By Lara Trace Hentz
Hi everyone. The following interview with Anishinabe/Ojibwe Elder Carol A. Hand (Voices from the Margins blog) (Professor in Social Work and Sociology, Author, Guest Lecturer) will run over the next few weeks on this blog. Carol and I have roots in Wisconsin. I’ve been admiring her work and scholarship for quite some time. Please follow this important interview by this extraordinary woman. I am truly humbled and grateful that Carol has agreed to answer some questions. Our Elders are to be respected, listened to, and honored, so with that note, let’s read on….
Carol, please tell us, when did you begin blogging? [LINK]
Honestly, I don’t see myself as a writer, Trace, although I do write and sometimes say I am a writer when people ask me what I do.
In the past, writing was something I only did in the context of school or jobs that required concrete results – state policies, grants to address specific issues, or program evaluation reports (e.g., elder abuse, infant mortality, access to health services). I only started writing in my own voice as a means of surviving in the brutal context of academia, a new career for me when I was in my early 50s. The essays I wrote weren’t shared with others. Instead, they were a way for me to understand the senseless oppression I witnessed in institutions that I had formerly romanticized as the bastion of innovation and liberation. I wrote to save my life, to find my foundation. Through writing, I began to discover the roots of my differences with the competitive, oppressive paradigms that governed academia. The values and skills I learned from my (Ojibwe) mother were profoundly different and influenced how I understood the world, how I worked with students, and how I approached research. Based on the belief that all people were born in a state of original sanctity, an idea I found words for through Rupert Ross’s (1992) work Dancing with a Ghost, the ethics that guided me were always at odds in institutions that were based on the taken-for-granted assumption that education should be founded on saving people from their nature as beings born into a state of original sin.
Although my academic research and writing gained some national attention, my focus on Indian child welfare was not viewed as important by my Euro-American colleagues. At the same time, my critical stance on Indian child welfare policies, practices, and paradigms was also threatening to many people whose jobs and positions depended on preserving the existing policies and structures despite serious needs for greater tribal innovations and sovereignty. Rather than compete, I shifted research topics to Indian health, and again realized that the forces defending “business as usual” were too well established to yield before the modest work of a small number of researchers.
So for a while, I put my writing on hold and simply tried to teach and model how to apply Freire’s (2000) liberatory praxis ideas in the classroom. Rather than seeing my students as “empty vessels” who needed to memorize and accept whatever “experts” said as truth, I worked from a dialogic framework, asking students to consider issues from a variety of different perspectives and come to their own conclusions after critical reflection. But how can one transform a system that is controlled by insecure people who need to be “right” (and I use that word in both of its connotations) and whose socially-constructed hierarchical positions of power perpetuate “expert” knowledge, individualism and self-interested competition? After one too many battles defending vulnerable students and colleagues from destructive oppression, I left academia earlier than I planned. Writing then became a way for me to heal, and then a way to share stories that I hoped could touch people’s hearts and open their eyes to new possibilities. Journals were not interested in publishing these hybrid essays that often interwove stories and critical analyses.
And then I discovered blogging, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2013.
After my first retirement in June of 2011, I reconnected with a group of people that I had known in my early 20s when I experimented with living on a commune. (In case anyone is interested, the following link describes my commune years and insights: https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/in-search-of-community/.) One of the friends I reconnected with was a writer and editor. When I mentioned the challenges I was having finding some place to publish what I was writing, she suggested that we start a blog together. I had no idea what that meant. I had never even seen a blog before.
Given her background with technical writing and publishing, she did the initial research on blogging platforms and suggested WordPress. I drafted a title and purpose statement and she figured out the technical aspects of actually creating the blog. We agreed that neither of us would publish anything on the blog unless we both agreed it was appropriate – a promise I would later regret. My first post (June 18, 2013) was a story I wrote about an issue of particular interest to my blogging partner. Gradually my topics and style shifted. I had so many backlogged stories that were waiting to be told that some days when I sat down at the computer it felt like the words were literally pouring out of my heart and my mind through my fingertips. My partner was a gifted writer, but rarely posted. Because of our agreement, I was constantly emailing drafts and pestering her for feedback. I know I was annoying.
My writing style was (and still is) eclectic, a blend of storytelling and academic analysis. Long ago, I learned to make up some of my own grammatical rules while other stylistic conventions were deeply ingrained habits from years in academia. As an editor for technical and literary venues, my partner didn’t approve of some of my punctuation – too many commas. (When I write, I hear the flow of language and try to show it on the page.) She did not like my failure to use contractions because it made me sound too academic, as did my use of citations – an absolute no-no from her perspective. And my long poetic titles had to be shortened. Many of her suggestions helped me improve immeasurably as a writer, but some were not negotiable. I listened to her suggestions thoughtfully but after reflection, I decided that citations – giving people credit for their words and innovations – were absolutely essential and non-negotiable. Eventually, we did agree that it was time to dissolve the partnership and I removed all my posts from her blog and created a new one in February of 2014, Voices from the Margins. My first post on the new blog was one my soon-to-be new partner liked: https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/in-honor-of-caregivers/. My new blogging partner (Cheryl Bates) and I have a different agreement. We agreed that each of us has the right to post whatever we choose, although we often read each other’s drafts and give whatever level of editorial assistance is requested.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine what my life in retirement would have been like without blogging. I have met so many fascinating people like you, Trace – gifted, kind-hearted, committed to social justice. They have opened up new worlds for me and enriched my life immeasurably. In my effort to give something back to them in return, I have been willing to address new topics and experiment with new ways of writing. I have learned a lot about myself through writing, and I am so grateful for all of the wonderful people who are now part of my life. I hope readers will visit Voices from the Margins and consider being guest authors. Cheryl and I welcome dialogue and guest submissions.
Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). New York, NY: Continuum.
Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, Ontario, CA: Octopus Publishing Group.
About Carol: About my enrollment, “My mother was initially enrolled in Mole Lake – the “Sokaogon Chippewa Community – Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa,” and it’s where my brother and I were enrolled as children. As you write in your book, One Small Sacrifice, tribes do have some authority over determining their enrollment policies. At the time my mother was enrolled, Lac du Flambeau (LdF) only allowed reservation residents to be counted as members, while Mole Lake allowed non-resident descendants of those on the original tribal roll to be recognized as members and enrolled. Although LdF later changed their residency requirement and my mother and brother shifted their enrollment, I decided to remain on Mole Lake’s roll for a number of reasons. Mostly, it’s a tribute to the grandfather, Ray Ackley, whom I never had an opportunity to meet. It’s a lost opportunity I have always grieved. The stories elders and relatives have shared about him paint a picture of a kind and gentle man who took other children “under his wing” when he realized he would never be able to be part of his own daughter’s life. (Here’s an older post about my mother’s relationship with her family: https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/a-life-lived-as-a-song-for-her-people-an-ojibwe-womans-story-part-two/ ).”
Lara/Trace, I had an opportunity to read your book – I have learned so much from your experiences and insights. Your work helped me see new dimensions of harm caused by the colonialism that continues to underlie child welfare policies and practice paradigms in the US. It also touched my heart to read about you and glimpse your incredible tenacity and resilience.
(to be continued)