In July 2023, I joined a group of MCW researchers, clinicians, faculty, and staff for the Lac du Flambeau Family Circles Professional Development Training with the Ojibwe Community in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. Despite having made dozens of trips to Wisconsin’s Northwoods, this was my first effort to learn about the historical trauma the region’s Indigenous peoples have experienced ...
All human beings want to be understood and appreciated.
— Family Circles Traditional Parenting Program
Native writer Sherman Alexie, in his short story, “War Dances,” tells of an Indigenous son whose father has just come out of surgery. The father is shivering and, when the thin, white hospital-issue blanket is insufficient, the son sets off on a quest through the hospital — with its “white sheets in a white hallway under white lights” — looking for a “particular kind of patient and family.” He eventually locates a Native man who has an extra Pendleton wool blanket. After a blessing (“It doesn’t matter if you believe in the healing song ... it only matters that the blanket heard”), the son returns to his father and wraps him. The father begins to sing. The son joins in. “The sick and the healthy stopped to listen.” I viewed this as a heartwarming story.
The roots of my own misunderstanding
As a white American male growing up in the 1960s, I read books that included Native stereotypes, learned the Eurocentric stories of Christopher Columbus, Plymouth Rock, and Thanksgiving, and watched TV Westerns and The Lone Ranger. In school, I dutifully learned about the Oregon Trail and a whitewashed version of America’s Manifest Destiny. I colored maps depicting the Treaty of Paris of 1763 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, never recognizing that these lands never belonged to the French in the first place. I studied versions of history written by the dominant culture.
As I moved toward adulthood, I learned about the forced removal of the Cherokee people via the Trail of Tears, the deaths of hundreds of Anishinaabe people in the Sandy Lake Tragedy of 1850, the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, and the Wisconsin Walleye War of the late 1980s. I read about rural poverty, domestic violence, meth, and alcohol abuse on reservations. The injustices, brutality, and cultural loss that Native peoples had suffered stood in stark contrast to the mythology I had studied as a child.
These competing narratives offered hard lessons, yet the depictions of injustice seemed distant from me and difficult to comprehend. I sensed there was much that I would never understand.
A brief, meaningful experience in understanding and appreciation
In July 2023, eighteen MCW people were graciously welcomed by Ojibwe trainers onto the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in northern Wisconsin.
Brian Jackson, MS, EdD, (spiritual name: Chi Ayaabe or “Big Buck”), led the training. He is an Anishinaabe educator and Assistant Professor in the MCW Institute for Health and Equity’s Division of Epidemiology and Social Sciences.
Dr. Jackson reviewed the development of the 24-session Lac du Flambeau Family Circles AODA Traditional Parenting Program, originally conceived and co-authored by tribal elders Dr. Alton “Sonny” Smart and Ernest St. Germaine. The program builds on traditional Anishinaabe values to enhance physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual resilience, awareness, and self-understanding. It guides parents and children to develop new skills while strengthening families and communities.
Educators Melissa Doud and Doreen Wawronowicz walked participants through stories depicting the toll real people have suffered because of historical trauma. They highlighted the role of cultural resilience. Dr. Jackson also shared the history behind Wisconsin Act 31, a 1989 law that requires all Wisconsin public schools to provide instruction on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 nations and tribal communities.
A visit to the Boarding School
We visited a building from the Lac du Flambeau Government Boarding School. It operated from 1895 to 1932 before being converted to a day school. Eventually, the school that was widely reviled by Natives closed. Most of the buildings were demolished. The remaining boy’s dormitory serves as tribal office space and houses a museum.
In the era when the school opened, official U.S. government policy empowered Indian Agents to ensure that Native peoples would be trained to farm successfully and sustainably, be prohibited from using liquor, have their children instructed in English and industrial training, and be restricted to the reservation unless they had travel permits. The school was supposedly designed to accomplish these tasks.
Indian Agents and police patrolled the reservations, looking for children ages five to 15. Once they were seized and taken to the school, the students were given English names, their hair was cut, their toys and clothes were confiscated, and they were given uniforms and assigned to a Christian church. They were separated from their siblings.
Speaking Ojibwe was forbidden. Schedules were highly regimented, with bells ringing over 20 times each day to mark different assignments and activities. The goal of the school — and other Indian schools — was to Americanize and “civilize” the students through re-education. The graduates, having been separated from their families for years, emerged prepared for neither the Native nor the non-Native world. They were often lost.
Students, according to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council’s Amy Poupart, program director for the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health (GLNARCH), were “processed not parented.” The effects of the stress and trauma suffered
by these children has lasted for decades. Melissa Doud quoted Anishinaabe activist, Winona LaDuke, who wrote, “What our Seventh Generation will have is a consequence of our actions today.” The community’s intergenerational pain is best addressed by the Ojibwe people.
MCW researchers, such as Tim Meister and Matthew Dellinger, PhD, were recognized for their long, productive collaborations and respectful partnerships. Projects must be approved by tribal elders, are overseen by NIH-funded NARCH Centers, and adhere to the caveat that policies and practices reflect, “nothing about us without us.”
It will take time for me to revisit and correct the lessons I learned throughout my life.
In contrast to the myths I learned about America’s Western expansion, Ojibwe scholar, novelist, and writer, David Treuer, writes, “American did not conquer the West through superior technology, nor did it demonstrate the advantages of democracy. American ‘won’ the West by blood, brutality, and terror.”
Although some have asserted Indian culture was destroyed in the late-1800s, Treuer writes with “the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed.”
Each tribe is different from the others and, as non-Natives, we are challenged to not romanticize Natives and Native culture. Native history is complex and multilayered. The communities are active, vibrant, evolving, and resilient. These, too, are hard lessons that I barely understand.
Back to Sherman Alexie’s short story
I started this essay with a feel-good story about a blanket. On further reflection, though, I see the story is also about the father’s impending, premature death from his life choices and his alcoholism, the alienation between the narrator and the dominant culture’s healthcare system, and the very short-lived nature of whatever comfort his father would receive from the wool blanket.
The story ends with a crowd of nonNatives standing in the hallway listening to the father and son sing the healing song. I now see that not one of the hospital employees joined in, celebrated, or offered any form of comfort to the man. Still, one of the nurses — one who had been unresponsive to the man’s suffering earlier in the story — takes a few steps toward the singing. The narrator tells us, “She sighed and smiled. I smiled back. I knew what she was thinking. Sometimes, even after all these years, she could still be surprised by her work. She still marveled at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people.”
So, to the Ojibwe trainers and people I met, I say Chi Miigwech for the training that has allowed me to take a few steps closer. I hope I have a better understanding and appreciation for the people I met and for the hard work in which they are engaged.
For further reading about our visit to Lac du Flambeau:
A summary of the visit to Lac du Flambeau created by participants Cindy Mann and Tifany Frazer for the MCW Office of Global Health can be found here.
For further information about the Native American boarding schools:
“The Native American boarding school system—a decades-long effort to assimilate Indigenous people before they ever reached adulthood—robbed children of their culture, family bonds and sometimes their lives.”
Since the visit to Lac du Flambeau, the New York Times published an investigative study exploring the lasting damage inflicted by the 523 Native American Boarding Schools in the US. This remarkable article, 'War Against the Children," has horrific stories, photos, old documents, historical information, and data. It can be found here.
I am grateful to the members of the Lac du Flambeau community who reviewed this essay prior to publication. Special thanks to Carol Amour who told me that many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have significant issues with Sherman Alexie.
This essay was originally published in the September 22, 2023 issue of the Kern Institute Transformational Times newsletter.