From the Editor's Desk: Learning lessons from the past, going forward


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


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.”