Suzan Shown Harjo: Warrior women pass to spirit world
Sing an honor song. Pray a mourning prayer. Pause for a moment of silent respect for two warrior women who have gone to the Spirit World. Alison Bridges Gottfriedson and Victoria Adele Santana each died at home of natural causes; Vicky on July 17 at the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, and Alison on July 18 at the Franks Landing Indian Community in Olympia, Washington.

These exemplary Native women fought for, upheld and lived treaties and Indian rights. They cut their teeth on Native activism of the 1960s and 1970s – Alison, as a poster child of the Indian fishing rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest and on the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972; Vicky, as a veteran of the takeovers of Alcatraz Island (1969) and Fort Lawton in Seattle (1970).

Alison was born 57 years ago to the matriarch of the Franks Landing Indian Community, Theresa (Maiselle) McCloud Bridges, and the late-Alvin James Bridges, who died in 1982. They, together with Alison’s sisters Suzette and Valerie (who died in 1970) and uncle Billy Frank, Jr., were arrested myriad times by Washington state agents for fishing on the Nisqually River in accordance with their treaties. Indian peoples throughout the Pacific Northwest were vindicated in 1979, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Washington and reaffirmed treaty fishing.

Vicky was the daughter of two scholars, a Blackfeet mother and a Puerto Rican father, Rita Brown Santana and Arthur Santana (both deceased), who were with the University of Chicago when Vicky was born 64 years ago in Chicago, Illinois. Raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, she became a scholar herself, earning both Juris Doctor and Master of Library Science degrees. Vicky had been a lawyer, judge and policy advisor for the Blackfeet Nation. She provided pro bono legal services for friends and family. She leaves behind a large extended family and more than a dozen godchildren throughout Indian country.

In their youth, Alison and Vicky both partnered with national Indian political activists from Plains nations – Alison with Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux), who remains a member of the Franks Landing Indian Community, and Vicky with the late-Raymond Spang (Northern Cheyenne). Alison and her longtime husband, Hank Gottfriedson (Similkameen Okanagan), have raised their children and grandchildren at Franks Landing. The Gottfriedsons recently bore the brunt of the local Indian tobacco wars and narrowly escaped prison time, but not the suffocating debt in connection with the Franks Landing smoke shop.

Alison and Vicky were educators, who worked to bolster tribal governments, revitalize Native languages and keep Indian traditions. Alison was a Founder, with her mother and sister, of the WaHeLut Indian School at Franks Landing, which is a beneficiary of the smoke shop profits, and served as a Member and Chair of its School Board. She also was a Council Member of Franks Landing and a Former Member of the Puyallup Tribal Council. Alison’s name in Shumash is No Shoon, which means My Heart.

Vicky taught Native legal research and other subjects at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, while serving as Reference Librarian/Native American Resources for the OCU Law Library. She provided legal services to Native peoples and organizations in matters including constitution revisions, legal codes, tribal court development, international law, religious freedom, cultural property, domestic violence and child welfare. She was Policy Advisor to The Morning Star Institute’s 2004-2005 Native Languages Archives Repository Project of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Administration for Native Americans (NMAI print report, 2005; ANA CD report, “Native Language Preservation,” 2007). Vicky’s name in Piegan is Sak Oon IsTaah Saa Kii, which is translated as Last Calf Woman.

Alison and Vicky reminded me of beautiful birds, but very different ones. Alison spoke in low cooing sounds in the manner of a mourning dove – calm, contemplative and nourishing. Vicky was more clipped and energizing, whether in English or Spanish, always dancing a robin’s dance – perpetually joyous and announcing the arrival of Spring.

These warrior women sacrificed everything for family, friends and community. They never hesitated to put themselves in harm’s way or to keep and bail others out of trouble. They lived caring, giving and loving lives, and in the end could finally lay down their weapons.

Author Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Vicky and Alison had healing power for spotting people’s broken places and helping them to grow stronger. Neither one thought that was unusual -- just the courteous and social thing to do.

I loved and admired Alison and Vicky, and their passing is wrenching. Those of you who did not know these warrior women can only imagine how much stronger you might have been for their friendship. For you, seek out Native daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmas and warrior women in your Native nations up and down the hemisphere. And sing their honor songs while they live.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) is an award-winning columnist, poet, lecturer and curator, who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of land, including sacred places. She is president of The Morning Star Institute, a founder of the National Museum of the American Indian and a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.