Niksíssta (My Mother)
This blog is dedicated to my late mother, Martha (nee Black Kettle), “Sa ko yi poot taki” or “Last to take flight woman”. The latter is my mother’s Blackfoot name. Her Blackfoot name rings true as she was the last of her siblings to pass on - in other words the last to take flight. I lost my mother to cancer on November 1st, 2000. She took her last breath sometime after 8 AM on that morning. I missed her by a few minutes but I had been there the day before; even then, she didn’t respond to my presence or my calls of “Na aah”, another term for mother. She was a residential school survivor of the Roman Catholic Crowfoot school. She was married through an arranged marriage at the age of 18; she said that her husband-to-be was standing at the bottom of the steps when she left the school. She went on to have 12 of us, 7 brothers and 5 sisters. This was in spite of her plan was to become a nun. How different our plans are sometimes when culture dictates our lives.
Cancer took the strength and resilience out of her but in her life, she demonstrated all those qualities in many ways. The strength showed through her hard work as a mother. She was not a quitter. She kept us fed. She made sure there was wood and coal for the stove. She made sure we had clean clothes even though before she got her first washing machine, she had to use a scrub board. I remember post-residential school days, seeing my mother working hard and I felt guilty so I helped her with laundry by holding the wet clothes for her while she hung them up with clothes pins. I helped her haul water, chopped wood, and we were on our hands and knees digging around for leftover coal from the coal bin we used. As I am writing these memories about my mother, it brings tears to my eyes. Her creativity in cooking showed by using “Spork” in different ways to feed us for breakfast, lunch and supper. We received Spork as a ration back in the early 60’s from the Indian Agent’s office. Her resilience showed through her ability to withstand my late fathers’ actions and behaviours. She kept going and depended on her Christian faith with the Bible always by her side. She kept going to church even though my father didn’t support her. I admired and followed her qualities by looking, listening and learning – the three L’s. The three L’s were applied in many different ways, even in the art of cooking. I learned how to do fry bread by looking at my mother prepare the fry bread and helping her, by listening to her instructions while she prepared the fry bread and finally, learning the step by step process. Eventually, she allowed me to do it myself, albeit, my fry bread didn’t quite come out like hers. I eventually passed my knowledge down to my wife because she didn’t know how to make fry bread. I have since retired from making fry bread.
My mother gave all 12 of us the best of her ability to raise us up to the age of seven (7) before she gave us up to the residential school system. The system forced parents to give up their children without question or protest otherwise, if you don’t comply, its jail. Several years ago, I asked my mother if anyone had threatened her with jail, if she didn’t give us up to the school. With her silent nature, she didn’t say anything but answered with a nod and her eyes. I was pretty upset, “How dare someone threaten my mother with jail?” she was only being a mother and what mothers do best to protect their children. I often wondered about mothers who had to give up their children to the system and what goes through their minds. Did it make my mother feel less of a parent by giving up her children to a system that acted like a surrogate parent to us? Furthermore, how did my father feel? Did my parents already understand what we would go through since they both attended residential school, too? I assume they felt powerless and had no recourse since non-compliance meant possible incarceration. To this day, I regret not asking my mother but then again, we didn’t talk about it as a family.
I’m glad that I was around at a time when life on the reserve meant that we still used kerosene lamps instead of flicking a light switch; used coal and wood stoves rather than gas or electric stoves; used outhouses rather than indoor washrooms; hauled our water using community pumps instead of indoor plumbing; and used the warmth from the coal and wood stoves rather than putting up the thermostat. An Elder, Mrs. Axe, summed it up by saying that these young people nowadays are spoiled. When it gets cold, they turn up the heat; when they need light, they flick on the switch; and when they need to use the bathroom, they just go into the washroom rather than go outside to the outhouse. I appreciate life and what I have now when I reflect back on those days when times were tough. While I cried at night at the residential school, I am certain that my mother cried as well for her children. My mother, the quiet one, who lived up to her name “Sa ko yi poot taki” by being the last one to take flight. She took her last flight on November 01, 2000. Goodbye again, Na aah.