I try not to be bitter about many things in my life. Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation there are many things to be bitter about. I generally see my life as a series of choices the way our ancestors thought.
The main thing is having a feeling of responsibility for family, and others, and trying to make the right choices for the good of the family. For me, this feeling was strong enough from an early age. Even with the alcoholism that surrounded my earliest memories, I was always the one who would look out for younger siblings. I was famous for chasing older boys, cousins who would bully my younger brother. I could run fast and if no parent were around to stand up for us, my small fists would look out for my younger siblings and I. I learned to be fearless.
When I look back, I know that what saved me was the eventual giving up of alcohol by a mother who loved her children; a woman who faced many challenges who entrusted me with her life story. I still admire her and will always marvel at how she quit drinking alcohol. Her dependence ended one day while she was at a church revival meeting, she said. When she quit, it was a time when states were happy to take children from alcoholic parents and to place them in foster care. She didn’t want that to happen, I heard from an older sibling how she couldn’t face losing her children.
What I am most bitter about today are the women who abandon their children. I think about my own mother and how years after conquering alcoholism, she took her own grandchildren who were abandoned by women who thought nothing of leaving their children. One woman left four children, first she abandoned three and then later another one was brought to my mother. The last child, the rumor was, was near starvation.
A few years after this, another woman, married to my brother, a well-respected activist, his wife left him with one daughter. After, the second daughter was brought to my brother.
These abandonments came at a time when my own mother’s health was fragile with diabetes. Despite high blood pressure and her own dependence on insulin, she took the six children. Still later four more were left with her. She never refused to care for any one child.
I am bitter about those women who burdened her. Two of them are still alive and still ignore their grown children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who are struggling with issues related to abandonment. I may be bitter because today, a generation later, I am looking at a son raising a daughter alone. The mother of my granddaughter posts herself on social media, foot-loose-and-fancy-free. It is enough to make anyone wonder about heaven and hell and the judgment day. If there is a judgment day, I know my mother is in heaven.
A generation later, I see the pattern emerging, but this time, I see a grandmother abandoning her children because of alcoholism and marijuana. What happens to our culture if today the grandmothers are so impaired by alcohol, now drugs, too, that no one takes the children?
The Cherokee in North Carolina have an orphanage, a student told me, and it is full. It gives me hope, still. As long as we can keep our children near some family, maybe we can reverse these trends. I encourage the daughter of my niece who was abandoned. I encourage her to be a good mother and she is. She wonders about the distance her grandmother maintains from her, the one who abandoned her mother. I don’t think it really makes a difference to her generation anymore, some healing has come.
A children’s home, an orphanage, whatever we call it, we need them now on our reservations so that we can take care of our own children. I know that we as Lakota people think not of just our generation but of those to come.
In Lakota when someone leaves another we say irpekiya (r is the guttural h) meaning “to throw away, forsake, leave one’s own.” It is exactly what these women do, “throw their children away.” Now grandmothers who are traditionally the culture keepers are following behind those who are the most selfish. It feels like we are losing our way. The tribe has to step in; those of us who care the most must do our part.
A line in a favorite movie about baseball was “build it and they will come.” The time is now to build that home for the wakanyeja on the Pine Ridge Reservation, build it to save our culture into the future and those who are the most helpless will have a chance. And those of us who can will help.
(Delphine Red Shirt email@example.com)