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Hazel Red Bird works to help others understand her Lakota heritage

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Life for Hazel Red Bird has been a little like living in two different worlds. The retired registered nurse has resided in Racine County for most of her adult years - working, making friends and enjoying her hobbies of golf, bowling and cross country skiing. Her roots, however, are back in South Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation, where Red Bird and her nine Lakota brothers and sisters were born and raised.

The only one of her parents' children to leave the reservation, Red Bird was inspired to do so somewhat by her desire to become a nurse. Some influence also came from Episcopalian missionaries who came to the reservation to convert the Lakotas the Christianity. Red Bird attended an Episcopalian mission boarding school set up on the reservation.

"The missionaries came and they didn't like our way of spirituality," said Red Bird, recalling her youth at Standing Rock. "We were taught that we couldn't be Lakota and Christian at the same time, and we had to conform to their way of Christianity."

Red Bird's family, and many other Lakotas, did convert, and their native spirituality deteriorated because of that, she said. Red Bird was also encouraged to leave the reservation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs which offered to pay travel expenses and three months rent for her and her then-husband if they would relocate to Chicago.

"The sad thing was that neither of us had ever been to any place like Chicago," Red Bird said.

The big-city atmosphere proved to be overwhelming for the couple and, nine months later, they moved to Racine where her husband took a job with Oster Manufacturing.

Even before they arrived here, Red Bird knew they had made the right decision in leaving Chicago. While riding the North Shore train to Racine, she started to cry when she spotted cows, horses and green grass - all things that she had missed dearly during her days in the big city.

Once here, Red Bird continued the pursuit of her childhood dream of being a nurse. Having gotten her nursing degree from St. Mary's Hospital School in Pierre, South Dakota, she went on to work at Racine's St. Luke's Hospital and later Chrysler Motors in Kenosha, taking classes in business and psychology at area technical schools along the way.

When she started at Chrysler, she was one of 14 nurses on the medical staff there. And what Red Bird remembers most about her 18 years in that job are the people. Whether she was educating employees about living with diabetes or helping them find a healthy way to lose weight, it was her true desire to help people that kept Red Bird doing what she did.

That desire dates back to her early memories of an older brother being very sick and bedridden.

"I was eight or nine at the time and I remember watching my mother care for him," Red Bird said. "I don't remember what it was he had, but I remember wishing I could do what my mother was doing and wanted to be able to help her."

It is also that desire that drives Red Bird today as the active 78-year-old works to help others understand the Lakota people - their heritage, their beliefs and the struggles they face on the reservation today.

The Kansasville resident is still committed to her Christian congregation, St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Burlington, and she does work with the Wisconsin Council of Churches. In fact, she is currently seeking to become a deacon with her congregation - another thing she has felt a calling for since she was very young.

"When I would play with my cousins as a child, I would always play the role of the nun," she said.

Since her retirement, Red Bird said she has also been devoting more time to rediscovering her Lakota beliefs and incorporating them into her life once again.

"Some of my spirituality had been taken away by the missionaries, but there was a part of it that always remained in the background for me. And now it is coming back to the surface again," she said.

She is active with an international group called Many Nations, One Voice, which educates others about indigenous peoples and their culture and, hopefully, creates a better understanding of and compassion for their problems.

The attitude of white people toward Indian nations is gradually changing, Red Bird said. "But, there are still people out there who don't understand, or don't want to understand, and it is because of their own ignorance."

Through her studies, Red Bird says she has found many similarities among Lakota beliefs and European-based religions. One example would be the great spirit, or great mystery, called Wakan Tanka, which has parallels to the God worshipped by Christians. And, she feels it is possible to have both kinds of spirituality in her life.

"I want people to know that it is O.K. to be indigenous and still quote from the Bible," she said.

Red Bird tries to go back and visit her family on the reservation at least once or twice each year. The atmosphere there today is different than when she was growing up, she said.

"I remember it as a peaceful, quiet place where children were well disciplined."

Social problems on the reservation today, such as alcoholism and lack of job opportunities, create difficulties for members of her family and others. And while some of those problems stem from white people's intervention, Red Bird said she'd rather focus on the future of the Lakota people and helping them to regain pride in their heritage.

"The past is history, but sometimes we need to be reminded so that we don't make the same mistakes again," she said.

Red Bird is glad she has rediscovered the values she was raised with on Standing Rock Reservation and she wants to share them with others.

"What I want to do is build bridges between white Christians and indigenous people, especially the Lakota," said Red Bird. "I want there to be a greater understanding."

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