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Nellie Two Bulls passes to the spirit world

RAPID CITY, S.D. - ''Grandma Nellie,'' as she was affectionately called by thousands of people, died Feb. 18 at the age of 81. Her passing will leave a void in the Oglala Lakota community.

Nellie Two Bulls lived a life that enriched others' lives, and most people who had the opportunity to meet her never forgot her. Grandma Nellie was one of the most notable storytellers and singers in the Lakota culture.

As a young girl she was given the gift of storytelling, hence her given Lakota name of Zintkala To Win, or Blue Bird Woman. She remained true to her vision and taught the culture, sharing her songs and, in doing so, attracted many children.

''She has always been my inspiration and my role model in life,'' said Lynnette Two Bulls, Grandma Nellie's granddaughter.

''Since the time I was little, she taught me many valuable things that I will model my life after, if I can be half the person she was. No one can fill the shoes that she wore,'' Two Bulls said.

Lynette Two Bulls said that when people saw and met Grandma Nellie, they saw what was in her heart.

''It came out in her. She was such a warm person; the instant people met her they could see that and felt that,'' Two Bulls said.

Grandma Nellie and her late husband, Matthew, were inseparable. They usually worked together to spread the stories and songs of the Lakota. Grandma Nellie taught at Red Cloud School for 20 years, but her teachings were not confined to a classroom.

Grandma Nellie was a member of the advisory committee for the Journey Museum in Rapid City, a board member of KILI radio on the Pine Ridge Reservation and had served as a council representative from the Wakpamni District on the Oglala Sioux tribal council. She was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Black Hills Pow Wow Association and received an honorary doctoral degree from Oglala Lakota College.

In 2005, she received the First Peoples' Community Spirit Award for her contribution to stories and the songs of the Lakota culture that she kept alive. She taught the stories and songs to anyone.

''We shared her with the world, with everyone. She loved people and loved sharing her life, knowledge and culture in hopes to create a better understanding between people so that our young Native people could carry on those traditions,'' Lynette Two Bulls said.

Grandma Nellie represented a generation that kept the culture alive and is the eldest of the descendants of Chief Man Afraid of His Horse.

Grandma Nellie traveled throughout the United States telling stories, singing and sharing her culture. Lynette Two Bulls recalled a special trip made to Rhode Island to celebrate the memory of Robert Kennedy. The stories Grandma Nellie told brought everyone to tears.

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As a young couple, Matthew and Nellie brought a few survivors from the Battle of the Little Big Horn to the first blast of the mountain carving, now called Crazy Horse Mountain.

Ruth Ziolkowski, CEO of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, recalls that day on June 3, 1948.

''They were with us for every celebration after that,'' Ziolkow-ski, widow of the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, said.

''When Matt passed away she kept right on; she was such a strong person. Nothing seemed to overpower her; she had the softest side and the most wonderful heart,'' Ziolkowski said.

When she thought about Grandma Nellie, Ziolkowski said it was hard to not think of Matthew and Nellie together.

''She and Matt were teachers. If you totaled up the years the two of them taught, it would come to a century,'' Ziolkowski said.

''Nellie wanted to keep her culture alive.''

Grandma Nellie was a major presence at Crazy Horse Memorial during celebrations and especially during the annual Native American Day celebration in South Dakota. She was given a special location at the memorial, where she told stories that attracted large numbers of children.

''She had all the time in the world for young people,'' Ziolkowski said.

Grandma Nellie is survived by three daughters and one adopted daughter; three grandchildren, which she raised; a sister; a brother-in-law; a sister-in-law; 34 grandchildren; 70 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

The number of children she adopted under Lakota tradition is too many to count.

Her legacy will continue to filter through the Lakota culture for many years and her namesake, young Nellie Two Bulls Whiteman, the daughter of Lynette and Philip Whiteman Jr., will carry on the name.

Grandma Nellie had been confined to a wheelchair for the past three years, but Lynette Two Bulls said that didn't slow her down - she still traveled across the country telling her stories and sharing her culture.

''When we honored Nellie at the Black Hills Pow Wow, and at the Community Spirit awards, what was precious about Nellie and her spirit and what really came through was all the lives of the children she touched. To see so many children coming up to her at those events it was their love for her and her love for them,'' said Lori Pourier, executive director of First People's Fund.