Unci Laura came to tell the children stories that looped back and made points you didn't think you were coming to. She was small, and her voice was on Valium. It talked around things instead of describing them, or even more rare actually saying them, and it squeaked, just the teeniest bit. She was old, we all knew, and had survived the boarding school system. It must have been hard for her to work with the all-white camp staff. She was being encouraged and paid to tell stories about how white adults had treated her as a kid. The staff tried to make it easier but she just looked past us. Of course she did. We were trying to help but wouldn't. We were there because the kids' parents weren't.
In the traditional way, we offered Unci Laura water when she took a seat on the deck, the only permanent structure the camp could afford to build. In the traditional way, she took it without looking at or acknowledging us. She started by telling us of her upbringing: Relatives killed at Wounded Knee, growing up in South Dakota when it was still a forest of cottonwood trees, speaking Lakota at home with her parents. She was 80 years old and didn't particularly want to live much longer. "But uncis, grandmas, they live a long time," she said. "They know everything before it happens."
She took a slow sip of her water and placed the glass back on the deck in front of her. The kids straightened up and became formal. "Always drink water before you tell the story of the turtle," she began.
She told turtle stories in her Valium voice. She explained how her Unci healed her when she was very young. If her stomach hurt, Laura's Unci drew a turtle on it with water and it healed her. When she had a headache, Unci drew a turtle on her head and sang the turtle prayer. Laura's Unci served her turtle hearts in big wooden bowls and said they would keep her in good health, and Laura never got diabetes. She credits these hearts with her long life. Unci told Laura all the turtle stories she knew. She told her that if she ever got lost in the woods, Laura should find a turtle, pick it up, turn around completely, and put the turtle down, then it would lead her back out the woods the way she had come in. Unci Laura never got the chance to try it out. When she was five, in 1926, Laura was taken from her parents by missionaries to be given a good Christian upbringing, and the white people don't keep turtles around.
"I didn't want no Christian upbringing," Here Laura's voice became loud and even insistent. "I didn't get to see my parents again no more. And I got in trouble. I got in a lot of trouble. One time, when I still didn't speak no English, I made a friend. I had no friends, because everyone else had been there for a long time, and I just started at the boarding school. So I was happy to make a friend.
"You see, we weren't allowed to speak our own language. Can you imagine that? I couldn't believe it. We weren't allowed to talk the only thing we knew. And that's how we lost our language. Some of you kids today, you don't know your own language, and that's why. But I can teach you some.
"So my friend said she would help me to learn English. I was excited! I liked it! She had been at this school a long time, and she was older than me. My new friend said to me, very quiet in Lakota, 'When someone asks you your name, you say--' And then in English she said 'Shut up.' 'And when someone tells you to stop that, you say--' and she showed me how to speak the foreign language: 'Bitch.' These were my first words in English and I was proud to learn them.
"My friend and I went to class and I sat in front of a boy. The teacher didn't like me because I kept my head down when I was listening, like the elders. Indians put their heads down when someone talks to them, and they are listening very well, concentrating. White people don't understand. They say, 'Are you listening to me?' and 'Pay attention!' People probably say this to you sometimes.
"I had very long beautiful hair and all the boys thought I was very beautiful. And you know how boys are. So a boy started to tease me and he pulled on my long braids and I told him in Lakota to stop pulling my hair, because I didn't know it in English. The teacher stopped class because I had said something bad, I spoke Lakota, and she asked my name. I said perfectly, 'Shut up.' She looked very angry and told me to stop it, and I told her, 'Bitch.'
"Teacher cut off all my beautiful hair and she didn't know my name so she gave me a new one, Laura. I have been Laura so long I forgot my first name. The elders called me, 'Dora.' Later, I found out what those words mean, shut up and bitch. I would never have said those words if I knew what they meant. It does not show respect.
"And you see, I still have short hair. It was easier to keep it short, and I never got bugs. Indians cut their hair when they lose something. And I didn't have no turtle to help me find it again."