Cover image for Grandmother's grandchild : my Crow Indian life
Grandmother's grandchild : my Crow Indian life
Snell, Alma Hogan.
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Publication Information:
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, [2000]

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xvii, 213 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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E99.C92 S656 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"I became what the Crows call káalisbaapite --a 'grandmother's grandchild.' That means that I was always with my Grandma, and I learned from her. I learned how to do things in the old ways."--Alma Hogan Snell

Grandmother's Grandchild is the remarkable story of Alma Hogan Snell (1923-2008), a Crow woman brought up by her grandmother, the famous medicine woman Pretty Shield. Snell grew up during the 1920s and 1930s, part of the second generation of Crows to be born into reservation life. Like many of her contemporaries, she experienced poverty, personal hardships, and prejudice and left home to attend federal Indian schools.

What makes Snell's story particularly engaging is her exceptional storytelling style. She is frank and passionate, and these qualities yield a memoir unlike those of most Native women. The complex reservation world of Crow women--harsh yet joyous, impoverished yet rich in meaning--unfolds for readers. Snell's experiences range from the forging of an unforgettable bond between grandchild and grandmother to the flowering of an extraordinary love story that has lasted more than five decades.

Author Notes

Becky Matthews teaches history at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Two new books provide intimate details about Native American life while they reveal the particular challenges women face in cultures in which both traditional and contemporary values are at play. Dauenhauer is widely regarded for her work in cultural preservation for her nation, the Tlingit of southeast Alaska. The poems, stories, and one short play in Life Woven with Song vividly express the subsistence lifestyle that her family maintained. They recall long days fishing chinook and coho during the luminous Alaskan summer, and not only for their sensuous beauty but also to show how land and culture are interconnected in traditional societies. Such details as playing "jump rope" with the Yakutat waves and watching seals feed off a school of sockeye bring homeland to life and provide context for the several mythic narratives at the end of the book. Snell is a storyteller rather than, like Dauenhauer, a writer. Her words have been sensitively and artistically edited by oral historian Matthews. Snell spins tales of growing up with her grandmother, Pretty Shield (the subject of Frank Linderman's Pretty-shield [1932], one of the first biographies of a Crow woman), of a difficult youth, and of an eventually solid marriage. What drives the book is not so much dramatic external events but visions of an interconnected cosmos. At boarding school, Alma used her grandmother's technique for getting rid of ants: she told them they were about to be poisoned. "They didn't talk to me, didn't say, `Yes, we heard you,'" but the next day, the ants were gone. Such were the lessons the "grandmother's grandchild" learned, along with history and family pride. An excellent addition to Native American studies. --Patricia Monaghan

Choice Review

Native American Studies is blessed with a number of "as told to" autobiographies of American Indian women. Snell's account belongs with works like Gilbert Wilson's Waheenee (1927), Ignatia Broker's Night F1ying Woman (CH, Mar'84), and Frank Lindermann's Pretty-Shield (1972), the narrative of Snell's grandmother. Snell emerges as a deeply religious Christian committed to following Crow healing and dreaming, traditions. She attended boarding schools and "never knew a teacher to say don't talk Indian." Homesickness and cruelty by students existed, but her boarding schools were not oppressive. She appreciated and cherished the missionaries and recognized that they sacrificed for Indians. Snell did experience racism when she worked off the reservation, but it was not her only kind of experience. Non-Indians consistently befriended her. Her remarkable life story includes an enduring love affair enriched by pathos, traveling evangelism, a career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a period of activism, life on several reservations, and emergence as a cultural teacher. Her candor and willingness to describe intimate facets of Crow culture is unique in the literature. Snell provides an excellent introduction to Crow ethnographies; her editorial hand is deft. Recommended for undergraduate libraries supporting Indian, women's, and multicultural studies. Undergraduates. G. Gagnon; University of North Dakota



Chapter One Grandmother's Grandchild Pretty Shield was my mother's mother. She was with me when I was born. At that time my father was working for the government, and my family lived in a large home in Crow Agency, near the Little Bighorn River. I was the seventh child born to Little Woman Goes Ahead and George Washington Hogan. I guess in all those births, my mother was pretty well undernourished. She had a hard labor with me -- a very hard labor. I happened to be a big baby, ten pounds when I was born, and she couldn't, she absolutely couldn't have me, they thought. My grandmother, being a midwife, had always taken care of my mother's births, but this one was overwhelming to her. She had to call on another midwife, an old lady from the neighborhood.     My brother Georgie told me that the old lady came. She came. She had a little porcelain bowl. It was tiny. She gave that bowl to my brother and asked him to go to the river. She told him to put a little fish in the bowl with some water. He went down there, broke up the ice near the river's edge (it was January), and caught this little fish. Somehow, he got it into the bowl with the water in it. He came as fast as he could to the old lady. "Hurry!" she said. She agitated the water with her finger, teased the fish so that it swam around desperately. Then she took the fish out, gave it to my brother, simultaneously pouring the water into my mother's mouth. As soon as she drank that water, my mother had me. I was born. My father, who was in the next room, praying, heard my first cry. Then the old lady told my brother to take the little fish back to the river, "Release it. Watch it. Come back and tell me what it does." He came back and reported, "The fish wobbled on its side for a little bit and then swam swiftly away." The old lady said, "They'll be all right. The baby will live." I've always had a way with water. I love the water.     I don't remember my mother. Within a year and a half after I was born, she injured her ankle, and tuberculosis set in the bone. She wouldn't go to a doctor or to a clinic or to a hospital. She just got worse. Finally, my father persuaded her to get on the train to go to a healer -- I think it was Aimee Semple McPherson -- in California. When my mother got on that train, she saw some men wearing heavy overcoats and hats way down on their brows. She was afraid because she thought they were gangsters. She was so afraid, she got off the train and didn't go to California. She finally died. My grandmother then took over raising me and my brother and sisters, as well as another grandson, Johnny Wilson, who was my brother in the Crow way.     I have always liked to imagine how my mother might have been. I imagine that she was very attentive to her kids, very loving, very patient. On the other hand, I imagine she sort of relied on Grandma to help her if she needed advice. They worked together really well. My grandmother would ask her daughters to do something, and they would do it for her. She, in turn, did thinks for them, sent things to their families, something to eat or something to wear, always something useful.     I imagine my mother as a woman who loved to sing. My father told me one time when I was singing for him, "Your mother sang like a canary through the house. I loved to hear her sing." She sang Christian hymns. "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Pass Me Not, O, Gentle Saviour" were her favorites. That's what my father told me. He said that my mother sang the hymns in English, but my grandmother sang in Crow. She'd sing Indian hymns like Akbaatatdía Aho Akbaatatdía Aho Chichíilak Chichíilak Awáss íkaak Aho, Aho Creator, thank you Creator, thank you Look for Him Look for Him He's looking down Thank you, thank you Then she'd repeat it, and she'd reach upward, toward the sky, with her hands.     My father told me that his father's name was Long Ago Bear. His mother was Emma Duchien or Shane. She was half Crow and half French. Her mother was a Crow woman named Stays in the Woods, and her father was Pierre Duchien, a fur trapper. My father had two older half-sisters whose father was a Scotsman named Frazee. One was Liz (Lizzie, we called her), who married a Crow named Hawk with the Yellow Tail. Two of their sons, Robert and Tom, became well-known Crows. The other sister was Mary, who married Takes the Gun. We called her "Grandma Beans" because her Crow name was Awaasásh , meaning Beans. When her husband passed away she had a little tent house built in Crow Agency. The floor was boarded, but the top was tent. She wanted to be near my father, so she was there. I remember Lizzie would come often and visit her sister, and they'd go over to my father's place. They loved to be together, those three. They just enjoyed each other's company because they loved each other very much. My father always said, "Don't ever do anything to hurt my sisters. Don't ever hurt their feelings." My grandmother, Pretty Shield, always gave those sisters many gifts. She treated them well for the sake of her daughter Little Woman.     I don't know anything about Long Ago Bear except what Amy White Man told me. She said that he was a very kindly man, a tall man and very good-looking. He loved my grandmother and my father very much, very much. One time when my father was a little toddler, he cried for butter. He liked butter, the churned butter that the farmers had. He loved it thick on his bread, and he cried for butter. The family didn't have any at that time. My grandmother told him, "There's no butter, now. You quit crying." He turned to his dad and said, "I want some butter." And his tears -- the man looked at the little boy (he looked so much like his mother), and he said, "Come. I'll get you some butter." He took one of his good horses, and he went to the farmer and traded that horse for a pound of butter so he could see his little boy happy.     My father's name was Sitting Bull, but I didn't know that until I was a young lady. I had always known him as Isáahkachiash , which might be translated "Old White Headed Man." They called him that because when he was small his hair was very white, and they wanted him to live a long time. I have been told that he received his English name at Carlisle Indian School. He was taken to Carlisle when he was about seven years old. When the children got to the school, the officials lined them up and gave them new names. They gave the boys presidential names like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. When they got to my father, they said, "George Washington." A young army officer who was standing nearby said, "I like this little boy. He has blue eyes like me. Give him my last name; it's Hogan." My father remained at Carlisle for thirteen years until he graduated. He never got to come home, not even when his father died.     My first memory of my father is of a praying father. I saw him praying all the time. I saw him poring over his Bible. I saw him checking up on us to see that we went to Sunday School. Even if he was working somewhere else or living with his second family, he'd always come over there where we were with Pretty Shield and make sure that we went to Sunday School. Pretty Shield caught on: "This must be what my son-in-law wants." So, always, she got us ready to go to Sunday School. Before my mother died, my father sold land and built a magnificent house for her in the Benteen area. It had everything up to date for that time, even to Persian rugs and hardwood floors. They had big fancy beds and a Victrola that had to be cranked up. These are some of the things my sisters told me about. When I came along, there was nothing in there except emptiness, it seemed. There was a big stove, a table with benches and chairs, a china closet where we kept our dishes and our staples. Going into the living room, there was a bed there and my grandfather's old rocking chair -- Goes Ahead's rocking chair. Grandma wanted that rocking chair, so they left it there. Sometimes that chair moved, even though no one was sitting in it. Grandma would say, "That's Grandpa." She wasn't afraid; she just thought it was Grandpa. In the other bedrooms there were beds, but that's all. There were no rugs, nothing. According to custom, everything was given away when Mother died. People even took her dishes. To me that's a bad custom, one I wouldn't wish to hang on to. Sometimes they even gave away their chickens and other things that were for sustenance.     During my very early years we lived in the Benteen house, there in the Little Bighorn valley. That valley was always a pretty place to me. And the river was so pretty. Our house was very near where Nest Creek ran into the river. That's just about the place, where it's all beachy and rocky, where my grandma used to wash clothes. The beaches looked sandy close to the water, but about five yards from shore the rocks started to form. The small rocks were all over the bottom of the river, but the water was clear. You could see through it to the bottom, except where it went too deep to see. Upstream maybe six hundred yards were tall banks that met a whirlpool, a deep, deep place. My father had made steps in the hard clay dirt of the bank there. Those steps were strong, but when they were wet, they got slick. We used to get our water there. They tried to dig a well near our house, but it didn't work out, so we got water from the river. We'd tie a rope onto a bucket and throw it out to where the water would be more pure; then after we pulled our bucket in, we took the rope off and left it on the bank. We hauled the water to a huge reservoir on the side of our big stove in the kitchen. It held about two buckets, and that was the hot water we used. We'd have to go back and get more water for drinking and cooking.     At another place along the river my grandma had a large hole straight down below the bank. She had put rocks down there and a platform of boards. She put butter and milk and her mixtures like rose hips and tallow in that hole, put a heavy rock over it, and that was her little cooler. About a quarter-mile away was the place where she butchered. The river was very pleasant there; it was beautiful. Its slope was not harsh. It just gradually went down to a rocky place, then to the beach and the river. That was our crossing. I can still feel that sandy road under my feet.     We had just a wagon path to take us to the gravel road that led to Crow Agency. Of course, we didn't have a car. Very few Crow people had cars when I was small, so almost everybody rode in wagons. When we went to Crow Agency, we'd go past hills with pines on the left-hand side of us. On the right was the fiver with all its cottonwood trees and box elders and berry bushes. And grapes -- lots of grapevines grew there. Sometimes I ate grapes until my mouth just itched. Peopled liked to hunt in through there. Boys liked to hunt through that valley. There were a lot of deer in there.     I didn't go to Lodge Grass too much. I may have gone to church services there a time or two, a special thing at the Baptist church, like a revival or a picnic. People would put their tarps out and sit on them and eat and talk. It was just a good social time. We also went past Lodge Grass and into the canyon to camp. That canyon -- now you're getting into mountainous area, foothills of the Big Horn Mountains. We'd have to go through a ravine to a place where there was a spring. It had pine trees all around -- a beautiful place where you could see the larger mountains all around you. We camped in the Wolf Mountains too, to the northeast of the Benteen area. The Wolf Mountains were always a beautiful place to me.     When we lived in the Benteen house, it seems like we were hard up more times than when there was plenty. When I was about eight years old, I remember that we had a little more to eat than before. Even then, when the garden dwindled down, we would collect dry peas, dried old peas on the ground. We'd collect enough for a bowl of soup, and my father knew how to prepare it. He would boil it, boil the peas, and he would put little pieces of carrots and onions with them and make a kind of gravy of it -- soup, soupy gravy. We loved it. We were so hungry, I guess. It tasted like nothing else.     I remember my dad singing lullabies to put me to sleep. He liked to sing "East Side, West Side, All Around the Town." I became what the Crows call káalisbaapite -- a "grandmother's grandchild." That means that I was always with my grandma, and I learned from her. I learned how to do things in the old ways. While the mothers of my friends changed to modern ways of preparing things, Pretty Shield stuck to her old ways. Nowadays, we change in a few years with technology, and it was the same when I was growing up, just at a slower pace. While my grandmother was teaching me her ways of the past, how they survived and their traditional and cultural values, mothers of other girls were teaching them to adapt and the purpose of advancing. There are two different things here. A grandmother's grandchild and a mother's child were two different things -- two different girls, you might say, if they were girls. A grandmother's grandchild did what her grandma did because there was nothing else to do. A mother would say, "Go play. Go play with the little ones over there, or go play with your dishes," or whatever it was. But a grandmother's grandchild never got that. A grandma always took her granddaughter with her so that the little girl could learn to survive. The mother, however -- she was going to live long enough to take care of her child, so the mother didn't show the child ways of surviving; she did it for her. She did it for her.     A grandmother's grandchild did things with her, and when the grandmother grew older and was unable to do some things effectively, the grandchild was old enough to help. If the grandma wanted to lift something, the grandchild helped her. The mother did it herself -- lifted or worked; the child was out playing or doing something else. I liked to play. I liked to play with the neighborhood kids, and I did when we had a quiet time, but otherwise I was forever helping my grandma and learning from her and doing with her. She was helping me, and I was helping her. Those are the differences, differences between a grandmother's grandchild and a mother's child.     Because I was always with Grandma, I was always with the old ladies. That's the security I knew. "This is where I belong, right in this realm." To me, they were always there and they will always be there. I didn't see a conclusion to them at all. Grandma and her ways built a fringe around me. It kept me in that circle. That's where I wanted to be. I always thought, "I'll do what Grandma says." It was almost as if I thought I might offend her and she would go away.     I wish I could remember everything she taught me. She said, "The earth is like our mother because it gives us food like a mother provides food from her breast." She respected it. I remember she'd say that when the farmers first came, they "cut into the face" of the earth -- iisáduukaxik . It's like a wound there, and it hurt her.     When I was with Grandma and all the old ladies that used to go and dig turnips, I'd watch them, and I noticed that they did care. They all did the same thing. They had a routine about it. They didn't just go carelessly around; they did these things patiently and correctly, and they were just right at home there. They would dig the roots with their sticks; then they would replace the soil and tamp it down just like nobody had bothered it. They always said Aho (thank you) to the Creator, and if there were any wild seeds, they would scatter them about for more turnips to grow in another year. So I always do that now. I feel like the earth is happy when we do that. I feel like it's comforted.     In between their digging the old ladies rested and ate their lunches. When they rested, they told stories. I loved it when Grandma took out our lunch. She would tell me to sit behind her on the ground and rest my back against hers. I just leaned against her back, and she loved that. I know she loved it. Sometimes she said, "Move, move yourself a little to the left." So I did, and she worked her back and let me sit there. Then she would talk to me.     Sometimes she told me about a time when she was in the hills, mourning the death of a child, a little girl. She went into a visionary trance, and little ants came to her and took her into their lodge. In the back of the lodge, at the center in the place of honor, sat a golden eagle. The eagle did not speak, but the ants told Grandma that they were her friends and said, "No obstacle is too great. Keep working, keep doing what you are doing, and you will have what you need." So she always told us not to be lazy. "Look at the ants" is what she said. She told us how the ant people talked to her, and she said, "Don't step on them. Don't step on them if you can help it. Wherever you are, there will always be ants around your home."     When we went out into the hills to dig these roots, turnips, and she came to an ant pile, she would take out some beads from her pouch and sprinkle them on the pile. Some of them were kind of large beads. Then she'd tell the ants, "I brought you some little beads. I thought you would like them because they're so pretty. I brought them for you as a gift , and I want you to have them." Those little ants would take the beads, even the big ones. They'd take them to that hole on top of the ant pile. They would disappear with them, and I would just keep watching them. I sat there and just wished with all my might that I could see where they were going with those beads. In my child mind I thought, "My, they must have pretty rooms with dance halls and things like that." I used to imagine such things when Grandma gave beads to the ants. After so many years (I don't know how many years later) a ranch woman saw ants bringing beads out of their holes. She took them. She says she has a handful of them.     I know they're Pretty Shield's.     Once, over at Benteen, this little boy sat on an ant pile, great big ant pile. There were big black and red ants crawling all over him. Those are large ants; they bite hard. He was plumb naked. Little boy, he was, and he went over there to play with them. They just crawled all over his body. I got scared. I ran over to my grandma, and I said, "Junior, Junior Boy -- we called him Junior Boy -- he's in the ant pile, and they're all over his body. He's going to be screaming pretty soon from the bites." Pretty Shield said, "I know. They won't hurt him. They will not do anything to him. Let him play with them." He sat there and played with them, raised up their little hills for them. After quite a while he left, none the worse. Grandma didn't get after him or anything. She said, "They'll be good to him. Don't worry."     A long time after that, when I went to school in Flandreau, South Dakota in 1940, I took up home ec, of course; the girls had to take home economics. I baked the devil's food cake and the biscuits. That was my duty. I was working in a tea room that was a project to help fund the school, and at the same time I was learning how to prepare different things. Anyway, one morning when I was cleaning the glass containers for the cakes and cookies that we sold, I heard the teacher say, "We're going to have to do something about those ants. They're coming in here, and people will come in and see them in our cake showcase. Something's got to be done. We'll put out some poison tonight, in different corners. We'll put it there tonight and see if we can get rid of those ants." When I heard this, I thought of Grandma and her ants. I went back into a closet where there were a few ants, and I warned them: "You little ants, they're going to kill you. Tonight they're going to put something out to kill you. So you better move and get away from here." Then I left. The little ants were just there. They didn't talk to me, didn't say, "Yes, we heard you," or anything else. I just told them, and I left. (Continues...) Excerpted from Grandmother's Grandchild by ALMA HOGAN SNELL. Copyright © 2000 by Alma Hogan Snell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Peter NabokovBecky MatthewsBecky Matthews
List of Photographs and Mapsp. x
Forewordp. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
Introductionp. 1
1 Grandmother's Grandchildp. 27
2 Pretty Shield and Goes Aheadp. 43
3 My Camp Is in a Different Placep. 55
4 Turning the Stormp. 76
5 Womanhoodp. 89
6 Loneliness and the Night Skyp. 107
7 Assiniboines Have Strong Medicinep. 117
8 A Bad Time in My Lifep. 127
9 I Have Crossed Three Riversp. 143
10 Many Roadsp. 158
11 Old Songs, New Fruitp. 173
Appendix 1 Time Line of the Life of Alma Snellp. 184
Appendix 2 Genealogical Chartsp. 188
Notesp. 191
Indexp. 207