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Remembering Laura Waterman Wittstock:

Sept. 11, 1937 – January 16, 2021

Woman of Wisdom Via Words and Voice: The Cosmos has Grown by One More Star 

By HARVEY WINJE

“The birthright of every Indian born is that her or his ancestors paid a price beyond imagining that their descendants would live as Indians.” 
LAURA WATERMAN WITTSTOCK 

 Laura’s compassionate eyes closed, her judicious intellect chronicled, her indigenous wisdom relayed, her corrections of errant history revealed, her gracious smile remembered, and her dedication to family of five children, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren, one great-great grandchild, and three honorary children fulfilled; Laura Waterman Wittstock’s indelible impact lives on after passing to the Spirit world January 16th 2021. Laura was an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Heron Clan, and was born at the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in New York; moved to Honolulu in 1945, to San Francisco in 1954, to Washington, D.C. in 1971, and to the Twin Cities in 1973 where she contined to:

• Nurture her family,

• Speak and write truth to power,

• Build trusting relationships between people, cultures, and organizations,

• Give unpretentious counsel to hundreds of people, organizations personally and on many boards of directors. 

For many of us words don’t come as easily as they did to Laura when expressing the deepest of thoughts from heart, head, and soul. Thank you, Laura. Rest in peace after walking with us and “taking only memories and leaving only footprints;” footprints that touched Mother Earth lightly but are a large challenge to follow and to fill. 

“There is never enough room to get in all that should be said about a historical figure, but not just a litany of events in which she/he was present, but something of the woman/man her/ himself,” as Laura herself wrote about another Indigenous elder. Laura also wrote the headline, “The Cosmos Has Grown by One More Star” about another activist of Indian causes. Both are fitting for her, too. 

Laura’s own words in, “Remembering Those Who Went Before,” May 2020, are a good start to remembering the way she blended compassion, wit, and values. 

Laura enriched our lives with words in print and on radio for decades. Here are a few excerpts from her column, Indaway Mahgahnug (transliteration: All My Relatives) in the alley Newspaper and a list of some articles she wrote for the alley in the last 30 years. 

“Remembering Those Who Went Before,” the alley, May 2020 

“Fondly remembering Winona, a Cairn Terrier, Casey a Corgi, and all our other pets–Chubs, Skunny Wndu, Buckaday, Gahieestohd, Fibber McGee, Alexander, Casey, Spice, Precious Sparkle, and Monte; who brought joy and great interaction to our family.”

“…In this day of massive mourning in the whole world, our previous plans for death may seem outright whimsical. My husband and I will have been married for fifty years if we make it to August 30th. Our loving plans call for cremation and then mixture with whichever of our pets we have had throughout our married days that the children choose to include. Some might be considered pets of the children and those would be kept out. Others would be too precious to put away. But we are hoping a few pinches from the list above could be included. A bit will go to the Seneca Nation of Indians Cemetery where my parents are buried and likewise a bit will go to the Sheboygan, Wisconsin cemetery where my husband’s mother and father are buried. That’s the beauty of ashes. You can go wherever your children or loved ones wish to place you. 

“My husband and I do not have a legal will. Almost instantly we thought about making one but our lawyer was not in his office. “We have now worked out an online way to send things back and forth. It took us quite a while to figure out which charities to leave something to and how to give things to our children, grandchildren, our great grandchildren. 

“Apparently, from reports in the newspaper, we are not the only ones with this dilemma. Lawyers everywhere are rushing to figure out how to get wills done. 

“We are far from wealthy but we do have enough to leave a little something behind. I’m amazed to find out how little attachment I have to those things I thought precious when I acquired them. We know our children won’t have room for what we call stuff. We have tried to pass on only junk free items, but it is hard when photos or that special silk scarf is involved. 

“Next we have to downsize by clearing out the basement where 35 years of stuff have accumulated, some from a previous move – boxes of papers that never were opened. At least we are stuck inside where our work goes on. My husband is teaching his classes online using the popular Zoom and I am still volunteering for Wicoie, the nonprofit that supports language learning for very young children. 

The blameless parents of the students have had losses beyond imagination. That is true for many communities throughout Phillips and the whole city. Let’s turn our thoughts to them at least once a day and give what we can, whether talent, food, funds of course, and precious time. That’s what we are rich in now.” 

“Neocolonialism is Stealing Indian Birthrights,” the alley, June 1991 

“This country owes an enormous debt to the native nations, and it is a debt that is due in perpetuity because this country was not vacant when the Europeans came nor will it be vacated by those who at times willingly and at other times unwillingly relinquished their lands and territories to the new nation. This simple truth has escaped many of the living who did not personally preside over the genocide of native peoples. The birthright of every Indian born is that her or his ancestors paid a price beyond imagining that their descendants would live as Indians.” 

“We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement,”

Dick Bancroft, Photographs and Laura Waterman Wittstock, Text, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013 

“Having reported on many of the events depicted in this book, when they were actually happening, I have found catching up with some of the central figures of the day to be a lesson in the trickery of time. Memories have lost clarity is some cases, but in others flashbacks to events forty or more years ago recall the American Indian Movement as an organization built less on files and organizational charts and more on relationships that have held steadfast over time. Several of the individuals whose photographs are in this book remember so clearly because they have aged together, as AIM built its way into its new job: that of making communities work. They kept learning new ways to put Indian people at the center of their concerns.” 

“Mother Earth Is Calling: Is Anybody Listening.,” the alley, May 1991. 

“As another Earth Day comes and goes, the observances remind us that like other days to acknowledge mothers, one day does not do nearly enough. It reminds us of how little regard we have for Mother Earth the other 364 days. For example, how could the bombing of Iraq be, in anyway, declared a victory? It wasn’t even a victory in the military sense, as we understand that to be… More importantly, scientists who have long laid claim to Iraq as one of the most valuable sites of western antiquity, tell us that irreparable damage has been done to the desert terrain, its’ ancient sites and structures, and almost unthinkable harm has been done to much future understanding of the significance of the people and their cultures that once flourished in that country… 

“Letter to the Editor: Tell History in full context; A Single Story is dishonest, disrespectful, and sometimes a monstrous mistake” the alley, June 2017 

“It is the artist’s responsibility to understand the society in which he/she lives and to create art that moves society forward. Apparently this artist thought building a scaffold to reveal the horror of mass hangings would shock and wake people up about the scaffolds of the future unless society comes to its senses. What the artist achieved was a grotesque placeholder of a time in history when white settlers brought along fried chicken and other snacks to watch 38 human beings being hanged en masse. We have had many such events in England, for example. The tower and square where beheadings took place are merely tourist attractions today. The blood has long dried. 

“But 1862 is a year that is unsettled yet today. Dakota land was invaded, impinged upon, and even treaty land got no payment. The Dakota were at the point of starvation. 

“Building a scaffold in a courtyard that holds other art rips open the wounds made to the Dakota people. A quiet burning is the only remedy to this monstrous mistake. 

We have yet to learn the lessons of 1862. We have yet to become Minnesotans. No time better than now to begin” 

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