Forgiveness is a risk. Remembering her late mother and the legacy of demoralization faced by many Native Americans, Mary Annette Pember makes peace.
My mother, Bernice, walked on last month. Although it was not unexpected — she was 86 and in declining health — her death continues to amplify the poignancy of her life and its impact upon me.
My mother was not an easy person to love. She was quick-tempered and harsh, often unmindful of the impact her words had upon us.
The more I learn about her and her history, I think I wasted far too many years wallowing in my own hurt and anger over what she couldn’t give me. I am grateful, however, for the gift of forgiveness and the light it has shed on the wonders of this tiny fierce woman.
My mother’s life was the quintessential survival story. The price she paid for survival, however, was far too dear; it cost her a huge chunk of her spirit and humanity. Life in a Catholic boarding school bludgeoned her heart so that she would never fully reveal it again to anyone. She made a decision to survive at all costs and steeled herself to wrestle a life from the white man’s world.
As a child on the Bad River reservation in Wisconsin, everything was taken from her. Her parents, her language, her culture, her Indian name and her very spirit were taken and despoiled by those who “knew better.”
When county authorities decided that her parents were unfit, they removed the children from their home and gave them over to the local Catholic mission school. The message at “Sister School,” as it was known, was clear. Indians are inherently unfit as people and parents. Indian culture, authorities reasoned, was the primary culprit.
Unfortunately, this war on Indian culture continues today. National Public Radio is airing its exclusive report “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,” this week. The report details a pattern of S. Dakota Native children being disproportionately removed from their families and placed in non-Native foster homes. According to the report, although state officials cite substance abuse and poverty as reasons for removing children from their homes, tribal members and leaders say that poverty and cultural tradition are mistaken for neglect.
Despite the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, that says that Native children must be placed with family, tribal members or other Native peoples, nearly 90 percent of fostered Native children in S. Dakota are placed in non-Native homes.
According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, Native children nation-wide are removed from their homes at far greater rates than are children of other races. Tribes and Native advocacy groups such as the First Nations Orphan Association are working to educate social service providers about cultural traditions and the values of Indian families. Along with Hennepin County Social Services, First Nations hosts an annual powwow at the Minneapolis Indian Center. The Nov. 5 Gathering for our Children and Returning Adoptees Powwow seeks to help Indian adoptees heal from the shame of adoption and the message of inferiority for being Indian.
In many ways, not much has really changed for us. We are still being blamed for being Indian. Captain Richard Pratt’s 19th century philosophy of “Kill the Indian to save the man” still underlies how mainstream institutions deal with us. Pratt was founder and superintendent of America’s first Indian boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Opened in 1879, Carlisle was modeled after the prison school Pratt created earlier for Indian prisoners of war in Florida. Run with military precision, Carlisle featured rigid military order with swift, harsh punishment for offences such as displaying Indian tendencies — like speaking one’s native language.
I am grateful to NPR and the many advocates and tribal people who are working to bring attention to the draconian notion that every family in this country needs to be measured by the yardstick of white middle-America.
This notion has contributed to a still thriving intergenerational trauma for many Indian people. Nearly every Indian family that I know has stories of family members being removed or adopted away. Those people often carry the shame that our ways are somehow unfit. Many, like my family, had parents who passed the pain forward until it became a nameless rage, taking form as enormous chips carried defiantly on our shoulders.
The recirculating power of this shame and rage self-generates and is too-often turned inward and toward our loved ones. During my mother’s last week she spoke bitter words about her mother. “I never liked my mother, you know,” she declared.
She could never bring herself to delve into the real circumstances that drove her mother to leave them at the Sister School. The risk of forgiveness was too great. In fear, my mother allowed her hurt and anger to burn a deep circle in her heart. Her nameless rage at those who robbed her of everything, permeated our lives. The legacy of Sister School was handed down to us. Unlike an innocent family legend, however, its force entered our veins.
Naming this rage has helped me diminish its power. I find that I am compelled to examine my family’s story in the hope that I can deconstruct and defuse the power of this awful legacy. For me, this work had to begin with forgiveness, forgiveness for my mother and the well intentioned actions of others.
Fortunately I came to forgiveness before finding out a few years ago that my mother gave up one of her own children, her first born boy Bobby. I needed more than a little mercy to understand how she could have repeated her mother’s actions. This knowledge has gone a long way in explaining my mother to me.
Bobby passed away in the early 1980s; my siblings and I never met him but I see now that his spirit permeated our lives in the form of my mother’s unexpressed guilt and sorrow. I have one of those indistinct childhood memories in which I think I met Bobby briefly in Chicago. Many Ojibwe, including our extended family, took advantage of the 1950s and 60s federal Indian Relocation program, leaving reservations and moving to cities. In recent years, I heard that my auntie and uncle found Bobby on Chicago’s north side where so many Indians had settled. He was virtually homeless. They tried to arrange a reunion with my mother. According to this third hand story, my mother “didn’t’ take to him.”
When I was around seven years old, my mother and I took the train to Chicago to visit my auntie Lucille. As always, I was enthralled with the grandeur of the great Union Terminal, mostly ignoring the furtive adult conversation. At some point I found myself sitting in the back seat of my auntie’s borrowed car with a young man. I see his upturned face as he gazes out of the car window bathed in that unique skyscraper-reflected light that defined my childhood memories of the great city. He was clearly nervous, anxiously talking to no one in particular about his future life plans; he was taking welding classes, one day he hoped to be a pilot. “I want to fly,” he said.
Looking at that delicate Ojibwe face, one could sense his insecurity, apparent even to a seven year old. I remember feeling embarrassed for him. Having tried to win my mother’s attention myself, I knew the humiliation of those efforts all too well.
My gaze turned to the tall buildings once again as I wondered at their canyons of windows and concrete. The young man was gone and I was alone in the backseat. I caught bits of adult conversation. My auntie said, “They say his welds don’t hold.”
I never saw the young man again. As was so often the case, people floated in and out of our family, I knew better than to ask questions.
How deeply my mother must have believed those Sister School messages! I know now that her anger and rage were as much directed at herself as towards the school. She would go silent when I asked about Bobby, retreating into her protective circle of anger.
Ojibwe people believe that we may not be recognized in the spirit world if we don’t know our traditional Indian names. It has always pained me that my mother was made to forget her name and I had intended to have another naming ceremony for her. Unfortunately, time and circumstances didn’t allow for this to happen. A leader of my lodge, however, gave us a name that is used for babies and folks like my mom, the name (which I won’t repeat here because it is too special) means, “Child of love.”
And so, Child of Love walked on to the spirit world on Sept. 19, 2011. We feasted her on the 1st and 4th day, which is our way. I am confident that she was well received in that world.