Filled with engrossing portraits of the famous and the little-known, We Remember brings into focus the scope and diversity of lives that spanned two world wars, the Great Depression, the administrations of nineteen presidents, the New Deal, and the industrial and information revolutions.
With an introduction by Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the words and pictures of these extraordinary women, We Remember composes an anthem of the feminine soul that, until now, has never been heard in such symphony.
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Read an Excerpt
Minnie Littlebear was born 102 years ago in a wigwam in the woods of Nebraska. She doesn't mark the passage of time according to a monthly calendar.Instead, each spring she waits for a desert weed along the side of the road tobegin changing color.
"And on the day it turns to the color of wheat, that's my birthday," she says, flashing an enormous grin. She is a tall woman with wide eyes, long gray hair; and deep, plentiful wrinkles.
The daughter of George Greywolf and Mary Bear, Minnie knows little English. She speaks through an Indian translator, here at a nursing home just outside the Winnebago reservation in the northeast corner of the state. (Like a number of her peers, Minnie prefers to be called Winnebago or Indian rather than Native American; anyone born in America, after all, is a Native American.)Some of the concepts of the Winnebago, a nation of some four thousand people in Nebraska and another five thousand in Wisconsin, are hard to translate. For instance, there is the manner in which Minnie's father died. The legend, to her, is not a particularly strange piece of family lore:
"There was another woman who loved him," she says. "But he already had a wife and family. Still, this woman was very angry that she could not have him. So somehow she got a piece of his hair. And with that hair she had a hold on him." The scorned lover was able to cast a spell on Minnie's father with that hair. "And eventually, he got sick," she says. "He got a sore on his head. And worms got in. And he got headaches. And then he died."
He died just before Minniewas born. According to Winnebago tradition, a child who never knew her father must be treated with great respect. The youngest of six girls, Minnie was lavished with gifts by the tribe: She received special buckskin clothes and beads and fancy jewelry that she would wear to powwows and harvest celebrations.
Minnie's mother eventually remarried. Her stepfather, Charles French (a Winnebago given an Anglo name by white settlers), built a new log cabin by the river for the family. Minnie was happy. "We had a swing that we hung off a tree. And I would swing and swing and swing." Like her sisters, she did not go to school. The custom was for mothers to teach their children to cook and clean and sew and do beadwork, and fathers to teach their sons how to hunt and be warriors.
When Minnie became a teenager in 1910, something startling happened. "The white man came," she says. "And took me to a boarding school far away."
Boarding school for Indians was a national policy adopted in 1879 that would continue, in various forms, until the 1950s. In its original conception, the idea was to assimilate Indians into mainstream American culture by force. School-age kids were taken from their families and sent sometimes hundreds of miles away to government-run schools. Once there, a child's native clothes would be taken away and she would be given a uniform to wear. She would have to wear strange things on her feet called "shoes." Her hair would be cut. She would be forbidden to speak her native language. She would be punished for dancing or practicing Indian traditions. She would not be allowed to speak to her relatives.
Many Indians recall their days in boarding schools as horrific times of forced labor, abuse, and molestation. They blame boarding schools for the breakdown of the Indian family because it forced so many Indians to grow up outside a family structure, with virtually no examples of parenting to imitate when they became parents. Others see the schools as having been the only chance to learn how to read and write, or, at the very least, as places that provided meals and shelter; which may have been scarce back on the reservation.
"I missed my mother," Minnie says, remembering little else about her time at the school, which she attended for just two years. (Because her family lived in the woods, it's likely that the government did not know about Minnie's family until Minnie's teenage years. Her older sisters were never sent to the schools.)
Not long after returning from boarding school, Minnie was once again sent away from home. But this time it was to a new home, that of Dave Littlebear. She would be his wife. "One morning mother came and she was with her friend," recalls Minnie. "And she told me, 'This lady has come after you because you're going to be for her son.' " Minnie had no say in the arrangement.
"Three horses, a buggy, a harness, and some shawls," recalls Minnie of the exchange. "That's what my mother got."
There was no wedding. Minnie simply moved that afternoon into Dave's home and waited for him to return from his day of working as a woodsman.
Did she like him?
"He liked me," she says.
Did she think he was handsome?
Fortunately, Minnie had brought along her cousin that first day. Her cousin stayed with her through the night; Dave slept in another room.
Minnie was not allowed to bring her beautiful clothes and jewelry with her into her marriage. She was part of Littlebear's family now. Unlike the Navajo and other tribes, which are matrilineal, the Winnebago are patrilineal. The man of the family is the boss, and a woman's job is to obey him.
The struggle to make a living would be a constant in Minnie's and Dave's lives, as it was for most Indians. The cooperative structure of Indian society had broken down,thanks to the white man's tinkering. Between 1887 and 1934, in a farther attempt to assimilate Indians into white culture, the U.S. government divided up reservations, allotting property to each person on the tribal rolls, and leaving the rest open for homesteading. White settlers flooded onto surplus lands. Indians were forced to move onto widely scattered allotments leaving them to fend for themselves in a white man's world.
Minnie and her husband made and sold corn liquor, killed and plucked chickens, and in summers headed north to a theme park in Wisconsin that featured Indian wares.
"You could sit out there and do your beadwork and make blankets," Minnie says. "And the white people would come and buy your stuff."
Minnie had a son who died when he was just nine months old. But she raised two other children Esther, her husband's grandniece, and Barry, who, when his father died, was given to Dave and Minnie. "Because of the wishes of the father, the mother had to let the child go," says Minnie.
Minnie's husband died in the 1970s. Tradition calls for the widow to mourn for four years. Minnie had to wear black, she had to wear shoes instead of going barefoot, and she could not go to powwows or other celebrations. However, in a ritual of dressing and grooming, a Winnebago woman could be "released" from her mourning period early by the women in her deceased husband's family.
"One day my sister-in-law came down and said, 'I'm going to dress you and set you free."' But Minnie did not want to be free. She liked no longer having to answer to a man. So she stayed in mourning for the full four years.
Esther and other relatives would take care of Minnie for many years on the reservation, until Minnie needed specialized care. Barry, sixty, lives in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, and is a caseworker for senior citizens of the tribe. Esther, fifty-two, lives near her mother and works at the Winna Vegas casino, which is owned and operated by the Winnebago. Many tribes have opened gambling establishments in an attempt to raise revenue. Indians are the poorest racial group in America. Though the national poverty rate stands at 13 percent, for Indians it's 31 percent. One out of every five Indian homes lacks both a telephone and an indoor toilet. More than a third of all Indian students drop out of high school. Indians lead the nation in suicide and in other deaths due to alcoholism, diabetes, and heart disease.
And yet Indians today are asserting their centuries-old right of self-government, becoming increasingly powerful politically at the dawn of the new millennium. For her part, Minnie is not one to complain about the difficult times she has seen her nation experience in the twentieth century. But the word "nation" to her means Winnebago, not the United States of America.
Does Minnie consider herself an American?
Her translator, Betty Greencrow, looks perplexed. She is not sure how to phrase this question in the Winnebago language. "In what sense?" she asks. "You mean in the sense of the American dream? We don't have anything like that."
She thinks some more, but eventually comes up blank. "The conflict is not between Indians and Americans," she explains. "It's between Indians and white people. Being an American doesn't mean anything."
Does Minnie feel angry at white people? Greencrow is able to pose that question to Minnie. "There is some resentment," Minnie says, ashamed. Anger is not the Winnebago way. She does not, however, believe that the white man is evil.
"He is greedy," she says.
Copyright ) 1999 by Jeanne Marie Laskas