A Tough & Tender Kinship

First Place, Creative Nonfiction, at Willamette Writers Conference in 1999. Published in Woven on the Wind, Linda Hasselstrom, et.al., Houghton Mifflin, 1999. ISBN# 0-395-97708-8.

Publishers Weekly: “A fine collection of essay, poems and personal narratives in “sagebrush country”… contributors include Dorothy Blackcrow Mack on marrying into a Lakota family.”

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2001: “Some, like Dorothy Blackcrow Mack, recall the lessons they learned from older women such as her Black Crow mother-in-law Emma (who taught her how to pick sage for the sweat lodge, butcher cattle, and cook native dishes like ‘puppy soup’).”


When I married into the Black Crow family on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1977, I soon learned that it was more important to please my sister-in-law than my husband, Selo. In a traditional Lakota tiyospaya, or extended family, the matriarch holds the family together.

So Catherine Prairie, the eldest of the Black Crow sisters, had the final say. Although Catherine was her legal name, on the reservation all the kids called her Obbi, and all grownups called her Emma.

Once we arrived in Wanblee, Selo took me to meet Emma in her Lakota-speaking home. We wanted to live in her 1918 “Sioux Benefits” cabin at Camp Lakota out in the country, and needed her permission. We planned to fence 800 acres of Black Crow land to raise a sacred herd of buffalo.

I knew Emma approved of the buffalo herd, but not necessarily the White wife, so I was hesitant to meet her. She already called me Winyan Tanka, Selo said — Big Boss Woman.

Selo seemed reluctant to face Emma as well, barely entering the kitchen of her Bureau of Indian Affairs house. It was full of Indian women sitting around a big table, cutting up meat into long thin strips. At the stove, an older woman wearing a large work apron stirred a huge pot of tanigha, cow guts.

Selo spoke rapidly in Lakota to her, and then said to me, “This is my tanke, my big sister, Emma,” and with barely a pause, said to her, “Le mitaichu, Dorothy.”

He grabbed the enamel coffeepot, poured himself a cup of coffee, waved and joined the Black Crow men cutting firewood in the back yard.

Emma and I shook hands. Hers was strong and firm. She was hefty, not fat or tall, but broad-shouldered and formidable, like a chunk of iron.

Yet her face was fine-boned, sharp and triangular, with deep-sunk eyes and vestiges of_a once-beautiful profile. Wisps of black hair curled from beneath her purple head-scarf. She didn’t seem fifty-five.

Emma handed me a cup of strong black coffee. “Shkepan,” she said, and switched to English. “Sister-in-law, welcome to Wanblee.” She nodded towards the other women, cleared a place at the big kitchen table, and sat down across from me.

The other women, ranging from twenty to forty, looked like sisters—long straight black hair parted in the center, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, straight noses, full lips. They smiled at me, but waited for Emma to speak.

“How many brothers you got?” Emma began by establishing relations, the opening of any Lakota conversation, and since I had no relations on the res, she would ask about my family.

“One,” I replied.

She leaned forward, peering at me as if I might be ill. “Only one?”

I nodded, thinking of my brother three thousand miles away. He was six years younger than me, and had grown up with a different set of friends. I’d last seen him four years ago. I asked in reply, “How many brothers do you have?”

“Four living,” she paused, “and one dead, so you married the youngest. How many sisters you got?”

“None.” I sipped the thick reboiled coffee I’d been given.

“None?” She glanced around the table at the other women.

It was a painful subject. I should have said, none living, one dead, but instead I said, “How many sisters do you have?”

“Eight living, five sitting right here—“ she nodded her head “—Leona, Agnes, Agatha, Betty Lou and Rena Belle—“_ She paused, “and two dead. How many cousins?”

“One.”

Emma laughed. “Only one? One cousin?” Her sisters joined in the laughter.

“Jeez, imagine! Only one cousin!” said Rena Belle, the youngest, skinny in tight jeans. “I never met nobody with just one cousin!”

Emma ignored her, continuing her litany. “How many aunts?”

I began to get it. I said hesitantly, “One.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded, her eyes wide. “And how many uncles?”

“One.” I felt myself flushing, ashamed in spite of myself.

Un-shi-ka,” the six sisters murmured in unison, leaning on the “oon.” I knew from the Lakota prayer, Creator, take pity on us, that this word meant pitiful.

Coming from a nuclear family made me poor in relatives, but I had only now felt the loss. For I had grown up as a loner, quite happy in my academic career. Now, depending on one’s viewpoint, I was self-sufficient and individualistic, or self-centered and deprived.

Emma reached across the table and took my hand in her iron grip. “Shkepan, now you’re a Black Crow, you got lotsa sisters.” All the women nodded. Rena Belle laughed. “Lotsa brothers and cousins and aunties and uncles, too.”

I — the outsider, the professor from the big university — sighed with relief. How lucky not to have eight sisters and five brothers! I smiled ruefully.

Because I was unshika, pitiful without relatives, and practically an orphan, they would take me into the family. Emma would give us her cabin, and we could move in.

My relief was short-lived. Being taken in as a Black Crow made my life very difficult. I had to_ behave properly, because Black Crow honor was at stake. Thus began many tests.

In traditional Lakota society, men worked with men, women with women. I knew this, but our fence crew at Camp Lakota was so small, that I pitched right in.

At the university, I’d always worked with men. I heard that Emma didn’t approve, but we had to finish the buffalo fence and get the sacred herd before the sundance in August

After a month Emma moved out to Camp Lakota to reclaim her matriarchal role and run things properly. I was acquiring bad habits.

I went to the outhouse alone, rather than accompanied by another woman. I spoke Lakota using men’s vocabulary, not women’s. I watched the men’s sweat lodge door flap, and learned their sacred songs. Black Crows could get a bad reputation.

Worse yet, I was starving the men. Emma took over the cooking, serving traditional foods with generous portions. I was removed from the fence crew to help her. Each day became a test:

  • Gather Indian food.
  • Dig wild turnips when the tassel turns blue, use the stems to braid them into long strands to dry.
  • Pick chokecherries when they turn black, grind them fine and make patties to dry.
  • Don’t squish the buffalo berries, and watch out for the thorns.
  • Boil and can them, and wild plums, too, for berry pudding.
  • Pick only male sage for the sweat lodge, only female sage for women’s tea.
  • Most of all, don’t be greedy – don’t pick them all, and leave an offering.
  • Butcher with a sharp knife, and save all the parts: heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, even hooves.
  • Wash the stinky cow guts clean for soup.
  • Slice the hind quarters into long thin slices and hang to dry.
  • Later pound the dry meat into fine flakes for wasna balls.
  • Boil prairie dogs four times to make them tender.
  • Cook Indian food: fry bread, kabuk (pan) bread, tanigha (cow guts), wozhapi(berry pudding), and even shunka wahanpi(puppy soup) for doctoring ceremonies.
  • Serve big helpings, not stingy ones.

From Emma’s frowning silence, it seemed that I could do nothing right. My fry bread was too small and hard, my dry meat full of holes. Yet, as she kept after me with her iron will, I passed test after test. I learned to keep quiet, watch and listen, and laugh at my mistakes.

One day all the other Black Crow women came out from town to take sweat. I ran to get ready, bringing my towel and an armful of freshly-picked sage. Emma stared at me, scandalized. “Wrap yourself in a blanket, not just a towel like the men!”

While the women scattered the sage around the sweat lodge floor, I found an old blanket and wrapped myself head to foot. Emma, satisfied at last, told me that since it was my first sweat, I should go in last. That way I could follow what everyone else did.

I felt at home inside, as if I were in Mother Earth’s womb. I loved the darkness, the smell of crushed sage, the steam rising from the hot rocks. I recognized the sacred songs I’d learned from_ the men’s sweat, so I sang loudly in Lakota to help out.

Emma stopped singing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Shkepan, you’re singing like a man,” she said. “You end everything like a man, with an o, instead of like a woman, with an e. I bet you sing the men’s songs, too.”

I didn’t say anything. I loved the sweat lodge songs, and my favorites probably belonged to the men. So when Emma began a song that was familiar, I joined in quietly, making sure my endings were e.

After the steam filled us and we prayed to the Great Mystery, Emma opened the door flap. In the men’s sweats, as cool air rushed in they would pass around a metal dipper full of drinking water.

But Emma had no metal dipper. Instead, she dipped a branch of sage in the water bucket and handed it across to me sitting at the door. I took the dripping branch. Somehow, by coming in last, I had become first. In the steamy dark space I hesitated and looked across at Emma.

“Take some and pass it on,” she said in English. I knew that when people went on a vision quest and fasted, they often chewed a bit of sage to lessen their thirst. So I took the sage tip in my mouth and bit off a piece to chew.

The sweat lodge full of Black Crow women fell silent. No one moved. What had I done? I sat stiffly, wanting to disappear. Finally Emma laughed.

Shkepan,” she said in English, “you sure are a greedy washichu.”

I didn’t get it. I knew that washichu, as well as meaning white person, also meant takes-the-fat, or greedy. But what had I done wrong?

“You’re supposed to lick off the drops of water,” she continued, “not take the whole sage and eat it!”

I choked on my mouthful of sage. No way I could put it back. A terrible faux pas. No word for sorry in Lakota. Nothing else to do but join in. I laughed, too.

All the other sisters joined in, dissolving the tension. We laughed and laughed together until our sides hurt and the whole sweat lodge rocked.

“Well, shkepan, you’ll be getting a new name now.” Emma grinned. “Peji Hota Yaksa.”

The sisters began a new round of laughter. I joined in, certain that my new Indian name was better than Big Boss Woman. How fortunate that I’d been able to laugh at myself and stay humble.

Afterwards, when I checked in my Lakota dictionary, I knew that from now on my Black Crow sisters would laugh with me, not against me. They would no longer tease me behind my back, but to my face–in that open, joshing way. I would hear Emma repeat the greedy-sweat story over and over in Lakota, delight on her face at each retelling.

Sure enough, before the day was over, my husband grinned and let me know that my new Indian name was Bites-the-Sage.

After the summer powwows and Indian rodeos and Rosebud Fair, in the winter Emma taught me to bead moccasins and sew star quilts. Quilting homes on the res always had four hooks embedded in the living room ceiling, spaced so the quilt frame could be lowered on ropes.

We Black Crow women would gather together and sew all night before a giveaway. We’d tell stories and gossip and laugh — and finish quickly, two at each end racing to the center, so we could eat.

One day Emma discovered I had an unusual talent. Emma always took me along to wakes and funerals, sometimes held in school gymnasiums or church basements, sometimes in people’s homes.

This time, we’d gone over to a Potato Creek home for an old lady’s wake. She’d been known for her spectacularly beautiful quilts. Over the coffin, propped up on straight chairs in the living room, hung a star quilt emblazoned with an eagle descending from rainbow skies. We all sat admiring it.

“Can you memorize it?” Emma whispered in my ear. “The design?”

“Sure,” I whispered back. “Just let me draw it on the back of the funeral card.”

“No, no,” she whispered in alarm. “You can’t draw at a wake. It’s not respectful of the dead.” She paused. “Besides, that would be stealing. But can you memorize it in your head?”

“Sure,” I repeated. At wakes we sat up the whole night, out of respect. As we drove home in the morning after breakfast, I drew it on the back of a napkin and handed it to Emma.

“Ah,” said the sisters, peering forward from the rear seat. “She got it, without stealing.”

Suddenly I was in demand. My Black Crow sisters dragged me all over the South Dakota to wakes and funerals to memorize quilt designs. Stars, stars, stars. All of nature reshaped into the eight-pointed lone star pattern:

  • spread eagles,
  • descending eagles,
  • red-tailed hawks,
  • thunderbirds.
  • Tipis,
  • crossed peace pipes,
  • war bonnets.
  • American flags,
  • Stars & Stripes,
  • End of the Trail.

How I loved to find names for new quilt designs. Names were half the fun. “Now this one’s a Coney-Island-Ferris-Wheel,” I’d tell Emma, “but this is a Fox-Sneaking-into-the-Tipi.” I would watch her giggle like a girl at my fancy.

But she was also laughing at my White cultural trait to name everything, as if by naming we can pin it down, make it real. I was laughing at myself, too, taking delight in ridiculous names. Still, no one else among the Black Crow women felt it necessary to name a design; sufficient to call it Emma’s.

Under Emma’s influence, I began designing buffalo star quilts, then others based on personal Indian names like Red Horse Woman and White Magpie. Gradually I became a valuable, creative quilt-maker.

But I was never in Emma’s class. Like a Mondrian or Stella, she became bored with recognizable images. She experimented with extended-leg and mirror-image stars, but remained unsatisfied. Abstract geometries filled her dreams.

So Emma, without a compass, began inventing pure sunbursts and novas, pulsating stars with contrasting colors. I named the whole phenomenon Reservation Op Art.

Emma was never a quitter. But one day her heart quit. Matriarch Emma Black Crow Prairie died in 1988. She’d made me a memorizer of stars, so during that year of mourning, I struggled to sew quilts based on her complex geometric designs.

And one year later, when we Black Crows celebrated her memorial dinner, I gave away twelve Op Art star quilts in her honor. Black Crow honor. Generosity — creativity — tradition. A fitting end to a tough and tender kinship.

Comments are closed.