Therese Martin – Photo credit Shane Balkowitsch
Therese Martin Reflects on Life of Faith and Government Oppression
by Darren Thompson
STANDING ROCK – On Sunday, November 6 the Standing Rock community gathered for food, song, gifts, speeches and prayer to give Therese a party a lifetime in the making. Therese Martin is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s oldest living member and celebrated 100 years of life on November 3, 2016.
A life-long Lakota woman of faith received good words, countless cards and gifts, a custom hand-sewn Star quilt from the Sitting Bull College, stirring speeches by many people of various walks of life, songs presented in the Lakota language, a performance by a Native American flute player, and even a birthday commemoration from His Holiness Pope Francis.
She has lived through every foreign war the United States has participated in, the Great Depression and more than 15 Presidents. She has witnessed some of this country’s most historical pieces of legislation including the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
Although born in the United States, it wasn’t until she was 16 that she was considered a citizen. And it wasn’t until she was 60 that she was able to legally witness the ceremonies and hear the language of her people.
“When I realize I am still here at 100 years old, I think to myself: this must be a mistake!” laughed Therese Martin. “They must have recorded it wrong.”
Experiencing a lifetime of suppression of language and culture, she expressed multiple times that one of her life’s greatest experiences was to teach her own people about the Lakota language and culture. When Sinte Gleska University first opened its doors on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she attended as an undergraduate student in the 1970’s to relearn her language so she could teach the next generation.
“She was one of the very few role models in Indian education and it was through her work that inspired much of this community,” said Sitting Bull College President Dr. Laurel Vermillion. “She is one of the kindest women you could ever meet and was one of the first Lakota language teachers.”
“She is one of our community’s greatest treasures,” added Dr. Vermillion.
Born and raised in a community on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation known as Mad Bear Camp, her childhood home is now 40 feet under Lake Oahe, the man-made reservoir created by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1950’s. With the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline encroaching just north of the reservation, it is not Therese’s first encounter with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Government’s attempt to interrupt her people’s way of life.
A product of government boarding schools, Therese gave an emotional speech that will live on for generations among her people and community. She expressed her gratitude, humor and her life’s most memorable experiences.
“Some of the happiest moments of my life were when I was a teacher, being able to speak and share our language once again,” shared Therese. “But since I can remember our people have been under the thumb of the government.”
“She used her knowledge to teach the next generation to learn about her people’s ways,” continued Father Basil of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Ft. Yates, ND. “There isn’t a single person in this community that can’t learn from the life of Therese.”
No doubt a Lakota woman of great generosity, kindness, love and faith, Therese shared her life’s journey on faith: “There is a heaven for all of us and I’m looking forward to that. I feel I can pray better in my own language. It seems like God understands more and I talk to him like I’m talking to a friend and it seems like he hears me. He has kept me well all these years. I want to stay healthy so I can pray to the Creator, to be good to people—I love all people.”
“I love everyone who has come here to help us in Standing Rock,” continued Therese. “To see our people standing up for our rights, makes me so proud. When I read about those in camps, I hope they fight to the bitter end.”
She closed: “We are still under the Government’s thumb and it is time to save what little we have left.”
You can wish Therese Martin a wonderful life by sending gratitude, cards, and gifts to PO Box 439, Ft. Yates, ND 58538.
Darren Thompson (Ojibwe/Tohono O’odham) is a Native American flute player and writer from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. He contributes to Native Peoples Magazine, Native News Online and Powwows.com. For more information please visit www.darrenthompson.net