Dawn Renee’ Peel was awarded honorable mention in Essay in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


Giiwedinanung (From the North, in the North, to the North)

ZHIGWAAJIGE (Ojibwe’ – Extract marrow from bones-It’s meaning and implication is far beyond the literal and into the metaphysical realms)

When I meet another skin, I always ask, who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

In 1981, at the age of 19, I worked for the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, archiving all the files significant to the seven Ojibwe’ Tribes of Minnesota. I could easily identify which Tribe and Band a person was from by their last name. I learned a darker history of my people by combing through these dusty; original files of the allottee’s and their descendant’s, starting from the late 1800s. At the time, I was too young to really understand what I was reading or its impact on the past, current, and the future generations to come.

The first file I searched for was my biological grandmother on my mother’s side; Josephine Hill-Ochiltree. As I was reviewing the information, there were several documents. These showed hospitalizations at a sanitarium, correspondence from the BIA, the “Agency”, (which was the welfare before it was called the Welfare Agency), and letters from the Catholic Diocese.

What I first discovered, was that my grandmother was subjected to the forced adoption of several of her eight children, as she according to the Catholic Diocese had all of her children out of wedlock. The Diocese had not recognized common law marriages or Native traditional marriages that took place by the Opwagun ceremony. Additionally, Minnesota State Law had not and does not recognize these same marriages/ceremonies today.

My second discovery was that several of her eight children had been taken from her and placed in boarding schools, and she had been sent to the sanitarium in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. While there, my grandmother had been examined and perceived as retarded and deemed incapable of taking of herself and her children. And thus my Nokomis was sterilized.

I had gone home that day distraught. I called my mother and asked her about my grandmother. “Mom, I was going through the old, ancient allottee files at work today, and the first file I went through was Grandma Josephine’s. Did you know that she was retarded?” My mother’s response was sharp and quick, “No, she was not!” My mother then explained that the government had run a mass campaign and sterilized Indian people, and that one of the ways to do this was to label anyone who did not speak English, ‘retarded’. That was how my grandmother became a victim of ‘silent genocide’.

I grew in my own knowledge of the historical trauma of our people and the ambiguous and inaccurate history books of which I had been taught from; my own search for truth of historical relevancy. Haunted by the reams of paper I copied on microfiche to be stored for the generations to come, I wondered by whom they would be read, and why would they read, and if they would ever be contested or refuted?

Twenty-five years later I returned to Minnesota; I traveled north to the new Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Bemidji and inquired where those original, sealed up boxes of files were stored. Compelled to touch and smell those dusty relics, like old relatives of intimate times, I asked permission of Judy Moe, the Director, “Yes, those boxes are still sealed and stored in the basement, and any time you want to revisit those files, you could be allowed.” I left the Bureau knowing that I could, if and when I wanted to.

Who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

In 2007, I had become a Co-Creator/Director of Tribal Voices Television, a pilot for Native American Television programming, and my trail crossed Indian Country in a way I had never dreamed. I realized I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, yet maybe more than most. I was both humbled and saddened by the absence of knowledge.

My new revitalized education began with a film by Georgina Lightning, a Native American Actor and Director, who came to Duluth, Minnesota, in her first directors’ debut in, “Older than America.” It starred Bradley Cooper, Adam Beach, and herself, along with local elder, poet and activist, Jim Northrup. Tribal Voices Television was given the opportunity to be on set to watch the final scenes shot. Later I was invited to the previewing of the film at Augsburg College in 2008.

The film’s primary story line addressed an investigation of an earthquake, and its damage to an area of the Fond du Lac Reservation; a century old, uninhabited Catholic boarding school. The secondary story line involved the psychic attachment of a Native American mother and daughter through the daughter’s dreams; the mother had been a resident and student of the Catholic boarding school in her youth. This mother was later lobotomized for her knowledge of sexual and physical abuse in this school by the parish’s priest, and now lives lifeless in a sanitarium, still under the influence of the very malevolent priest who had her needlessly surgically silenced.

The story unfolds with the investigation of the rare earthquake, and its damages to the weakened foundation of the dilapidated school when discovered in the basement where small, cold jail cells with wall chains and wood stocks that held young displaced Indian youth captive in punishment. Mass graves of infants and children were revealed when the grounds were opened up by the quake and subsequent tremors.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations was brought in to take a closer look at the dregs of this deplorable and now abandoned school. The closer the authorities were to the truth, the more often the daughter had received psychic connections to her mother’s episodic deliriums. In the end the sordid truth surfaced; the disabled mother is set free from the sanitarium and reunited with her daughter, leaving the deplorable priest to be properly accused.

At the close of this movie preview, we all experienced indescribable emotions. I was surrounded by film majors of Augsburg, Minneapolis Community Technical College, Minnesota State University, and Native American Elders from the Minneapolis community, and those invited from the media and public.

The final sepia snapshots faded in and faded out; scenes of small Indian children in various stages of undress and redress, a faceless priest dressed in his cassock as he snuck out of the opened and closed of doors. The scenes were vivid and provocative as it pulled you into the sexual violence and abuse of the innocent in unholy perpetration, one after another, in slow motion; it evoked a strangled anger that could not be stifled.

While sitting in the crowded audience, I could hear several elders lamenting out loud and crying in deep moans of grief. The sniffles were unrelenting, and the nose blowing unstoppable. I was struck by my own pain, and the gripping connection with feelings of helplessness, as twenty-five years of buried memories hidden in the archives of my own mind came rushing back from those files my eyes had read all those years before. It all started to come together.

The correspondences between the Catholic Diocese and the Agency, the Agency and the BIA, the BIA and the Catholic Diocese… I had read the cover ups from parish to parish, priest’s indiscretions and their transfers. Young women were being impregnated by priests and were being sent away to convents to protect the church. These infants were adopted out to families, never to be connected to their Native American mothers and culture. These children never knew where they came from. The child-mothers who bore these rape-conceived infants, born from shame, into shame, never knew where their children were placed. I could not stop thinking of the ripple effect of the Catholic Churches actions. What had been done to my people? When will anyone, or can anyone do anything to make things right?

The Catholic Church is currently in the middle of its own crisis of cover ups and scandals of years past; brought on by the intolerances of the churches painful destruction of molested lives coming out in desperate need of healing. The atrocities of the Native American plight by the Catholic Diocese have yet to be addressed. Mass sterilizations in epic proportions across Indian Country, were the systemic equivalent to Silent Genocide. I read this kind of outrage in file after file. All of a sudden I felt survivor’s remorse; I was one of the fortunate ones.

Who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

In 1991, Scottsdale, Arizona, I had suffered in the throes of a third miscarriage. My British husband, Jeffrey Scott Peel, who incessantly reminded me that he was the important descendant of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London Bobbies; refused to touch my body nor share the marriage bed in marital union until I was sterilized. Ultimately, devastated, I made the sacrifice. I went under the knife but held secretly in my heart; that I could if I desired to re-join those precious, life-driving fallopian vessels at another time. Upon my anesthesia recovery, the doctor proclaimed the irrevocable cauterization of my dream.

Who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

In 2007, as I worked for Tribal Voices Television, interviewing Don Coyhis of the White Bison, Organization, of Colorado, at a Little Earth gathering in Minneapolis, I asked the question; “What is this Sacred Hoop with one hundred feathers you are carrying from Indian community to community?” Coyhis related how the sacred hoop represented one hundred communities he envisioned to help in recovery and historical trauma work, “One hundred feathers had flown in from all over the world; Tibet, Australia, South American and many Indian nations across the US and Canada.

“Long before the coming of the light skins…we had known about the spiritual laws of the seen and the unseen world. Our languages were created by understanding the physical realm and its interconnection within the spiritual realm,” he declared. “Sponsored by the US government; what happened to our Grandma’s and Grandpa’s through the trauma they endured, has been passed down through our DNA, transferring intergenerational trauma. We want the world to know about the genocide of our people. By 1920, 90% of our people were killed off. Boarding schools were often the breeding grounds of sexual and physical abuse, perpetrated by our church priests and guardians. By cutting our hair, forbidding us to speak our languages, and outlawing our ceremonies; they were also stripping us of everything cultural and traditional to our people.” 

All of a sudden something deep inside of me, unquenchable erupted like fire, and I had to know more. He was telling me my story and of the stories of all my peoples. Could I go where he was taunting me to go? Did I really understand what he was saying? There already was a knowing, but here was someone that was telling me that he was bringing our people a hope of healing for me, my Grandmother and all the other Ancestors buried on microfiche.

A healing from shame and punishment just for speaking our rich, spiritual language, Ojibwemowin, given to us by our Creator, kidnapping of our precious, little children from our families, and stripping us from our identities by sending us to boarding schools; cutting our hair, taking our moccasins and leathers, beating us into submission, and raping us, boys and girls alike. He was looking into my eyes, as ! was the interviewer, challenging me—reconciliation? Forgiving the unforgivable? He was showing me the compassion that I needed to be free, the permission to reach into that place deep inside where it hurts, gently pull it apart and name it for what it really is. How to identify this violent rage that troubled  my people and try to forgive it? How to know if I really can let go of decades of deep grief that me and my people suffered through violence?

Drugs, alcohol and suicide are epidemic in our communities throughout Indian country; the harsh reality and terrible destructive effects of these issues are consequences of an underlying deeper problem Indian people face. The loss of our innocence is often at the root of our despair; whether it is through childhood neglect, witnessing the substance abuse of our family and community members, or suffering the violence at the hand of our loved ones. We’ve grown into broken adults; taking on the addictions and violence we so desperately tried to escape in our youth.

Who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

The spiritual traditions of our Ancestors’ are written in the very hearts of my people, which rely upon the Great Spirit to guide us through our daily walk. With great reverence I relish the opportunities to be in the presence of our traditional teachers and healers. The importance of hearing their time honored life stories, traditional teachings and their wisdom are essential.

Today, my spiritual journey, I seek within, a personal relationship with my higher self and understanding that I have been created with a great love from my Creator. My relationship with Gizhe’ Manidoo, divine and personal, allows me to work with my heart of willingness, to learn to forgive the unforgivable and to reconcile with the past, the ignorance and prejudices, which have caused the innocence of bloodshed, the suffrage of my people immemorial, is really a work in progress. I can’t say I believe we live in redemption, as my people still are the benefactors of the wrongs done so long ago.

I do get a sense of hope in the beauty of our healing through our traditional and cultural ways. Our resiliency will come as we individually and collectively search for meaning as we stand in the revitalization of our ceremonies. The vibrancy of our culture is prevention when it aligns with the view of our personal lives lived in harmony and balance. It is in the soul-retrieval work of zhigwaajige that we will begin to heal.


Who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

Further Reading

  • Admitting the Darkness,” a review of PEN America Prison Writing Award winner and committee member Louise Waakaai’gan’s poetry collection This Is Where