May 2016 Archives

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Grief is probably the most personal of all emotions.  When a grieving person hears other people say, I know exactly how you feel, the first thought that comes to his/her mind is, how could you?  No one can feel the way you are feeling and nothing anyone says or does will make you feel better.

In the early morning hours on July 1, 2001, the police came to my door and informed that my beautiful son, Joel Mitchell Longie, was killed in a car accident. I had to go to the funeral home to identify my son.  Joel was only seventeen years old.  Some parents are said to refuse to accept the death of their child.  With me, it was the opposite.  Once I had seen his battered and bruised body at funeral home I knew he had left us for the Spirit World.  Walking over to where he lay, I carefully closed his left eye, which was still open due to an injury he suffered in the car accident.  Realizing his body would soon be cold, I caress him all over, and finally, I took his arms, wrapped them around me, and hugged him.  While I held his body in my arm a thought occurred to me - Joel always listens to me.  Although, I knew it was hopeless, never-the-less I had to find out if he would listen to me one time when it was so critical.

"Listen to me, wake up Joel, wake up my son,"

I told him.  Of course, he did not wake up.  I took him in my arms and cried, until a deputy sheriff told me, I had to leave the funeral parlor.


Although it was very early in the morning, many of my family members and relatives were outside the funeral home, when I came out.  They wanted to see Joel, but I told them the funeral director wanted to clean up his body before she allowed anyone else to view him.  Informing them, I was driving to Dunseith, 100 miles distant, to inform Leona (Joel's mother) I got in the car and left.  While driving to Dunseith, my anger got the better of me and I began to talk to the Creator.  This angry discussion with the Creator eventually became a poem that was put on his funeral cards. Informing Leona our son was dead was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  Words can't adequately describe how she reacted when I told her Joel was killed in a car accident that morning.  Unable to help her, I stood helplessly by as she broke down.  Once she regained some semblance of her composure, she called her relatives and several came right over to cry with her and to comfort her.


When Leona and I arrived back at the funeral home, more relatives had joined those who were waiting there when I left for Dunseith.  Informing the funeral director Leona was Joel's mother; she said we could view the Joel's body.  The other family members and relatives also asked to view his body.  At first, the funeral director said "no" (there were too many).  Then seeing the look on their faces she immediately relented and allowed them in.  All of us -- my family, Leona and her sons, my cousins, and in-laws -- stood around Joel and took turns hugging him one last time.  Looking back, I think this when I first had an inkling that my son was not only special to me, but to many, many people.


The week before Joel's funeral was so hard.  It hurt to go to sleep and it hurt to wake up.  One incident did occur that brought a momentary relief from my grief.  The night after he died, my house was full with Leona's relatives so I told my two sons, Marshall and Ryan, I wanted them to sleep with me on the floor in the living room.  (We slept together until Joel's funeral and Ryan, the youngest son, was so traumatized by his brother's death he continued to sleep with me for six months after Joel's death.)  Early that morning, while everyone was still asleep, I woke up and lay there thinking about my son.  Someone suddenly pulled my hair with what felt like his or her thumb and forefinger.  I looked over at Marshall and Ryan and when I saw that they were still sleeping I immediately knew it was Joel.  He was letting me know that he was somewhere.


From the day my son died, July 1, 2001, to the day of the wake, July 5, 2001, my house was never empty; people were constantly coming and going.  Some came to pay respect; others brought us food, cards, money, star quilts, and other gifts.  Joel had attended school in Devils Lake, a town located north of the reservation.  My attitude toward some many people who lived in Devils Lake was never favorable and vice versa.  Therefore, I was taken completely by surprise by the number of people from Devils Lake who showed up at my door not only with food, money, and gifts, but also by the amount of tears they shed for my son. Although the day of the wake and funeral was mainly a blur, I vividly recall several scenes.  The first was the huge number of people who joined the procession from Wal-Mart to Crow Hill Recreation Center where the wake was held.  There were two fire engines (Joel had recently completed fire-fighting training) and literally hundreds of cars in the procession, which were several miles long.  The second was the number of people who attended the wake and funeral.  Prior to transporting a body to the graveyard, a drum group sings an Honor Song, people view the body one last time and shake the hand of the family members.  When the Honor Song was sung for Joel, the number of people from two reservations (Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake) and the town of Devils Lake who filed by the casket, viewed his body, shook our hand, and cried with us was unbelievable.  We must have stood for about two hours shaking hands. By that time, I had come to realize my son was special to many, many people although I didn't quite know why.  (I have no idea how many came to the wake and funeral but later when I counted the number of signatures in the guest book, there were over 500.) 


Normally the funeral director closes the casket prior to going to the graveyard.  When it came time to close the casket, I indicated to her that I wanted to close it.  I walked up to the casket; reached in, tucked the star quilt in around him gave him one last kiss and closed the casket.  After Joel was lowered into the grave, I took my turn with the shovel and helped cover his grave.


From the moment we lowered Joel in the grave, I made up my mind I would not do anything to distract or lessen my grief for him. Marshall, in a moment of extreme grief told me,

"They said Joel is happy where he is at, but I know he misses us too, Dad". 

Because I believe our Spirits (my children and I) are somehow connected, Marshall's comment led me to believe my grief mirrored what Joel was feeling in the Spirit World. 

"When my son is happy in the Spirit World, I will be happy in this world,"

I thought, and I did not fear grief after that.  Instead, I began to view my grief as an extreme expression of love.  If grief is actually a form of love, why would I try to lessen it, I reasoned.  Therefore, I let my grief continue (openly) unabated for several months and when people began to become concerned, I became secretive.


The year following my son's untimely death was the toughest year of my life.  The number of times I missed my son and cried is beyond counting.  The first several weeks were the toughest of all.  I never realized a person could experience such emotional pain and live.  Then a strange thing happened.  Almost overnight, the extreme emotional pain subsided and I was left with a dull, constant ache in my heart.  I believe the Creator, hearing all the prayers of my relatives and friends took pity on me and granted me relief from the most extreme emotional pain I have ever suffered.

The first couple of weeks I felt so helpless I almost went crazy.  As with most parents, I am as courageous as a female grizzly bear is when defending her young.  Every time one of my children was in trouble, I did whatever I had to protect them.  I like to think I am a creative person, and it was this creativity that always enabled me to either lessen the consequences my children would have had to face or alleviate them all together.  However, no matter how I tried there was nothing I could think of doing that would bring my son back.  It didn't matter how smart I thought I was, how courageous I was; I realized absolutely nothing I did would bring him back and that knowledge almost drove me crazy.  This was compounded by the fact I did not know what the Spirit World was really like.  Did he have enough to eat?  Was he happy?  Was he safe?  These thoughts tormented me for several weeks.


I also became very frustrated with family members and friends.  They meant well when they told me I had to move on or

"You have to let him go now,"

or, most often,

"He is in a better place and he wants you to be happy." 

I thought,

"How would Joel feel if I decided to move on or let him go?" 

Moreover, I was not sure he was in a better place because how could any other place be better than here beside me?  Regardless of what anyone told me or what they thought, I had already made up my mind that I would grieve for my son until I went to the Spirit World. 


A couple of weeks after the funeral, at the request from the mother of one of Joel's friends from mw Devils Lake, I bought pizza and I met with 15-20 of his friends in her garage.  It was sad to see those kids struggle with their grief.  It was apparent they really loved and missed my son.  I asked them to tell me about my son, the side of him that I was apparently unaware of. 


Out of that meeting came many friendships both with the young people at that meeting and with some of their parents.  (I heard  "Joel spent most of his time at our house" many, many times.  How he could have spent the time at every friend's house that they all claimed he did is beyond me!  "There must have been 3 or 4 Joels running around Devils Lake," I joked to my friend Carol Davis one day when I was visiting with her.)  Not to mention Joel's friends and relatives in Dunseith and here on Spirit Lake.  All of them claimed they were Joel's best friends. 

"Joel ALWAYS came to see me when he came to visit,"

each one of his relatives from Dunseith told me.  There have been at least 5 babies born since Joel's death who bear his name or some variation of his name.


I have also talked at three schools about the dangers of drinking and driving.  (Joel was legally drunk at the time of his accident.)  I did an hour-and-a-half presentation at a tribal college and spoke to a church group.  I spoke to a boosters club when some parents questioned whether to hold an event honoring my son at their first home basketball game.  When the event was held, I spoke to the spectators present.  I held a memorial one year after he died and sponsored a memorial basketball tournament each year for four years.  I gave up poker and tried to avoid extravagant living for four years per our customs and I continue to put a rose on his grave the first of every month.  (I drove around in an old rez beater, a 1983 Ford, for so long that several people, including my son wondered why I didn't buy a new car.  I did not bother to tell them I would as soon as the four years were up.)


After listening to literally dozens stories from adults and teenagers about Joel, I believe I have a partial answer to why my son was so special to so many people.  Aside from being a "nice kid" with an amazing smile, he was always upbeat and... just happy all the time.  In addition, he had ability to relate to almost any kid he met.  He sincerely felt sorry for those kids who were less fortunate then him and if the situation called for it, he had the courage to help them out.  (One kid told me, "I met Joel in the eighth grade.  Other boys were picking on me and Joel stuck up for me.  He was the only friend I had." 


A young lady told me of the time when she was having a bad day and Joel took the time to visit with her and cheer her up.)  Joel was also very respectful towards adults and the elderly.  A cop, who had stopped him for "doing cookies" called me, instead of, "tattling" on him, he apparently felt the need to tell me how respectful Joel was toward him.  My sister told me, how respectful Joel was toward her.  "He always called me 'Auntie', when he talked to me", she said.  (After the funeral, I directed Marshall and Ryan to always address my brothers and sisters by Uncle and/or Auntie when talking to them.)  A gas station owner told me how he would offer to put more then the $10 worth of gas, that I allowed him, in Joel's car.  Instead, Joel would refuse saying, " My dad has other bills to pay".  This response amazed him, I can't believe a young kid would say that, he told me.  However, I don't really know why he was so special to so many people.  Maybe it was because he was just Joe.


My experience with my son's death had an immediate change on me and in ways that I am still discovering.  We Dakotas have a belief, which goes something like this: However, you act immediately after a loved one dies, you will be compelled to act like that for the rest of your life.  For example, if you turned to drugs and alcohol you will become addicted.  If you became spiritual to handle your grief, you will be spiritual the rest of your life.  If you were angry, you would be angry the rest of your life. Having been aware of this belief, I tried very hard to not get angry with anyone, to be more patient and tolerant with my children and others, and to avoid loud arguments and confrontations.  Indeed, more than one person has told me that I changed for the better since my son died.  I also admitted that my racism toward "white people" is wrong.  I grew up believing white people were stingy and greedy.  They didn't care for their relatives -- putting their elderly in nursing homes and letting family members and other relatives go homeless.  Here were people who I thought incapable of feeling compassion and love toward their fellow man, grieving for my son as much as his own relatives were.  They obviously loved him very, very much.  Their love for my son along with their kindness and compassion toward me made me reexamine my feeling toward them and I made this promise:

"I will never make a racist comment about the people, or the town, of Devils Lake again"

-- a promise that I have kept to this day.


I used to love to read Stephen King's books.  His brand of terror really scared me.  However, his scary characters and spooky stories seem small and insignificant now that I experienced something much more powerful in comparison - death.  I also found out that nothing, or no one, really bothers me anymore.  This strange calmness gives me an edge, so to speak, when I am in a situation that may lead to a confrontation, and I may be criticized and/or threatened.  Criticisms, and threats simply do not bother me anymore.  This often prompts me to speak up in situations where it is not easy or wise to speak up.


In has been six years since Joel left us for the Spirit World.  I now accept that my grief will always be there, it is beyond my control.  However, I also realize my grief healed and comforted me, as long I did not run away from it.  As a loner who never depended on anyone, other than my family for emotional support, I now realize how critical the support from my friends and acquaintances is.   


I will grieve for my son for long as I live, not in a harmful dysfunctional manner but in a manner that is reflective of the love, I have for him and him for me.


In closing, my son's death made me realize how short our time here on earth is.  While I hope to live to be an old man, I have given some thought to the time when I will go to the Spirit World.  This led me to ask the Creator to grant me this wish, to have Joel be the first person to greet me when I go to the Spirit World.  As I mentioned earlier, the first of every month, I put a rose on Joel's grave.  I have directed my children to place a rose in my hand when I die so when I get to the Spirit World I can give him my last rose in person.  Knowing the Creator will grant me my wish; when it is time for me to go to the Spirit World, I will go with more anticipation than apprehension.  

 

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Life was much simpler for Hobo Joe back in 1968; his family lived in the country and had very little contact with the rest of the reservation. His life pretty much revolved around the Jerome tiospaye (extended family): his mom, her three sisters, an uncle, first cousins and other close relatives. They pretty much followed the kinship system of their Dakota ancestors. This caring, supportive, family unit, made his life predictable, his future was predictable, and he didn't have a care in the world.

Back then most ndn lived in log cabins, shacks, or older frame homes that would be deemed unlivable today. When he was four years old Hobo Joe's home burnt down (future blog) and they camped out in a tent in the woods all summer until another log cabin was built.

Their log cabin was small; it was about 30' x 30' square. A closet was against the northwest corner on the west wall, next to it was his mom's sewing machine, next to that was his mom's dresser, next to her dresser, in the southwest corner, was his mom's bed. Next to his mom's bed, along the south wall, on a shelf, was one of those old radios that needed a huge battery and a wire connected to an antenna on the roof to work. Next to the radio was a stand with a washbasin, which was next to the door. Along the east wall, on the other side of the door was the woodbin. Next to the woodbin was a kerosene-cooking stove. There was an open space next to the cooking stove, which the boys used to climb up to the loft on a ladder that was nailed to the wall. Him and his brothers slept up in the loft on mattresses on the floor. On the other side of the open space was a cupboard. On north side was another dresser, which was against another bed that the girls slept on. And, that was the extent of the furniture in our one room log cabin. Due to loft becoming extremely warm in the summer the boys slept outside, either in a tent, or an old junked out station wagon. 

Later the wood stove that kept them warm in the winter was replaced by a fuel oil stove with a bad regulator that needed be constantly monitored so it wouldn't flood and start the house on fire. A wood burning cook stove with an oven, which enable his mom to bake bread, replaced the kerosene-cooking stove, a gas stove eventually replaced this stove. With the gas stove his mom was able to bake bread without having turn the dough around so it would cook evenly like she had to do when she baked using the wood burning cooking stove, and with the purchase of a fuel old stove Hobo Joe didn't have to saw, split, and haul wood into the house anymore.   

During the winter, they spent hours playing on the lake below our house once it froze. With makeshifts sleds (car hoods and other pieces of metal, wood, or whatever they could get our hands on they were able to fashion in sleds) they slid down every hill within a couple of mile radius. And of course, they built the usual snow forts, tunnels and other stuff. In the summer, they swam in the lake and they hiked all over Crow Hill. They knew every inch of those hills, they knew where all the berry bushes were located, where all the rabbit trails were, they even found a long-lost cemetery that was long over run by bushes and trees. As a result of all this physical activity they were lean, sunburnt, with boundless energy, and they as healthy as a horse. They very seldom became ill.   

After Hobo Joe graduated from 8th grade he enrolled in Benson County Agriculture and Training School (BCATS) at Maddock, ND because there wasn't any high school on the reservation. He would catch the bus on Sunday afternoon and return on 5:00 o'clock Friday evenings. During his first year at Maddock the first HUD homes were built and distributed to families living in the country. His aunt received one as well as several of his neighbors, but his family didn't. It wasn't until many years later that he found out the reason they didn't get a new HUD house was because his mom was married to a Wisicu (Whiteman).

With his cousins and neighbors living in new HUD homes and with him spending 5 days a week in Maddock in a boarding school with all its modern conveniences, it began to dawn on him that they were dirt poor. In Maddock, he experienced running water, indoor toilets, electrical lights, a heating system not dependent on wood, and his Caucasians classmates all had nice homes. As a result, he began to spend more time in Fort Totten at his aunt Alvina's home during the weekends simply because her home had electricity and a TV. On Fridays, after getting off the bus at home he would walk to his aunt's home in Fort Totten a distance of 5 miles. Except he would take a short cut, through the hills and trees and across an open field to reached Fort Totten. He walked it so many times, regardless of the season, that he actually formed a path through the woods.

One Friday evening when he got off the bus he noticed his old dog Spot didn't great him. He walked down the hill with my suitcase, entered the log cabin and was shocked to see that most of the furniture was gone. After the initial shock wore off he noticed a note up against the kerosene lamp. On the note was written, "Hobojoe, we moved to the Fort. We will come get you by seven."

Although only 15 years old he realized a momentous event had occurred in his young life, that his life was never going to be the same.  (He folded up the note and put it his billfold. He carried it around with him for about a dozen years until he lost his billfold.) He then looked around the room, trying to imprint the image of the room in his mind to make sure he would always remember it. Years later, and even now, when he dreams of his youth and the home he grew up in it's this log cabin that's in his dreams not the HUD homes they lived in once they moved to Fort Totten. 

His mom eventually came after him and they went to their new home in Fort Totten. He couldn't believe his eyes when he walked into their new HUD home, the rooms were spacious, the floors were made of tile, there was running water, most importantly, his mom had managed to acquire a used TV...man he couldn't believe it. A house with all the modern conveniences was a huge for when his family from there log cabin in the country. Other changes were not so positive.

For it was the move from the country, into Fort Totten that transformed Hobo Joe from a shy, respectful, country boy, into a worthless, trouble-making, wild Rez boy.  Prior to moving to Fort Totten, he mainly hung around with his cousins and due to living in the country they pretty much stayed out of trouble. Long story short, in the three years from the time he moved to Fort Totten to when he turned 18 years old he'd appeared before the Juvenile Judge at least 17 times.

Specially, what transformed Hobo Joe from a shy country boy who followed the Dakota values his mom instilled in him; honesty, courage, and helping others, into a worthless ndn boy was his circle of friends grew. His new friends; to put it honestly were juvenile delinquents. Around them, he began to forget the Dakota values he was raised with, instead, he became skilled at dodging the truth, he had no respect for anything or anyone, and he thought he was smarter than everyone.

As the years went by he became a hard-core alcoholic, he wrecked dozens of cars, rolled over 5 times, often stole and hocked anything of value, and he was a terrible person. The more awful his behavior became, the prouder he was of it. This lifestyle eventually ended when he was 31 years old, but not before lot damage had already been done to his reputation, to his spirit, and to his physical body.

The second, older, Hobo Joe would continue be a trouble maker for about 15 years when another major event occurred, he was in a horrible car accident, which resulted in a broken back that left him paralyzed from the waist down (another future blog). In a wheel chair, he was force to go back to school and this eventually led to the emergences of Dr. Longie. 

What helped the change that led to Dr. Longie come about was this; even in the darkest, wildest, times of his life he remembered his mom's Dakota teachings. She taught him honesty, courage, to never give up, and to have respect, and have compassion for others. And, he remembered she had such high expectations of him. Many times, she would either tell him, or tell others, that he was going to finish school, that he was going to get a job, that he was not going to be like all the other worthless men on the reservation, that he was going to make something out of his life. Eventually, his memories of his mom's high expectations of him begin to really bother him. Those memories, along with experiencing horrible, four day hangovers, being tired of waking up sick and tired, and not having any money, all those things eventually led to committing himself into a veteran hospital for alcohol treatment for the 3rd time and he hasn't touched a drop of alcohol since.

As hard as it was to become and stay sober it was even harder for him to change his belief that he was smarter than everyone, that rules are made for other people, and that all religions are false. However, he had a family he loved dearly, he enjoyed having money, a new car and the respect of family and friends, so Hobo Joe begin to merge into a person who eventually became Dr. Longie. Dr. Longie is a much nicer person than Hobo Joe, he is responsible and in some cases hard working. He has also returned the Dakota values his mom taught him and has a solid, private, relationship with Wakan Tanka that guides him every day and in everything he does. 

There are times when Dr. Longie misses the lifestyle of the irresponsible, don't-give-a-sh-t attitude of Hobo Joe, those times that were so fun and exciting until he was forced to grow up. However, as much as he misses the "freedom" of those Hobo Joe years he realizes he has come too far, he has too many responsibilities, most importantly, he knows his mom in Spirit World is proud of Dr. Longie, so he will continue being Dr. Longie except every now and then he will allow himself to slip back into being Hobo Joe and have a little fun with those around him. 

To sum it up, when he lived in the country his name, "Hobo Joe" was spoken a smile and maybe some teasing, after he moved to Fort Totten, more often than not, when his name was spoken, it was spoken with scorn, contempt and anger. 

And that my friends, is how the transformation of Hobo Joe came about. 

 

 

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