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From the Editor's Desk: Learning lessons from the past, going forward
Monday, August 03 2015
 
Written by Alfred Walking Bull, The Circle Managing Editor,
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awb-office-web.jpgEvery six months, Isaac Iron Shell, Sr. would take his cattle to the stock mar­ket and sell what he could. Shortly there­after, his wife, Susan Standing Bull-Iron Shell would sit with her six children and go through the Sears-Roebuck and JC Penny catalogs and they would pick out dresses, shoes and coats for the coming six months. Like clockwork, my grandparents provided for their five daughters and son in prepara­tion for Christmas and the school year at the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud reserva­tion.

My mother, aunts and uncle were among the more fortunate and privileged on the res­ervation in those days, both parents worked hard through the year, farming, ranching, canning, drying and providing for the pros­perity of their children and grandchildren.

The school year, however, was fraught with its own difficulties. My grandfather knew the stories from his relatives about how the Jesuit priests and nuns would abuse children, emo­tionally, physically and sexually. The story my mother told me was that while both my grandparents were devout Catholics, they re­mained true to their traditions and practiced Wolakota in secret. Living that dual existence also taught them to understand the darker aspects of the Black Robes and work within that particular system of oppression. Grand­father Iron Shell became a senior catechist in his younger days, proclaiming the Word of Christ, facilitating liturgy and playing the fiddle and organ for the monthly Mass in Up­per Cut Meat Community.

He did these things, according to my moth­er, to ensure his children would not be sub­ject to the physical and sexual abuse of the missionaries. It was quid pro quo with no written agreement, only a tacit understanding and faith that whatever humanity remained in the predators at the mission would honor the covenant he made with them to leave his daughters alone. While removed from the darker corners of the boarding school experi­ence, my mother and her sisters and brother still received their fair share of emotional and psychological abuse. In one instance that haunted her until the early 1990s, my mother was forced to watch as a bride of Christ incin­erated kittens in front of her class to, as my mother put it, “remind us who was in charge and how they didn’t fear anyone.”

It often puzzled me how, despite the stark realities of reservation life under a de facto theocracy, my mother could move forward in life. In the oppression Olympics, it could be argued that her privilege exempted her from the truly devastating effects of physical and sexual abuse and to an extent, there’s some truth to that. For a time, like my father, she sought a solution to her trauma in alcohol. But when it came to her own children, she put aside her addiction and remained dry throughout the 1980s and in the early 1990s, she began working on her recovery.

That is when she told me that not despite, but because, of her experiences in boarding school (the worst of which, she never spoke about), she was able to forgive. She forgave the priests and nuns who inflicted what dam­age they could on her and her siblings. When I asked if she had any objection to me going through Catholic confirmation classes in high school, she said simply, “that’s my an­ger, don’t make it yours.” She remained ever mindful of the benefits of the advantages of her education.

Because of her education, she traveled to the Bay Area in California during the Sum­mer of Love, she continued her education in law enforcement as a matron and dispatcher and ultimately, worked for our tribal college, Sinte Gleska University, as an Adult Basic Education coordinator who taught her con­temporaries how to read, write and do basic math.

Her education also gave her a love of learn­ing and adapting to the changing technol­ogy of the world. When the first Nintendo gaming console came to the reservation, she quickly mastered the two games we had. Pro­fessionally, she was relied on to create data management systems for the tribal programs she worked for and instilled this desire to al­ways learn more about the world around us in her own children and grandchildren.

As Native children in the Twin Cities, across Minnesota and throughout the na­tions prepare for school, it’s incumbent on our generations to carry forward the history, the lessons and the benefits of our own edu­cation, free from anger, prejudice and resent­ment; rooted in the language, tradition and culture of our ancestors.

As Larry Stillday said, “The young ones will never know there was a loss. We pro­vided a place for them; this is where they are from. Quit teaching that they lost some­thing. Our youth will pick it up; we just have to give them the opportunity. This has been nothing but learning, all will go away with something, all will go away as better people.”


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