elephants never forget by Brooke Hilderbrandt

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When I was a little girl, I spent time with my Kokum (Grandma in Cree) in a tepee. It was powwow time, and the small reserve that my family is from, was in an uproar over the upcoming gathering. I remember as we got ready to head out into the deep prairies, Kokum got out an old blue suitcase that never closed properly. I was about to put my clothes in the suitcase, when she stopped me.

“What you doing?” she said as she handed me a garbage bag, “the suitcase is for food.”

Kokum believed that the important things went into suitcases, and fashion was never as important to Kokum as good food was. This would be a common theme in my Kokum’s packing style. When we took a train from the prairies to the mountains, we packed everything we had into garbage bags, and held the food in the suitcases.

The night before we left for the powwow trail, Kokum made two dozen hard-boiled eggs and placed them back into their cartons. The eggs, loaves of bread, baloney and marshmallows, all went into the suitcase. Our clothes went into garbage bags.  Once we were packed, we got a ride down to the powwow grounds, and settled into our teepee for the night. 

Back then, powwows were not about competitions and prize money, but about traditions and teachings. When we got there, there was a large area in the middle, were all the dancers would meet. The Elders were blessing the area and purifying the land. Kokum told me, that before they can dance, that the area must be cleaned because it was sacred land.

Around the sacred land, circling the dancers, were rows of teepees. This is where the dancers and families slept during the night. Back then, people didn’t go home after the dancing stopped, but spent the nights listening to the stories from the Elders. Kokum would tell me: children needed to be quite during these times and listen. Later in life, I would realize that this one teaching would shape the rest of my life, and how I lead it.

Kokum would braid my hair and her own. She told me that hair should be braided in ceremony.  Kokum always had her hair braided, and later in life, when it turned sliver, Kokum’s hair was beautiful and long, it’s one of the first images that comes to my mind whenever I think of her.

Each morning, we would wake up before the sun touched the prairie soil, and make coffee. Kokum would take out some pantyhose and pour large quantities of coffee inside one of the legs. She’d boil water, and hum as she tended to the fire, before dumping the coffee into an old pot resting just above the small fire pit. The sky would come alive as she hummed and I could feet the grass tickle my feet. The moisture in the air would fill my lungs, just before the strong scent of coffee would arise. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I got older, I would hold these moments as everlasting pieces of what was truly meant to be without the negative impacts that surround our people. I would hold this very image, surrounded by the tepee, the sound of my Kokum’s humming mixed in with the sound of the big drum, as hope for my people. That one day the seventh generation would be a possibility.

Kokum told me that before anything could be done, that the Elders had to be taken care of. She would hand me trays of food and tell me to go give food and coffee to the Elders around us. As the sun would come up and make the sky turn gold, I would go from teepee to teepee handing out food to the Elders. Most times, the Elders would ask me to sit with them and they would tell me stories as I stirred their coffees.

Kokum loved the sound of the big drum; she would tap her feet to the heartbeat of the drum and say that she could feel the songs in her soul. She told me that if you really listen to the music, that you could hear it call out to you. I told her that it gave me goose bumps; she chuckled and said that Our People can really feel it because it sings to our very blood.

To this day, I get goose bumps whenever I hear a big drum, and I think of her. I think of my Kokum often, and it’s the image of her humming as she made coffee for the Elders that always comes to mind.

My Kokum had very little, poor when it came to money but that never stopped her from giving anything she had to others.

When I asked her why, she gave me a weird look and shook her head.

“My girl,” she said as she peeled the hard boil eggs, and handed the few she had left to an Elder, “it’s our way to give, not to keep. You remember that, you hear.”

That was the way my Kokum was, she could have two pieces of low-grade liver as her meal, but she’d hand both pieces over, if you had nothing but an empty plate. I only wish she were alive today, so that I give her a plate full of steaks, and tell her not to worry, because everyone else was well fed.

Just before Kokum passed away, she gave me an elephant necklace and asked me.

“My girl, did you know that elephants never forget?”

I nodded my head, and she smiled, as she lay there in pain that she fought hard not to show.

She placed her hand in mine and said, “Don’t you ever forget that I love you.”

I’ll never forget, Kokum….I love you too!

written by Brooke Hilderbrandt, Cree Nation

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