My grandmother, Sea Shell WomanCommunity Columnist
Saturday, 29 January 2000
BY CAL THUNDER HAWK
My grandmother’s Lakota name was “Sea Shell Woman” so she always wore a tiny sea shell on a strand of leather around her neck. The first words I learned to speak in the Lakota language were those of her name. She used to point to the sea shell then to herself and pronounce the words to me in Lakota. The words sounded so beautiful that, as I grew up, I always associated the Lakota language and the iridescent beauty of sea shells with her.
Her earliest lessons to me were about unconditional love, the necessity of forgiveness and tolerance. She used the Little White river as a way to teach me about this. The river flows through the Grass Mountain area on the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation, in South Dakota, where I grew up. The valley is sandy limestone with bright areas of chalk exposed along the ridges of the canyon walls. It was an ancient sea bed long ago, now thick with evergreen pine. She pointed to the river and explained to me that it was composed of tiny springs that converged far upstream. She described the larger rivers downstream that the Little White river emptied into and how all those waters flowed into an ancient, vast sea far away. Then she pointed to the rain falling from a cloud and she said that the rain brought back purified, fresh water that flowed away from us, long ago, through the Little White river to the salty sea.
Life always returned to us through these timeless cycles.
She told me about the time when, as a little girl, she was taken away from her family and she believed that she would never come back home. She was a child on the reservation when the U.S. government and Jesuit authorities came to her home and took her away from her family. She was escorted to the St. Francis Indian boarding school and she was confined there in custody of the Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns until she was to graduate from the eighth grade.
The government authorities, with their indispensable Jesuit accomplices, had abducted her and held her hostage. Their ransom demand, made to her father and her mothers, was that her father get rid of one of his two wives with whom he had children. Their family structure was a traditional Lakota custom and he told them that they had no right to force their conceptions of sin on his family. He was unwilling to make such a terrible choice. So they abducted all of his children. My grandmother’s family was destroyed.
However, while confined at the school she met her future husband, Peter Bordeaux. He, too, was a Lakota incarcerated at the school and he had fallen in love with her. He was allowed to visit her only under the supervision of a nun who sat between them and monitored their visits. They were forbidden to speak Lakota to each other. It was as though their tongues had been ripped out of their hearts but they found ways to express their love for each other in the eternal language of the soul while they were taught how to speak the English language and were taught the barbaric customs of their abductors.
Long after they met, she contracted tuberculosis and became gravely ill. She became a useless burden to the Jesuits so she was thrown out and allowed to go back home to die. My grandfather gave her a large sea shell to take home with her. He told her to hold it to her ears whenever she wanted to hear the sea: A wonderfully mystical and powerful thing that exists so impossibly far, far away. When she held it up to my ears I could hear it, too.
She said that when the Jesuits had thrown her away and sent her back home to die it was as if she had become fresh water finally returning, as rain, back home to Grass Mountain: Purified, fresh water that innocently returned from a distant, vast sea of cruelty and bitterness. Although her tears fell like rain they were sweet tears of joy.
My grandfather married her although he risked infection from her disease. He later contracted it but his sacrifice saved her life and they survived for many years and had children.
Years later, she bought my grandfather an expensive, new pocket knife as a birthday gift. The handle was made of a polished sea shell. She said she wanted him to think of her whenever he used it. After she died I desperately wanted that knife and I continually begged my grandfather for it. Finally, he gave it to me as a birthday present and explained that he’d waited so long to give it to me because he wanted me to appreciate it.
Later, I grew into adolescence and, somewhere in the confusion of those reckless years, I lost the knife. Maybe I traded it or gave it away. Maybe I sold it. I can’t recall.
But I had forgotten – completely forgotten – all about this until last week when my wife and I were scavenging through the discarded, cheap junk for sale at the local Salvation Army store. Suddenly, I discovered an old broken pocket knife and a cracked sea shell – priceless and perfect treasures to me now because of my grandparents – so I bought them.
Cal Thunder Hawk is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, a federally-recognized tribe, from the rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, SD.