By Lara Trace (author of ONE SMALL SACRIFICE: A Memoir)
Welcome to Part 3 of my extended interview with Anishinabe Elder Carol Hand.
QUESTION: Carol, this quote from the Mic Check post really hit me. “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” This speaks to oppression and a mixed race ethnicity, something we both have lived. How are you handling this today?
Carol Hand: This is such an important but complex question, Trace. In my silver-haired retirement I face different challenges than I did when I was a child, student and professional. The only way I can do justice to this question is to explain a little bit about how my experiences changed in response to different times and settings (in this post) and the strategies I used to blend cultures in my work and life (NEXT POST).
Responding to this question, Trace, brings to mind the important discussion you shared in your memoire about the way adopted children are socialized. They are expected to be grateful for their traumatic separation from birth parents and sometimes made to feel as though they were initially abandoned because they were unwanted or unloved. These messages are then internalized and often result in the need to hide or anesthetize one’s deeply hidden shame and insecurity. I think it’s very similar to the identity development challenges faced by children in any socially devalued group. I know my mother internalized the messages that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage. She became fastidious about cleanliness because she still felt others saw her as a “dirty Indian.” (This is something she said to me when I was little, so I trust that it’s true.)
Unlike my mother, I grew up in New Jersey, in a small community twenty miles away from New York City. It was a small homogeneous (white) community in a mid-Atlantic state with an exceptional school system. I escaped the prejudice and discrimination my mother encountered in the Catholic Indian boarding school she was forced to attend. I also was spared the treatment Native American children typically experienced (and still do) in reservation border towns or segregated urban settings. Because Indigenous tribes had disappeared from mid-Atlantic communities centuries before, the predominant view of Natives for those few who ever gave it a thought was that of the noble savages who once lived in harmony with nature (rather than the other predominant view of Natives as blood-thirsty heathens). Although this absence of prejudice toward Native people in my childhood community indicated absolutely no awareness that Native Americans still existed in contemporary times, it also meant there was an opportunity to educate the community. So as a child, I learned to see my Ojibwe identity as one that was unique and a source of pride despite my mother’s shame. I also internalized the need to prove to my mother that as Native people, we were just as good as anyone else – we could do anything they could do. Yet this doesn’t mean that I saw anyone else as inferior because of ancestry or ability. It just made me feel that we were all uniquely and equally human.
Because I learned to see ethnic differences as positive and fascinating, I really didn’t realize that other people didn’t share this view. It wasn’t until my twelfth summer when I became aware of anti-Indian prejudice and discrimination. It was the summer I spent with my grandmother on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation. Although my grandmother was a gifted hairstylist with a busy beauty salon every day, she spent most of what she earned at the local bars and taverns almost every evening. Of course, she dragged me along everywhere. Sometimes I sat in the bar next to her and drank sodas for hours, and other times I was told to wait in the car. I would often hear men referring to her in loud whispers as “Black Agnes.” At first I thought it was because of the black dye she used on her hair that reminded me of shoe polish. But I gradually became aware of the other ways she was treated with disrespect and it made me sad, even though she wasn’t someone who could ever be mistaken for a kind and nurturing grandmother. When I spent time with my aunties and cousins, I also noticed something I had never encountered before. Some of my cousins were much darker because their fathers and mothers were both Ojibwe. Others, like me, were lighter-skinned because their fathers were white. The cousins who were darker-skinned were treated much more harshly by everyone, not just their mothers. Again, it made me sad to see this differential treatment.
I mention these childhood experiences and observations because they relate to your question in a fundamental way. I could see the way internalized racism affected Indian people, and in turn, how it influenced the way they viewed and treated others as a result. When you grow up being told you are inferior because you are _____ (fill in the blank), it’s hard to feel a sense of pride and confidence. It’s hard to see yourself as someone worthy of respect, and so the world becomes a place of fear, struggle and conflict. I could also see the consequences for Euro-Americans who lacked not only an understanding of history, but were also unaware of deeper wounds. I question if those whose ancestral homelands were on other continents could ever really feel this land was their rightful home. Could they ever really face the fact that their inherited privileges in the US were won because of the disinheritance and oppression of other peoples, both Indigenous and those who were kidnapped from their nations to serve as slaves? Would they ever be willing to acknowledge and do what is necessary to redress past injustices in fundamental ways?
Throughout my education and career, I gradually learned to embrace the need to work in two worlds. Although I worked from a foundation of respect, I shared my perspectives as gently and honestly as possible. Sometimes I was seen as an “angry Indian” by Euro-Americans who felt threatened by truth spoken without deference to their socially-constructed position of power, or “not Indian enough” or “assimilated/colonial” by other Native people who felt they should be the only spokespeople for Indian issues. It helped me to remember each time I advocated on an issue that I needed to be very clear in my own heart about my motivation for speaking. This was something I learned to do during my short career as a singer, described in one of my old posts, A Darkened Auditorium. https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/a-darkened-auditorium/
“… every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review .. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.”
Walking between two worlds effectively also meant “switching cultures.” I think it may have been something I learned to do as a child, but I didn’t realize it was something I automatically did until one day when I didn’t have time to make the transition – but that’s another story. Realizing that I did this, however, helped me see the differences. In tribal settings, I encouraged others to take the lead. In settings where the people in power were non-Natives, I often had to take a lead and speak in academic, analytic terms to increase the chances that the voices of other Native people would be respected. It was at these times that I knew criticism was likely to be leveled from both Native and non-Native people. Taking the time to know my heart before I engaged in these negotiations gave me both the courage to speak honestly and as forcefully as necessary and the strength to withstand any criticism that came as a result.
(to be continued)