Updated: Jul 16
My mother died on January 5, 2020. In the Pawnee (Pari) language, atira means mother. Having been born in 1925, she lived a long life and outlived my father by twenty-two years. They were married for nearly fifty years. (The photo above was taken in 1955.) Her life was remarkable due to the fact that it was so commonplace for the period in which she was born, as a Native American woman. "Native American" is a kind of reckless use here though, because her generation didn't identify with an idea of one common ethnic or indigenous identity for all the tribal groups in what is now called the United States. That term is not what she would call herself. I have never heard her use it in my lifetime. She was Pawnee, or "Chahicks si Chahicks," of the Pitahauerata Band, originally East Band, but nowadays affiliated with South Band. These names themselves reflect unique history, but her group would interplay with other indigenous tribes of this land down through time.
As a child, she witnessed a part of Pawnee ways that were disappearing, never to be seen again. Those experiences she didn't ponder in the ways that our American society does (often to extremes), but they stayed deep within her psyche and decades later she would open up about what she witnessed, as a narrator who didn't add much commentary to the stories she shared. For instance, about her mother, she said, "Her name was 'Buffalo Dust.'" "She was about ten years older than my father." "My father's father gave his son to Mama." "She lost her house because she couldn't pay the tax on it." "She and I would lay on the ground at night and look up at the sky, and she told all about it." About Mom's life as a child, she added, "We were poor. We lived in a tent." "Mama helped people out and for that, they gave her food and other things." "It was hard for Mama to take care of us, so I went to Riverside School in Anadarko when I was little." "Later, I took my younger brother over there with me, when Mama couldn't take care of him." "One time, when we were camping with some people, and Mama went out of the tent to help others, I woke up alone in the tent and a woman was watching over me. She had long braids and I didn't know her. I told Mama next day and she asked me what the woman looked like. I described her and Mama said, 'It's a relative who died a long time ago.'"
My mother went up to the eleventh grade at Riverside. Years later when she was in her eighties, my sisters and I took her back there because she had a longing to go over there once more. She showed us the building she had called home for a few years as a very young girl, and then she recalled a tragic event that made her feel helpless and powerless, the rape of a young woman on a school bus some seven decades earlier. She wanted to help the young girl (of another tribal group), but was warned, "If you try to help her, it will happen to you, too." While visiting Riverside that day, we asked to see photos and records of various classes down through the years. The boarding school officials said they don't keep those kinds of records anymore! On our ride back home, I asked Mom what she thought of the trip. She replied, "I wanted someone there to know me." My sister responded, "Mom, you were there seventy years ago. All the people from that time are gone now!" But Mom was insistent, "I wanted someone there to know me."
Eventually, my mother married. She said about her future husband, "He was hitchhiking down the road and he was in an Army uniform. I told the driver, 'There's my man! Pull over. Pick him up!'" They had never met before and he was from a different tribe but they stayed together until 1998 when he died. At first, it was a rocky road they were on and then things settled down.
All through her life, my mother was the kind of person who stayed in the background and didn't step out front very much. That was what she was taught. Part of that characteristic came from Pawnee protocol but it was also in her nature. Generally, people liked her. When I said her life was remarkable because it was so commonplace, this refers to how women of her generation in tribal societies have behaved in larger American society. They are the least known women in American society. My mother was like this up to her last day. It wasn't just due to the period in which she was born; it was because there was an innate knowing about what she came out of in a spiritual and physical sense and what she would go back into after her days ended.
Up until the age of 89, my mother was independent and mobile. She drove alone and was very much a part of the community. Then she had a slight stroke that affected one of her feet. She explained this to me by saying, "My foot had a little stroke." About the age of 91, she became invisible in the community because of the after-effects of the stroke, but people knew she was there, among them. A few months before her death, she began to talk about Pawnee people, who are no longer in this world, coming to see her. She would converse with them and tell them she is not ready to go with them yet. Sometimes, she would talk Pawnee to them or me.
When she died, she had a traditional Pawnee burial. She had requested it and was buried in the South Band cemetery. The community sent her off with love and respect not only for who she was, but for all the people from whom she descended and for the human relationships which came out of preceding lifetimes. They remembered all those names and knew she mattered. Pawnee community does not forget its own. Someone there will always know its members through a continual engagement of everyone's relationships, living and departed. And the physical world reacted to her death the way the Pawnees foretold would happen on certain occasions. The rain came, and I remembered my mother telling me that her mother said, "The rain comes and washes away our tracks, the tracks of everyone and everything. Land becomes new again."