1,100 Silver Brooches and a Tool for Thinking About Transformative Change

I’m one of those people that likes to keep three or four books going at a time. The most personal book on my side table right now (just kidding – I read using the Kindle app like a modern person) is a new nonfiction history by Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792. I pre-ordered the hell out of this book, paid a small fortune for it, and am basically highlighting every sentence. It's making me think about the assumptions we all bring to our understanding of systems and institutions, and how radical (and transformational!) buried knowledge can be when surfaced.

Source: Watercolor by George Winter (1809 – 1876), courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Association, Lafayette, IN.

Source: Watercolor by George Winter (1809 – 1876), courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Association, Lafayette, IN.

Many people whose ancestors faced oppression, enslavement, and/or genocide have great difficulty tracing their family trees and understanding their family histories, especially if they were adopted, as I was. I've been lucky that the Shawnee branch of my family includes my much-documented many-greats grandfather Blue Jacket, or Weyapiersenwah (c. 1743-1810), war chief of the Shawnee people during the Northwest Indian War, who is credited for laying the groundwork for a pan-tribal confederacy and serving as an important predecessor of the famous Shawnee leader Tecumseh (1768-1813).

Travel around Ohio for a bit and you can pretty much learn the basic war histories of Blue Jacket and Tecumseh through historical site markers (that's right – there are 1,600 unique historical markers in Ohio). These two Shawnee men also captured the imaginations of both journalists of the time and historians since. Thus, I have access to more Americanized information about my grandfather than many other indigenous descendants do. I'm lucky, also, that the extended Blue Jacket family has welcomed my return and has shared so much wonderful indigenous family knowledge with me.   

But Sleeper-Smith's book, which uses both ecological and historical analysis to make its case, challenges and greatly expands much of what I've learned from books about Natives in the Ohio River Valley, including the roles of women like my many-greats grandmother, Clearwater Baby (whose last name refers to her child-bearing relationship with the French trader Jacques Duperon Baby). While I knew from family stories that the Blue Jackets were part of a prosperous, Algonquian-speaking community in the Ohio River Valley, Sleeper-Smith illuminates and details the role of Indian women in developing and ensuring this ongoing prosperity and cooperation.

She argues that it was not Tecumseh who should be credited with the strong pan-tribal movement of this time period, but instead, influence and relationships necessary to that alliance can be attributed to Ohio Indian women. These women had for centuries been working together to harvest riparian, wetland, and terrestrial resources on a truly grand scale and to build a thriving peltry export economy. European visitors were flabbergasted by the "modernity" of Wabash Indian villages and bustling trade centers like Miamitown, where Indians from many tribes, French and British traders, and blended Indian and French families lived in sturdy homes, developed their own style of high fashion from Indian tradition, European cloth, and Montreal silver, and basically had a sweet life for a very long time.

"Static Portraits" and the Need for Interrogating Categories

This woman-led, cooperative society and nascent urbanity was all but erased by Kentucky settlers and American politicians, and with it, indigenous women of the Ohio River Valley have been backgrounded by a long line of male historians who have allowed themselves to be organized by the logic of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism, replacing hardworking, innovative Indian women with the likes of the Johnny Appleseed myth. How could Indians of the American trope be Indians if they drank tea from French china? Sleeper-Smith says:

Indian identity has often been elided or silenced in the documentary record because of our static portraits of traditional Indians and our belief that authentic Indians were unchanging … We strip Indians of their Indianness simply because they were as prone to change as any group of human beings or because we see their adoption of selected French practices as a sign of their aspiring to be Frenchmen … Rarely do we imagine the evolution of a new social world as Indians integrated diverse people into their cultures.

Thanks to so-called "Westward Expansion," the Shawnee tribe is splintered and Shawnee people are small in numbers, but Shawnees are working hard to revitalize language and cultural traditions that were difficult to hold on to after "removal" from the Ohio River Valley. Yet, one of my Blue Jacket cousins once told me that when she is asked how she feels about being so assimilated (an observation, I think, that must be in response to Blue Jacket out-marriage, first with French traders and later, after forced location to Kansas, with European immigrants and American settlers in Indian Territory), she points to the experiences of those who did not assimilate and says she is glad that our family was able to survive.

Sleeper-Smith might take issue with that – the idea that our family has merely assimilated -- and I am able to see her point after re-envisioning Shawnee and other Algonquian-speaking women in the Ohio River Valley. We are so much more than assimilated. We are additive, cumulative, evolving. Even when it appears that we are assimilating, we are not stepping out of our skin and becoming something else — we are constantly becoming something more, while always bringing our ancestors forward with us.

Sleeper-Smith recounts a detail of the Kentuckian Josiah Collins's Ohio raid that gained him a huge share of plunder, including "one squaw's gown in which were 1,100 silver brooches." Since I learned of it, I think of this heavy gown all the time as a symbol for pushing back on the idea of the Shawnee people as assimilated -- a gown derived from the work of women over generations, a gown that is a symbol of armored femininity — and I carry with me the strong Indian woman who was forcibly shed of that gown and of the prosperity created by her mother and grandmothers, and I know that her granddaughters and kinsmen still walk with the armor inside of us, that the gown still belongs to us and resides within us.

Stuck in Oppression Logic

As a young woman, I volunteered as a museum education docent at the natural history museum in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Most of my days were spent leading small children through the activities designed to teach them about South Plains "Indianness." They gathered around a faux campfire next to a hide tipi, sitting on rocks or on the ground, grinding corn on a large stone, and then we'd work our way through the dioramas. Earlier this year, I was walking through a museum in London and came across American Indian displays that reminded me of those dusty dioramas of the 1980s. The concept of "Indianness" seemed to have stagnated in the imagination of the museum's curators, and yet "Indianness" is a category more contested than ever. The "Eastern Woodlands Indian" artifacts in London were stuck not just in a time that had already ended (thus also seeming to end the existence of Shawnee people), but also in their ability to reflect what Algonquian-speaking people accomplished even after "contact" and with a multiplicity of people, including French and British traders.

Source: I thought it would be really funny to tag this as from the Museum of Texas Tech University, but they might not think so. A child presumably made this and I, for one, think it's adorable. Is that a pipecleaner moose?

Source: I thought it would be really funny to tag this as from the Museum of Texas Tech University, but they might not think so. A child presumably made this and I, for one, think it's adorable. Is that a pipecleaner moose?

This being stuck condition is what I mean when I say "the logic of _____," such as "the logic of patriarchy" or "the logic of colonization." Logics of oppression organize us around these constructed, often broad, categories – Native, woman, immigrant, lesbian, Latino, and Muslim – and hold us in that container until we can't find our way out of the very claustrophobic space even when the lid is off and the sky should be clearly visible. Systems of oppression organize us in ways that keep us from asking, "Does this system make sense?" and "What is the purpose of this system?" Many traditional historians, who are human and thus are as organized as the rest of us by these systems, have had difficulty interrogating systems to the extent needed to get out of the container and develop authentic histories that accurately portray the lives of oppressed peoples. And, for the rest of us – like community advocates and policymakers -- without having the tools to recognize the system that organizes our thinking, we can't interrogate it, reject it, and move on to innovating and creating previously unimagined alternatives, tearing down old systems and envisioning a just transition to new ways of thinking about power.

Except that's changing now, everywhere I look. The most unlikely suspects are talking about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. The lid is off the container and more and more people are getting a glimpse of the sky.

Looking Skyward:
A Mini-Workshop Plan and Tool for Understanding Transformative Policy Change

For instance, last week, I was in Southern California giving a workshop on strategic networking for local policy development. The cohort I was working with is comprised of young adults, mostly of color, many of them advocates and some working "inside the system." They came to the training with an interest in serving on local public sector boards and commissions and making strong local policy that serves the interests of low-income communities and communities of color.

I'm a huge fan of the blog Integration and Implementation Insights, and had just read a great post there by Steve Waddell on "Achieving Transformational Change." In talking about policy interventions, I've found that many of the people I work with are interested in creating policy that "pulls left" or is "progressive," but they tend to stay in the "reform" lane without really ever realizing that a "transform" lane is something to think about. Steve had included a chart from Transformations Forum in his post, and I slightly adapted/expanded it (but felt compelled to keep the amazing hot pink of the original rendering) for use in my workshop.

Source: Adapted from Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Transformation Forum

Source: Adapted from Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Transformation Forum

Admittedly, I've tried 1,100 ways of talking with people about transformative change through policymaking, with varied responses. I've been most successful with college students, but then again I have had them for as much as 16 weeks of lead up to the big ah-ha moment. More often, I have sixty minutes, and in this particular case I had forty-five. So, here's what I did in the whirlwind.

First, I asked participants to choose from a list of six possible policies that were of interest to them, and we used these to concretize the conversation:

  1. You want to ban Indigenous mascots, nicknames, and colonialist-themed mascots from all schools and sports teams that receive funds of any kind from the city or county.

  2. You want to lower the voting age in city elections to 16.

  3. You want to permanently close the county’s three juvenile halls and nine youth detention camps.

  4. You want to create a commission that will have the authority to make unannounced inspections of county group foster homes and facilities.

  5. You want to ensure that city agencies are prohibited from using public funds, equipment, or personnel to assist in creating a list or database of personally identifiable information about individuals for law enforcement or immigration purposes.

  6. You want to develop and pass a city-wide rent control measure with protections for tenants against increases of more than 5% per year.

Then, we reviewed briefly what we'd learned in a previous session about "mutual accountability" (in lieu of the one-way action of holding public officials accountable to the base), inside-outside strategy, and co-optation, and we briefly touched on the reading I'd given them in advance – Senge, Hamilton, and Kania's "The Dawn of Systems Leadership." We took a quick breeze through the social ecological model of health as it relates to racism and root-cause thinking, and then we were ready for the chart. I hoped.

Source:  Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity  (2017) by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Source: Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity (2017) by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

We then reviewed the chart, using our sample policies as "finger holds" when things got too abstract. Participants were, for the most part, able to make arguments for mapping their simplified policies to the continuum implied by the chart, and then to discuss ways in which their chosen policy might serve currently oppressed people while we are still working to discover what a just transition looks like, as well as how it might serve to mask needed interrogation of the system by protecting the status quo by making it seem more palatable.

The conversation was just starting, of course, when time was up, but in my dream world, we come back together as part of an alumni offering to deepen this conversation and apply the tools to more and more specific contexts.

Actually, this may not be a dream. It may be happening in the fall. And I'll let you know how it goes, and in the meantime, if you want to talk more about the tool or the concept of transformative change (or Ohio River Valley indigenous culture and history), reach out. I'm always down for just transition talk, and would love to hear what techniques and approaches you are using.

Re-envisioning the Past and the Present

A friend of mine who is a communications consultant recently offered to help me learn how to create more succinct, targeted blog posts. I said, "Ew," and she rolled her eyes. Then we made plans for lunch instead.

I know that she wanted to talk to me about "burying the lede" or "deleting by a third" or some such, but besides the fact that I'm a fan of the longform, the truth is that the lede here isn't really buried; it's right up front. What I believe more and more strongly is that those of us who want to participate in visionary thinking about a just future must also participate in re-envisioning history, understanding the actions of our ancestors, oppressed and oppressors alike, and building our understanding of the ways that we've been organized by systems-thinking in historical texts and thinking. To do so is to build a bridge to that visionary future we are seeking.

Many of us are becoming more and more adept at seeing today's sky through these tight-fitting container lids, but it is critical, also, that we understand the skies that our ancestors walked under – here and elsewhere, wearing rough cloth as did the Kentucky settlers, fine brocades as did the aristocrats of New France, only the bare skin of those who were hunted, captured, and sold or traded, or an Indian woman's dress with 1,100 silver brooches. What are the ways that we have lived and prospered before? How have we collaborated and preserved our relationships with one another and nature? How have we failed and let ourselves be easily organized to oppress others?

Without that knowledge, I don't believe the transition we aspire to can be truly just.


Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.