Minneapolis, Minn. – During a ceremony commemorating the 99th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre a photo was taken from afar of an elder Lakota woman standing near the monument. Sarah Penman dropped the snapshot into a box and let it slip from her mind.
A year later, at the 1990 Big Foot Ride, participants were browsing through last year’s pictures and the elder was recognized as Celine Not Help Him, the granddaughter of Dewey Beard, a Wounded Knee survivor. Penman was introduced to Not Help Him and a friendship began. Not Help Him seemed touched by Penman’s photo and trusted her enough to share her story. Penman listened to Not Help Him and other elders and was inspired to begin gathering their life histories.
Penman, a Scottish immigrant transplanted to Minnesota, became involved with American Indians after she visited the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1988. She instantly fell in love with the community because of the people’s generosity and acceptance.
In 1991, Penman received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to begin producing video and radio documentaries of the elders’ oral histories. The resulting hundreds of hours of interviews were eventually boiled down into the 148-page book “Honor the Grandmothers.”
“Honor the Grandmothers” documents to lives of four Sioux women: Celine Not Help Him and Cecelia Hernandez Montgomery, Lakota; and Stella Pretty Sounding Flute and Iola Columbus, Dakota. The book is unique in that Penman lets the elders tell their tales in their own words and doesn’t edit for content or add her own cultural bias.
The elders speak of the “olden days” and their daily struggles to get by. They speak of the difficulties in overcoming discrimination and their efforts to pass on their knowledge to their children.
“In traditional Lakota and Dakota society, grandmothers were respected for their knowledge, wisdom, and power as life-givers, healers, dreamers, harvesters, and teachers,” said Penman in the introduction of the book.
“Instructing female children in survival skills was the domain of the grandmothers, and they counseled girls on their moral, social, and spiritual responsibilities.”
What makes this book particularly poignant is that these women grew up during a time when the U.S. government was doing everything it could to eradicate Sioux culture. Some of the weapons used to wipe out the American Indian’s traditional lifestyles include Catholicism, boarding schools, prejudice and poverty.
“Honor the Grandmothers” stands as a testament to America’s failure to achieve its goal of Indian termination.
With Mother’s Day just a few days behind us, perhaps we can take another moment to remember the strength of the great women who have come before us and we can honor the grandmothers.
Sarah Penman has gone on to receive wide acclaim for her photography as well as for her documentaries. She has won numerous awards and her work has been exhibited in prestigious shows.
Penman received a 1995 Emmy nomination for her video documentary “Nokomis – Voices of Anishinabe Grandmothers.” She is the author of “Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans,” by New Press, 1992 and she writes articles for several publications including Minnesota’s Native newspaper The Circle.
“Honor the Grandmothers” was published in November 2000, by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, a non-profit educational publisher devoted to preserving Minnesota’s cultural and historical past. Write to Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Boulevard West, Saint Paul, Minn. 55102-1906, visit www.mnhs.org/mhspress, fax (651) 297-1345 or phone (800) 647-7827 for more information.