By the Omaha World Herald. Click here for original story.
The lines in Laura Galligo Brewer’s face run deep, reflecting a century of living — much of it hard.
All the loss, starting with her mother, who died when Laura was just a child. Then, when Laura was a young mother, her husband and one of their children perished. She was barely 30, with five other mouths to feed.
And all the separation. She went to a boarding school when she was 8. Years later, she sent her own children there after she was widowed, so she could work.
There was the crushing poverty. And of course the second-class treatment: the hiding of her native Lakota language at school, the lowering of herself to prospective landlords in Omaha as she asked, “Do you rent to Indians?”
Yet look more closely at Laura Galligo Brewer’s face. These deep outlines around her mouth, in her cheeks, above her eyes, are the imprints of laughter. Of near-constant smiling.
Hers isn’t the face of suffering. For all the hardship she has endured, time and experience have carved joy.
“One time a woman told me, ‘Don’t think about the bad things that happened to you,’ ” Laura says. “’Remember the good things.’”
And she has. Of her entry into this world on the banks of the White River in South Dakota, where her parents had gone fishing. Of learning the Lakota language. Her parents spoke Lakota when they wanted to have a private conservation in front of their children, who were raised speaking English in the 1920s.
Of riding around Pine Ridge on horseback; there were no cars on the reservation in those days. Of traveling with her grandparents by horse and wagon to Chadron, Neb., where they sold crafts and camped.
Of how the matron at the Oglala Community School at Pine Ridge praised her for her bed-making skills. Of how hard work, pluck and her father’s buy-in to the controversial boarding school eased the pain of separation from her family.
Other kids cried. But not Laura. She was eager to learn.
And she did learn, at Indian schools in Pine Ridge, Oklahoma and Kansas, where she bounced, staying with relatives, getting jobs as a domestic in people’s homes in Kansas City.
“I never did run away like some of the girls used to,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid.”
She peeled potatoes, she cooked, she helped. And then as an older teenager, she returned to Pine Ridge, where such jobs were nonexistent. Who could afford paying a girl to help?
Laura Galligo still managed to find jobs here and there, finally landing at the reservation hospital, where she was a “Blue Girl,” which gave her invaluable nurse’s aide training. She went to college for a while at Chadron State and then met Freddy Brewer, who had grown up on a farm on the outskirts of Pine Ridge.
They had met at a dance. Freddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era work-relief program, and became part-owner of a gas station.
They had a Catholic wedding. And then the babies came. Five sons: Tommy, Richard, Everett, Willard and Fred, whom everyone called “Budger.” The youngest was a daughter, Elena. They lived in Pine Ridge.
Then in 1943, her husband and son Richard, who was maybe 7, went fishing. And a hat fell into the spillway. And Richard went after it. And Fred went after Richard. They both drowned.
Laura needed work. There was none at Pine Ridge.
With her older children at Indian boarding school, she took her two youngest kids wherever she could find jobs. This meant ranches in Montana and Wyoming. Then to a job caring for a priest’s sister in Chicago.
They returned to Pine Ridge, but in the summer of 1954, Laura would leave that reservation forever.
She and Elena, who was by then 11, landed in Omaha, broke. The Salvation Army housed them until they could find their own apartment. Budger later joined them and graduated from the old Tech High. Elena graduated from the old Notre Dame Academy.
Laura got work as a nurse’s aide at the old St. Joseph Hospital. A friend there got her a job at a hospital on the Winnebago Reservation north of Omaha. She worked as a licensed practical nurse for 13 years before retiring in 1976.
Then she cared for ailing relatives in Idaho and New Mexico.
Laura saw her older children on sporadic visits home to Pine Ridge whenever she could get there. Her children understood why she had left, and the family remained close despite the separation, granddaughter Teri Dameron said.
Later, Laura would see her grandchildren during extensive travels that took her throughout the United States and to Europe. A highlight was Italy. She often traveled with Elena, who lives in Omaha.
Elena’s daughter, Teri Dameron, is devoted to her grandmother, visiting her daily at the Douglas County Health Center, where Laura has lived for four years.
Teri grew up in Omaha and runs a business here called Traditional Eagle Solutions, writing grants and serving as a consultant to Indian tribes.
Over the weekend, Teri organized a 100th birthday party for her grandmother that drew so many relatives from so many states that she needed to rent the firefighters union hall to fit everyone.
Teri knows her grandmother’s stories and wants to keep them alive for generations like Taliyah’s. Taliyah is Teri’s 3-year-old granddaughter, a bouncy, long-haired girl who runs around the hospital delighting residents, especially her Unci.
“Unci” — pronounced OON-chee — is Lakota for grandmother. It’s what Laura’s family calls her. They had to as the brood grew from five children to 25 grandchildren to 75 great-grandchildren to 30 great-greats like Taliyah.
With so many grandmas, the clan needed a term for matriarch Laura. Unci it is.
Unci taught her granddaughters how to braid hair. She made their Indian dresses. She emphasized generosity, respect, the importance of family.
And now, in her twilight years, she is teaching something else.
Unci, Teri asks her, what are some of your lessons for us?
Laura thought about it.
“Help each other,” she said. “Remember the good.”