“Loss is a cousin of loneliness,” Olivia Laing. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
My mother and Lost Bird, a Lakota woman who died at the age of 29, share at least one thing in common. Both have lived at All Saints, the Sioux quartzite building in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Touchmark Corporation has transformed the old Episcopalian school into a senior citizen retirement community. My mother, who is 95 years old and suffers from dementia, resided in the locked memory care unit at Touchmark at All Saints.
The four-story pink quartzite building sits atop a small hill overlooking downtown Sioux Falls. White settlers quarried the stone to build several buildings that are on the National Historic Register. In 1884, the Episcopalian Bishop William Hobart Hare founded the All Saints School. The building, styled in Prairie Gothic, still has the original Tiffany stained glass chapel windows.
The All Saints grounds slope gently down to 17th Street. Years ago, when I first walked around the building with my mother, we noticed a small metal sign at the bottom of the hill. It commemorated the life of Lost Bird and points out the role she played in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Born in the spring or summer of 1890, Lost Bird was the only surviving infant of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, US Cavalry troops were sent to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian reservation to disarm the Lakota. When an Indian’s gun went off, the army responded and shot men, women, and children. Reports vary but at least 150 to 300 Lakota were slaughtered and 51 were wounded. About fours days after the massacre, soldiers discovered the infant, covered by her mother’s frozen body. General Leonard Colby and Clara Bewick Colby, a famous suffragette, adopted the baby. The Lakota survivors of the massacre called her Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird. Eventually, General Leonard Colby abandoned Clara and Zintkala and began a long affair with the governess of Zintkala.
Zintkala lived in Washington DC with her mother most of her early years. When she was about 13 years old, her mother sold many of her belongings so she could send Zintkala to All Saints. Since she was once again one of the only Lakota children in the school, she missed her mother and wrote frequent, lengthy letters begging her mother to come and take her home. The historical marker says: “she did well in her first year but Colby failed to pay her tuition after that so she could not continue.” Clara Colby begged the General to pay her tuition, but he adamantly refused.
Not long after her time at All Saints, Lost Bird went to the Indian Training School at Chamberlain. While there were other Lakota students like herself, the living conditions became the subject of two federal investigations. At the age of 17, Zintkala was sent to live with her father and his second wife. Not long afterward, she was pregnant and General Colby sent Zintkala to the Milford Industrial Home Nebraska. Young girls were sentenced to at least a year in the “reformatory school” no matter when they gave birth to their child. If the young girls, like Zintkala were at all rebellious, they were disciplined. The superintendent sent them to the small attic room and confined the girls in leather straitjackets. Zintkala gave birth to a stillborn boy and remained at the institution for another year. General Colby refused to come and get her.
Lost Bird struggled her whole life to reconnect to her Lakota roots. She eventually married but suffered from the syphilis that her husband gave her. They moved to Hollywood and she played small parts in Vaudeville and in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. On February 14, Valentine’s Day, she died from the epidemic influenza virus. In 1990, her remains were ultimately returned to Wounded Knee, where she was buried atop the small hill overlooking the area of the massacre.
Many of the students’ memories from their school years at All Saints are preserved in one of the second-floor sitting rooms, in the chapel, and along the hallway walls. Photographs and various items line cabinets and dolls dressed in period clothings from the years when the school opened in 1885 to its closing in 1986. My mother moved to Touchmark in 2008, at the age of 85, after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. When she was 90, I took her on her last trip to Montana so she could hike in her home state that she loved so much.
She lived at Touchmark for almost 10 years, first in independent living, then assisted living, and most recently in memory care. Before she went there herself, she always avoided visiting friends who had moved to memory care. She told me that family members simply emptied the residents’ apartments, escorted them down the hall, sometimes willingly and other times not, dragging them, to the locked section.
Finally, my mother moved to memory care. I remember walking with from her assisted living apartment to the new room in the locked unit. As we crossed that threshold from what she thought was freedom into what she would call her prison, I felt like I had betrayed her. The freedom on the other side of the locked door, once her own apartment in assisted living, had become her bondage. Most of the time she couldn’t find her way back from dinner to her apartment, she got confused in the hallways, and she would call me 15-20 times a day, anxious and angry. I joked with a friend that I had PTPD: Post Traumatic Phone Disorder. I dreaded those calls so much that finally one day I shut the phone off and didn’t respond. It didn’t matter because she couldn’t remember that she had called. One day I received a call from the staff that she needed move to memory care for her own safety. After the move, she yelled at me and told me she was in prison. More often than not, I still feel sick at heart and deeply sad about the pain and loss she endures. However, I know that the staff take very good care of her. The locks on the door have provided some freedom for both of us.
My mother and Lost Bird have more than the building in common. Both have felt lost (and lonely). Lost Bird was caught between the white and Native cultures, my mother between her old self and her dementia self. Both were moved against their will and cared for by strangers. Both have felt betrayed by a dominant culture that has told them it has had their best interests at heart.
When my mother was still healthy and could find her way, she would walk the perimeter of Touchmark every evening. One time a little neighborhood boy stopped her and asked her if “they had let her out.” He was convinced that the people in that place on the hill were locked up and that my mother had escaped. She laughed when she told me that story.
Another time I went to a picnic in the new memory care section to celebrate its opening. The residents from the old memory care came to this section for the picnic. The staff provided hot dogs, potato salad, and ice cream. I sat with four other women and my mother. She was restless and spent the whole lunch wondering why they had moved her again, where her room was, and if she had done something wrong since they had taken her to a new part of the building. After she had asked the same questions repeatedly, at least 5 times a minute, one of the other women from memory care said: “Stop worrying. None of us know where we are and we don’t worry about it.” Another woman laughed and said, “I have no idea where I am but I know the staff will take me back to my room.” My mother didn’t find the remarks amusing or comforting and she was eager to return to her familiar space; she couldn’t eat her lunch.
All Saints is not only the name of a building but also the name of the day in the Christian calendar that celebrates and remembers all the saints. This year on All Saints Day, I will commemorate and remember both Lost Bird and my mother, both patron saints of those who are lost and lonely. May they find their place in all the company of saints.
Listen to Confluences, by Gary Pederson, joining the sounds of Native American flute and the harmonica in both harmonious and dissonant ways. It is based on the Hiawatha Cemetery painting and uses folk and hymn tunes to evoke both comfort and distress.