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Rest in peace

September 21, 2008

I visited the Lame Deer cemetery today, which lies on the hill just east of the college and my house.  I’d never wandered over there before, but since it’s a lazy, autumn Sunday, I decided to take a stroll through the dry, mounded field. 

It’s a restful but sad place.  Restful for it’s secluded spot tucked behind the now-flaming deciduous trees lining the creek along Hwy 212.  Sad for the stories that it tells.

Most of the graves are for people who died in their thirties, forties, and fifties.  Only a few are for people in their sixties, and only one for a person who died in his seventies.  This was of the graves I could read, which are marked with simple stamped-tin plates or painted white crosses.  Only a few have marble headstones, and at least a handful are marked only with stones from the surrounding earth. 

There are also many infant graves, decorated with toys and trinkets atop the simple earth mounds.  Plastic and silk flowers decorate the adult graves along with rosary beads for Catholic men and women, and other items of significance to the deceased and their families.  Tall golden grasses fill the cemetery, shielding many of the graves of individuals whose family members must themselves be deceased or living elsewhere, keeping them from maintaining the sites. 

I recognized most of the last names of those who have died.  Many of the names are from families of folks with whom AIHI has worked or interacted on the reservation (White Man, Foote, Little Coyote) and many are the family names of my students (Bearchum, Shoulderblade, Shot Gunn).  A small town with a painful history, and a painful present. 

And a beautiful, living culture.  Yesterday I attended the give-away ceremony for Joann (I believe her last name is Little Whirlwind, another family name I saw in the cemetery).  Family members donated items such as blankets, food, and the two horses I helped to corral on Friday.  These items were given as gifts to friends and community members who lended their time and services to Joann and her family prior to and just after her death.  Between Friday’s wake and Saturday’s funeral, lunch, and give-away, family members, friends, and the community spent a full 24 hours commemorating Joann’s life – and perhaps spent additional hours of which I am unaware. 

On Friday, Don asked me if I was enjoying being here.  When I responded yes, he seemed surprised.  When I asked why he had reacted that way, he said, “Well, you know, this is small-town America.”  I assured him that I like small-town America, where there’s time to live and time to die; time for the attention we ought to give to family, friends, community, and Mother Earth.

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