Overnight, America — its past, present, and future — had become unreal….
For me, the symptom of that experience is a constant traumatic alertness, a terrible, exhausting need to pay attention to everything and everybody and not succumb to the temptation of comforting interpretation. Trauma makes everything abnormal, but the upside is that living with and in a mind where nothing appears normal or stable is the best antidote to normalization.
There is no choice, in other words, other than owning a split mind that would probe and test America, all of its parts, all of its lies, all of us. “Reality” has finally earned its quotation marks. This is a consequence of an unimaginable catastrophe, to be sure, but a good writer should never let a good catastrophe go to waste. The necessary thing to do is to transform shock into a high alertness that prevents anything from being taken for granted — to confront fear and to love the way it makes everything appear strange.
Back in December I lost Oglala relative Ellowyn Locke, age 68. Lost in the way that I can’t go visit her in Porcupine on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota or call her on the phone. I can only visit her in dreams. I can reread her letters. Her artist brother Merle told me I can bring a red rose to her grave then I will feel better.
I am not doing well at all, grieving the most important friend I ever had.
Yes, I have memories, her teaching me, teasing me, photos and all the stories. I also have many gifts she made me. My ONE SMALL SACRIFICE book cover has the family beadwork Ellowyn sewed on the doll she gifted me.
Years ago, I bought a hand bag that had Hopi dancers on a bright turquoise fabric to give to Ellowyn. I made the mistake of taking the purse when we went to visit Sara Thunder Hawk. Of course Sara really admired the purse and I knew I should give it to her, but I already planned to give to Ellowyn. I felt so horrible I couldn’t give it to Sara. I had brought gifts for Sara but I knew that purse was what she wanted. I prayed and prayed Sara would forgive me! That was my learning experience. Imagine the most precious thing you own – like a ring. Could you give it up? If a Lakota elder likes it, you give it to them. That is what we do… Material objects are never as important as giving. I could never refuse a gift either, like when Ellowyn gave me moccasins, even though they were too big. It would hurt her deeply if I refused them. I learned to bring a load of gifts every time I went to see my relatives and my car would be full when I left to go back home.
In 2015, I couldn’t reach her by phone and panicked. Ellowyn had been taken to a rehab facility after breaking her ankle. By 2016, she was the longest living dialysis patient on their rez – over 10 long years. I have photos of her on dialysis in Wounded Knee from an earlier trip. My relative had the will to live but her body was getting weak. She said repeatedly she would accept a new kidney if the donor was living but that wasn’t likely to happen. That call never came.
On the phone in 2016, I told her I was not ready for her to die. That was selfish of me, I know. I felt bad when I said it. Like a big sister, she talked to me about all the fun we had… all the years and stories.. so she comforted me!
Here’s a story I wrote about her life in 2007… here
I call Ellowyn Strong Walking Woman, Winyan Washaka Mani. She is very strong and cares deeply for her family, her relatives and her tribe.
Ellowyn taught me the most important thing I know, which is Mitakuye Oyasin, which translates to we are all related, and relatives.
Pilamaye, thank you for letting me speak about family. I thank my relative Ellowyn for naming me and for making me her relative.