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………………
Lela’s Story Part 2
Seeing her father appear in the doorway of the church would have frightened most anyone, but not Lela. She was very comfortable with these kinds of occurances. After all, had she not prayed for her father to come???
No one knows for sure how long Lela ran that day or where she found herself when her malnourished legs couldn’t take her another step. We do know that she most likely found a “safe” place to hide and to think about the consequences of her actions.
She knew that Polly was going to be quite upset with her. She knew that the church would not supply them with food anymore. And she knew that Polly would tell the Welfare social worker that she ran out of the church to avoid taking the scaraments; that would mean that the welfare woman would just find something for her to do on Sundays.
Lela didn’t know why her father told her to run. All she knew was she could not go through with what was required of her. Maybe, it was this God that she didn’t want to be a part of or maybe it was just that her father knew that what she felt in her heart was not right. After all, how could a loving God allow this much heartache in a child’s life…she didn’t know and she didn’t care. Not anymore. She was done with church and this “White Man’s” God.
As Lela expected, she received a harsh beating with a belt from Polly when she finally found her way home that evening. She knew that she was going to get it, and it hurt a lot. As Lela was receiving her “whippin”, she thought it was so peculiar how that belt was one of the few things of her father’s belongings that Polly kept.
Polly kept the belt and the long duster coat. It was the coat that caused his death. Lela’s father had a habit, a gambling habit. On that fateful day, he was on his way to the racetrack at the fairgrounds in Springfield. He had a hot tip on a horse and he was in a hurry to get his bet placed before the race. He didn’t notice that his coat was entangled on the handrail and as the streetcar took off, he was pulled under the car.
Lela remembered that day as if it was yesterday. Much to everyone’s surprise, her father wasn’t instantly killed, but he survived the intial crushing. He was taken to St John’s hospital and the police were sent to bring the family. Everyone was there around his bed when he breathed his last. Lela thought that her heart was going to fall out of her chest and shatter in a million pieces; that was how much her heart hurt on that day.
Everyday since that horrible accident, her heart hurt with the memory of her father. Without her father, she felt so alone in this world and Polly made it clear that it wouldn’t bother her a moment if she joined him. It would just be one less mouth to feed. Life seemed so unfair to this small child. She bore the weight of the world on her 10 year old shoulders.
Now, that the church was not helping them, food was even harder to come by. The welfare caseworker arranged for the children to take their lunch pails and walk to the same hospital where their father died, St. Johns, and receive food twice a day.
The hospital was across town, but that didn’t matter. In all weathers, the children would walk twice a day and the hospital would fill each child’s pail with whatever was being served to the patients. It was just not enough.
Somehow, the months melted into years and everyone grew in spite of the meager amount of food that they ate. Lela was becoming a pretty young woman. Now that she was more gown than not, Lela could begin cleaning the large homes of the wealthy without anyone to supervise over her.
Inside these large and spacious mansions, Lela was surrounded by the most beautiful of things. There was Waterford cut glass vases and the finest of china that she had to wash and not break. The heavy curtains were made from the richest of fabrics and dressed the windows that she had to wash. The living room had overstuff couches and chairs and the linens on the beds were fit for a king. But, it was the art and the beautiful pictures that hung on the walls that held her spell bound. She wanted to stand and look at the picures, but the length of time that she could enjoy them was measured in the length of time that she used the feather duster to knock off the dust.
Daily, she would trudge home to a shack with no curtains, no dishes, no rugs on the floor, no colorful art work, just a roof to keep the rain out and windows that had no coverings. That was her home. Lela vowed to herself that, one day, she would have beautiful things and a wonderful home of her own to clean!!!
Polly’s days were full of washing other people’s laundry so it fell to Lela to clean the shack and care for her younger siblings. She didn’t mind. She loved her brothers and sister. She made sure that they had clean clothes, their hair was combed and, even though they were poor, they were clean…it was important to Lela that no one looked down on her brothers and sister even if they were half breeds. They were going to look as if someone took pride in them.
When she was 15 years old, her world took an unexpected turn. The caseworker had a new home for her to clean. Because Lela was as tall or taller than most men and because she look older than her years, she was left alone to clean this house.
She always preferred to be alone when she cleaned. She would pretend that this was her home and she would imagine inviting the important people of the town to come in and have dinner at her fine table with all of her beautiful dishes.
This new house was the home of a man who had recently been widowed. He did not have any children so the work load wasn’t as much as the other houses she cleaned. Most people leave the house when she there, but on this particular day, the man of the house did not leave… No matter, Lela began her chores.
As she was cleaning the kitchen, she noticed that he was watching her. When she went into the dining room, she was too busy to notice where the man went. All she knew was that she had to quickly finish because the welfare lady was returning soon. She scheduled Lela to clean another house today. She had to work like the wind.
As she finished with the downstairs, she made her way upstairs to the bedroom. She was making the bed when she heard someone behind her. As she turned, the man of the house was behind her……
Lela’s Story Part 3
A while back, I received an email containing the story of someone’s realization that the most important information contained on a person’s tombstone is represented in the dash between the dates of the birth and death. The sum total of the life experience is contained in the dash and in Lela’s life, the details between Lela and widower are found in the “dash”.
After the incident, We know that Lela’s days of cleaning houses for the welfare woman were over. She was hired at the local department store downtown Springfield. Her long days full of manual labor were over. For Lela, her life, the one that belonged to her was just beginning.
We know that one of the first things that Lela did when she worked at the department store was purchase curtains for Polly’s shack. She hated that everyone could look in on her life and there was nothing to keep prying eyes out. Of course, it was of no interest to Polly whether there were curtains. To Lela, they represented accomplishment, her own accomplishment.
Along with curtains, Lela’s next accomplishment was to marry. We must delegate these details to the “dash” as well. His name was Durment. She married him around her 16th birthday with a baby girl to follow at 17.
Lela’s life was found on the wrong side of the tracks. Durment was a drinker. He wasn’t a happy one. We know that, when he drank, he became violent. Once again, Lela had to defend and protect herself and her daughter.
We understand that Lela tired of Durment’s drinking, throwing his dinner in the floor and then escalating to violence by using her as a punching bag. One night, Lela knew what was coming and she decided to give Durment a taste of his own medicine. She beat him within an inch of his life. Lela wasn’t proud of this, but this was a product of her life.
With her marriage ending in divorce, Lela found herself providing for herself and her daughter in a less than forgiving society. At the turn of the century, poor, half breed divorcee’s were not welcomed in polite society. Lela found herself further down on the wrong side of the tracks. It was those very tracks that held her future.
Lela went to work at the “whistle stop” restaurant. Every town had a whistle stop restaurant. The railroads were the lifeblood of the Midwest and at each intersecting train depot, there was a hotel, a livery, a general store and a restaurant.
It was at the Whistle Stop that Lela eked out a meager living for herself and her child. It was at the Whistle Stop that Lela caught the eye of the available young men. There were two men in particular that hoped that Lela would smile in their direction.
One was a traveling salesman that found himself in the restaurant for “pie and coffee” as he made his appointed rounds. Each time that he would ask Lela for a date, she declined explaning that she had to get home because her mother was caring for her daughter.
Then there was the “railroader”. Railroaders were the land based version of sailors with reputation that they had a woman in every depot. Lela was warned away from becoming involved with any man that worked on the railroad and she heeded that advise.
So, every time this handsome, first generation British, young man asked, Lela politely refused his invitations until New Year’s Eve.
Lela had to work that day and the salesman came in for his usual pie and coffee. He invited Lela to come with him for an evening of celebration. This time, Lela said to meet her at the restaurantat 8:30 PM. That is when she got off of work.
Later in the afternoon, everyone noticed that the whistle on the train engine was blaring its shrill pitch. None stop for over an hour, the train whistle was blowing and everyone in the town was wondering what was the problem.
The police arrived to investigated the cause of the disturbance. There they found a slightly inebriated young railroader who had tied the chain to the train whistle to the outside railing. When they inquired as to why he had tied the whistle off, he replied, that he would not untie the whistle unltil Lela agreed to accompany him to the New Year’s Eve celebration this evening.
The policeman entered the restaurant, explained to Lela that eveyone’s sanity depended on her agreeing to go with this young man, and Lela told the policeman to give the young railroader a message. The message said for the young railroader to meet her at the restaurant at 8:30PM.The police officer quickly relayed the message and, much to everyone’s ears relief, peace was restored.
Lela realized that she had told two men to meet her at the same place at the same time. She knew that at 8:30PM two men would be expecting her to go with them….but which one would she choose?????
These details are known and not in the dash….
Lela’s Story Part 4
It was1918; the dawn of the Jazz Age…the day of flappers, women’s suffrage and the debate as to whether women should have control over their bodies and prevent child conception and birth…It was the days of prohibition and towns were full of speakeasies and underground clubs where women would smoke cigarettes on long filters. It was the dawn of the “Roaring ’20’s” the “Golden Age”.
What an exciting era for a young woman!!! What an accepting time for someone who was not acceptable in polite society…Lela’s world was full of opportunities. These opportunities had never been considered to women before this time in history.
At the end of the First World War, women hoped that their contribution to the workforce would win them the right to vote. They proved their abilities to work outside the home. Many wanted to continue in their positions, but when the “Dough Boys” came marching home, women were instructed to return to the kitchen so as to make room for the returning soldiers….
This was the era of the Great Gatsby, the time of everyone trying to pretend to be well off. Women wanted to appear as women of leisure. They hid the labor calloused hands with gloves and they wore heavy make up to emulate the women in the movies. Their fashion went from high collars and hiding their ankles as in the Victorian age to wearing flimsy slips of dresses with the hem length up to the knee. They danced the “Charleston” to show off their legs and most scandalous, they wore men’s clothes. To promote their new freedoms, they cut their hair into “Bobs”. They wanted equal rights and if it took a more masculine look to achieve it, then so be it.
Women were rebelling and this threatened almost every accepted norm that was kept by women in polite society.These women challenged every area of morality, especially the realm of sexuality. Women engaged in causal sex without any promise of marriage. To live life in this ere, women needed to have contol over their bodies and they wanted to prevent pregnancy. They wanted to have sex and not bear a child every two years for the rest of their child bearing years. They also wanted to prevent pregnancy because the number one cause of death of women in the childbearing years was childbirth. Women wanted to know that they had a choice whether to die or not to die.
All of these issues touched everyone’s lives at the turn of the century. One death in 100 pregnancies were the statistics of the day. There were many men left with a newborn and without a wife or mother to raise their child.
Such was the case of the young engineer. He lost his wife when she gave birth to their first child. When David met Lela, his daughter was three years old, and it was true. David needed to find a mother for his daughter.
His parents were raising his daughter. Life on the railroad was not one that he could raise a child. He knew that his parents would raise his daughter properly. She would grow into becoming a proper young lady.
His parents were immigrants. They came to America and to the midwest with enough money to purchase fine farmland on the Illinois/Indiana border. They were wealthy enough to build a fine home and establish a refined life complete with servants and proper engagements in the community. They were well off in comparison to those around them.
It doesn’t take much to imagine their raised eyebrows when their engineer son brought home Lela. They knew straight away that Lela was not a woman of good breeding. In fact, they were appalled that she was a half breed. It was clear that she did not have the benefit of any “finishing” and or education. Lela definately was beneath their standards and they were not happy at all that David was wanting to marry beneath his station.
David made sure as to never tell them of how he tied off the train whistle and let it blow until Lela accepted his invitation to a New Year’s Eve night on the town. He definitely didn’t tell them how Lela had told two men to meet her at the same time at the same place. They would have disapproved of Lela’s cheekiness in deciding that she would go with the man who first appeared in the doorway of the Whistle Stop restaurant. Knowing the circumstances of their meeting would have confirmed their opinion that Lela was a “loose” woman, a flapper, one of those women. She was a suffragette, a person that wanted to change the accepted customs of society…
The night of New Year’s Eve was one that Lela will never forget. She waited as the hour of closing crept nearer. She quickly finished her duties and went to the back of the restaurant to freshen up. At 8:25, she put on her coat and gathered her purse. She was ready and she would leave with the first man who came in the door. She didn’t care if it was the traveling salesman or the young engineer. She was going out on the town tonight and she was going to have a fantastic time.
Eight : thirty, appeared on the clock on the wall. Lela heard someone whistling a popular song of the day. It was a lively rendition of “Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats and Little Lambs Eat Ivy”. It was a happy tune and one that could move your feet to dance. In the next moment, Lela saw the young engineer rounding the corner of the restaurant. He was carrying a few tired looking flowers that he found at the rail station. Truth be told, the flowers were from a funeral wreath that was accompanying a casket on his train. It was the best he could do in the dead of winter.
As he entered the restaurant, he offered Lela the flowers then he offered his arm to Lela and away they went out of the door of the restaurant. Laughing and talking excitedly, they turned toward downtown Springfield. Just as they rounded the corner of the restaurant, the traveling salesman was hurrying toward the door. When he realized that Lela was on the arm of another man, he stopped in his tracks. He had a bewildered look of surprise and disappointment on his face. David Lee tipped his hat to the salesman and Lela gave him a huge smile and a giggle as they pasted the man. The salesman just stood there in utter amazement at the turn of these events…
Lela had a great time that night and she and David began dating regularly. Of course, Polly didn’t approve. Polly saw David as a typical railroad man who would soon be off down the tracks and he would forget all about her daughter…just another man that was what David was to Polly…
But, not to Lela. He was handsome. He had a wonderful sense of humor and he seemed to be smitten with her. She found herself waiting in anticipation for him to come into the restaurant. There were days when he was gone on the train and she couldn’t help but wonder if there were other women in other restaurants and train stations. She would never truly know, but she wanted to believe that she had captured this man’s heart because he definitely had captured hers…
After dating a few months, they decided to marry. Lela met David’s parents and his young daughter. His daughter, Emily, was the same age as her Pauline. Lela believed that they would make a happy family together. When David asked Polly’s permission to marry, Lela was so excited. Now, they just had to set a date.
One Friday, David came into the restaruant. He had a wire from his parents. The message said that he needed to come home. His parents sent word that they had an important matter to discuss with him and he should proceed home as soon as possible. David’s first thought was his daughter. David knew that he had to leave and he told Lela that he would be gone for a few days. He promised that on his return, they would decide on their wedding date.
When David arrived at his parent’s home, he was glad to see his daughter was well and was very happy to see him… She had grown since he last saw her. She was a delightful child, even though she seemed a little spoiled by her grandparents.
He knew that his Irish mother and British father provided the most stable environment for his child. He also knew that she would be raised at a proper young lady. Normally, he was at peace with this arrangement. But, tonight there was something in the air that troubled him.
After a wonderful dinner, David and his parents retired to the parlor. They were served coffee and David couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. He didn’t have long to wait, either.
His mother started the conversation with reminding David of his responsibilities. As the oldest son, he was expected to inherit the family farm. In exchange for this inheritance, he was expected to care for both of his parents as they aged. She also reminded him of his responsibility to Emily. As her father, he was expected to find a woman of suitable station to help mold Emily into the ways of a young woman of good breeding.
Then his father spoke. He said that his mother and he were not pleased with his choice of a mother for Emily. He stated that Lela was not at all suitable as a wife for their son. He reminded David that Lela was from the world of poverty and her parentage included an Indian mother. He went on to say that Lela was a divorced woman and that David should be mindful of his families standing in the community. He concluded his remarks with the statement that Lela would just no do as a new member in the family.
Then, his father made a statement that rattled David’s world. His father stated that should David pursue this marriage with Lela that they would be forced to disinherit him. He added that they would see to it that Emily would be taken away from him and he would not see her or have anything further to do with his daughter…there was no need for discussion…
David knew that there was no such thing as discussion in this household. When his father or mother spoke, that was it. They never said things in jest or in passing. David knew that this decision was made and it was most likely made the first time they laid eyes on Lela. Any protest by David was useless…
David excused himself from the parlor. He needed to think about what was just said. He was aware that Lela didn’t meet the standard that his parents had always upheld, but he never considered their withholding his child from him…
David didn’t know what to do. He loved Lela. He loved her more than any woman he had ever known. He was sorry to admit that he loved Lela more than he loved his first wife. He didn’t know that he could love anyone as much as he loved Lela. Now, he had to give her up or loose his daughter…He knew his parents well enough to know that they would do exactly as they said that they would do. How was he going to tell Lela?
How was he going to choose between the woman that he loved and his child? How was he going to tell Lela?