As Christmas Day draws near, I think of my friends who have journeyed to the spirit world.
I suppose Christmas is not the time to reflect on these things that should be saved for Memorial Day, but it is the moments in their lives they shared with me at this time of the year that brings them to mind.
I am reminded of one of my dearest friends. His name was Enos Poor Bear. A veteran of World War II, Enos always carried the memories of his days in the army with him. He was proud to have served and if you visited his house near Wanblee (Eagle Nest) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota you would see portraits of him and his army buddies hanging on the walls.
Enos died of heart problems several years ago. He wanted to die at home, but he died in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital at Hot Springs, S. D. instead.
During the days known as “Relocation” that took place in the 1950s, Enos took the option to “relocate” and, along with his family, he was sent to Chicago. The object of this failed Bureau of Indian Affairs program was to get the Indians off the reservations by sending them to the ghettoes of the big cities, training them in a profession, and encouraging them to become a part of mainstream America.
I say failed program because most of those sent on relocation got homesick and came back to the reservation where they were raised. Nonetheless, this government experiment did a lot of damage to the Indian people. It disrupted the lives of close families. It introduced many rural Indians to drugs and alcohol. And it separated families from their traditions and culture. It also cost the taxpayers of America millions of dollars.
When Enos and his family first arrived in Chicago they settled into an apartment in a not-so-nice part of town paid for by the BIA. He was enrolled in a school to become a welder. Many years ago I wrote that there are probably more unemployed welders living on Indian reservations than any other profession. It seems the BIA thought all male Indians should be welders. Gotta weld those teepees together, you know.
Enos bought a Chicago Tribune and when he opened it to the sports pages he laughed out loud. It seems one of the Chicago baseball teams had just acquired Enos “Country” Slaughter, and the headline read, “Welcome to Chicago Enos.” He cut out that headline, framed it, and hung it on the wall of his shabby apartment. Later, when he returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation, he would often show the headlines to visitors and say, “They liked me so much when I relocated to Chicago that they welcomed me with big headlines.”
One snowy day I sat in Vesta’s Café in Martin, S. D. and shared a cup of coffee with Enos. We sat by the window and through the moisture on the glass watched the lights of Christmas winking and blinking through the hazy, falling snow. I wrote about the conversation we had that day and that column won the H. L. Mencken Award from the Baltimore Sun. Enos had that newspaper column framed also and placed it next to the one, now yellow with age, that read, “Welcome to Chicago, Enos.”
At Christmas time I miss this Lakota elder and the wealth of knowledge he shared with me.
In the middle 1970s, I did a weekly television show called The First Americans for KEVN-TV in Rapid City, S. D. The station often allowed me to take a camera and go out to the different Indian reservations to gather interviews and background for my show.
It was in the early 1970s when I decided to do a show about Christmas on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In a few years Pine Ridge would be named by the U. S. Census Bureau as the “Poorest County in America.” I wanted to show my audience in Rapid City how their neighbors on the reservation, neighbors so near and yet so far from them, celebrated Christmas.
I chose to spend a freezing, cold evening with an elderly Lakota woman I really cared about. Her name was Agnes Yellow Boy. Agnes lived in one of the poorest districts of the vast reservation at a place called Calico. It is true that she was without many material things that Christmas, but in the Lakota way, she was one of the richest women in the world. In poor health and so weak she could barely speak, she was surrounded by a family that loved her.
When I turned on the television camera in her humble, log cabin, I felt like I was intruding, but Agnes and her children welcomed me with smiles and laughter. Agnes and I had gone to the Holy Rosary Mission Boarding School to get our education and we shared memories, good and bad, of those days.
There was a small, sparsely decorated tree sitting on a table and gifts were wrapped in colorful paper beneath it. Agnes, who would pass away not long after our interview, was very weak, and she reached up and pulled my head to her lips so she could whisper in my ear. She said, “My children are having a hard time finding work. Things are really bad on the reservation now and I wonder what we can do to make it better.” She was right. At that time, and even today, unemployment on the Pine Ridge Reservation was, and is, as high as 75 percent. And Pine Ridge is still near the top as the poorest county in America.
My Christmas visit with Agnes renewed my faith in the Lakota people and their chances of survival. Listening to this woman talk about the future for her children, for the future of the Lakota, and for the future of this land she called home with a strong and positive point of view, allowed me to see the strength and devotion of the Lakota elders. I knew things would be alright as long as we had elders like Agnes.
Agnes hugged me before I walked into that freezing night to do my stand up close outside the door of her cabin. This was to be her last Christmas on Makoche Unci (Grandmother Earth) and somehow I knew it. It wasn’t the chilling wind that brought the tears to my eyes as I looked into the camera and wished the Yellow Boy family a Merry Christmas.
Although it is sad to think of these wonderful elders at this time of the year, the good memories we shared always make Christmas a little brighter.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the former publisher of Native Sun News. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1994)