- By Levi Rickert
Opinion. My family buried our mother, Jennie Whitepigeon Rickert Wicker, on Friday. She walked on last Sunday morning, three days short of her 92nd birthday. On Wednesday, we honored her spirit with a cake and sang “Happy Birthday.”
Typically for my opinion pieces, I’m searching throughout the week for inspiration to write about a topic that I believe matters to Native Americans and improving our lives. As a general rule, I do not write about my family because I respect their privacy. This week, I will make an exception because when it comes to inspiring me, my mother was at an entirely different level for as long as I remember. She was my model and my inspiration in so many ways.
Mother was blessed with a long life and we enjoyed our time with her right up to her last moments. Still, her passing is a transition into a sorrowful time for our family. As we navigated the last week, thousands of memories flooded my mind and the minds of my siblings. We cried a lot and laughed a lot as we recalled so many precious memories of — and lessons learned from — our dear mother.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan during the midst of the Great Depression to Potawatomi parents — my namesake Levi Whitepigeon and his wife, Ellen — Mother grew up far away from an Indian reservation. She was one of 10 children born of my grandparents union. One sister, Delores, lived for only three years during the 1930s. Otherwise, my siblings and I had the privilege of knowing all of Mother’s loving and studious siblings, our aunties and uncles. Now, only three aunties are still living.
Throughout her life, Mother recalled the challenges of growing up during the Great Depression. She often recalled slaughtering chickens and collecting dandelion greens for dinner, pumping well water, and having to use kerosene lamps before her parents’ home was wired for electricity.
Her grandfather, James Whitepigeon, was a Methodist minister. When she was still a young child, her parents became Apostolic Pentecostals. Mother was a strong woman of faith and still a member of the same church at the time of her passing.
When I was only five years old, Mother had malignant cancer. I was sent with my baby sister to a small town near Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, to live with my stepfather’s family for about two weeks. Even now, I count that time as two of the longest weeks of my life, because of the pang of not being with my mother. I remember when Grandpa Whitepigeon came to get me to bring me back to Grand Rapids. He told me my mother would be okay as he gave me a hug.
I have cited this painful time of personal loneliness when I have lectured about Indian boarding schools. I never attended a boarding school and I have told audiences that I was fortunate. My stepfather's family was nice to me. I can only imagine how painful it was for those who were removed from their parents’ lives for such prolonged periods of time with people who beat them for crying because of their loneliness.
Mother always thanked God for healing her of the cancer so she could raise her children. In total, she had seven children. She was an excellent homemaker and dedicated mother. While raising her own children, her nieces and nephews were frequent overnight guests.
As with so many other Native American kwé (women), Mother was a woman of great determination, never shying away from correcting a perceived wrong.
When I was in the ninth grade, Mother taught me the difference one person’s voice can make. One wintery Saturday morning when I was 15, my mother and I attended an Indian meeting at the old Westside Complex near downtown Grand Rapids. There were perhaps eight American Indians present, including my mother and me, to discuss American Indian affairs with state Senator Milton Zaagman.
The state senator was reaching out to the American Indian constituency that morning. My mother raised her hand and told the senator that it was ridiculous that the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs consisted of more people who were not Indian than those who were. He listened intently, and I remember he took out a white index card from his suit jacket and wrote down my mother’s comments.
She asked him how people who were not Indian could even know what Indian concerns were. She did not yell. She did not call him names. My mother simply voiced her opinion. The senator told her he would look into the matter.
A few months later, my mother showed me a small article in The Grand Rapids Press that, as I recall, consisted of only two or three short paragraphs. It reported that Senator Zaagman had created legislation calling for the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs to be made up of primarily American Indians.
There is no doubt, my mother’s determination contributed to the tenacity I brought to my work as a journalist. I learned from her how to make a difference in Indian Country. I learned from her how to give voice to critical issues.
When Mother became a grandmother, she doted over her grandchildren. With great pride, she attended their sporting events, concerts, school plays, spelling bees, and art shows. She and my late step-father helped care for my niece Caitlyn, a granddaughter with special needs, to give my sister Deb some relief.
I know most people think they had the best mother ever. That is how it should be. Everyone should cherish their mother.
Mother was my rock. She was my inspiration. This past week I asked myself: What am I going to do now that Mother is gone? With God's grace, I will do everything she taught me to do: stay strong and keep fighting against injustices.
Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.
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