Monday, May 4, 2015

Could Lost Bird’s Tragedy Inspire a Triumph for Native Americans?

Several years ago, I first posted about the Native American baby girl who was found alive under the frozen body of her mother on the blood-soaked fields of Wounded Knee, SD, four days after the massacre on December 29, 1890, that killed  more than 300 Lakota men, women and  children.  I had purchased a  vintage photograph showing the infant in the arms of Leonard Colby, the brigadier general who adopted Zintkala Nuni or “Lost Bird” as the surviving -Lakota called her.  I learned that her life was one of unremitting tragedy.  She suffered every kind of injury the White Man has imposed on Native Americans—including sexual abuse from her adoptive father. She was exploited in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and in early silent films, forced to play stereotypical Indians (which is still happening-- witness the Native Americans who walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s comedy “Ridiculous Six” last week). 

As an adult, Lost Bird saw one child die and gave away another because she couldn’t raise him. She died of syphilis and the Spanish flu on Valentine’s Day, 1920, aged 29, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in California   But 71 years later, her people, the Lakota, found her grave and brought her remains back to Wounded Knee.

I wrote about Lost Bird’s story on my blog “A Rolling Crone” in 2012.  Then, early this year, I received an e-mail from Brian George, a Native American who works at the St. Joseph’s Indian School In Chamberlain, SD, which houses over 200 Native American children whose parents cannot care for them (and there are 100 more on the waiting list.)  Brian told me an intriguing story of how he has taken Lost Bird as his “guiding spirit” and visits her grave every year on the day she died.  While he says he is cynical, he has encountered many unexplainable signs that her spirit is with him. 

Brian emailed me a photograph of a tattoo of the baby Lost Bird on his shoulder, with the word “Wakanyeja” which means “children are a sacred.”  “Every morning I look at the tattoo and vow that our 212 young Lakota students don’t endure the same,” he wrote.  “I have tried to turn her tragedy into an inspiration.  I believe Zintka knows that I am all about helping the Lakota children and she is my guide.  I see endless cycles of poverty, addiction, suicide and abuse…However, the people are resilient, strong and have that special Native sense of humor. I call the reservations in our country “The forgotten America.”

(Today, Monday, May 4, The New York Times published on its front page an article about the epidemic of suicides among the young people on the reservations of South Dakota—especially Pine Ridge, which is on the ground of Wounded Knee.  Since December, nine between the ages of 12 and 24 have committed suicide and 103 more have tried.)

Brian wrote that he is the Major Gift Officer for St. Joseph’s and often travels East on business, so on April 15, I met him in Philadelphia to learn more about his connection to Lost Bird.
 Brian George with photographs of Lost Bird's grave stone
Brian describes himself as a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, but he’s one- third Irish and one-third Scottish.   He grew up in the suburbs of Dallas and never thought of himself as Native American until, at the age of 30, in 1993, he attended the funeral of his full-blooded grandmother. “As I walked in, all these elderly Native ladies ran up saying ‘You look just like your great grandfather’ --a man named  Winchester Colbert.  I looked him up and our likeness is stunning. He was a governor of the Chickasaw Nation and served in that capacity during the Civil War.”

After a divorce in 2007, Brian was working for the Chickasaw Nation outside Oklahoma City as a host at a casino by day and a bouncer by night, but he felt a “hole in my heart.” A number of coincidences drew his attention on Easter Sunday, 2010 to an ad in the newspaper saying, “Want to make the world a better place?  St. Joseph Indian School.”

Brian started at St. Joseph’s as a houseparent. “That hole in my heart has become whole again with the unconditional love I give and receive from the Lakota children I raised and continue to mentor. No more breaking up fights in bars.  Now I help put together lives once shattered by the tragedies of reservation life.  Then a person named Zintkala Nuni, Lost Bird of Wounded Knee came into my life.”

Brian first discovered the story of Lost Bird when he was substitute teaching in St. Joseph’s  “Native American Studies” class. The class watched a 30-minute DVD titled “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota.” Then he purchased a book  with the same title, written by Renee Sansom, who was a social worker in South Dakota when a co-worker showed her an old photograph she had found in an attic.  It was the self-same photograph that I bought some years later. Sansom spent the next five years researching and writing Zintka’s story.  In the book, Brian discovered that Lost Bird had spent two years—1905 to ‘06—attending a school named Chamberlain Indian Industrial Boarding School on the same ground where St. Joseph’s is today.

He decided to make the three-hour drive from St. Joseph’s to Wounded Knee to pay his respects to Lost Bird and the other victims of the massacre.  The visit was unremarkable until he was leaving the burial site, when “Something happened. Something touched my back like I had never felt before.  I literally left the ground. I had chills. I knew immediately it was Lost Bird’s spirit coming with me.” 

Brian visits Lost Bird’s grave every  Valentine’s day—the anniversary of her death. “I lay flowers and ceremonial tobacco prayer ties on her grave.  In  2013 I rubbed my left hand across the word ‘Lost’ on her headstone. A few days later, my watch began to malfunction. A jeweler told me that my battery was ‘burnt up’.  I realized it was on the arm that was touching the headstone. I had always heard that spirits use electrical energy to communicate.”

On subsequent visits to the grave in 2014 and 2015, Brian again noticed electrical phenomena. In 2014, “I went to Lost Bird’s grave and took out my iPhone 5 that was fully charged. From YouTube I pulled up the Lakota Healing Song, which is 5 minutes long.  I placed the phone on the grave.  At the end of the song, I picked up my phone and noticed it was completely drained. I showed my girl friend. As we got in the car, she saw a strange kind of bird circling overhead. Then that bird flew about nine feet above, as if it was escorting us.  I told her it was a Scissor-Tail Flycatcher—the state bird of my state of Oklahoma.  Later I found there had only been 12 reported sightings in the history of South Dakota. This time of year it should be in Central America.  Was this, I wondered, a lost bird or Lost Bird?”

On Valentine’s Day 2015, Brian again played the Lakota Healing Song on a fully charged phone, The phone was drained again. This time, in the photographs taken by his girlfriend, there seemed to be a mysterious mist surrounding Brian, despite no visible fog.

He also experienced signs of an electrical nature back at St Joseph’s in the area where Lost Bird had gone to school. “I had left my car in a parking lot close to the Missouri River,” he told me. “It was dark and I looked up at this storage building that was used as a chicken coop in the early 1900’s. The flood light was not on. What I did next is unexplainable.  I asked ‘Zintka, Zintkala Nuni, were you here?’  Immediately the light came on.  I got in my car and drove off.  The next day I asked the maintenance guys if that light was on a timer or sensor and they said no.” 

About a year later, Brian was on the school’s playground sitting on a bench and he noticed the light on the old bulding was out again.  He asked the same question “Zintka, were you here?” and immediately it came on. When other adults asked what had happened, Brian repeated the question three more times, each time with the same result, to the wonder of the onlookers.   “Each time I received an answer exactly after I asked, with no delay.”

“All my experiences with Lost Bird are comforting to me and unexplainable,” he told me. “ I believe she is my  guiding spirit and knows that I was brought to South Dakota to help her people.  She knows that my passion in life is helping the most forgotten and underserved people of a land that was originally theirs.”

Like Martin Luther King, Brian George has a dream--to unify, lead and be a vocal advocate for a better quality of life for all Native Americans.  “Reservation life has many of the same challenges as our inner cities and other third-world countries,” he said, "the difference being the lack of attention by mainstream America.  I embrace becoming the leader who will bring this to light. I want to launch the revival of the Native cultures.  Our commonalities are closer than our differences. This is a time for forgiveness.  I want to create this foundation, to help Native Americans in the areas of education, housing and rehabilitation."

The centerpiece of Brian’s plan is to bring back the 40 acres of land that surrounds the graves of Wounded Knee.  “I want to bring that land back to the Lakota people—and not as a tourist occasion.”

Brian has even written the speech he would give on the sacred ground to mark that moment. “Let us not dwell on yesterday’s injustices and broken treaties,” he would say, “so we can reap the rewards of tomorrow’s dreams and blessings from the Creator.  We must replace bitterness with forgiveness. Forgiveness of the past is the pathway to the future.  Let today mark the beginning of a new era in our stormy and storied relations…As Native people, we must join together and honor all that is right.  The return of these lands is honorable and right.”

No doubt Lost Bird, who spent her short life trying to get back to Wounded Knee, but returned only after her death, would agree.

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