Norma Elaine (Swift) Fielder

What’s my connection to Native Americans and why are they the quintessential focus of my blog? Even before I began this blog I was asked the first question repeatedly. While I’ve shared personal tidbits throughout my blog, I don’t think I’ve answered why. My origin of reason is always my grandmother, who I always look back to as a mentor even though I am terrible at keeping in touch with her.

My grandmother grew up during a time when Native Americans were still being heavily oppressed and she was sent away to Catholic boarding school at a young age. The pain she felt from her time there was still apparent in her eyes as she told me about the harsh punishment she received from the nuns. She absently rubbed her knobby brown knuckles as she recalled being whacked with a ruler time and time again. She especially hated how they took away her soft warm moccasins, only to replace them with stiff leather shoes that left her with blisters on her feet for weeks. “I begged my mother to bring me home, but she wouldn’t allow it,” my grandmother bellowed. Her small hands were balled into tight fists at this point as she delivered sharp blows into the cushions on either side of her, her brow pinched with distress.

Grandma Fielder is one of the toughest ladies I have ever known, and my mom informs me often that she was not a force to be reckoned with when she was in her prime. She raised four ornery boys, one of those being my father, and knew just how to discipline them. She also worked long, exhausting days to keep food on the table. Even before all of that, she watched her brothers enlist and later come home scarred and injured soldiers. In more recent times she has watched a brother-in-law, granddaughter, son, and husband die within a decade.

In more recent times she has watched a brother-in-law, granddaughter, son, and husband die within a decade. I’ve watched her closely in these times, thinking surely she’d break and finally reveal a much more fragile woman. Not a chance. When my grandfather died, my immediate family raced down I-80 to console her. She was sitting almost stoically next to him, only clutching her cane for support. Instead of collapsing into my father’s arms, my grandmother explained that his last breaths were sharp and heavy and then he was gone. I, being extremely close with my grandfather, fled the room sobbing, shortly after being wrapped into the bony cushion of my grandmother’s body, as she whispered, “You cry, Kenz. He loved you so much, baby girl.”

I still can’t help but cry when I reminisce about that moment. Here she had lost her husband of over 50 years but was comforting me. She knew exactly what I needed to hear in that moment as well. I can’t help but think now that she had looked at the work of death far too many times and uttered to me the words that she had always needed to hear.

Grandma Norma younger
A young Grandma Fielder

Since the passing of my grandfather, I haven’t made many trips to see my Grandma Fielder, unfortunately. I’ve always used the, “I’m far too busy,” excuse when it comes down to it. The rare times that I do get to drop by her house in Hastings, NE she is overjoyed to see me. As my interest with Native Americans grow, however, I will sit across from her, calculating the right time to ask a few questions about what she remembers from her childhood, her relatives, or just her tribal culture in general. She usually responds more agreeably when I tell her I have to ask so many “damn” questions (her words not mine) because I have a class project. Then she has me start digging through her things (which is quite difficult because she’s a terrible hoarder at times).

I came across a stack of newspapers from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. My great-grandmother was part of the Hidatsa tribe that was merged with the Mandan and the Arikara to form the Three Affiliated Tribes whose reservation is Fort Berthold so I was ecstatic to find something current. I began leafing through the articles as dust hit my face like a cloud of baby powder. My grandmother snatched the paper from me wondering what I had discovered. “Oh, I get one of these every month,” she chirped. My only thought was that she had to have a hundred of these buried somewhere under her towers of magazines, assorted bath products, and at least a dozen 18-packs of every color of Gatorade ever made.

Grandma Norma with her parents
My great-grandmother Germaine (left), Grandma Fielder, and my great-grandfather Noah Swift (right)

Turns out my allergies were no much for the crazy amount of dust that had collected amongst her “collection” and I had to quit my hunt for the afternoon. I skimmed through a less-dusty issue that had been printed a year before, reading about the oil industry that was taking off quite successfully. This small discovery had opened a memory bank for my grandmother and she looked at me waiting to gain my attention again. When she didn’t get it soon enough (she’s impatient at times) she barked, “Kenzie, put that dusty thing down before you sneeze your guts out!” Despite my puffy red eyes and runny nose, I was reluctant to release the paper but did so mostly out of fear of seeing her raise absolute hell.

“I used to have two Lakota dictionaries in my bedroom, but I think your cousin Sonja and Daryl stole them from me. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted them to even borrow it.”She was referring to my father’s cousins, but my cultural anthropology class had taught me that family ties did not always correlate so I let the matter go.

“One time, I had a lady come and visit me, some college lady, asking if she could use one of my dictionaries for research, but you what I told that lady, Kenz?” I shook my head no. “I told her to get out of here and never come back asking for that again, and oh boy was she was mad, but I didn’t give a shit. White people can’t be coming around here thinking they’ll just take what belongs to me.”

Grandpa Noah and Grandma Swift
My Hidatsa and Lakota great-grandparents. They met in music class at boarding school. I believe Germaine sang while Noah played the piano

My grandma carried on the rest of the afternoon that way, trying to remember all of the items she still possessed from her family. Often times she couldn’t remember even where to begin, or that a family member had taken claim of them. To say the least, I left a little disappointed with only a few old copies of the Fort Berthold newspaper to take back to Lincoln with me.

My grandmother certainly hasn’t been my main source of information for lots of solid facts because she is well into her 70’s and seems to have repressed a lot of her past. She is, however, great for the occasional story or fumbling some Lakota words/phrases out, which is something to treasure. This is why she will forever be my mentor, and my net when I feel that I’m just wasting my time trying to help Native Americans. She’s a phone call away for a pick me up and her resilience reminds me just how strong indigenous people are despite the terrible things that they have faced. Thanks to tough, yet sweet, Grandma Fielder, I push myself more and more every day to better my advocacy efforts and work towards actively making this country a place when indigenous peoples can once again thrive.

 

*The artwork for the featured image is from Linda Haukaas Sicangu Lakota Rosebud Sioux Ledger Art. I can’t seem to find a link for it, but I believe my grandmother is from the Rosebud Reservation which I thought tied nicely into the theme of this post.

 

 

 

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