I got back from my recent trip to Pine Ridge Reservation last Wednesday and have spent the past couple of days recovering from travel fatigue and a pesky stomach virus that I must have picked up on the trip home. I think I was also recovering from some of the stories I heard while I was visiting with my dear Lakota friends.
The occasion for the trip was a happy one – after 10 years of waiting, they had finally obtained a house of their own and had decided to have it blessed. When I think about the hard times and sadness they have endured over the past 6 years that we’ve known each other (search the category “Lakota friends” for past stories), I think having the house blessed was a really good idea. I had gone expecting a Lakota holy man to bless the house, but apparently summer, with its powwows and other gatherings, was not a good time to “book” one. The task and privilege fell to one of the local Episcopal priests, who had also conducted the funeral for my friend’s daughter a couple of years ago.
As an Episcopalian who had also had my own house blessed (some 30+ years ago), I was familiar with the ritual. I was also pleased to see that the priest, with his Lakota beaded stole, had made slight adaptations in the rite to align it a bit more with Lakota culture.
Much of the rest of the time I was on the reservation was spent sharing stories. I have often thought that a book should be written about my Lakota friend’s life. Although it may be somewhat common to the lives of many on the reservation, it is the story of a woman who has already, in her 30’s, overcome more obstacles in her life than most of us will face in a lifetime. I tell her that if she gives me the stories, I will put them together in a book and the money will be hers since the story is hers. She laughs, but I think she has been considering it more seriously of late.
While we were sitting at her dining room table sharing coffee and conversation, I asked her what her earliest memory was. Personally, the early memories I have center around holidays and playing with my younger sister. So I was not prepared for the story she told me. As you read her story, I ask you to ask yourself: What does it do to a person to have this as his/her earliest memory? Can you put yourself in this picture?
Her earliest memory is an event that occurred when she was about 3 and her sister about 5. They were at home in their mother’s trailer. The extended family had gathered there – aunts, uncles and some she does not recall. Her mother was 8 months pregnant with her next sister.
The adults were all drinking heavily. Apparently that was typical at that time in her mother’s life. Suddenly, and for no reason that a 3 year old could recall, her uncle picked up a huge, old-fashioned butcher knife and stabbed her mother in the back. The knife, which had about a 10 inch blade, had been “slammed about halfway” into the left side of her mother’s back as she and her sister watched.
An aunt quickly pushed the 2 girls into a closet to protect them and locked the door from the outside. However, since the trailer was in poor condition as are many rez homes, the closet door was not a snug fit. There was plenty of space between the door and the frame to allow the 2 children to watch what was unfolding in the hallway outside the closet.
The girls could see the knife still protruding from their mother’s back as she lay on the floor only feet away. They could see the huge pool of blood forming around their mother. She turned her head and looked straight at them, forming the words “help me” as best she could. My friend clearly remembers her eyes connecting with her mother’s eyes.
She also recalls that all of the adults who had been there left, without helping her mother or calling for help. The 2 little girls, who were terrified, threw themselves at the closet door. The door, which was not well made or in good condition, as I noted before, gave way. My friend’s older sister ran and tried to pull the knife out of her mother’s back – but she was too small and the knife was too deep. The girls ran to get a neighbor to help.
The neighbor pulled out the knife and called for help. When the police arrived, they arrested the neighbor for the stabbing, in spite of the stories told by both the girls. Although the neighbor was eventually cleared, the uncle was never arrested. The police refused to believe the girls’ story.
My friend’s mother was taken to the hospital, where they delivered her baby a month early and worked to save both lives. The baby survived. So did her mother, although it took a long time for her to recover.
My friend has had a stressful, tumultuous relationship with her mother over the years, for reasons that still remain unclear to me. However, part of the difficulty seems to stem from the fact that her mother has never accepted and validated the trauma that it was for her 3 year old daughter to observe the stabbing.
My friend told me that she once asked her mother to stop wearing tops with thin straps so much. Her mother told her she would wear whatever she wanted to. She didn’t understand that my friend had a reason for asking that of her mother. You see, every time she saw her mother in a tank top or camisole, she could clearly see the huge scar on her mother’s back when her mother turned away. The sight of that scar would tear open the scar on her psyche every time, bringing her back to the night she was a terrified 3 year old.
When I think about this story – the alcohol driven chaos, the violent violation of a child’s mother, the abandonment by relatives who were meant to care for family, the adults who would not believe a child’s story and the emotional scars left on an innocent little girl – I can understand much of the rest of my friend’s life.
It makes me feel so protective of that child and so angry at the adults when I think about this story. It makes me sad beyond words that this is my friend’s first memory.
So let’s go back to my questions now.
What does it do to a person to have this as his/her earliest memory? I suspect a psychologist could write a book on that. In all likelihood, in layman’s terms, it would scar the person for life.
Can you put yourself in this picture? In all honesty, I cannot. I gratefully grew up in a home where peace was the rule and verbal arguments the infrequent exception. There was no physical violence. Some of you may have had more experiences with violence as a child. I pray that your first childhood memory is not something this traumatic.
But that was rezlife as a child for my friend. I sadly suspect she was not the only one.
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