Renya K. Ramirez is an enrolled member of the Winnebago of Nebraska and professor of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of Standing Up to Colonial Power:
The Lives of Henry Roe and Elizabeth Bender Cloud (December 2018).
Writing as Granddaughter and Academic
As I sat in Yale’s Sterling Library next to my twenty-three-year old youngest son, Gilbert, poring through boxes and boxes of letters written between my grandfather, Henry Cloud, and his informally adopted missionary “parents,” the Roes, I felt my mom’s spiritual presence—a cherished loved one who had passed away. She had traveled to this same archive to gather family material so she could write a book about her parents. I had chosen to follow in her footsteps and write the book she had envisioned, but died before realizing her goal.
I felt a mixture of grief and great solace as I sat with my son, who agreed to travel with me and help me go through this extensive archive. Periodically, he would whisper in my ear, “Mom, get ready for a difficult one.” His loving words would prepare me to read something that had caused my mom’s tears when she called me after spending a long day in the exact same archive. This bonding experience between mother and son was one of the many family-connecting moments that helped me complete my mother’s objective: to write a book about her parents, Henry and Elizabeth Cloud. Her dad was Ho-Chunk and her mom was Ojibwe.
Many things I learned in this archive and others surprised me. I discovered that Henry and Elizabeth had co-directed an early college preparatory Christian high school for Indigenous boys, the American Indian Institute, while following Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe notions of complementary gender roles, in Wichita, Kansas. My grandparents wanted to include Native girls, but the funders were not interested. I learned that the school trained Native boys to become Christian warriors, who combined their modern and Native identities, while learning how to fight the federal government and gain justice for their tribal communities. The school also taught Native leadership training, Indigenous history, Ho-Chunk stories and philosophy, and Native language arts—a kind of Native studies curriculum and pedagogy that predated later Native American Studies programs on college campuses starting in the 1960s.
I also found out that federal government officials transferred my grandfather to become an Indian agent, living on the Umatilla Reservation, in an attempt to force him to quit and as a punishment for his constant criticism of the Indian Service and federal policy. During his time on the Umatilla Reservation, Henry used treaties in order to support Native fishing and hunting rights. His use of treaties in the 1940s predated the reliance on treaties of Native activists as a powerful tactic to support their battle for tribal sovereignty during the 1960s and 1970s Red Power Movement. Meanwhile Elizabeth organized community gatherings as part of her work for the American Indian Development Project and the National Congress of American Indians that eventually contributed to the Red Power Movement.
My mother, Woesha Cloud North, followed her parents’ example in her struggle for Indigenous rights when she joined Native activists during the Alcatraz occupation starting in 1969 and ending in 1971 and supported their fight for tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and justice for Native Americans. One difference between my mother and grandparents, however: the Natives’ occupation of Alcatraz Island was a radical approach and challenge outside of the colonial system. Henry and Elizabeth Cloud labored within the system, standing up to colonialism and working towards making a better life for Native Americans.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for in writing a book about my grandparents was the experience of juggling my roles as granddaughter and academic. There were moments I wanted to break down in tears as my mother had done when reading letters about the heartache of colonialism, including Native children being forcibly separated from their parents as part of the Native federal boarding schools. I wasn’t ready for the emotional roller coaster of conducting family research and finding out things on a personal level I didn’t really want to know. There were other times when I had to confront the colonial actions of my grandparents and be honest with myself that I felt intense pain and include this difficult feeling in my writing. There was the tug and pull between wanting to honor my ancestors and stay true to my identity as a Native feminist scholar and my ultimate goal of decolonization.
In the end, I hope I told a story that not only pays tribute to Henry and Elizabeth Cloud as extraordinary Indigenous leaders and activists, but also shares some of the complications of living during the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, an incredibly racist and colonial time. I truly love my grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth, my mom, Woesha, and all of my Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe relatives, both living and passed away. I sincerely hope my cherished and loved mom, Woesha Cloud North, is happy in the spirit world that this book is done and finally out in the world.
One thought on “From the Desk of Renya K. Ramirez: Writing as Granddaughter and Academic”