The day was gray and overcast. Light snow had been drifting down all morning and it was shaping up into one of those cold, miserable days that make South Dakota the butt of so many jokes.
As I nursed my second cup of coffee that morning, through the foggy, steamed up window of Vesta's Café in Martin, SD., I saw the old, maroon pickup of Enos Poor Bear driving slowly down the slushy street. A smile came to my face as I thought about the many mornings Enos sat with me at this very table and discussed the politics of the Pine Ridge Reservation over a steaming cup of coffee. Enos, the former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, a respected elder, had a wealth of knowledge about people and the problems of the reservation, past and present, and loved to share his thoughts.
His silver gray hair was always neatly combed and his clothes were always pressed and clean. "It is something I learned from my Momma a long, long time ago. When I was a little shaver growing up in the Eagle Nest District at Wamblee, like most reservation families, we were dirt poor. But Momma always told us that no matter how old or tattered our clothes got, we should always keep them neat and clean. I've always honored her wishes," Enos would say.
"It seems to me that the youngsters of today have lost the ability to sit and listen to the stories and the advice of the tribal elders. The one virtue stressed by the elders is patience and that doesn't seem to fit into this world of instant gratification and high technology," was one of his favorite comments.
As I watched the lights of Christmas blinking in the store windows across the street my thoughts strayed to an elderly Lakota man who had passed away yesterday. He was a very close friend of Poor Bear and he had sat with me at this very table a week before he died and talked to me about the many things he had experienced in his long life.
The elderly man's face was lined with the creases of the many winters of toil and his fingers were brown from the many cigarettes he had held. He made a loud, slurping noise when he drank his hot coffee and it reminded me so much of my own Lakota father who knew it was not ill-mannered to sip loudly or to burp over a well-cooked meal or a great cup of coffee because that was the Lakota way of saying, "Hey, this is great."
Speaking softly as he brushed a shock of snow-white hair from his weathered forehead he said, "There are those young Indians who call God a white man's God. But I think there is one God for everybody. As a Lakota, I think Christmas is the best example of this."
"To me Christmas is a holiday that cuts across all races. It is a day to pause and to reflect on the past. It is a day to share with your loved ones. It is a day to carry on the traditions that have always been a part of our Sioux heritage, the traditional giving of gifts," the old man said as he stared into his coffee cup.
Like the Lakota of old, he used his hands to strengthen every word. "Many years ago my wife and me, we were very heavy drinkers. We got drunk often and neglected our children. We were really destroying our lives and worse yet, we were ruining the future for our little ones. Lakota men and women drink for many reasons and the loss of self-esteem is probably one of the biggest reasons," he said with a sigh.
The old man was quiet for a long time as if trying to gather his thoughts and talk about something he found difficult to discuss. "One night - - - it was Christmas Eve - - - my children had all come home from the Indian boarding school for the holidays. I had been drinking all week and I was pretty sick. My wife was sitting in the kitchen still drinking. I guess I was feeling guilty as well as sick because I walked to the room where my youngest daughter sleeps to tuck her in. Just as I got to the door I heard her talking. No, she wasn't talking. She was praying. She asked Tunkasila (Grandfather God) not to bring her a lot of fancy presents for Christmas. All she wanted was for God to make Mom and Dad stop drinking. She told God she loved us very much and to please save us for the children's sake."
The elderly man was silent for a long time again. When he spoke he said, "It was very cold that night, but I walked outside and stood there shivering and looking at the millions of stars just thinking about the things my little girl said. I felt the tears running down my face and I started to pray. All of a sudden the sky lit up like it was daylight and I got this warm, safe feeling all over. I think I heard this voice repeat the words of my daughter 'for the children's sake' but I wasn't afraid."
A tear came to his eye as he finished what he wanted to tell me. "Momma and me, we quit drinking that night. We never touched another drop of alcohol since that day. All of our children grew up and never got into trouble. Two of them graduated from college and all of the others have good jobs and are responsible Lakota people. My youngest daughter went to college and then came home to take care of me and Momma."
For the sake of the children he had found peace and comfort in Tunkasila that cold, Christmas Eve long ago. And whether one believes in Christmas or not, it is their choice, and I am only relating to you a story that is true and was told to me many years ago on an Indian reservation in South Dakota.
(This column was written in December of 1984. It won the H. L. Mencken Award from the Baltimore Sun and the "Best Local Column Award from the South Dakota Newspaper Association in 1985. Enos Poor Bear died a few years after this column was written. He remained a friend and advisor to Giago until his death. Giago can be reached at email@example.com)