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I first met Mildred in the early spring of 1997 just about a month before she passed away. Born in 1910, she was one of the last of her people born as a prisoner of war of the United States of America. Imagine, a baby born as a prisoner of war! An elder in her local Reformed Church congregation—the first woman to be ordained an elder there, the matriarch of her family—an extended brood of multiple generations, and at one point the chairperson of her tribe—the first chairperson of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache, Mildred was an amazing, faithful, and dedicated leader. The memory that I recall most poignantly about her however was during a worship service and hymn/spiritual song service. She was singing the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” in her native tongue, beautiful praise and affirmation carried by her lone powerful but aged voice. But as the verses continued her voice began to crack and sadness and tears were included. When done she asked, “who would remember the songs when I’m gone?” Who would remember the songs? She meant particularly her tribal songs as well as other songs sung in her people’s language. Who would remember?
It was a prescience question on many levels. It still is.
As part of the same tribe, Mildred had been born the year following Geronimo’s death at Fort Sill (where his gravesite, or at least the site’s marker, still exists). Fort Sill in Indian Territory was the final location of imprisonment of the Chiricahua people. Following the Apache Wars, the Army forced the Apache from their native lands and transported and imprisoned them in Army installations in Florida and Alabama before finally ending at Fort Still. In 1914 with war gearing up in Europe and different needs arising for Fort Sill, the US government released the last 84 persons from prisoner status. Mildred was then three years old. She and her family were settled outside of Fort Sill in had become the state of Oklahoma.
Perhaps you have seen the meme above. It has readily been shared around the internet for a number of years and even appears on clothing. While I find the message of the meme to be timely and accurate, it is the photo on which it appears that I find noteworthy. The gentleman on the right is Geronimo and the band pictured are Apache.
It’s easy—for me at least—to think about this history as so long ago. Back in the “wild west” or “cowboy and Indian days.” But in actuality that history wasn’t that long ago. It’s easy—at least for me—to readily recognize how Native American and First Nation peoples were persecuted and done unjustly back in the day. I think in meeting Mildred and other elders whose living memory include “back in the day,” one realizes that it wasn’t back so very long ago. Injustice was not so long ago that we merely have learned from it and improved from practicing it and merrily moved on from it. That injustice has lasting effects. And consider this, the reality that we have not moved on from practicing it.
I often think about Mildred and her sorrowful question, “Who will remember?” It should be obvious that we need to remember. We need to remember our history. Ignorance of the past, especially past injustices, is of little value.
However, one danger of remembering is to think in terms of only the past, as if it were done and over with. Especially in considering the stories of Native Americans, it is too easy to consider them as only that which is part of the past. Many children grow up thinking—and perhaps many adults too—that Indians are something of the past. We may hear a lot about multiculturalism but not consider our Native American friends/family/neighbours of today, here and now.
The practices of our nation have not always been good. We need to remember.
The practices of our nation are currently not always good. We need to be aware. And hopefully, act!
For instance this past week in Washington DC, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees attached a provision to the NDAA—the National Defense Authorization Act—which includes giving 2,400 acres of national forest land in Arizona, part of the Tonto National Forest, to the copper mining company Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, an Australian-English mining company. The national forest land came into status under the Eisenhower administration includes “Apache burial, medicinal, and ceremonial grounds” and comes up just shy of the historic and sacred Apache Leap Cliffs.
This short video is also helpful.
Remembering ideally is done often so that we can pass things on, be that songs and music or history. But we also remember so that we can change from previous ways. When we remember that which we done and left undone in our prayer of confession it is done as a practice to lead us to repentance, to change our ways, to practice a new life.
When Mildred was laid to rest, her body was returned to Fort Sill and interred at the tribal cemetery there. As the funeral procession crossed the army base it encountered a military column, a formation of young soldiers marching. Mildred who had been born a prisoner on that same base so many years before had returned to be buried with honours. The soldiers halted, stood and saluted as the hearse went past.
I remember often Mildred.
I think often how the world can change.