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American Indian elders foretold Depression

FORT THOMPSON -- It was summer, just before the start of the Great Depression that gripped the nation throughout the 1930s.

On the Crow Creek Reservation, kunsis (grandmothers) spoke to takojas (grandchildren), foretelling of difficult days ahead. Stella Pretty Sounding Flute, today an 84-year-old resident of Fort Thompson, remembers it well.

"I remember (the grandmothers) used to tell me that I should listen because I am going to have a hard time," said Pretty Sounding Flute, herself now an American Indian elder.

Soon, Pretty Sounding Flute learned what the elders meant by "a hard time."

When most people think about the Great Depression, they think of dirt, poverty and hard economic times. As the nation slips into economic uncertainty in 2008 and Americans lament high prices of gas and food, Pretty Sounding Flute recalls the 1930s, a time when nothing was certain, not even her next meal.

Buffalo County in central South Dakota still is among the poorest in the nation. According to online statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Fort Thompson is the 36th poorest location per-capita in the nation as of October.

Pretty Sounding Flute says she has lived a lifetime feeling inferior. It dates back to those difficult days, starting with being forced to attend boarding school as a young girl.

Born July 20, 1924, Pretty Sounding Flute remembers living in tents with her family down in old Fort Thompson.

"Old Fort" is how residents of Fort Thompson refer to the community before the 1959 construction of the Big Bend Dam, which backed up water from the Missouri River, forcing residents to move to higher ground.

The whole community living in that area was forced to migrate to higher ground. That's where Fort Thompson stands today.

Food was scarce, and the constant worries about food were devastating for Pretty Sounding Flute and her relatives.

"The food part ... it's a little bit better now, just a little bit," she said. "We dug down the river and all the food is gone. The grandmas said the food and the medicine ... it's going to be all gone when this river is gone."

Fort Thompson today has stores where food can be purchased, and the government provides commodities as a supplement. When Pretty Sounding Flute was growing up, reservation residents had to hunt for much of their food in a relatively sterile environment.

Pretty Sounding Flute lived in a tent, but eventually was forced to attend boarding school in Stephan -- now known as the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal High School.

And as the Great Depression gripped the nation, Pretty Sounding Flute said the "Great Oppression" held tight on the reservation. While many South Dakotans can still remember the Great Depression as a time of financial struggles and environmental disasters, Pretty Sounding Flute recalls the beatings she received from school officials when she spoke her native Dakota language.

Even today, she speaks a mix of broken English and Dakota as she describes her childhood.

"I don't want to go to school, Ina (mother)," she recalls saying. "I hung on to her apron ... and I said, 'momma, do I have to go to school?

"We couldn't understand (school officials) and they couldn't understand us. We didn't speak English."

The language barrier made it difficult to learn what was going on outside of the reservation.

As she discussed her childhood with a visitor recently, Pretty Sounding Flute avoided being too specific, perhaps due to language difficulties. But she has strong opinions about life today compared to the 1930s; people have it easy nowadays, despite so much talk about economic hardships.

"I grew up the hard way," said Pretty Sounding Flute. "There is no easy life for me but here I am. Everything I learned was the hard way."

To survive the hard times of the Great Depression, Pretty Sounding Flute and her relatives relied on traditional American Indian values.

They helped each other.

It's a way of life she still values. She reminds her family to adopt those values as well, especially during difficult times like today.

Pretty Sounding Flute had a tough time during the Great Depression, yet still maintains a strong faith and contributes her time to the Catholic Church.

"There is never a life that is easy," she said. "Right now, I am enjoying myself because I am helping others.

"I make cookies for Sister Charles and help make star quilts and sofa pillows. I don't want no pay. I just do it because (otherwise) I will be watching that TV all the time."