A dancer at a Narragansett Tribe powwow. Photo: pintandpoppy

Brian Lightfoot Brown: Grandmothers are the backbones of our tribal communities

The Importance Of Grandma

By Brian Lightfoot Brown

Most of us think of significant people in our lives. But if there is one stand out, especially to Native Americans, it's our grandmothers. They were the backbone to our families and communities.

This was certainly true with my own grandmother, Myra. Born on September 3, 1906 to Narragansett Indian parents Byron and Grace (Babcock) Brown and raised in the Westerly area of Rhode Island, near the Charlestown-based Narragansett Tribal reservation. A woman who grew up in a world that was negligent to her people, Myra was forced to stop attending school around 2nd grade in order to help out at home with tending to her younger siblings Alice aka Nina, Grace, Franklin, Clifford, Elwin and Ellison aka Tarzan, who went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939, was a 1936 U.S. Olympian and 1973 Inductee into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.

Myra was brought up to understand the importance of family and of actively acknowledging her heritage. She gave birth 15 times between 1923 and 1951. She was married during the 1920s and saw her first grandchild born in 1947. She went above and beyond and spent her lifetime helping to raise other people's children with her own, including many nieces and nephews.

My grandmother was still living on her own and able to walk early in my lifetime. I recall her always walking around her home in Westerly when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old, her beautiful silver hair in 2 braids, her brown mahogany skin looking flawless and the big smile on her face as she offered me cookies while ignoring my father's plea to not ruin my appetite for lunch.

A few years later Grandma was living in assisted living apartments and nursing homes and was wheelchair bound for the last 17 or so years of her life. When I would visit her, even as I was a teenager and young adult, she was always extremely alert and aware and continued offering candy and cookies to my siblings and I. She loved putting together Native American-themed puzzles and playing parcheesi and dominoes with many of my cousins, aunts and uncles.

I have never known a stronger, more loving person than my Grandmother, my father's mother. She always told me that I was a Narragansett Indian no matter what anyone tried to say about me being half white. “You're my grandson, that makes you a(n Narragansett) Indian” is what she would say.

I recall how intently she wanted me to grow my hair long so I could wear braids. I then remember the smile on her face the first time she saw me with 2 braids and how hard she kept tugging at them. She made me extremely aware and extremely proud of my Native blood. She instilled in me a sense of responsibility to make sure nobody can take that away from me.

I wish I could have I wish I could have the opportunity to talk to her once more, give her one more hug. I miss my Grandmother tremendously. Rest well Indigo Bunting.

September 3, 1906 – November 9, 1997

Brian Lightfoot Brown is a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe. This opinion is his own.