Posted by on Apr 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

Our Elders Set the Bar High

By: Dana Lonehill

I read a quote the other day that stated, “we learn everything at the feet of our elders.” Those weren’t the exact words, but the sentiment they expressed couldn’t be more true. Out of everything I have been through in life, I can always reflect back on what I learned from my grandparents.

You know how it is when you’re a little kid and every time you meet an elder, you’re told to “go shake hands- that’s your Grandma or Grandpa.” I remember the first time I had white friends and realized they had less grandparents. I was in culture shock, especially when I learned they have great aunts or great uncles- whereas to us, that would be another grandparent. As Indians, we have so many of grandparents. You almost assume every elder is your grandparent. Then as you grow older, sadly, they become less and less. However the lessons you learn, which you don’t realize you were learning, are valuable. You treasure them on the day you realize that a Grandma somewhere along the way taught you that, and for a reason.

My Grandma Dod clearly had the biggest influence on my life. Not only did she pass on her strength, she taught me the best she could to be who I am and not try to be anyone else, by example. She believed in every individual’s ability from the minute of their birth. She told us over and over to never underestimate a baby because of how smart they are and how fast their brain was growing and developing. She also introduced me to my first love: baseball. Then she hated it when I found my second love-the New York Yankees.

My Grandma Fanny would have us grind chokecherries for her, like it was a game. She would then have us make them into patties and dry them. I did this years later with my daughter and sister to make wasna, dried meat and chokecherries. I was so proud of myself when I saw Fanny at a Little League game. I was beaming when told her that I had made my own wasna with my daughter and sisters.

She smiled, “Oh my girl, with the big freezers they make now, you never have to grind and dry chokecherries anymore, just freeze them.”

I was a little stunned that I was carrying on something that she taught me, and here she had moved onto the 21st century, leaving me behind with stained hands and a bunch of dry chokecherry patties. I realized that while she taught me tradition by making wasna, she also taught me that we are always changing and innovating, finding new ways to keep traditions going.

I have a memory of my hunka Grandma Coba too, when Jesse Jackson came to our reservation to speak. I don’t know why we didn’t go watch him speak, but we listened to it on the radio at the office she worked at with my mother.

I remember my Grandma Coba saying, “Oh what a great speaker he is. I wished our people could have someone with a voice like that.”

I asked her why we couldn’t.

“Well, we can, we do and we have, but sometimes when an Indian is doing good for his people, or helping others, or gets a voice, there are ten other Indians trying to pull him down. I don’t know why we can’t all support each other. Look what they did to Crazy Horse. A white man didn’t kill him. Look what happens every two years after we get another tribal council, all you ever hear is everyone putting their own people down. How can things ever change that way? We have to support each other, even if we don’t agree with each other. We’re all we got,” she said.

Then there’s my Great Grandma and Great Grandpa Lone Elk. I remember my Grandma Agnes being devoutly Catholic, maybe because those ways were probably forced on her as a child. She believed strongly in her rosary and though I wasn’t Catholic I would say the rosary with her, letting the beads slip through my fingers mimicking her. I had no idea what I was praying for or why. Still, I didn’t dare tell her, “No.”

She always kept us close by her. My little brother and I would spend weekends or summers with our grandparents. We slept by them. My Grandma Aggie always had a glass of water on her night stand, by a box of Kleenex and Vick’s Vapor Rub. She would rub the Vapor Rub on our chest and back before we went to bed so we could breathe easier. To this day, the smell of Vicks makes me lonesome. She also kept her rosary under her pillow, with a small blue New Testament, a flashlight, and pocket knife. I never questioned why, but when I look back at that memory-she was always prepared to get down if need be. The funny thing is, all my grandpa had on his side was a glass of water. He had nothing under his pillow.

My grandma made coffee on one of those old campfire coffee pots on her stove. It was blackened on the bottom though, as if it still hit the fire once in awhile. The blue background with white speckles was more visible towards the top. She had coffee made all day. I
would sip from her mug of coffee mixed with evaporated milk and heavy sugar. It was back then on Gooseneck Road that my deep love of wakalapi, or coffee, started. I carry that love today.

She made the best skillet bread, and my favorite: macaroni and tomatoes. It was a meal made of the commodities issued by the USDA, but in all my life, I have never been able to capture that taste or find anyone who could cook like that. Sometimes there was little to eat, but when someone would tiole, or stop by at dinner time, and she would make them a plate and get them coffee, sometimes eating less herself. She always made sure everyone was fed before she ate herself.

My Great Grandpa Frank took us walking in the hills, often to dig for timpsilas. (prairie turnips). He would point out where the old cabin used to stand that my dad grew up in, where my dad had a pet deer, and where I had lived as a baby. He would always remember to tell me
that when I was a baby, my dad would tie the timpsila on my wrist by the roots so I could teethe on it. He would then take all the timpsilas, sort them by size, and braid them so fast that I felt as if I would never learn how to do that. I never did.

One time I spent Thanksgiving with them. I don’t remember when it was, but it was definitely after my parents divorced. We had Thanksgiving at the old house I grew up in when my parents were married. I don’t think anyone had prepared for Thanksgiving, but I knew I definitely wanted to be with my Grandma Aggie and Grandpa Frank. She boiled potatoes, baked a box of banquet chicken, and made my favorite macaroni and tomatoes with skillet bread. It was one of the most fulfilling, memorable, and warm memories of a meal I ever had.

I also remember one year we showed up right after our birthdays. This was at their house. She rushed around, gathering stuff for a meal, and giving orders to various relatives. We had a meal of fried kidneys, fried potatoes, and a cake. The cake had no candles but little toys from a gumball machine all over it. It was awesome.

I don’t remember seeing them after the age of 12 or 13, but they did visit me twice in my dreams since they passed away. They were, as in life, together and happy to see me. I woke up crying both times.

Their quiet endurance, their true deep love for each other, and their way of making do with what they have and being grateful were not lost on me. I reflect back on who they were and it serves as a reality check of how I need to be. The ways of all the grandparents in all of my life is something I will always return to, so I remember how to be- their treatment of people, how they fed people when they were hungry, and they gave coffee so freely. When they would visit others, they would shoo us quietly away and let us know we were children and adults were visiting. These are the ways I want my children to carry on. There is no room in any of our lives for hate, jealousy, and negativity. The US Government did their best to wipe us out as a nation, and they tried to force us to forget who we are and where we come from, but they failed. Our grandparents made sure of that. There are many others out there still making sure of that. Always remember our elders and how they lived through tougher times than us, yet they carried the ways of our people on. I would love for my future takojas to reflect back on me someday with even half the respect and awe as I have for all the grandparents in my life, but they set a pretty high bar. I still can’t get the skillet bread, macaroni and tomatoes right. Maybe someday.