My heart lives in Montana.
When I close my eyes, I find myself sitting on the concrete underneath Mikushi’s clothesline. I played on it every day, hanging upside down staring at the sky. Even now, I can close my eyes and it’s a summer day; I hear the whippoorwill singing its beautiful song, a song that I will always associate with Mikushi and my life growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Wolf Point, Montana.
Mikushi’s name was Mary Garfield Reddog Knorr; she was born in August of 1900. She stood almost six feet tall. She first married Clifford Reddog, was widowed, and then married William Knorr. My mother, Jolene Miller, descends from her daughter LaVerne Reddog Miller, and I descend from Jolene, making Mikushi my great-grandmother.
I met Mikushi in 1974, the year I was born. Mihun was sixteen when she had me and two years later gave me to Mikushi to raise as Mihun was too young for the responsibility of caring for a baby, being just a girl herself. It may sound sad being “given away” but I realize now, in my forty-second year, that she gave us a gift, the gift of one another. And that’s how it would be. We took care of one another, she filled a space in my heart, and I filled a space in hers. If I could change any of it, I would not; I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
One time, while I was cooking us fried eggs I accidentally spilled the hot grease down the outside of my right calf; the scar still remains even after thirty years. I mention this as its presence is permanent; it happened while I was still with her.
Sometimes, when life gets really bad, when my mind goes to shit, I will selfishly call her to me. She shows me she’s here, she comes as a strong wind, a slammed cupboard, or sometimes a rattle. Once, during an exceptionally hard time, she came rushing through the back door of our house and stood behind me. I could feel her. I could smell her. She felt worried. She scared me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around to see her but I knew she was there.
Our days were filled with people coming, bringing little gifts or food. In turn, they’d receive stories and probably that good feeling that lingers in your heart after having been in the presence of a cherished elder.
The cul-de-sac we lived on had many tribal houses. Of course, everyone knew everyone, likely related by blood or just having been “taken” as a relative. I am sad to not be able to remember many of the names other than Redstone, Archambeau, Lambert, and Adams.
There was a kushi named Mary. She lived kitty-corner from us all the way across in a wintergreen duplex (thirty years later, as an officer, I would participate in processing a suicide scene in that same duplex; the first I had ever seen). She would make pan bread every day, and she would send it over to us in a large paper Buttrey’s bag. I can still taste that bread, can still smell its memory.
We battled cockroaches my whole childhood. It was normal to see them scatter when the light would flick on. The house had an underlying smell of them, drying deer meat, freshly killed geese, pan bread, and sweet grass.
In Mikushi’s closet that was covered with a long cotton sheet, on the top shelf were stacks of ice cream buckets, maybe three high and four across, of dried tipsinna. She’d have me get up there for something at times, and so I’d stand on a high stool and pick one up to shake.
Once, I shared a cigarette with her. She told me she used to smoke when she was younger. I showed her the cigarette, claiming I’d found it outside. She told me to find a match and we shared a smoke.
After she died, I’d go to where she’s buried, up on Pumpkin Hill. Her grave is now just a mound of dirt, her plate is gone and some weeds have pushed their way up. I would lay down next to her grave. I’d cry and tell her that I was there and just talk to the ground. Sometimes I’d sleep. I would tell her how much I miss her and that I hope she’s okay. I wish I could see her, I wish I could talk with her, I wish I could hug her, I wish I could tell her about my life since she’s been gone, I wish she could meet my children and Mihinkna’s horse. I wish that I had known that it would take me 25 years to speak of her without crying, that I would miss her every day of my life. Even now, my throat begins to clench as I think of her and so many times past. Our life together defines me.
Memories are a wonderful gift. I can just close my eyes and I can see her sitting in her wheelchair, rolling back and forth, with her little gray braids, wearing her cotton dress, sweater, slippers; picking at her dry lips while whistling through the last teeth in her mouth.
It has been 30 years since she left to return to the stars and not a day has passed that I haven’t thought of her. I know that she is a part of me and I am part of her, every action and word spoken is a reflection of her and how she raised me.
Our old people and the time that they emerged from are important bridges to our past and to what our peoples once were, a past that we will never be able to fully know or understand. Make time for them, you will never have the chance again.