BELCOURT, N.D. – Elma Marie Davis Wilkie, “Waabishkibinesik” White Thunderbird Woman, 86, of Belcourt went on to the spirit world April 11 at a hospital in Minot, N.D. Elma was born Feb. 21, 1923 one of 12 children of Alexander and Adele (Laverdure) Davis.
She was raised and educated at Country School No. 2 and Bismarck Boarding School for Girls, then graduated from Flandreau High School, S.D. in 1942. She graduated from the North Dakota State School of Science with an Associate of Science Degree in business in 1944. She worked for the BIA in Chicago where she contracted tuberculosis, so she spent one year recovering, after which she went to work in New York City.
In 1949, she worked at Fort Totten and was reacquainted with Lawrence Wilkie, her future husband. They had kept in touch through letters during World War II. He had also suffered and recovered from tuberculosis while serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater. They married in 1951 and made a home in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minn. where their children Juliane, Leslie (born in Belcourt), Lawrence Jr. “Son Son” and Tracy were born. They moved to Riverside, Calif. where Lawrence worked for the Roy Aircraft Corporation as a computer tab operator and their fifth and sixth children, Russell and Lee “Butch,” were born.
The family returned to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Reservation in the early 1960s where Lawrence was elected a tribal chairman. Since those were the days that councilmen worked without pay, Lawrence found work on the Minuteman Missile site in Langdon, N.D. and Elma worked for the Turtle Mountain School System. It was an area of deep economic depression for the people of the reservation. Elma and Lawrence were involved in the work toward payment of the McCumber Agreement, or the “Ten Cent Treaty” as it has been called by the public.
Elma was hired as director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps for Turtle Mountain during this time and oversaw the employment of 4,000 young tribal members. She resigned NYC to join her husband who had enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks to work on a four-year teacher’s degree in art. Elma attended classes and worked for the Indians into Medicine (INMED) program recruiting potential Indian students into nursing and doctoral medicine at UND. Elma traveled throughout five states: North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, and covered 23 Indian reservations.
Elma often drove 2,000 miles at a time to find the brightest Indian students, one of whom was Dr. Richard Larson, who later became her doctor and took care of her even up to her final days. She was active in the UND Indian Association and helped put on the pow wow and helped Dr. Crawford with preservation of the Cree language. She and Lawrence served on the board of the Little Eagle Feather Day Care center associated with UND’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Lawrence was killed in a car accident in November 1974, and the family dreams and future plans were badly shaken. Elma held the family together through it all and graduated from UND in 1976 with a bachelor’s in social work.
She returned to Belcourt and went to work as a curriculum developer and full-time teacher at the Turtle Mountain Community College. Elma built an abundance of information on the history, treaties, languages and heritage of the Pembina Ojibway. She worked to fulfill the mission and goals of the college by helping others incorporate the culture and history into every course taught at the college. In 1984, she was recognized as Outstanding Indian Educator of the Year by the NDIEA.
Elma served as director of the board for the Anishinaabeg Cultural Center and helped secure funding for cultural activities and log buildings such as the traditional round hall. She was responsible for bringing the Flame of Peace, which had been run around the world and to all four corners of the U.S. to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Reservation. She served as a member of the Tribal Constitutional Revision Committee hoping to empower tribal people instead of the BIA. She advised future generations not to give up the effort to end corruption and to work to improve tribal government.
Elma never completely retired from the college, being asked to help teach classes at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference, which consistently won awards for in-depth social research. The TMCC president once asked her if they could name a building in her honor or do something to commemorate her many contributions; Elma suggested they sponsor a special dance for traditional women dancers at the Turtle Mountain Pow Wow each year instead, which has continued to this year. Her most recent work had been as the eldest member of those representing the Pembina Ojibway in the federal court case seeking full restitution for the BIA’s mishandling of treaty money.
Elma is survived by all six of her children: Juilane (Vance) Gillette of New Town, Leslie (Clark) Wilkie-Peltier, Lawrence (Carrie) Wilkie, Tracy Wilkie, Russell Wilkie (Kate special friend and Jill mother of his sons), and Lee (Estelle) Wilkie all of Belcourt. Adopted daughters are Vicki Iron Graves and Carol Parisien both of Redby, Minn., Cecelia Myerion and Tammi Jollie-Trottier of Belcourt, adopted son Carty Monette of Taos, N.M. and numerous nephews and nieces. Elma has 15 grandchildren; Christina Davis, Ryan and Russell Jr. Wilkie, Terry Vettleson, Trey, BJ and Steven Wilkie, and nine great grandchildren. She was preceded into the spirit world with her parents, all her brothers and sisters, and her adopted brother Paul Little of Ft. Totten, and her husband Lawrence.