Josephine’s Tears

Josephine was an Indian gal, Nakota Sioux, raised in the grasslands of the Great Western Plains. Her people were proud and strong, her parents kind and gentle. They lived in a harmony with the land, and the wind, and the rain, and the grass of the Great Western Plains. Their life depended on the buffalo. They’d lived this way forever, never taking more than they needed.

My grandfather told me her stories of the wind, and the rains, and the grass, and her life on the Western Plains. He told me stories of the hunts, and stories of the feasts, the work and the play, the snows in the winter, the rains of the summer, her mother and father, and the lessons that they taught her. Ah, life was good on the Plains. They always had enough.

She told Grandfather about the buffalo, how the herds took days to pass. She spoke of the clouds of dust that darkened the skies and turned the sunset orange-red. The thunder of the hooves. Ah, life was good. Life on the Plains. She talked about the trappers that passed through heading west to the mountains that touched the sky, somewhere, somewhere way beyond the sunset. She spoke of the trades that her father had made. Fine blankets, iron knives, bright cloth, shiny beads. All these wondrous treasures for just a handful of buffalo hides. Life was good, life on the Plains.

She spoke of the hunters who came with their great long rifles that filled the air with noise and smoke. She told him about the men with their knives that filled their wagons with buffalo robes and left the Plains soaked in blood, covered with the rotting bodies of the buffalo. The sound of the coyotes and ravens as they fed on the putrid flesh while her family cried. Cried for the life they lost; the life on the Great Western Plains.

Grandpa would tell me how Josephine cried, too, when she told him these tales, these stories of the wind and the rain and the end of a life on the Great Western Plains.

I remember turning my head up and looking into his face, seeing his tears fall. He looked up, close his eyes and shook his head. “These are not my tears. These are Josephine’s tears. My mother’s tears that she passed on to me. And now, now I pass them down to you.”

I turned my face away and bent my head down. I heard my grandfather sigh and as his tears fell on my cheek. I heard the wind, and I felt the rain, and I mourned the loss of the life on the Plains.

Twenty years later my grandfather lay in a hospital bed close to death. He called me on the phone, and he asked me to come see him. Said he had some things he wanted to tell me. I pulled a chair up close to his bed and took his hand in mine. He asked me, “Michael, do you remember the stories I used to tell you? The story of my mother Josephine and her family, and their life on the Plains?”

“Of course I do, Grandpa. How could I forget them?”

“Well, there were some things I just couldn’t tell you then, I thought you were too young to hear.

“Josephine’s father traded for more things than I told you. He also took the cheap whiskey that they offered him. One night, he got drunk on that trade whiskey, and when his wife laughed at him, he beat her. He broke her jaw and most of her ribs. She died a slow death, drowning in her own blood.

“Josephine had a sister, Rose. She was three years older, Rose was brutally raped and beaten by a skinner. When he was done with her, she wouldn’t stop screaming. He pulled out his knife and slashed her throat. She was quiet then.

“Her brother caught up to the man who killed his sister. He was younger. He was stronger. He was faster. He was sober. The fight didn’t take long. He won. Or so he thought.

“A couple of days later, the skinner’s friends caught up with him. There were seven of them and one of him. They beat him to a pulp, and they hung what was left of him on a high oak tree. They cut him down and burnt his body while they drank and laughed.

“With the end of the buffalo, her father had no way to feed his daughters. Rather than let them starve, he gave them to the missionaries. They took them away and put them in the Indian school. They taught them to speak English and dress like proper young ladies. Then they kicked them out the door into a gutter of a society that didn’t want them.   They had no use for the dirty, illiterate savages.

“They made their way to the city of Duluth, up in Northern Minnesota. Josephine was lucky. She was able to find work as a laundress and a maid in a house. Ruth, she wasn’t so lucky. She ended up in a whore house down by the shipyards. They found Ruth in a snow drift in an alley, drunk on gin, froze to death.”

I sat in my chair last night, and I held my granddaughter in my lap, listening to the sounds and smelling the smoke of the fire, holding her tight. I leaned over and I whispered in her ear. I told her the stories, the stories of the wind, and the rain, and Josephine’s life on the Western Plains. As I cried and my tears fell on her head, I passed them down to her, just like my grandfather did for me.

Josephine was an Indian gal, Nakota Sioux, raised in the grasslands of the Great Western Plains. Her people were proud and strong, her parents kind and gentle. They lived in a harmony with the land, and the wind, and the rain, and the grass of the Great Western Plains.

 

While Michael Erickson inherited his love of storytelling, and writing, from his grandfather, his parents encouraged his passion for music and history. It made for an interesting mix which led to an early career in music production that morphed into designing and building sound systems that led him into cabinetry and carpentry. Eventually he came to complete the circle and built a small recording studio where he and a few friends record their songs and stories.

Michael and his wife, Jenny, live on a small farm in Hereford, Az.

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