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
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.
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.
I do try to look at the lighter side these days, but that doesn’t always work. Life intervenes in the oddest ways at inconvenient times. Recently I received an email from a Euro-American Dean at the college where I teach as an adjunct. Her email informed me that I was REQUIRED to take an online training on diversity. My response to her was honest and direct. “I have no intention of participating in this training.”
That doesn’t mean I think I know all there is to know about diversity. Living all my life in the liminal space between Anglo-American and Ojibwe cultures taught me a great deal, as did my interest in taking every chance I could to learn about diverse cultures and people. Mostly, I learned not to accept simplistic stereotypes that supposedly fit all. There is always more to learn about the rich diversity of people who share the earth – but standardized online trainings are definitely not the best way to do so. Learning for me only comes through leaving my relative comfort zone, if such a place exists for those of us who live between cultures, to enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care.
As a serious scholar, I have studied cultures and histories from many perspectives. Not surprisingly, I discovered how biased so many accounts of “others” are. I wonder how many Euro-Americans have had the same opportunity to see their cultures and themselves through other lenses.
Thinking about the Dean’s email, I remembered an amusing article I read as a young person in an introductory anthropology class, Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner (1956). (Links to the full public domain article can be found here and here.)
“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”
By the way, did you notice that “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards?
The Dean’s email also brought to mind a book that a friend gave me years ago, Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, by Beverly Slapin and Annie Esposito (1990). Miner’s article and Slapin and Esposito’s book remind me how often I have read ethnographies that describe Ojibwe people in my mother and grandmother’s generations as “children of savages,” or make sweeping generalizations about Ojibwe people on the basis of limited samples superficially portrayed through colonizers’ lenses.
I wonder if the Dean has ever seen her culture described through different lenses. Here are a few excerpts from Slapin and Esposito’s satirical work that provide an example of what that looks like.
“…. This book leads us along a fascinating trail. Its pages are alive with the tang of smoke-filled caucus rooms, the sound of beat boxes, and the swift flight of Stealth bombers. In it, Beverly Slapin has caught the magic of the Caucasian. May her “talking leaves” add to your store of knowledge and take you into the Caucasian world of mystery and beauty.” (Doris Seale, Curator, Museum of the American Caucasian) ….
Caucasian American Education
“The way Caucasians prepared their youth for adulthood (a-dult’-hud) was by educating (ed’-yew-ka-ting) them. The education rites were held in cavernous gray temples call schools (skoolz), which often resembled cavernous gray temples called prisons (pri’-zonz). Both kinds of temples were used for similar purposes. These rites began when the youth were quite young, often as young as five years old, and continued until the children reached adulthood! Imagine how long schooling must have seemed to them!
“In school, the youth learned such important customs as standing in line (stan’-ding-in-lyn), raising a hand (ra’-zing-uh-hand) when they wanted to speak, holding bodily functions (hol’-ding-bod’-uh-lee-func’-shunz) until a certain time called recess (ree’-cess), ceasing all thought (cee’-sing-awl-thawt) when a bell rang at certain intervals (in’-ter’vulz), and learning the right answers (rite’-an’-serz) in order to pass tests (tests)….
“The right answers were inscribed in textbooks, which were considered sacred, and contained all the answers the Caucasians thought necessary to succeed in life. One of the most important lessons in life for Caucasian children was to learn never to question the veracity (ver-a’-ci-tee) of the teacher or the textbooks….
Caucasian American Government
“Caucasian Americans had a very strange way of choosing their leaders. Their main leader was usually chosen by the people in a strange ritual called an election (e-lek’-shun). In order to be a leader, a person had to have three qualities (kwal-it-eez): he had to be a man, he had to be Caucasian (kaw-kā’-shun), and he had to have rich family connections (kun-nex’-shunz). If he had those qualities, he would ask a council of old trusted men to sponsor (spon’sor) him. These men were called bankers and businessmen (bank’-erz and biz’-ness-men). If the council decided that he was suited to lead the people, he would promise to obey (o-bay’) them, and they would campaign (kam-pāyn’) for him by paying great amounts of money (muh’-nee) to the media (mee’-dee-a) to buy advertisements (ad-ver-tiz’-mentz) to convince people that he was the one they wanted to lead them. The leader would make lots of promises (prom’-is-ez) to the people, and then the people would vote (vot) for him. Once he was elected, he was called the president (prez’-ih-dent) and lived in the White House. His house was called the White House because all of its inhabitants (in-hab’-i-tents) were white.
“Once the leader became president, he would go back on his promises and tell lots of lies to the people. Sometimes the people would find out about these lies, and they would be angry….
The president almost always consulted with the council before making a decision that concerned the whole tribe. But sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would just talk with another council of powerful war chiefs called generals (jen’-er-ellz), and he would make war, often without telling the people. The only people who knew about many wars were the young men who were sent to fight in them.
“Making war on other people would make the president feel good and strong, even though he didn’t do any of the fighting. It would also make the bankers and businessmen feel good because it would bring them great amounts of money. These war chiefs were very strange people, indeed, and their system of government was very strange.
Caucasian American Leaders
(keep in mind that this book was published in 1990!)
“Probably the greatest Caucasian American leader of all time was Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s father, also chief of the Great Council of Bankers and Businessmen, taught his son all the qualities he would need to become a leader of his people: extreme self-confidence (self-kon’-fi-dens), greed, lust, and delusions of grandeur (de-looz’-unz-of-grand’-ur). As he grew up, Trump became a great admirer of the Mogul Empire (mō’-gul-m-pīr), and when he became an adult, named one of his commercial palaces (kom-mer’-shul-pal’-u-sez) after their famous shrine, the Taj Mahal (tadj’-ma’hal’). Trump fought well in battles against other business chiefs, and soon became a famous warrior and the most important Caucasian leader in New York (noo-york’). He was savage in battle, and believed in the common Caucasian practice of putting prisoners to death. Although many considered him a ruthless (rūth’-less) leader, Donald Trump provided many jobs by keeping the scandal mills (skan’-dul-millz) going.”
I hesitate to share satire because it stereotypes and often pokes fun at or demeans groups of people despite the tremendous diversity within any “group.” Rarely do I find it funny. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end and we have more than enough meanness in the world today.
Yet I often learn from the wisdom of my students. One of my Ojibwe students asked me how they could be expected to imagine something different than what they had always known. A profound question, isn’t it, that gets to the heart of diversity.
How can a Euro-American Dean in a Euro-American-led institution in a predominantly Euro-American culture know what it feels like for people who have lived their difference every day to be told that they don’t know enough about diversity? That decades of study and work with diverse groups on program, policy, and curricular innovation mean nothing? That sitting alone staring at a computer screen wearing headphones is the right way to learn what diversity means?
Some battles are just not worth my time, though. I’ve said all I have to say on this topic to those in power who believe their comfortable versions of truth are the only ones that matter. There are many far more important issues to focus on these days.
Beverly Slapin & Annie Esposito (1990). Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook. Berkeley, CA: Oyate. (a joint project of Oyate and the Teaching Peace with Justice Task Force)
A drive to work fraught with potentially dangerous obstacles
that could easily trigger feelings of anger or fear
but choosing instead to marvel at nature
admiring the scarlet and green maple near
nestled amid towering sun-scented pine
Energized once again by the creativity and excitement
of students eager to explore life’s challenges and mysteries
Coming home from an evening walk with my dog
through the fog and drizzle at dusk, his pace increasingly brusque
called forward by lights glowing within our humble hobbit dwelling
illuminating an overgrown fairytale garden as we approach
somewhat out of time and of place, yet compelling
amid stuff-filled lawns on either side that continue to encroach
Gazing up at the darkening southwestern sky
As the waxing September moon momentarily appears
sharing its reflected light with all as night draws nigh
I wonder how many have experienced being a sensitive child born into a world of chaos and abuse. Perhaps your first memories are similar to the ones described in a post I wrote years ago for a friend’s blog.
My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides of my crib, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that could not give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
Thus began a life lived in the tragic gap between what is and what could be. A life straddling cultures, socio-economic classes, and religious beliefs. Surviving childhood abuse and rape as a sensitive soul brings powerful insights and abilities as well as deep wounds that may take more than one lifetime to heal. Compassion, sorrow, and rage at callous injustice compete in ongoing inner struggles. “Breathe. Detach. Reflect. Do what you can to inspire others to see their own beauty and create new possibilities even though you know it’s not an easy journey. Try anyway, even though you don’t always see yourself worthy of walking this path.”
Events like the bombing of Afghanistan – again – remind me why it’s important to try anyway. History keeps repeating itself. Maybe this time I’ll be able to communicate the message in a way that can be heard.
In 2001-2002, I conducted a critical ethnographic study of child welfare in a rural Ojibwe community. The topic was important to me because Native American children continue to be removed from families and communities in disproportionate numbers. Removing children is a continuing form of cultural genocide. Many previous studies of Native Americans offered justification for this practice. They portrayed Native communities as though they were isolated from the rest of the world, and cultures as if frozen in the long ago past destined to inevitably disappear. I still wonder how anyone could ignore the obvious and profound effects that colonial subjugation has continued to have for Indigenous communities and cultures.
The past and present socio-political context of U.S. Indian and child welfare policies were an important part of my research. I wanted to understand the community and culture from as many different vantage points as possible during my time “in the field.” My first week, I was lucky. An Ojibwe elder shared a story about his childhood that provided a crucial framework and foundation for my study. The information would have remained significant in any case. But the date of our conversation, September 10, 2001, made it clear that even in remote areas global issues have profound effects.
As I work on editing the book manuscript I wrote about my research, I can’t help reflecting on our inability as a nation to learn from history. Two weeks ago, I edited and revised the following excerpt.
Research Fieldnotes: Monday, October 8, 2001
I’m eager to return to the border town and reservation. The morning is cool and clear as I set out for the long drive. But my heart is heavy with news from the world far from the ceded territories of the Ojibwe. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began yesterday as the U.S. and its ally, Great Britain, launched an intensive bombing campaign. Retaliation against a poor nation that is not responsible for 911 is so senseless. There will be no positive outcomes for killing other innocent people. “Operation Enduring Freedom,” as the invasion is named, will not bring freedom. I fear it will only result in more death and suffering.
As I drive, I remember President Eisenhower’s observations from so many years ago.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. (Chance of Peace speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, DC on April 16, 1953)
War will affect the hopes of all of the children in the U.S. and Afghanistan. I have no words to express the deep sadness I feel. So I sing, belting out verses of songs and prayers for peace as tears stream from my eyes. I notice the bald-headed eagle flying above my car, circling overhead as I pray and sing. I wonder. “Is the eagle’s presence merely a coincidence? Or is it a sign that what I’m doing will forge a path to build understanding and peace?“
Present-day Reflections. I don’t remember ever learning anything about Afghanistan in school, even though it’s been inhabited for at least 50,000 years and is the location of some the oldest farming communities in the world. It has been a predominantly Muslim country since 882 CE comprised of diverse indigenous tribes ruled by a central monarchy. Despite its land-locked location, Afghanistan has remained an important connecting point between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
In recent history it once again became the site of competing interests. In the mid-1800s, Great Britain imposed colonial rule over Afghanistan’s neighbor, India, leading to an ongoing struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union for control of the area. Internal conflicts within Afghanistan between those with differing views of governance, monarchy versus communism, erupted into civil war. Both the Soviet Union and United States provided cash and weapons to aid and arm competing armies. In 1979, the Soviet Union finally sent in troops and took control of the country. It’s estimated that 1 million Afghan people were killed by Soviet troops and their Afghan allies. Many more Afghan people fled to other nations before the Soviet Union withdrew their forces in 1989 (Admin, PBS, 2006).
During the 1980s in the U.S., funding was significantly reduced for the social welfare safety net programs intended to help poor families and children with access to health care, education, housing, income security, and nutrition (Karger & Stoesz, 2010). At the same time, billions of dollars flowed into Afghanistan to arm and support insurgent anti-communist forces that were fighting against Soviet occupation (Coll, 2005).
Due to ongoing wars, Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world when Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001. Between October 7, 2001 and January 1, 2002, an estimated 1,000 to 1,300 civilians were killed as a direct result of bombing (Conetta, 2002a). By mid-January, 2002, another 3,200 had died of starvation, exposure, illness or injuries related to invasive bombing by the U.S. and Great Britain (Conetta, 2002b).
Eisenhower’s warning proved to be true. Children and families in both nations have continued to be affected by the costs of war on many levels.
Research Fieldnotes: Monday, October 8, 2001 (continued)
The eagle and long drive give me a chance to compose myself before I reach the reservation.
I arrive at Henry’s house at about 10:40, only ten minutes late for our scheduled meeting….
Community members gathered at the elder’s center the next day for lunch, as they did most weekdays. “I can’t understand why the Afghani people don’t like us,” Maymie says. The elders talk of anthrax, gardens, and making apple cider. They don’t seem to be concerned about the threat of terrorism here, but they do express their confusion about why others in the world seem to hate Americans.
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.
I honestly don’t know how to effectively communicate with those who don’t seem to be able to listen or hear. Sometimes all I can do is find moments of beauty despite the deep sorrow I feel. Other times, I just cry, as I did on my first Christmas. Today, I choose to share this message along with my prayers for peace despite the risk of being ignored, criticized or misunderstood.
Coll, Steve (1005). Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Conetta, Carl. (24 January, 2002a). Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a higher rate of civilian bombing casualties. PDA: Project on Defense Alternatives. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from http://www.comw.org/pda/0201oef.html .
Conetta, Carl. (30 January, 2002). Strange victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war. PDA: Project on Defense Alternatives. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from http://www.comw.org/pda/0201strangevic.html.
The days I work on my manuscript feel sacred to me. It’s why I can’t do anything but manuscript work for dedicated blocks of time. And that’s why I don’t force myself to edit when I’m not in the right emotional space.
When I surface momentarily from the past, I notice the beauty of nature around me with greater presence, intensity and clarity. The antithetical contrasts with prevailing current events appear sharper.
When I peruse old books I found cumbersome or uninteresting in the past, I find treasures. The power of the Ojibwe oral tradition that seemed confusingly disorganized in the past now engages my sense of curiosity and wonder in the storyteller’s art. And I realize that’s how I write now.
Stories that are spoken in the present time flow with a logic that interweaves temporal frames. A glimpse of something in the present triggers memories. Those memories need to be shared as part of the story. Otherwise, the importance of the present won’t make much sense.
I remember writing about my writer’s space a while ago. I don’t often think about the shawl my mother crocheted for me so long ago, but it’s draped on the back of the old computer chair I sit on every day when I write. Figuratively, it “watches my back,” though I almost always take its presence for granted, even when I routinely readjust the lopsided edges.
Looking at the shawl in a photo, no one would be able to guess the meaning it has for me, or for my mother or grandmother. A simple object, yes, but it carries so many stories begging to be told. It connects people – across generations – in ways that can’t be described in a logical, chronological order. Ever.
The snippets of memories that surface depend on the context, and the stories that flow from them are molded by the storyteller’s state of heart/mind and by her reasons for sharing them. Maybe some other time I’ll try to tell a few of the stories about the shawl. Today I have other work that is calling.
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.
This reflection is written with most humble and sincere appreciation for Standing Rock and the American Indian Nations’ leaders and people who have led so many diverse communities and groups in the struggle to save precious water that sustains us all.
From my perspective as a facilitator of learning for students pursuing degrees in social work and thereby committing to values and principles of human rights, social and environmental justice; there are many lessons to reflect and build on that the leaders, water protectors, and allies involved at Standing Rock have blessed us with:
Courage to face violence, and conflicts with both oppressors and allies
Commitment to stand peacefully and consistently, for the long haul
Perseverance in withstanding harsh forces and threatening conditions, with minimal shelter and reprieve
Wisdom to honor the process and all involved, regardless of personal agenda
Planning before action; strategically, reflectively, responsively
Mobilizing a strong network of people on-ground and on-line, with communications to connect people, facilitate actions, and sustain the process and people in it
Healing Ceremonies, connections, and prayers on-ground, and in many communities around world that united people and invited reconciliation
Policy/legal advocacy with an organized network of people and coalitions putting pressure on political leaders on the local, state, and national levels.
Each of the examples on the above list (that is not complete by any means), can and should be reflected on deeply for understanding how to work for social justice in these most challenging times. It seems Standing Rock is the epitome of a spiritual or collective awakening among people diverse in tradition and experiences, but common in a struggle that more about all of our survival than any one of our single interests.
To me, what has unfolded among people in the Standing Rock struggle represents the reverence we all need now to sustain the future of people and our planet.
This kind of reverence can bond previously isolated individuals who were suffering alone, and connect multiple coalitions previously working their own causes, together in a collective movement focused focused as much on solidarity as the common goal.
This kind of reverence is reflected in the thousands of people who joined with fear and trepidation; worked through conflict that came from within and outside of themselves; and found courage from the wisdom of leaders and a vulnerability as common as the cause.
This kind of reverence thrives on empathic relationship, based on trust and commitment, with each other and our earth.
This power to continue with these efforts and any of the many future challenges facing us with the kind of inspirational reverence demonstrated here.
The struggle is not over, but the taste of victory is upon our tongues. May the thirst for justice be daily quenched by reverence for ourselves, each other, and our earth.
I am deeply grateful to the dear friends who agreed to share their reflections about the recent events in Standing Rock: Dakota Access Pipeline Halt.
Cynthia Renee Donner is an instructor of Undergraduate Social Work with The College of St. Scholastica, delivered at the Fond du Lac Tribal Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota with husband Carl Gawboy, who is an enrolled member of Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and artist. He completed The Water Ceremony, shown here, in 2014.
Moments of beauty as I rise
Clouds painted rosy by the rising sun
Bare branches golden, glowing against dark western skies
Earth blanketed by sparkling rainbowed snow
No treasures are greater than these simple gifts
They touch my heart and my spirit lifts
Sometimes, I just feel an irrepressible urge to be silly. It seems as though we are all so weighed down by troubling events in the world right now. After posting a serious poem this morning, I looked out of my window. And laughed. Delighted. And this silly poem ran through my thoughts.
“Should I post it,” I wondered? “Why not,” I replied? “It might lighten another’s day.”
So here it is. Please excuse me if I appear to be a bit irreverent and risque, but too much sorrow is unhealthy.
Oh, please. Tell me it just ain’t so!
As winter winds begin to blow
buffeting the rapidly falling snow
But with my new long-johns on
“Here I am wintry world – I’m raring to go“
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.