MUSEUM: Three elders, a century of inspiration
When Maria Hinton was born in 1910, every Oneida family spoke the language of their ancestors—and at age 100, she has lived to make digital recordings in her language that can be heard on the world the Internet.
When Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee, was born in 1908 in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was only one year younger than the state of Oklahoma—and she would live to become a leading figure in America’s space race.
When Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, Lumbee, was born in 1935, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in North Carolina—she would live to play a pivotal role in getting civil rights extended to American Indian people.
These highly accomplished elder ladies of Indian Country each have had a special relationship with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Together they represent some of the many American Indian elders for whom the opening of this museum in 2004 represented a watershed moment in American Indian arts, culture and achievement.
Although Ross passed away at 99 in 2008, and Scheirbeck passed away at 75 in 2010, they, like Hinton, embodied some of the values that are of great importance to the museum, including scholarship and celebration of American Indian cultures.
Hinton, who is Oneida and turned 100 last summer, was honored with the 2009 Prism Award from the museum for her work in reviving the Oneida language and teaching to successive generations of Oneidas.
Last spring Hinton put the finishing touches on an exhaustive recording of the Oneida dictionary. Taking five years of almost daily work, she recorded 12,000 audio files, including tens of thousands of Oneida words, and told stories she first heard in her mother’s tongue.
In 1971, after helping to raise her grandchildren in California, Hinton returned to Wisconsin.
Soon she and her brother, Amos Christjohn, began working with the Oneida Nation to teach the language to a generation of children who knew only English. They would work for the next 35 years to create a written Oneida dictionary. To that end, Hinton enrolled in the University of Wisconsin in 1973, and graduated cum laude in 1979. Then she became one of the founding teachers at the Oneida Nation Turtle School, and she continues teaching, though now her pupils are the people who teach the tribe’s youth.
Speaking from her home in Oneida, Wis., she said in the spring of 2010, “I am not completely retired. We need to keep doing this so the young people can learn things and then they can pass them on.”
Mary Golda Ross was 96 when the museum in Washington, D.C., opened, and she proudly wore her Cherokee tear dress as she walked with nearly 100,000 other Indians on the National Mall in celebration.
Ross, a skilled mathematician, is famous for becoming one of 40 engineers in 1948 in a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson that later became known as the Lockheed Skunk Works. It was the start of the Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA.
She contributed to several seminal papers of the early space program, and in 1962 she was one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III.
After her one and only visit to the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Ross told the Los Altos (Calif.) Town Crier newspaper, “The museum will tell the true story of the Indian, not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story.” When she passed away in 2008, just three months shy of a century, she left a bequest valued at more than $400,000 to the museum.
Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck was a longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, a pioneer for Indian control of their own education, and a passionate advocate for the sovereignty of her Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.
She served on the first Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and served as the secretary to the board for two terms. She joined the museum’s staff in 2000, serving as assistant director for public programs and as senior adviser for museum programs and scholarly research before her retirement in 2007. Her greatest contribution may have been the people for whom she held a door open throughout a lifetime of public service.
The Washington Post, in her Dec. 25, 2010, obituary, quoted her from 2007, when she said, “The country needs to understand the struggle of Indians to be Indians. Every tribe had a trail of tears.”
As a young woman Scheirbeck witnessed her father, Judge Lacy Maynor, make international headlines in 1958 when he sent the Klan packing from Robeson County, N.C., the historic cradle of the Lumbee. A decade later Scheirbeck, then a congressional staffer, persuaded Senator Sam Ervin to convene the hearings that led to passage of the 1968 act, which extended many rights contained in the Bill of Rights to American Indians.
Scheirbeck had a hand in every major initiative in Indian education for 40 years, crafting reforms that would help tribal colleges, advocating for the passage of the Indian Education act, leading the Indian Headstart program and calling for the establishment of a museum of living cultures that would become the National Museum of the American Indian.
Working in the museum’s leadership she advocated for the ways that Native children are taught within their cultures and how teaching models should be adapted for all children. Her leadership in the formation of the museum’s National Education Initiative will carry her vision to millions of school children across the U.S.
In 2009, only weeks before she suffered stroke that would take her life, she recalled to Rev. Desmond Tutu a letter that she wrote him in 1962 comparing the struggles of American Indians to struggles of blacks in South Africa. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she met Tutu, and where they both received honorary degrees two years ago, these elder leaders laughed about the long ago letter, and the long journeys of both their peoples to justice.
The Washington Post quoted Scheirbeck from a 2001 interview, when she said, “I’m just a little old Indian woman, who is working hard for Indian people.”
By Kara Briggs
American Indian News Service