As I read the stories about more bones from the 9/11 victims, now fragments mixed with earth and stone, I keep thinking about the bones of Blackfeet which I used to come upon on the prairie, mixed with fragments of buffalo bones. Old holocausts with modern consequences. The testimony below comes to my blog from a reader who lives in a major city, working for a nonprofit that helps many people. She is not inexperienced or helpless. Facing and mourning the past isn't over yet. Despite the anguish she has not shirked and she has turned her feelings into good for others.
I am presently reading a book, "The Lost, The Search for Six of Six Million." This book resonates with me so much that I am savoring every chapter and stopping after each one to contemplate how the story aligns with my own. The author has searched out the story of what happened to his grandfather's brother and his family in eastern Poland during the Holocaust. Having gone to Lithuania to the shetl that my great grandparents came from and from which part of her family were taken and we presume murdered, I could truly relate to his tale. The passages of horrible cruelty and torture prior to murder are some of the most difficult I have ever read and I have read a lot of Holocaust literature and visited museums and sites in Eastern Europe. Actually, though my similar trips to Browning to find out about my dad's family and history proved to be emotionally difficult too.
When the author of “The Lost” is in the little town in Poland where his family lived for 300 years, at one point he feels so overwhelmed by emotion that he must leave to gain some perspective. The same thing happened to me when I was at the BIA building on Highway 89 in Browning that houses all of the allotment records for the Blackfeet Reservation. I had to get some higher-up's permission to access my grandfather's file. It took some hours and a lot of persuading to do so. I was finally allowed access to the file and put into an empty conference room to review it. There I found the original letters from my father written in 1963 asking for information about his past. I had thought those letters were lost forever and had been thinking of them for 40 years.
I do very vividly remember the response he received to his letters. He was sent a copy of the transcript of a court proceeding in which his mother was questioned on the witness stand about her children by X. This was many years after X died (almost 9) and I now know was to settle his estate. On the stand his mother testified that she had two children while married to X, both girls. No mention was made of my father, who by this time had been given up for what she thought was adoption to Dr. and Mrs. W, a doctor in Browning.
I am sure the person who sent this document to my father had no idea of the repercussions this would have in not only his life, but the life of his entire family. This total negation of his entire existence was the final rejection from a mother from whom he had felt the rejection of abandonment his whole life. There is a direct line from the receipt of that document to my father's suicide by self-inflicted gunshot (He greatly admired Ernest Hemingway.) while talking to my mother on the telephone after she had left him because of his alcoholism, the final abandonment from which he could not recover.
However, when I reviewed this file I found along with this court transcript a letter from my grandmother in her own handwriting written shortly after my father's birth on February 19, 1911, informing the BIA of his birth and attempting to have him registered as the son of X. Along with that letter was a letter from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about X's arrest and subsequent imprisonment for stealing a horse from his uncle, an Indian named Tying Belt, on the Blood Reserve in Canada. For some reason my father's birth was not recorded and he did not receive an allotment, as did his two sisters. A copy of this letter written by his mother was never sent to my father, who always after said he didn't know if he was a bastard or a half-breed, but neither was very welcome in white society in Montana in the early 1900's.
His foster family inexplicably changed his last name to Z, who it turns out was a white rancher his mother worked for at one time as a housekeeper. If you had ever seen my father, his Indian blood was evident. He looked very much like my X cousins and could not purchase alcohol when we lived in South Dakota in the early 1950's, when it was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians.
When I found that letter from my grandmother and realized the implications of it, I had to get out of that building because I thought I would suffocate. I then had to flee west over the continental divide to the Flathead Valley before I could even begin to process what I had seen.
Some of this is why I built my home west of the divide even though my cousin, V, offered to let me build a home on some of the family property. While I love to be there and spend time with family and meet the ever-increasing number of distant cousins I seem to have, I also sometimes need to get away to process the terrible sadness that hovered over my beloved father's life.
I want to scream at him, "Why didn't you wait for me to help you find the answers and everyone!" Because there is family that would have welcomed him and he was not as alone as I am sure he felt the morning of December 4, 1970, when he decided the pain was too great.
My grandmother's second husband (my father's stepfather) had been cruel in the extreme to my father, beating him unmercifully according to my dad. In fact, he told me that his mother told him to run away to save himself. Another instance of a woman picking a man over her children, which you seem to hear over and over again. I have since heard many stories about his stepfather's drunken tirades throughout his life and the fact that my grandmother used to hide in the attic when he brought his drinking buddies to their then-home in White Center near Seattle.
I did do one last thing for my father. When I finally found where my grandmother and her second husband were buried, I visited his grave in a nearly forgotten old Norwegian cemetery in an old section of Seattle and spit on it twice, once for my dad and once for me. That act did not really give me any peace about what had happened, but it was something I had promised myself I would do since I began to look in 1971. I had a cousin with me who is descended from that guy and it was he who took me. I sent him for the car with the excuse that I could walk to longer so that he didn't have to witness my act of disdain for his grandfather, though he did know the story.
Finding all of that family has been the most rewarding part of my genealogical research. It was changed my life in immeasurable ways and made me absolutely sure of who I am, though it is a real mismash of ancestry: English, Jewish from Lithuania, Blackfeet Indian, German. I guess a typical American.