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Mother Corn’s Promise
The Creator gave the Arikara our way of life, and Mother Corn teaches us to always look after one another, stressing the importance of family, acceptance, and love. Above all, through these teachings and others, Mother Corn’s promise was that the Arikara would survive.
My grandparents raised me on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation until I was six years old. I called them “ápa’,” grandfather, and “áka’,” grandmother. When I was older, I learned they weren’t my mom’s biological parents, but her mom’s sister and brother-in-law. The Arikara don’t have a word for uncle and auntie, only father, grandfather, mother, grandmother, brother, and sister. I was taught that all of my grandmother’s sisters and cousins were “grandma” and it was the same on my grandfather’s side. So I had many grandfathers and grandmothers. When my mother crosses over I will take her only living sister as my mom and I will treat her with the same love and respect that she has always shown to me as her son. This tradition of taking care of one another gives us purpose and the promise of Mother Corn reassures our survival. It is a never ending cycle of nurturing and love.
We didn’t have electricity or running water in our home, and my grandfather used to haul water from the Missouri River so they could bathe me. The river water coated the pots with rust, so my grandfather nicknamed me “Rusty.” I would wake up to the sounds of singing, a smoky haze filling the dimly lit room, the smell of burning cedar carrying throughout the house. There were always a lot of people there in the evening. Everyone would be visiting. I would go around saying “hi” before going to bed. Once in a while, someone would grab me and put me on their lap and ask me who I was.“Sahnish,” Arikara. They would point to something and tell me to say that in our language. “TaWIsaáku,” cedar bowl. But I think when my grandmothers and grandfathers held me they showed me Mother Corn’s teachings. I was cared for. I was one of them.
My grandmother crossed over before my grandfather did. The day they brought her home she was dressed in her favorite purple velvet dress decorated with elk teeth, a beautiful beaded colorful medallion, a wide beaded leather belt, and her white moccasins adorned with quilled flowers. She looked so peaceful like the many times before when I had seen her sleeping. I would go just to be near her. My grandfather passed away not long after. My other grandmothers said he wouldn’t be around much after she was gone. I wondered then about the fate of all my grandparents, and my fate too. from time to time, after he was gone, I would catch a glimpse of my grandfather sitting at the big wooden desk where he read, wrote, and played solitaire for hours, smoking endlessly. The worn deck of playing cards was right where he kept them.
I had just started the first grade. I could feel the change in the air. I knew fall was happening for the leaves began to change color. As I neared my home, I saw a big yellow bus parked outside. The driver walked around, nervously kicking the dirt and looking around until he caught my stare. He stood straight for a moment then leaned against the bus and looked away. I’ve seen this bus before. A lot of my friends and relatives were taken away in this bus. I never saw them again. I quickly entered my home. There stood a White priest. He looked at me and smiled, his short gray hair combed neatly over to one side. An Indian man was with him. He wore round wire glasses and looked uncomfortable in his pin striped suit in my humble home. I felt uneasy. I was going away. This would be the end of my traditional way of life. I would no longer hear the whispered sounds of my language, the singing, the laughter of my people, the smell of burning cedar. No playing endlessly with my brothers and sisters, laughing and running. My sister “fats” began to cry as we both entered the bus. The driver looked away again. He could not look at us. Apa’, grandfather, was gone and there was no one to protect us anymore.
The snow falls outside as I stare out the windows of this brick building, my knees press against the hardwood. I haven’t seen my family in the four winters since I arrived at St. Joseph’s Indian Boarding School. My sister left after a year. I never heard from her again. I wonder about my little brother. We call him “Bambam.” He was four years old when I left. Who is looking after him? Mother Corn, I pray. Why haven’t any of my relatives come for me? At night I stare at the ceiling and listen to the sounds of the new students sobbing. They hide among the many rows of beds in the big room. The tile walls direct their cries upward, blending in with the cries of the past, like a lullaby, I think. I am always afraid for the new ones. Every once in a while, us older kids beat some of them to get them to stop crying, for we know they will never make it if they don’t stop. As I listen to them I hear their home, their ápa’s and áka’s, the taste of dried corn soup. I will not cry. I am not afraid. Mother Corn is here.