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Dakota Woman
by Susan Power

Mama is born with a hole in her heart, that empty space like a howl for
everything sucked away from her Dakota people. At least she is
American, born in Fort Yates, North Dakota, in 1925; if she’d come
into this world two years earlier she wouldn’t be, since the Indian
Citizenship Act won’t be passed until 1924, making our indigenous peoples
indigenous in the eyes of federal law. Her mother is educated but poor,
so they live in a log house on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
And a girl with a hole in her heart needs to keep still, not crawl around
on the dusty ground, which is why Mama spends her first three years
in a beer keg sawed in two. She watches with intelligent eyes that are
black like young fur, unfaded, every political demotion that hits her
reservation until there is nothing left but dust and flies and a last buf-
alo hunt yielding stringy meat. Her parents are leaders and the people
come on foot, or in wagons, to argue and plan their way into the
future—how do you stitch yourself into the next year when you haven’t
any more beads or sinew or porcupine quills? They argue in Dakota,
Lakota, Nakota, because so many bands of a powerful tribe have been
thrown together to sink or swim, to fight it out, to conquer one anoth-
er and divide their hearts into smell stones. Mama hears warriors who
were young men when they watched Custer die and her uncle who is
the last member of the White Horse Society. She is born at the tattered
edge of a web and will never forget the complex design we once used
to govern ourselves.

   Mama’s cabin is across the road from Sitting Bull’s grave, not the
one put up later in Mobridge but the first one his body was lowered
into, spread with quicklime to hasten his reduction to history. But she
is Dakota, trained to believe that the past is more than ashes, it is in
your hands and your tears and your corn soup. So Sitting Bull never
dies, not for her or her brothers and sisters or their friends who call
him “la la” when they tell him their troubles, “la la” short for
“tunkashila” —the Lakota word for grandfather. “He is still our grand-
father” Mama reminds me after watching HBO’s Bury My Heart at
Wounded Knee
”. “Poor Dee Brown must be turning in his grave for the
mess they made of his book,”” she says, “Don’t believe what they said
about our chief.”

   Mama survives the hole in her heart and the Indian Reorganization
Act of 1934. She survives the “Rooshian” teacher who makes his
Dakota students listen to Herr Hitler’s speeches on the radio. She sur-
vives the nuns at St. Joseph’s Boarding School, their punishments and
grim warnings, how she cards wool for them when she’d rather be
reading. She survives the migration of earth, when overworked soil
rises from the Great Plains, gritty fields sweeping their way east
against the immigrant tide. She survives the Depression and Max
Schmelling’s defeat of Joe Louis—the reservation favorite, the Brown
Bomber.,” who represents every other-colored child who presumes to
matter. She survives brothers who fight in Korea and her sister the
Marine. She survives Relocation and Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s
police arrest her for sitting in at the B.I.A. She survives urban Indian
politics and the death of a husband, her factory jobs and publishing
position at McClurg’s, where pallets of books spread before her like
the treasures of the world. She survives her anger and her disappoint-
ments and scalding beauty,and a lost Creek love who sits with her in a
nightclub as Billie Holiday trails past with a lush fur coat dragging
behind like a child’s blanket. She survives her own imagination com-
plicated as DNA, a diadem of galaxies she wears like a queen—ancient
and modern science fiction. She survives what she knows, what she
dreams, what she remembers, what she predicts, what she fears.

    Mama is born with a hole in her heart, dense and black as the maw
in space. How does it heal itself when wounds are all she knows from
1925 to 1973, from Wounded Knee to Wounded Knee> How does she
grow on clumps of peanut butter saved from lunch at school in her
linty pockets, pinched off through the hours of a child’s day to trounce
hunger. How does she contain every American contradiction, old
voices and new visions, our lot world which we summon now from
Sitting Bull’s grave to save our lost world? Somewhere in that hole of
Mama’s heart is an egg, a red yolk, the daughter gestating in negative
space—her missing piece waiting to be born.


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