As we watch Thunderheart for the millionth time, I watch my husband’s face and I marvel at the sparkle in his eyes. It is as if he is reconnecting to a distant past that was lost, but it is very much a part of him.
For those who are unfamiliar with the movie, it is loosely based on the events that took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in the 1970’s. The news reports of the times were of a militant band of Native American Indians who hijacked a small town to press for their demands and rights. They were attempting to make the government accountable for the breach of treaties made with the Indian Nations over 100 plus years. Each and every treaty had been neglected, breached or totally disregarded and people were living in deplorable conditions.
Why would this movie reach so deeply inside this man? His roots are in these past events. He is Native American and his soul hungers for understanding of his lost traditions.
My husband’s history begins with his maternal grandmother, Lela. She was the most influential person in his life and rightfully so. To know the small amount that we do about this remarkable woman is astounding. Somewhere, deep within my husband’s chest beats a heart in time with his grandmother’s. His heart thrills to the drums of native dance and his heart longs for a time when the land was in harmony and a man’s soul was free…
The facts of her birth and the maiden name of her mother are lost to us. We know that Lela was born in west central Illinois and her childhood was spent in Springfield. The pictures of Lela’s mother (Pauline) show that there was little doubt that she was full blooded Indian. Her hair is long and in braids. Her face is one like those we see of the plains Indians that were taken as photographers roam the west.
We are not certain of what Nation Lela’s mother derives. Some of the family say Cherokee, some lean toward Souix. No one knows for sure.
We can only imagine the stigma and the prejudice in the late 1890’s that followed this loving man who took a “Squaw” as a bride…. We do know that taking an Indian for a wife was not done in polite society. Great prejudice agaisnt anyone whose skin was not the same was always present. Those “savages” and “half breeds” definately were not welcomed.
Lela was the oldest of four. She was tall and strong with a beauty that was uncommon. She had two brothers and a younger sister at the time of the tragedy.
The only details we have of this life altering event was that it happened when Lela was in first grade. She came home from school to learn that her father had been struck and killed by a streetcar. I can only imagine what turmoil beset this family. Its sole source of income and support had just died. How would they survive?
I imagine that Lela’s mother, Polly (Pauline) did what she learned on the reservation and that was to turn to the church. The Catholic church had gone to the Indians from the time of the French traders and trappers who found their way to the Midwest. The priests followed along with the trappers and the priest’s mission was to save the savages from themselves. Rarely did the priest desire to learn anything of their ways or beliefs. After all, they were hopeless savages, they were Indians.
The priests were doing what was done since the time of Columbus. Kings and wealthy men wanted the riches and the wealth of a region. To soothe their greedy consciences, they sent the priests to claim the new territory in the name of God and avarice began the plunder. It was only natural that Polly turned to the church for help. It was a terrible time for her and the children and they were in dire need.
The church was interested in Polly and her plight; they were interested in the children. For years, the church has secured its future through the children. “Train a child in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not turn from it.” The children were the future and they were the only value that interested the church in Polly.
So, the days of Catechism began for Lela, Alfred, Theodor and Ruth. All were enrolled in school and each began to learn their lessons. Lela was especially bright. She not only learned her lessons, but she was truly desirous to know about this God.
As time went on, it was clear that the church could not supply enough of the needs of a family of this size. In third grade, Lela was removed from school. The caseworker in charge of her family had a side business. She told Polly that she would pay for Lela to clean houses for her.
Money was money and this struggling family needed every penny; so it was that Lela left her studies. But, she was not allowed to miss Catechism. She had to be able to take her First Communion or all of the help provided by the church would be gone. They had to survive and the church was the core of their survival.
Everyday but Sunday, Lela was sent out to clean the large beautiful houses of the wealthy in Springfield. Many days she worked hungry. She endured harsh words and a hand across her face if she said anything but “Yes madam” to the woman who was growing wealthy on the sweat of a child’s labor. I am sure that this woman reasoned that it was a charity that she was providing to Lela. All the same, this child worked and she was hungry. That was Lela’s childhood…
How many days and how many times Lela prayed for her father to return and restore the safety and security that she had known. Her heart was broken by adult hands that held her life. There was no love, no comfort and the money that was promised was so little. It did little to relieve the miseries that became a staple of Lela’s days…
Lela showed herself a gifted child and she destinguished herself by the intensity that she wanted to know about a great and powerful God. Deep within her heart of hearts, she was wanting this “God” to come and punish those who were so cruel to her and to her family…She wanted justice.
She quickly completed her Catechism and the day of her First Communion approached. Someone bought Lela a beautiful white dress for her to wear on the day on this special day. She was going to be baptised first then confirmed. Once was done, the church would provide more help to the family…Everything depended on Lela and this event….
In her heart, she hated the church. She hated the “whites” and she especially hated the caseworker who used her like a slave. Nobody could discover just how much she hated because her hate would prevent her from taking the sacrement. Her hatred would ruin the only hope of the family…
She practiced and practiced what she was to say. Polly repeated the importance of this event and Lela was terrified that she would do or say something wrong. Every night, she continued to pray for her father to come and rescue her from this terrible life…
The day finally came. Everyone was in the church. The family was sitting on the same pew and Lela was so very nervous. Everything seemed to drone on and on. Finally, it was the appointed place in the mass for her First Communion and she was called to the alter to stand in before God and the priest…
As the priest was reciting his litergy in Latin, Lela felt an overwhelming need to turn around. She turned to look at her mother. She could feel her mother’s eyes burning a hole right through her; threatening her with a gaze that said that she had better not do anything to alter this moment.
As she turned back around to face the priest, she still felt as if someone was looking at her. She turned around again and looked down the aisle. Framed in the doorway of the church was her father.
Lela could see through him, but it didn’t matter, she knew it was her father. As she turned to face him directly, she heard her father say, “Run, Lela run….Run as hard as you can…Get out of here!!!”
In the next second, she turned on her heels and ran out of that church as fast and as hard as she could………………