Posted by: MC | June 17, 2011

Grandmothers on Fathers’ Day

Two American Indian men stand together.  The Elder is Wyandotte and Choctaw of the Mississippi Valley; the younger is Walla Walla of the Columbia River.  They are of two generations and they are friends.  The men chat with one another during a break in a graduate class of mostly non-Indian students.  The students are preparing to be teachers and counselors and taking this course on contemporary Native American life.

The older man is one of the course instructors.  A mountain of a man in all ways, Roy Sampsel is widely sought after as an adviser and facilitator in both inter-tribal and U.S.–tribal collaborations.  This past week alone, issues as varied as water management, diabetes prevention and the establishment of tribal colleges have crossed his desk.  Early in his career, during the Nixon administration, Mr. Sampsel served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior.

Before break Roy Sampsel had sat smiling, his eyes cast down, as the younger man described how the Elder had single-handedly financed his successful political campaign to, at 33, be elected chair of his tribal council.  In that position, Don Sampson found himself in high stakes negotiations with senators and governors and with President Clinton.  His objective was the well being of the citizens of a small sovereign nation.  The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR, Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Tribes) had entered into treaty with the 1855.  Don Sampson who is now 50 and a biological engineer, will one day inherit the role of traditional Chief.  Already he has two decades experience in roles as a local, regional and international voice in matters affecting Native Peoples.

So, these guys are famous.  They are also effective.  Each of these men is a visionary and tireless force; a leader with whom to be reckoned.  And both are also grandsons.  Even though it feels pretty amazing for this brief summary of the work of giants to be coming through my fingers and onto this screen, it’s the grandson part that brought me to the keyboard this morning.

I’ve had the great good fortune of being friends with Roy Sampsel for seven years, now.  I’m the other teacher on the graduate course.  I’ve had the privilege to hear some of his story over the years, but every time he tells of his grandmother I’m particularly taken.  The first day of this class, Roy introduced himself by telling again of this everyday and amazing person he’d known as Granny.  “She was an Indian woman in Broken Bow,Oklahoma,” he said. “A woman with 17 grandchildren and no formal education.  She could not read or write or speak much English.  But she was fluent in five Indian languages.  People from all over came to her to help them talk with each another – to help them solve their problems.” As I listen, something about apples and trees always comes to mind.  “I was her youngest grandchild,” Mr. Sampsel continued.  “I got to watch and learn from my granny.”

Don Sampson had arrived as a guest speaker later in the class.  His hair cut short except for two long and narrow braids; his face open, smiling and decades younger than his years, he spoke too of his grandmother.  “My grandmother took me everywhere,” he said.  “Her Indian name is Traveling Woman.  It fit.  She knew everything about medicines and our sacred foods, and she was a storyteller.  I learned as I watched and as I listened.” He told a bit of  the Walla Walla creation story, he told a story of crickets and love. “The other thing,” Mr. Sampson continued, “she could speak five different languages from among the ones spoken by the Tribes of the Pacific Northwest.  She could talk with almost anyone.”

In March I heard and Elder of an Ojibwe drum circle in WI speak about the Grandmothers being in charge.  I’ve heard numerous American Indian men speak of this.  The men take public action, but the women, and especially the Grandmothers, have the last say.  Mr. Sampsel and Mr. Sampson are certainly leaders; they act publically.  They are also dads and grandfathers who have learned well about the importance of listening across differences.  They’ve learned this from their grandmothers who, along with the fathers and grandfathers of our land, deserve great honor – today, Fathers’ Day, 2011; and everyday.


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