necessary first step. Listening intently to other views in order to expand our understanding of the world is the second.
Being witness to these “processes of practicing presence” is a precious gift. I’m so grateful for the students and colleagues who make it possible.
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.
“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.
“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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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…
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Who’s to blame?
All of us who take it for granted
that the ease of having
gas, water, and electricity simply
delivered to our homes is our right
without considering the real costs
and environmentally safe, sustainable, viable, non-exploitive
We need to see how connected our well-being is
to the way we care for our earth
and the way we care for all those who also live here
because our earth’s health and continuing bounty
depend on wise and loving stewardship as well as
Sending love and blessings to all those who are on the frontlines of floods and fire.
Feeling physically fragile as I gently greet the morning gazing up at the southwestern sky
a silent V of geese
soon followed by another, larger V trumpeting encouragement for the one temporarily leading breaking through wind resistance creating uplift for all those that follow so others can save their strength for their turn to carry the difficult responsibility of guiding others
working together in harmony because sharing responsibility lightens burdens in the journey of life unfolding
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.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.