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Helping Mom Walk On, Buried the Traditional Way

In the hustle and bustle of the 21st Century, it’s not easy to drop everything and tend to your tribal traditions. Sometimes, if you respect your ancestors, you have no choice. Especially when it comes to a traditional burial, and especially when it comes time to put away your mother who is deserving of the honor to be buried in her traditional Native way.

All my life I have left it up to my elders to take care of the body of those who pass and to take care of all the ceremonies and protocols that go along with our four-day Ioway ritual. When I had questions I would simply ask my mother. On many occasions I have seen members of other families within the Ioway, or Bah’ Kho Je, people come to mom seeking advice and instruction.

As the death of my mother became reality and started sinking in, I realized that it would be up to my two sisters and me, along with my mom’s sister, to make the decisions and to take full responsibility for honoring my mother, Bette Free-McKosato, during her last few days on Mother Earth. I kept wishing I had paid more attention to these things when I was younger. We decided to go the traditional way. We didn’t know any other.

My mother was born in 1935 at the Pawnee Indian Hospital in Oklahoma. She was raised not too far from there near the town of Perkins along the Cimarron River. She was raised in a traditional way and was mentored by her grandfather Robert Roubidoux, who was full-blooded Ioway. Her grandpa held four Native American church ceremonies, peyote meetings as we call them, for my mother in her formative years – creating memories that she held close to her throughout her lifetime.

Mom was always generous with her time, which was sometimes all she had to give to the relatives and friends who were constantly visiting our home. This was the trait that stood out in my mind and right then I realized that was what I needed to give to my mother most of all – my time. I felt like some of the pressure was released. My auntie reminded us all as we began to help mom on her journey that the Creator would show us the way. Our love for mom would guide us.

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I have been living in urban areas in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico, away from tribal lands since graduating high school in the 80’s. Although I never felt disconnected, I’ve seen some of my peers in both the Ioway and Sac & Fox tribes who stayed home exceed my cultural understanding and become more aware, familiar and comfortable with being caretakers of our traditions. I am not ashamed or envious – to the contrary I’m thankful.

Our first task was to approach one of mom’s best friends since childhood to oversee the funeral ceremony and service – to guide us and reassure us that things would be okay. We took a food basket, tobacco and a shawl to ask for her time and effort. She replied, “It will be my honor to help you children, your family, and your mother.”

Throughout the week as we all had to deal with sleep deprivation while mourning the woman who gave us life and made life more memorable, I wasn’t thinking about the history of the Ioway people (officially known as the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma). I didn’t dwell on the oppression and the historical trauma that is written about and studied and talked about among our Native people on the national level. That’s not what this time is about.

All I could think about was trying to do things right and to honor my mother’s life in the way that she deserved. It dawned on me that this burial process was not necessarily just for mom, whose spirit had already gone on, but was also for us who were in sorrow. After the ceremony and the burial had been completed my uncle, one of my mom’s first cousins and an elder statesman of the tribe, came up to me and said, “your mama would have been proud of you kids.” The time spent was worth every minute. Rest in peace, Mom.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.