A Tribute to Grandpa Bob
I am very sad right now. My hunka Grandpa Bob passed away today at 1pm CST. Hunka, meaning he is a relative by way of a making of relatives ceremony. I am so glad we got to spend this last day with him. He was a man with an amazing life story. Born to a Yankton Sioux father and an Irish immigrant mother in Chicago in 1933, he was abandoned the first year of his life. His mother left the hospital after the birth and never returned. His father came to get him after he had been there a year and took him to the Yankton rez in Wagner, SD, where he lived for the next 5 years with his Yankton Sioux family. Then, one day in 1937 or 38 his dad put him in the car and drove him to St. Joseph's Indian School and gave him up. Grandpa Bob can remember when there were only 2 wooden buildings at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Adopted by a white couple (the Austins) from Chicago a year later, Grandpa Bob never saw his biological father again. And yet he never lost his sense of Sioux Indian identity, and thankfully, his adoptive parents fully supported it. Bob kept busy throughout his youth and into adulthood crafting everything from traditional regalia to birch bark canoes to tipis. He danced at powwows and kept active in all things American Indian.
Bob was taken by his parents to visit reservations in South Dakota on several occasions throughout his childhood. He recounted to me many of his memories of those times. On one trip, he was taken to a wacipi (dance) on Pine Ridge Reservation, and he remembered seeing the grass dancers wearing the actual grass on their regalia. He also remembered vividly the uncomfortable stares he got, presumably because of his lighter skin. Bob was Indian through and through, and yet the disconnect was painfully apparent, and I think it bothered him greatly, though he never spoke of it. Being a Native person with mixed ancestry is no easy road, as I can attest, and Bob’s road was incredibly difficult.
Bob served in the Army, survived the Korean War, and worked many different kinds of jobs over the years. He was married once, and his wife died quite young. He never married again. Through it all, Bob maintained his cultural connection by continuing to create traditional regalia, and dancing at powwows, as well as making countless trips to reservations in South Dakota. It was in early adulthood that he learned the ancient art of American Indian finger-weaving, and discovered that he had a real knack for the craft. Bob went on to become arguably the most prolific American Indian finger-weaver in Indian country, achieving true Master status (Grandpa Bob would laugh and downplay that statement for sure!). 50 years of weaving produced countless hundreds of pieces that simply cannot be rivaled by any other finger-weavings you will see anywhere. And now that he is gone, some of his secrets have gone with him.
Grandpa Bob blessed me in more ways than I can express. He was a teacher, a historian, a philosopher, a spiritual man, and a traditionalist. He was so deeply Indian that even total separation from his Sioux family could not suppress his natural identity, nor could it keep him away from being totally immersed in his culture. It was an honor of great measure to sit beside him all these years and learn from him. He knew so many of the subtle details of our old culture. He was full with wisdom, and with a wry sense of humor, always poking at himself for my amusement. I can’t tell you the endless hours I sat quietly listening to his stories and his thoughts, to have him stop now and then to say, “Now there I go blabbering again! Tell me about what you have been doing!” In no time he’d be headlong into another story and I’d be happy to be listening again.
I am going to miss those stories. I am going to miss looking into those old Sioux eyes and seeing that twinkle of mischief. And I am going to miss those awkward hugs he would give Peggy and I when it was clear he never wanted us to leave. I love you Grandpa Bob. I always have. I always will. You taught me so much about what it takes to be true to yourself, even when it seems impossible. You are my hero. May you find your ancestors waiting at the fires on the other side. Until then…. Toksa ake!