NAT: Living Bridge
Gros Ventre woman, 110, a living bridge to the 'buffalo days'
By KAREN OGDEN, Great Falls Tribune Enterprise Editor, Sep 17, 2006
The family was stunned when the priest translated the careful Latin
script on the baptismal certificate.
They knew their grandmother, the matriarch of the Gros Ventre Tribe, was
about 100. Delivered by a midwife on the Fort Belknap Reservation, she
had no birth certificate.
The exact date had never been an issue, until they received an
invitation last spring from the governor's office. Theresa Walker
Lamebull was to be honored at a banquet in Helena with other Montana
centenarians. But her family had to first prove when she was born.
They turned to Father Joseph Retzel at the St. Paul's Mission in Hays,
where Lamebull is a devout, lifelong member. Soon after, the priest
came to a family gathering with a copy of the baptismal certificate and
"Grandma Theresa" was not 100. She was 110.
On April 4, 1897, the certificate said, a couple called White
Weaselbrought their daughter to the St. Paul's Mission to be baptized.
They named her Theresa.
She was about 1 year old, it said, putting her birth in 1896.
Lamebull has given other birth dates in the past that put her closer to
100. But Retzel said last week that he is confident the baptismal
certificate he found is accurate and is hers.
If so, that could make Lamebull the state's oldest person, although
there is no official list, said Charlie Rehbein, Aging Services Bureau
chief with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"Anybody over 110, they are going to be one of the oldest, if not the
oldest," Rehbein said.
Walter Breuning, a cigar-smoking centenarian in Great Falls, is a close
second. He celebrates his 110th birthday Thursday.
An Ecuadorian woman considered the world's oldest person by Guinness
World Records died late last month at 116.
But Lamebull's significance reaches far beyond talk of numbers. As a
living bridge to what her tribe calls the "buffalo days," she is a
cultural and spiritual treasure to her people.
"To me she is one of the few keepers of our way of life, our traditional
way of life," said Terry Brockie, 36.
Nine years ago, Brockie took an interest in learning his native
language. He has since spent has spent countless hours with Lamebull,
studying the Gros Ventre or White Clay language. Although young
people are embracing the language, Lamebull is among fewer than five
elders who spoke Gros Ventre as their first language.
Brockie always visited her home in Hays, at the foot of the Little Rocky
Mountains, bearing a traditional gift such as cow tongue. He believes
Lamebull's longevity is a spiritual gift to the tribe. She carried the
language and culture through turbulent times, holding it until younger
generations were ready to learn and record it.
"She's put on this Earth to keep things for our people," Brockie said.
"To me she's the most important person to our tribe."
Smiling across a century
Though her hearing is failing and her body is frail, Lamebull is full of
She lived alone with her beloved dog "Nuisance" until July. Her house
was only a block from the old stone St. Paul's Mission Church where she
Now she's at the Northern Montana Care Center, where her good cheer and
infectious giggle make her a darling of the staff.
On a recent afternoon, a handful of great-grandchildren crowded into
Lamebull's room, with a great-great-granddaughter, Danielle, in tow.
Lamebull beamed and reached out for the toddler. Danielle beamed right
back and they gazed at each other across a century.
"Happy! So happy!" Lamebull cooed to the smiling little girl. "What's
you got? You got feet!"
Lamebull thrived on the commotion in her little room, unleashing peals
of laughter as her great-grandson, Damion Walker, cracked jokes.
He urged his great-grandma, his "newa," to tell them about the past.
In the old days, "we never stayed in one place very long," Lamebull
said. "There used to be deep snow, and they would clean a place for our
camp. They'd get all the snow off the ground where they'd build their
Every so often as she spoke, she pulled tight a brown blanket wrapped
around her shoulders, her pink nail polish flashing from beneath.
But her memories of those cold, hard winters are warm.
"They used to keep fire in the middle of the tepee, and that kept the
whole place warm," she said. "They used to take turns keeping up the
Growing up 'Indian way'
Lamebull was born the year door-to-door mail delivery started in Great
Falls. Grover Cleveland was president.
Her people, allies of the Blackfeet, were relegated to the present-day
Fort Belknap Reservation only eight years earlier.
Lamebull remembers little of her father, White Weasel, who died of a war
"They never got that bullet out," she said. "It was poisoning him."
Her mother was Kills in the Brush.
Lamebull was brought up in what Brockie calls the "Indian Way" by her
"I think that was the insurance that there's always going to be that
seed of a person that has that old-time knowledge," he said.
Indeed Lamebull cooked traditional foods for friends and family for
years. She told her grandchildren how she made pemmican with
Juneberries and cherries.
"You put the tallow in there and put sugar in there. ... It was like
powder," she said. "Everybody liked that. Hardly anybody knew how to
make it. Everybody used to come and ask me to make some. ... I wish I
had some now."
Hooves were a childhood favorite for Lamebull.
"They'd boil them a long time," she said, sounding as if she could
almost taste the words. "And gee they were good."
They ate "good wild animals. Better than this beef we're getting now,"
she said, setting her grandchildren laughing.
But cattle were already taking over the prairie. The thundering buffalo
herds that sustained her people's lifestyle were gone.
"After, we built a house," Lamebull said. "Everybody was building
houses. My dad built a house too. ... Ohhh, I thought it was a
wonderful place to live."
Lamebull speaks mostly of happy memories: Christmas dances, food and her
favorite girlhood horse "Roanie," who would lie down for her to climb on
his back so they could roam the prairie.
But her youth was a time of hardship for the Gros Ventre.
Those stories are captured in a book of memoirs of Fort Belknap elders
compiled in 1982. Lamebull, then in her 80s, was among 20 elders
interviewed for the book, "Recollections of Fort Belknap's Past," by
the Curriculum Development Project of the Fort Belknap Education
Only the elderly received government food rations, and not enough to
last a week, her memoir says. The rest survived on their gardens and
whatever wildlife they could catch: rabbits, deer, sage hens, antelope
and prairie chickens.
Indians were not allowed to leave the reservation without a permit.
At age 12, Lamebull was sent to school at St. Paul's Mission.
"We had to stay there. We had a high fence and we couldn't go home when
we wanted to," she said in the memoir. "It really was a poor school. We
hardly had anything to eat."
When the flu epidemic struck in 1918, the survivors couldn't build
coffins fast enough, she said.
"Babies, women, men, and mostly women died that time."
Lamebull lost two sons of her own a day apart to diphtheria in the
1920s, according to her granddaughter, Patty Addy.
"She made it through, and then she lost adult sons: my dad and my Uncle
Henry and her daughter Virginia," Addy said. "They were hard on her,
but she's really something. She'll grieve and then she'll let them go.
... She just has a way of carrying on."
Lamebull was about 16 when she married her first husband, John Walker,
who doted on her, Addy said. He died of lung cancer in 1961.
They had 10 children together. Lamebull outlived five of them and her
second husband, Andrew Lamebull.
Her greatest pride is that all of her children served in the military,
with the exception of her daughter Virginia, whose poor health
Portraits of them hang on a wall in her room at the care center,
arranged around a hologram of Jesus on the cross.
"She has a marvelous spirit, and she does have a deep faith in the Lord,
in Jesus, and her faith is very strong in her life," said Father Retzel,
with St. Paul's in Hays.
Three years ago, at 107, Lamebull fell while walking along the gravel
road to the church and couldn't get up, Retzel recalled.
"She just stayed there until somebody came along, and when they did, she
just laughed it off," he said. "That's typical of that lady."
Alcohol, drugs and gossip
When others fell along the path of life, Lamebull was there to pick them
up or take them in.
Addy was raised by Lamebull after her parents divorced and her mother
fell ill with tuberculosis. She remembers her grandparents taking in
three neighbor children, the Magpie kids.
Lamebull taught them all to pray, go to church, be kind to each other
and stay out of trouble.
"She was really against alcohol and drugs," Addy said. "She said it
ruined your life. And gossip, ... She just sees how it damaged so many
When her children were grown, Lamebull taught arts and crafts in local
schools. Her quilts are in homes across the reservation and beyond.
In her 80s, she found another calling.
Lamebull and fellow tribal elder Elmer Main would drive 70 miles
roundtrip twice a week to the tribal college at Fort Belknap Agency to
teach Gros Ventre language. Lamebull taught into her 90s.
Now at the care center, she looks forward to going home for the next
And everyone looks forward to seeing "Grandma Theresa," a woman who is
never too tired, too frail or too old to greet you with a warm smile.
"She really makes you feel good about who you are as a White Clay
person," Brockie said. "She has a real goodness about her, her aura. I
think that comes from being on this Earth for so long."