Tim Giago: Helen Felix, a Lakota with gift of gab

Her obituary was just a small footnote in the Rapid City (SD) Journal last week. Writing obits used to be the first job of many aspiring journalists. In order to see if they could write with any sort of flair the editor assigned them to a desk and told them to write the obits of the unknown and the well known departed.

But like so many things that have changed in these days of high technology, the art of writing an obituary has diminished in many newspapers along with the many jobs that used to fill the desks in the newsroom. Writing an obit is still an art in many small Indian newspapers.

Her obit in the city daily never said it, but Helen Felix had many friends and in the field of selling newspaper advertising, she had no peer. Her sales capabilities were legendary in Indian country. She had that special gift of gab.

I first noticed Helen when I walked through the inserting department of my weekly newspaper, Indian Country Today, many years ago. She always greeted me in the Lakota language and I noticed that she always had everyone working around her in a state of laughter. She was working part time as a single mother to support her young family. Born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota she had moved to Rapid City to get a job and ended up at Indian Country Today inserting flyers.

Her happy attitude rubbed off on everyone in the inserting department and it wasn’t too long before I moved her into the advertising sales department. I had created a new insert that I called “Hitting the Pow Wow Circuit.” It was going to be a tabloid that listed all of the Indian pow wows across America. I figured Helen would be the ideal person to kick off this new venture because she seemed to know everyone in Indian country. Although she had never been in sales in her life she took to selling for the pow wow tab like a duck to water.

Before I knew it, as the deadline for printing approached, “Hitting the Pow Wow Circuit” was 60 pages long and it was 75 percent advertising. Ms. Felix had sold nearly all of that advertising and my creation, the pow wow tab, became an annual staple of Indian Country Today.

Helen met a fine man named Charlie Baca. He was an ex-marine that had seen some pretty tough action in Vietnam. She asked me if I would be her surrogate father and give her away at her wedding. I did her one better and we held her wedding in the newsroom of Indian Country Today. All of the staff of the newspaper plus most of her family was there to celebrate her special day. On that day she became Helen Felix Baca.

Every March Helen and Charlie would load up their van with our newspaper and special editions and they would head to the Denver March Pow Wow, the first big pow wow of the season. They would set up our booth and Charlie would wear his ball cap with Marine Corps logo and the Vietnam ribbons on the crown and between the two of them, they would sell many subscriptions and newspapers, enough to cover all of their expenses and they would bring back a profit for the newspaper.

Charlie became ill one day and after a visit to the VA Hospital at Fort Meade, SD, he was told that he had lung cancer. He blamed it on the Agent Orange that had covered his body on so many occasions in Vietnam. Charlie didn’t make it. He died not long after his diagnosis.

He was the love of Helen’s life and his death devastated her. It seemed to me that the cheerfulness had gone out of her life. I sold the newspaper in 1998 and the buyer, the Oneida Nation, terminated most of the employees and moved the paper to Verona, New York. Helen was one of the employees that lost her job.

Rapid City is not a very large town and I ran into Helen now and then. She was still struggling to support her growing children and she was suffering from diabetes, a disease that is epidemic in Indian country. She always gave me a warm embrace and spoke to me in Lakota. Her smile was still there, but just vaguely.

The disease finally claimed her life last week. She was only 54 years old.

I stopped by the funeral home at visitation time. She was lying in her casket with a pillow she always took to the Denver March Pow Wow. It was a pillow with the symbol of the United States Marine Corps embroidered on it. It was as if she had Charlie lying beside her.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He became the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame on November 10, 2007. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
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Tim Giago in S.D. Newspaper Hall of Fame (11/14)
Tim Giago: The pain of losing a child never ends (11/12)
Tim Giago: Rep. Watson attacks Cherokee Nation (11/5)
Tim Giago: Church abuse must not go unpunished (10/29)
Tim Giago: Remembering Vernon Bellecourt (10/22)
Tim Giago: American Indians are not mascots (10/15)
Tim Giago: Stop trying to rename 'Indians' (10/8)
Tim Giago: The origins of Native American Day (10/1)
Tim Giago: Growing up in Kyle, Pine Ridge Reservation (9/24)
Tim Giago: Healing the wounds that haunt Pine Ridge (9/17)
Tim Giago: Closing a dark chapter at Pine Ridge (9/10)
Tim Giago: AIM responsible for Anna Mae's death (9/4)
Tim Giago: 'Commod bods' going out of fashion (8/27)
Tim Giago: Tribes should include all their citizens (8/20)
Tim Giago: Hollywood dashes hopes of 'Wounded Knee' (8/6)
Tim Giago: Honeymoon is over for California tribes (7/30)
Tim Giago: Modern Indian heroes compiled in book (7/23)
Tim Giago: Media errors in 'State of Native Nations' (7/9)
Tim Giago: Columnist disparages Native people (7/2)
Tim Giago: Pine Ridge still needs a hand up (6/25)
Tim Giago: The great horse of the Pawnee Nation (6/18)
Tim Giago: Indians still the most misunderstood (6/11)
Tim Giago: The theft of the sacred Black Hills (6/4)
Tim Giago: Clear and present danger to sovereignty (5/28)
Tim Giago: Rich tribes still not helping poor ones (5/21)
Tim Giago: Standing ground against 'Dropout Nation' (5/14)
Tim Giago: Indian prophecies and medicine (5/7)
Tim Giago: Help the poorest county in America (4/30)
Tim Giago: Honoring those who died at Washita (4/23)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media ignores the real issues (4/16)
Tim Giago: Racism and hypocrisy over Imus (4/11)
Tim Giago: Kill the Indian and save the child (4/9)
Tim Giago: The dark legacy of boarding schools (4/2)
Tim Giago: Tribes continue to surrender sovereignty (3/26)
Tim Giago: Venezuela steps up for Indian nations (3/19)
Tim Giago: Cherokee Nation votes out Freedmen (3/12)
Tim Giago: Oglala Lakota Tribe still struggling (3/5)
Tim Giago: A view from South Dakota, the 'red' state (2/26)
Tim Giago: 'Chief Illiniwek' does his last dance (2/19)
Tim Giago: Greed is the new God in Indian Country (2/12)
Giago discusses 'dark legacy' of boarding schools (2/5)
Tim Giago: Writing helped heal wounds of abuse (1/29)
Tim Giago: How many others will die over Iraq? (1/22)
Tim Giago: Apache journalist opens doors in media (1/15)
Tim Giago: Newspaper fills gap in South Dakota (1/8)
Tim Giago: Recognize an Indian hero in the new year (1/2)