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Indian grandmas: Geh-eh; Kaale; Nanna or all of the above

By Clara Caufield Native Sun News Today Northern Cheyenne Columnist

The Native Nations of this country are very diverse in history, culture and practices; yet they all have one commonality: the reverence and respect paid to Grandmothers, the matriarchs.  Writing a column about that may be a little delicate, yet I venture there, because I “now are one”, though I don’t feel old enough, qualified enough or quite ready to do that adequately.  Yet, this Grandma business sneaks up on you and you gotta figure it out.

There is enough to say about Native grandmothers to fill up volumes, yet since this is a space-limited column, it lightly touches upon a few points, important to me.

As a grandma, I am known by several different names:  Geh-eh to the Cheyenne grandchildren; Kaale (pronounced Kah-lah) to the Crow grandchildren and Nanna or Grandma Crem to the adopted white ones.  No matter the name, the concept is the same.  And who could ever have too many grandchildren?

So?  What are Grandmas supposed to do?  Though I’ve had some experience at this, because of the recent reunification with my Crow grandchildren who are right on my doorstep, I feel more like a Kaalle in training.  My Cheyenne grandchildren are at a far distance, so far, only requiring phone calls, gifts and the occasional infusion of money.  Because they live in Connecticut, we rarely see each other.  And though the non-Indian grandchildren live right here in Sheridan, I am really am only a “secondary” Nanna to them, not expected to do that much, except help babysit once in a while, give cuddles upon demand, food and praise to them for being so smart and athletic. Or demand the remote control when they get a little too crazy with cable, Netflix or T.V.

I bring to mind the many Cheyenne grandmothers I was fortunate to know. Great-grandma Kinzel, very small, then in her 70’s, seemed ancient and stern to me when small; Grandma Emma, her daughter, was younger, but also small, tough and quite intimidating, but ever armed with wonderful food and treats, even if she did daily pull my long hair into tight braids, giving me “chink” eyes and finally Grandma Bessie, in her 80’s, seemed much more accommodating, with a bigger, softer lap and little brass earrings which tinkled when she laughed.  She liked to hum soft little tunes while rubbing your back, very nice.

Based upon experience as a grandchild, it seems to me that first, Grandmas are supposed to “keep the family together,” ever explaining how we are related which is why as a teenager “you cannot go around with this one or that one” if a Grandma finds out, which they always did. How do Grandmas hold the family together?  They feed people, ever hosting large family gatherings for the smallest excuse, their houses always smelling like fresh-baked bread or cookies. (Maybe I can cheat on that). In our family, even if it was only ham and bean soup, frybread and chokecherry pudding, there was always enough for everyone.  Everybody had to “eat” and then seconds were pressed upon you, even thirds, with a coffee can “to go”. That was usually a solo act, for Grandpas do not seem to last as long as Grandmas.

And then fun would start: playing cards, whereupon Grandma Kinzel and Emma would dump a stash of nickels and pennies onto the table, gleefully taking all of the grandchildren’s change.  We might practic stick guessing games, have an impromptu baseball game among the kids, Grandma even sometimes going “to bat” with a designated runner or  maybe we just told jokes and silly stories while gathered around her large wooden table, someone sometimes then getting an “eye and tongue” from Grandma.   In our small community, it was hard to keep a secret or indiscretion from the Grandmas, which might bring a lecture. Right in front of everybody.  But, then it turned into a “laughing learning joke” as Grandma admonished, “Don’t make me talk to you like this again.”  It was very funny, unless you were the guilty party.

And finally, if coaxed, a Grandma, ever modest, might share a little story about when she was young, although it was hard to imagine such an old lady ever being that way. And then, her grandsons would tease about when she was young and good-looking, breaking hearts, bringing a chuckle from her.  “That’s why I know how you are,” she’d remind.

Grandmas also “remember” people: birthdays, Christmas, Easter etc.  With small gifts, perhaps only a card with a dollar bill or handkerchief stuck in it or maybe a little beaded gift.  There were so many to remember that most Grandmas had to resort to a diary or notebook to keep track. They like to record things anyway, such as: May 1, 1973, rain.  So-and-so, another grandchild, was born. 7 lbs., 2 oz. Healthy.

The other essential thing that Grandmas do, especially, but not exclusively Native, is to provide a refuge when grandchildren need a safe place, due to the problems which their parents experience. Grandma Kinzel, for example not only raised her own unruly horde but provided a home and refuge to many other relatives and stray children, as did my own mother, now a great-grandmother.  In today’s reservation environments, many grandmothers are raising their grandchildren, truly a blessing and salvation to those young ones.  They say that the native women are tough and resourceful and it is true – the mark of a true grandmother.  Afterall, are we not the same as “Mother Earth” who provides sustenance for all creatures?  Especially our own.

And, Grandmas teach things.  It might be beadwork, quilting, how to successfully raise chickens, a garden or even something so simple as how to correctly sweep and mop the floor.  But the more important things are intrinsic: the value of family; hard work; generosity, practiced and taught in small ways, quickly picked up by the children. My Crow grandchildren, for example, are very good at this, under the guidance of their mother, Jerilynn Harris, who counsels: “Kaalle eats first; get her a chair; take her a plate and hot tea; get her a warm blanket; give her a hug and smile and say “I love you Kaalle.”  And, they often bring small gifts.  (I may need a larger refrigerator and more magnets to display crayon creations).

They are very good and conscientious about that.  And, they are teaching me – now motivating me to pursue a ruthless, relentless search for small treasures that might delight them too, bringing a smile or a hug in turn.  That’s how generosity, the most important value of all, is learned – by example and practice.

Hmm…this Grandma business might not be too intimidating after all.  I think I can grow into it.

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