Part Four: Historical Context: Walking in Two Worlds

Photo Credit: Circles of Care –

By Lara/Trace

Part Four: My extended interview with Anishinabe (Mole Lake Ojibwe) Elder-Scholar Carol Hand


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: 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 (last post) and the strategies I used to blend cultures in my work and life (this post).

Historical Context

As you explain in your memoire, Trace, so few Americans actually know much about the real history of Indigenous peoples. This reality was one of the key challenges I needed to address during my life. As someone who walked in two worlds, I felt a responsibility to bridge differences. I felt my mother’s suffering deeply and knew the conditions on some reservations, and I had lived and worked in settings where most non-Natives knew nothing about “real” U.S. history or contemporary Native issues.  These realities were important for me to understand on both an intellectual level (my white culture?) and on a heart level (Ojibwe culture?).  Learning to understand different cultures and history through different lenses was a way for me to make sense of living in between, sometimes feeling at home for a moment in both cultures, but more often feeling not really part of either.  The more I learned, the more responsibility I felt for building inter-cultural understanding and collaboration. The wounds that keep people divided are deep and not easily overcome.

Merely lecturing people about history tended to raise resistance, sometimes strengthening people’s prejudicial views. In order to bridge cultures in my work, I experimented with different approaches for presenting information in ways that were less threatening. Finally, I discovered social “sculpting.”  There are two sculpted exercises that proved to be effective for both Native American and non-Native audiences. Both illustrate the magnitude of suffering caused by centuries of domination without assigning blame on the current generation of Euro-Americans. The first exercise illustrates the ongoing and intensifying assaults on First Nations’ sovereignty over their lands and people. The second illustrates what happened to communities when children were forcibly removed from their parents and communities.

The growing weight of historical trauma that has been passed on from generation to generation is a direct consequence of unrelenting assaults on tribal sovereignty. When audiences participate in the sculpted exercise (described in the post “Go Fish” on my blog, past and present problems and potential solutions become clear. In my experience, Native people gained a clearer overview of the devastation wrought by colonial domination over every aspect of tribal life, and better understood how the trauma was passed from generation to generation. Non-Natives were also better able to see the history of domination without feeling that they were being personally blamed for a situation they did not cause. The following except briefly describes the exercise for anyone who is interested.

We “sculpted” the weight of oppression for each succeeding generation, as illustrated in the following figure. For each historical era, the audience was asked to shout out the historical events that occurred for their tribe. The volunteers lined up, all facing the same side wall, each representing one historical era.


five generations

Contact Era: massive death mostly due to disease, displacement, land loss, massacres, missionary efforts to “civilize” Native Americans

Conflict/Domination Era: massive death due to disease, warfare deaths, removal of children to boarding schools, displacement, land loss, customs outlawed

Assimilation Era: land loss, tribes placed on reservations, U.S. Congress assumed plenary power over tribes, removal of children to boarding schools, more customs outlawed

Integration Era: Corporate form imposed on tribal governments, children forced to attend off-reservation public schools, termination of some tribes, relocation of families from reservations to urban areas, states granted jurisdictional powers over civil issues (e.g., child welfare)

Self-Determination/Self-Governance Era: limited sovereignty returned for tribal administration, justice systems, health and social services, child welfare

(The Five Generations Exercise, Recovery Foundation, 1999, High Risk Kids Workshop Manual, p. 27.)


For the first era, the time of early contact (1500s-1770s), many spoke of massive death, massacres, and land loss. When it was time to move on, the representative of the first era leaned forward and placed her hands on the shoulders of the next generation, symbolizing the weight of unresolved grief from so many losses that would be carried on the shoulders of the next generation. Again, the audience called out the events for tribes during the era of conflict and colonial domination. As each era was covered, the generational representative would lean on the shoulders of the next in line. By the time we reached the present day representative, he was struggling to stand with the weight of the past on his shoulders. Then, it was time for a change. The present day representative was asked to turn around and face the history. The weight was still there, resting on his shoulders, but our physical bodies are better able to deal with the weight if we are facing it, and so are our emotions. By acknowledging our history, we can bear it. We can understand how the legacy of loss and unresolved grief has affected our families and communities and begin the process of healing…


One of the most effective colonial strategies for destroying tribal cultures is something that you have written about, Trace, the removal of children from their families and cultures. As you describe so compellingly in your work, the forced removal of children had profound consequences not only for the children who were removed but also for those who were left behind to grieve. The sculpted exercise described in “Indian Child Removal and the Ga-ga” ( demonstrates the consequences of losing children for families and communities as a whole. Again, I’ve included a brief excerpt to describe the sculpting exercise.

… Culture matters a great deal. Being part of a community with which one identifies matters as well. An exercise designed by Vera Manuel link, First Nations author and teacher from British Columbia, demonstrates the profound difference between the Euro-American concept of “permanence” and an Indigenous sense of belonging to a community and culture. She engaged participants in sculpting the organization of a pre-contact tribal community. She placed a small pouch on a chair in the center of the room, explaining that it contained things that were sacred to her. The sacred pouch represented the spiritual beliefs that were the center and foundation of the community. She then asked for volunteers to act out the role of children. She asked them to form a circle facing the sacred bundle. Next, she asked for volunteers to role-play parents and form a circle around all of the children. The next volunteers, encircling parents, were aunties and uncles and other adults in the community. Elders formed the final circle of those community members who were facing toward the children and the sacred center. Around the periphery, facing outward, were the volunteers who agreed to represent leaders and warriors who were responsible for protecting the community from harmful outside forces. Next, a few brave volunteers agreed to play the role of “child stealers,” the ga-ga.

In early times, the ga-ga were federal BIA agents or missionaries. In later times, they were state and county child welfare workers. These agents of churches, the federal government, counties, and states broke through the protective circles to forcibly remove the children. Despite resistance by the leaders, warriors, elders, aunties and uncles, and parents, children were removed from their place at the center of the community and taken away by strangers using threats and force. Participants in the sculpted exercise were asked to act out their reactions to losing their children. Without their children, parents, adults, and elders cast their eyes down and turned inward, wrapped their arms over their heart, turned their backs to the center, or left the circle. Warriors and leaders were deeply shamed by their defeat and also turned inward or left. Their meaning in life was lost. When some of the children returned as adults, the community was often disorganized and unrecognizable. Without a purpose, the circles of care that had surrounded them as children were in disarray.

Cumulatively, child removal and deliberate colonial policies intended to destroy tribal cultures, euphemistically referred to as assimilation, have had profound effects for tribal communities, leaving a legacy of inter and intra-tribal divisions and conflict and deep divides between Native and non-Native people. As a child welfare agency director once told me, the challenge we face if we wish to improve the situation for tribal families and children is not only providing historical facts to both Native and non-Native people. It’s more important to inspire people to care enough to find culturally appropriate solutions.

My focus as a professional, a responsibility I felt I carried as someone who walked in two worlds, was to find ways to build common ground within and across tribes, and between tribal and non-Native communities. Yet finding the path to this focus was not always easy. And now, in retirement, I have the luxury to simply be myself. I don’t need to worry about shifting cultures to be an effective teacher or advocate. As a writer, I still ask myself about my motivation for the writing I decide to share. Is it true? Is it constructive? And I still ask myself if it will help build common ground to improve people’s lives. Is it something that will lead to anger or compassionate understanding? Will it leave people feeling hopeless or inspire them to find solutions to the many problems that confront us these days? In many ways, retirement has freed me to live my life more simply – to write and garden, to spend time with my family and play with my grandchildren, to learn how to play the piano (maybe) and read the pile of books I saved for “someday when I have time.” Retirement has also given me the glorious opportunity to learn how to find beauty in each person regardless of culture, age, or status and in each new day – not always an easy task, but something that will keep me busy for a long time to come. Perhaps this is the ultimate lesson of walking in two worlds. Underneath the superficial differences, we really are all related and dependent upon each other for the future of the earth we all share.

(PART 5 will run on Dec. 25. Thank you for reading and thank you to Carol for her time and wisdom…XOX Trace)


  1. I found this part of the interview to be one of the most fascinating. The social sculpting approach is an intriguing method for enabling people to peel away the layers of societal structures and institutions in a non-lecture, interactive format. I also like the use of the term “weight of oppression” as a metaphor for the burdens placed on successive generations.

    The racial and economic inequalities prevalent in American society are not merely historical but operate on a continuum. For some reason, there are those who refuse to acknowledge this truth and prefer to feign ignorance that can be summed up by the trite argument, “Why should I have to feel guilty for slavery or massacres that took place hundreds of years ago?” As if all of the injustices taking place in the present somehow have occurred in a vacuum.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I wish I could have had the privilege to be a student in one of Carol’s classes.


  2. I agree Jeff. Carol is a treasure of genius and I do hope she publishes her books soon and blogs as long as she feels inspired to do so. I need her insights like food and water. Navigating life and being awake is not exactly easy. There is too much distracting us from the real world we inhabit. Elders like Carol give us priceless gifts if we ask with respect and humility.


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