Sandtown Survivor: Growing up Indian in the Twentieth Century by Clearing Sky Woman

Reviewer: Sharon Brunner

Clearing Sky Woman’s Sandtown Survivor: Growing Up Indian in the Twentieth Century delivers a powerful and heartfelt message about living the life of a poor Indian girl and woman and her demonstration of steadfast resiliency. The story begins in 1946 when she attends her first day of kindergarten. Her family lived in what was referred to as Sandtown near the town of Nahma in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. An elder told me the Sturgeon River divided Sandtown with white people living on one side and Indian people on the other. Native Americans faced serious problems such as poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse and high suicide rates. Tarpaper shacks lined the dirt roads where the indigenous lived, a land that sported long hard winters. Clearing Sky Woman stated she felt they lived in luxury if there was indoor plumbing or electricity. The title of the first chapter “The Earth Fed Us, The Game Wardens Chased Us” added credence to the hardships her family faced. Hunger served as a motivator that drove her family to hunt, gather, fish, steal gull eggs, and raid gardens and orchards.

The site of Sandtown was considered sacred ground by the descendants of the Indian community. It represented a time concerning Anishanaabeg labor history in which Indian families worked together in spite of federal Indian policies geared at destroying their cultural beliefs and disrupting their family and community relationships. During the 1940s and 1950s, the termination period occurred in which the federal government took away the federal recognition of specific tribes. Many children attended Indian boarding schools during this time period. The federal government outlawed the practice of Native American spirituality customs until 1978 in the U.S. Clearing Sky Woman’s family and their community at large escaped these infractions when they resided at Sandtown.

Various themes became evident throughout the book such as the importance of family, shame, the significance of their Native American identity, and the importance of providing for Clearing Sky Woman’s friends and family, hard work, and to seek a meaning of life beyond poverty. She could not wait to come home to her mother and be wrapped in her mother’s warmth when she was a child. They worked hard, the whole family, to collect greens to sell to the white people and her parents worked for the lumber company toiling in the woods cutting down trees. When her family did a little better than their neighbors and they gave them what they needed. Clearing Sky Woman said on more than one occasion she was embarrassed concerning her parents and the home they lived in.

Clearing Sky Woman was born in 1941 after the country recently suffered the Stock Market Crash and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s introduction of the New Deal to help people recover. The Native Americans, who resided on small plots of land in rural areas in the Upper Peninsula, did not benefit from the recovery efforts. When the implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act swept through the country during the 1930s, governmental officials explored the Upper Peninsula and made the determination the area did not present much promise for future development, so it was left alone. Native Americans needed to use their ingenuity to survive with very little opportunity to rise above poverty.

The story begins with a little girl’s first day of kindergarten and she was met with hurtful discrimination. “Injun, injun, injun. You got bugs. What’s your name? Feathers? Beavers? Foxes? Skunks? What’s the matter? Can’t you talk? Don’t you know how to talk, Indian?” She thought she forgot how to talk, stunned by her attackers’ actions. She could not wait to get home to the safety and the care of her mother. She asked her mother “Muma, what is an Indian? What are scabs? What are bugs?” She hugged her warm mother and equated the experience as marginality (Clearing Sky Woman, 2023, pg.5). Currently in Louisville, Kentucky police officers were under public attack for verbally abusing people of color and people with disabilities. Discrimination can be damaging to the public at large and presents a culture of hatred.

Clearing Sky Woman covered the importance of names. The census shortened names, had misunderstandings concerning names and they renamed Indian people. Children who attended Indian boarding schools were given English names to replace their given names. Amik was the Ojibwe word for beaver. The word beaver was in question during a census review and the reviewer thought they were stating where they were from. Names have always been important throughout the history of Native Americans. Their given names were derived from dreams and other methods and only one person in the village could have a given name because of its special association with the person. My great, great, great grandmother was given the name Ozawa Amik (Yellow Beaver) because of a dream. My given name presented to me by a spiritual healer was Migizi Kwe (Eagle Woman). Our given names carry special meanings.

The dominant culture forced acculturation efforts upon a group of people burdened by oppression and discrimination. They would be accepted if they agreed the Native American culture and its practices were undeserving of respect and void of value. In spite of the expectations, they continued to engage in various traditions.

“Learning later the positive teachings about our spiritual ways which are part of our holistic way of being on the Earth, about our teachings about living things and Earth and Creator in an interdependent relationship of love and respect that must characterize that relationship…” (Clearing Sky Woman, 2023, pg. 43).

Legends have been told for many years by the Native American people as a form of teaching lessons and for entertainment purposes during the long cold winter months.

Clearing Sky Woman mentioned on a couple of occasions several people she knew who attended the Indian boarding school in Harbor Springs. The school reopened during the late 1800s and closed in 1983. Thousands of children were sent to the institution. Total control of the Indian children’s education was viewed as the most feasible option to achieve assimilation and the adaptation of a perceived “civilized” lifestyle for the indigenous. Corporal punishment was used, and unusual penalties were implemented such as standing on one’s tiptoes with arms outstretched while being struck. A surprisingly high level of sexual abuse occurred at the school. Some Indian people managed to survive with little to no repercussions while others suffered greatly. The predominant outcome of the boarding school legislation was a vulnerable population laced with diseases, death, poverty, and other social ills, such as rates of domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, and neglect higher than any other sectors of the population.

Ongoing cultural oppression, health disparities, and a lack of access to services and economic opportunity coupled with chronic poverty, depleted hope for many tribal families. The cumulative effects of chronic stress and unresolved historical trauma led to an increased risk of developing psychological and behavioral disorders. The negative impact of the boarding school legislation has resonated with many Native American families today.  This topic has been dear to my heart because my mother and her siblings attended the same school and suffered from various forms of abuse and the school has left a long-lasting negative impression on them.

Clearing Sky Woman gave detailed information about the importance of ceremonies. “In our ceremonies, forbidden by the self-appointed saviors, we gave thanks to Creator for all he has given us. We understand that we share together in harmony…the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, the Stars, the plants and herbs, the animals, fish and birds, and all the knowledge of how all these, our brothers, are interdependent. The Sacred Pipe is not in itself a god, a false object as we were told. It is the means of making smoke with tobacco to symbolically send up our prayers, much like the Christians use incense burners in their services. What a beautiful awakening when I learned that what we were told was all incorrect, that what they said about us and our spiritual beliefs and ways of being were untrue, that we are not pagan, uncivilized” (Clearing Sky Woman, 2023). Native American spiritual practices were outlawed from the late 1800s to 1978. Traditions that brought peace and harmony to the Native American people. Children experienced bad catechism and were told that if they weren’t baptized, then they would not go to heaven.

The Jesuits in their “Black Robes” came to North America to spread Christianity to the indigenous. My grandfather had the Jesuits live in his home when he was a child to be taught how to live properly and adopt Christianity. The holiness of Christianity was in question when the nuns and priests inflicted abuse in many forms on the children at the Holy Childhood boarding school in Harbor Springs. My uncle told me he did not believe in Christianity after his short stint at the boarding school. He kept running away with his twin brother from the boarding school.

I liked how Clearing Sky Woman described in detail the various struggles her family endured as they moved from place to place, from a tar paper shack to a nicer home with electricity and back to a tar paper shack. Her parents worked hard in the woods to cut down trees. Their pay was very low for this grueling work which resembled slave labor. My uncle worked in the woods doing the same type of work. He told me it was extremely back-breaking work for very little pay. My uncle was born two years after Clearing Sky Woman. The book “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” by Andres Resendez gave a detailed rendition of Indian slavery. Sometimes she and her sister were raised by other family members such as grandparents when her parents worked in the woods which was a common practice for many Native American families.

Clearing Sky Woman addressed the Indian Holocaust efforts since the arrival of the Europeans. Multiple books had been published that covered the same genocidal tactics such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” by Ward Churchill and “A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present” by Ward Churchill. The movie “Smoke Signals” depicted modern-day struggles for Native Americans by using humor and real-life experiences.

I liked learning about the black ash baskets and the challenging work that went along with making them. How the black ash had to be pounded before it dried out. It took a steady expert hand with a gentle rhythm to work up and down the log with a sledgehammer. In the past, they used berries, charcoal, and other substances to dye the strips. My uncle used dyes to color the strips. Some of his black ash baskets include birch bark. I have one with orange, dark brown and green colors, absolutely beautiful. Clearing Sky Woman’s mother charged $3 to $3.50 for the baskets during the 1940s or 1950s. Now they sell for a lot more. The cost did not commensurate with the effort.

At the risk of sounding a little negative, it would have been nice to have a page at the front of the book with publishing information such as the name of the publisher and copyright date. It would also have been nice to have a table of contents page. I have a Master of Social Work degree and use APA stringently as a result. It was difficult to provide a citation and it would have been difficult to complete an entry into a bibliography without proper publishing information. I found a year at the end of the book that self-publishing efforts often provide. My citations for direct quotes included the year listed at the back of the book and the author’s name. The book was filled with many opportunities to utilize direct quotes. Clearing Sky Woman provided a vast amount of interesting and notable information.

Her epic tale of surviving extreme poverty to earning a doctorate and filling the role of Chief Psychologist, Deputy Director of Mental Health for the southwest regional office as one of her important employment positions served as an incentive for anyone who has been overwhelmed by the hardship of poverty. She wanted to make an impact concerning services for Native American people. When she applied to attend the University of Michigan to obtain an undergraduate degree, the person who reviewed the application questioned if she made a mistake when $1900 was entered as the family annual income.

Clearing Sky Woman embellished on her lifetime which began in the impoverished location of Sandtown in which the logging camps and Bay De Noquet Lumber Company served as the only source of income. The Sturgeon River separated the white people from the indigenous. The book was packed with informative and interesting cultural information about Native Americans and also reiterated the oppression and discrimination inflicted on them. What was also dear to my heart was the many times Clearing Sky Woman described her hiking activities in the later chapters. I am an avid hiker and thoroughly enjoy spending time outdoors. The book reminded me of my efforts to provide services to Native Americans and my goal of informing many about the history of the indigenous. I am impressed with Clearing Sky Woman’s efforts and accomplishments. I highly recommend Sandtown Survivor for its poignant information about a real-life story of a Native American woman and because of its colorful renditions of living a life of poverty, the creativity her family engaged in to overcome starvation and poverty, her honesty about her life choices, the incentive she provided for people who have suffered from poverty and other hardships, and her outstanding accomplishments.

Author: Clearing Sky Woman
Title: Sandtown Survivor: Growing Up Indian in the Twentieth Century

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