Long before I wrote this article in the spring of 2002, I went to an AA round up in Standoff Alberta, on the Blood reserve during Mother’s Day weekend. There was a small Alcoholics Anonymous group who, every year had their AA round up on and around Mother’s Day. It was there in that small gymnasium, I saw Rose for the very first time, when she got up at the front podium to welcome everybody who had made it down; a welcome to everyone, and an extra special welcome to the native people.
In her greeting, she said something, that to this day I have not forgotten, nor do I intend to forget for the rest of my life:
“It’s good to see so many brown faces.”
It’s not often that Native People in Southern Alberta, (or anywhere) get recognition or acknowledgement. And I think that is why this quote stuck with me.
She was giving recognition and respect to all those native people who had decided to come out that day, to listen to stories that could hopefully help them with whatever they were struggling with in their lives.
That’s why I was there, that’s why we were all there.
And it wasn’t until she said it, that I too realized, it was good to see so many brown faces!
I wasn’t there when she died. And I wasn’t there at her funeral. But for many, in all the incredible masses of people who did attend, I was told it was like losing your mother.
For those who still had mothers, it felt like that, and for those who had already lost their own mothers, it felt like they were losing them again.
She was my friend. The one who always smiled and gave me a hug when I got close. Who would hold your hand and just sit with you, a smile on her face, glad for the company.
I didn’t know her for that long, but with Rose, you didn’t have to.
She loved everybody.
And she lived.
So with that, I dedicate this to my friend Rose, her family, and to all those she made feel like family.
To Rose, whose one beautiful brown face I will miss seeing the most.
Rose Yellow Feet
March 12, 1927 — February 28, 2006
She sits there, quite as a mouse. A tiny smirk creeps up on her lips, and a glimmer of satisfaction can be read in her almond colored eyes. A satisfying advantage of knowing something not too many others do.
“This, never use to be here,” she says, lifting her hand as she makes a gesture to the mini mall in front of us. We are sitting side by side in her white F-150 Ford Pick up truck. The Lethbridge parking lot is dry and dusty, even though it is early February. The screams of wind, and the unmistakable sound of traffic zooming up and down Mayor Magraph Drive is almost too much to take.
There are few people alive today who can still remember a time when the Blood Indian reserve was alcohol free. For most, conjuring up the thought of a reservation without alcohol is more then difficult to imagine. In fact, it almost sounds like a fantasy.
But for Rose Yellow Feet, remembering such a time is easy, because it is something she has lived through.
“At the time, you could count how many people drank on the reserve,” she says, holding up her ten fingers.
“We weren’t allowed to buy alcohol, if we did, we got charged for it.”
A simple walk down memory lane with Rose Yellow Feet can cover almost three quarters of a century, simply because that’s how old she is. At 74, she still laughs at things like ATM machines, because she finds it funny that machines give people money.
Being born only three years before the Great Depression, Rose remembers how the people in the community always helped each other, and how nobody ever fought.
“We were really good to one another,” she says with a smile.
People always spared what little food they had so visiting guests could eat.
“Whenever people came around to a house they’d get served, even if it’s just bannock.”
If anyone wanted to travel somewhere, it had to be done with a horse and wagon.
“It took us a day and a half to get to Lethbridge from the reserve.”
Today it takes less then an hour.
Though Rose was very young at the time, she realized how hard her family worked to get through.
“When I think about it, it wasn’t the Great Depression, it was just survival.”
Before the age of 10, Rose was made to attend the St. Mary’s residential school.
“At the time, they said if the parents didn’t take us to school, they would be put in jail…so everybody was sent to school.”
The same message was going around the reserve for all the native children living there.
She attended the school with approximately 180 girls and boys, and kept going until she reached the age of 15.
“I hated the school…there was nothing for the poor people,” said Rose, “I was one of the poor girls, my mother died when I was about eight, so I didn’t have a mother.”
“We always had to do what the rich girls wanted us to do, and if we didn’t…we’d get pilled on.”
Rose sees some of what she learned at the residential school, as some things she can laugh at today.
“We learned to read, write, go to church, and not to go to hell.” said Yellow Feet.
Eventually, she broke away from school to visit a relative in the United States, a place where she had her first alcohol experience.
“I just stayed there, I didn’t want to come back.”
But Rose did come back. Too old to return to school, she had to see about settling into reserve life.
In the early 1940s of white society, a woman’s main role for survival was to get married, raise children, and look after their husband. On the reservation, this way of thinking was exactly the same.
“That was the tradition at the time, it was no good to be single…the women had to get married,” said Rose, recalling that single people were the most talked about people on the reserve.
“You had to have a husband. Either legally, or common law,” said Yellow Feet.
“As long as you have a husband, you’re OK.”
This meant that invisible chains were being attached to girls like Rose, who weren’t even interested in getting married.
During the ’60s, alcohol was made legal for native people on the reserve.
“And that’s when everything went bad.”
Like the majority on the reserve, Rose too, turned to alcohol and lived with a man who was also into drinking.
“I got really abused…I always had black eyes whenever we’d drink.”
Because there was no form of birth control made for women on the reserve, Rose had nine children. She described this time of her life as not knowing how to live on the outside, and having no clue of what to do.
“We all suffered.”
“From the residential schools, we didn’t learn how to be parents…there was no training of what was going to happen when we’d get out of there.”
Against those odds, Rose and her family worked very hard to keep on surviving. They sold hay, and cut poles for fencing. With no electricity in the house, the family had to chop their own wood, carry their own water, and wash their clothes with a scrub board.
“We did everything ourselves,” said Yellow Feet, “this is what I learned from my mother in law, and the people around me at the time. Not from the school.”
“My husband did a lot of trapping…and I was always getting the fur ready for selling.”
Rose was taught how to live off the land and trap her own animals when need be.
“We did a lot of fishing for food, and any meat we’d get, we dry it…I think we were healthier then we are now, with the food we ate.”
But with the constant presence of alcohol, life for Rose quickly fell apart when she began drinking.
“I thought I was having fun, but when the alcohol got a hold of me, it just controlled me.”
It wasn’t long before she lost everything. With her children taken away and put into foster homes, Rose soon ended up on the streets all by herself.
“I was in Lethbridge…three years altogether,” said Yellow Feet, “then I ended up in Edmonton on the streets, and in jail.”
“There was no shelters, and none of these treatment centers…there was nothing.”
“I wasn’t even a bag woman, I had no bags to carry,” says Rose with a chuckle.
Because most of her time was spent in jail, Rose saw jail as the only shelter the police had for people on the street.
“[Natives] were picked up for drinking off the reserve,” said Rose, “drunk in a public place they call it now.”
Yellow Feet says back then, there was no place for native people.”I always think of the discrimination that we lived around, even when I was young, before I started drinking.”
She recalls an experience that happened to her and a friend in the town of Cardston Alberta.
“We were walking, and there was a cafe there, it said: ALL WHITES ONLY!!”
Rose says the only place Indians could go to, was a restaurant which was run by a Chinese man.
“I always felt that discrimination, and I didn’t like the white people…I always felt they looked down on us at the time.”
In Lethbridge, Rose remembers sleeping in Galt Gardens in the summer time with other native people on the street.
“There was quite a few of us really, they’d do a clean up before Whoop-Up Days, and they send everybody to jail.”
During other times, Rose said she always had somebody to take her off the street.
While Rose was in Edmonton, she drank everyday and got very sick, eventually putting herself in the hospital.
“I was taken to the hospital from the street, I thought that was the end of my life.”
But she made it through, and from there, it was her doctor who referred her to the AA program, which means Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It was hard at first, but going to the meetings and being with the people that are sober really helped me to change my life.”
Because of her complete lack of trust of white people, Rose went back and forth from the street in her first year of recovery.
“Finally, I learned that these people are not so bad, they welcomed me and invited me back.”
After her first year of sobriety, she got all her children back from foster care. And after staying in Edmonton for five years, they moved back to Lethbridge, and eventually the Blood reserve.
This started a whole new positive change for Rose’s life. She worked hard everyday to stay sober. Today, she has been sober for 37 years, and has had 38 years with the AA program.
The work she did from that point on would make her a phenomenon in the future, as being one of the most respected Elders on and off the reservation.
Starting with minor jobs like house keeping, Rose quickly resented the work she was asked to do.
“I didn’t want to work there because they’d tell me to polish their doorknobs, and take a toothbrush and clean out their corners.”
But with a little convincing from her AA sponsor, Rose knew she had to change her way of thinking. “I thought, oh OK, I’m getting paid for it, I’ll do whatever they want.”
Soon after, she received a job working as a bouncer in a halfway house for women.
“I walked out because they’d tell me to kick out some girls, and I didn’t like that,” said Rose, “they were the same girls [I knew] from jail, and on the streets.”
After Rose left, a new harbor house was started called the McDougal House for Women. Rose was on the board to get the shelter going, and she was soon hired as one of the councilors.
From that point on, Rose said she never had to look for a job, because the jobs always came looking for her. She became the first director ofthe Sik-ooh-koto-ki Friendship Center, and helped start the Native Counseling Services.
“And when that started, they hired me as a court worker here in Lethbridge.”
She was then asked to help develop the Nechi Treatment Institute in Edmonton, and later was elected to Chief and Council on the reserve.
In the 1980s, Rose saw that a lot of the youth were training themselves for alcoholism counseling. Realizing she wasn’t as young as she use to be, she decided to go back to school and train to be a teachers aid.
Before receiving her diploma from the Lethbridge Community College, she was approached by a professor from the University of Lethbridge.
“Before I even put in my final presentation, the guy from the university said ‘ don’t take any job, you’re coming to the University.”
There, she ran a program for Elders Health, and was asked to do a lot of public speaking to the students about her life experiences.
Retiring at the age of 65, for Rose, becoming an Elder almost sounds like a part time job.
Her two main interests she tries to keep up with today, are supporting the Friendship Center, and the new emergency shelter for people living on the streets of Lethbridge.
She is also honored as an elder at the Institute of the Aboriginal Women, a program made for all aboriginal women in Alberta.
In her spare time, (that is, when she has any) Rose enjoys making trips to the jails to talk to people who are in the same position she once was.
“That’s how I contact the people from the street,” said Yellow Feet.
“Nobody really noticed them as people, they’re just drunks from the street. But I know how it feels…if only they knew what I know.”
For Rose, staying sober has been the challenge of a lifetime, and more than anyone, she understands how hard it can be for those still addicted to drinking.
“You have to have the will if you want to sober up.”
One thing she credits her sobriety to, is keeping herself busy by doing things she enjoys the most. Even when the times get hard, she always challenges herself to rise above. This was especially difficult, when she discovered she had serosis of the liver, and then a year ago, she lost her son. A time when she chose not to drink, because she knew her son wouldn’t have wanted her to.
“If you don’t know how to challenge, everything will get you down.”
Right now, she says she’s not really thinking about the future, she just wants to appreciate her life from day to day.
“I ask God to help me enjoy my last days of my life…I think it’s better to be old now, and be treated good.”
She can even look at her illnesses with less seriousness than most.
“My health is not too good now, I’m a diabetic with high blood pressure, and arthritis. I just about got everything,” she says with a laugh, calling them her new diseases.
“It’s a real challenge today to live with my sickness…to live with it, and try my best.”
Without AA, and her faith, Rose believes she would have died years ago.
“Everywhere I go, I meet people that are very happy,” said Yellow Feet, “I didn’t do it just for being selfish, or to try and show off.”
“I did it from my heart, because I suffered, and I know I want to help people.”
Even her relationship with her children is better then ever, and now she has almost 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren combined.
“They’re always with me.”
“Just keep trying your best, that’s what the old people use to say, iyika’kimaap,” says Rose.
“Do something that makes you happy.”
Sarah Scout is an active urban Aboriginal writer and Indigenous Artivist in the Calgary, Alberta community where she has lived for the past ten years. From 2000 – 2002 she attended Lethbridge Community College where she studied print journalism and communication arts under D’Arcy Kavanaugh. Her work has been published in print mediums such as The Endeavour, The Lethbridge Herald, Say and Beatroute Magazine. From November 2006 – February 2009 she was the managing editor of New Tribe Magazine: Calgary ‘s non-profit Urban Aboriginal Youth Monthly. Founding the Aboriginal Writers Circle in 2007, Sarah created this group for Aboriginal writers, authors and storytellers to come together in celebration and exploration of the written word and oral storytelling tradition. In her spare time, she also creates and distributes her own independent zines which document personal anecdote, stories, life writing experience and poetry in a mixed collage of black and white photography and experimental graphic design. Her zine titles include: Out Cast By Choice, Out Cast By Choice: Issue Two – A Choice of Futures Waiting To Happen, Jack Rubber, Assimilated Ego, Assimilated Ego 2 and Indian Grave Yard. Winner of the Royal Bank of Canada Aboriginal Student [two year] Scholarship in 2009, Sarah studied at the University of Calgary in pursuit of her BA in English. She currently is writing her first ‘life writing’ novel “Incomplete Indian: The Indigenous Life Writings of Sarah Scout.”