Catherine Howard is one of those ladies you never forget once you meet her.
By Louise Oleson
Journal Managing Editor
Catherine Howard is one of those ladies you never forget once you meet her. She is full of life, humor and energy.
The proud mother of four sons and a deceased daughter is also grandmother to 13 and has three great grandchildren.
Howard has lived at Spirit Lake most of her life except for a few years when she was married and moved to Cleveland, but for most of her life the Spirit Lake Nation has been her home. She says she was born in a two-room log house in St. Michael just after the whistle blew on Sept. 18, 1944. The whistle blew at midnight.
She’s been a wife more than once, actually four times, but she’s single now and likes it that way.
Howard freely talks about her early days when in order to get an education she was sent to live with the Grey Nuns in boarding school at the St. Michael Mission.
At six years old it was a tough transition to be away from home but she says the nuns taught her to cook and to sew and mend, many things, she learned a great deal from them and to this day she is grateful to them and still practices her Catholic faith.
“It is very important to me - it’s a part of me,” she admits.
There were some rough spots along the way, though. She recalls one situation where she was being taken into a part of the school to have her long hair cut like they were doing to other girls but through a window she had seen her family arrive to shop in the St. Michael store so she managed to give the nuns the slip and run off to find her mother.
Once mother heard what they were going to do, cutting her daughter’s hair, she confronted the sisters and told them in no uncertain terms that they could not do that or she would remove her daughter from their care.
They did not cut her hair. She never had to.
She recalled other students getting into trouble with the nuns for speaking their Native language, therefore Howard and her confidants made sure no one ever heard them speaking. That didn’t mean they quit speaking it, only that they were careful noone would hear them when they did.
Howard also recalls how things changed later in the 1950s when they could wear blue jeans and interact occasionally with boys.
She left that school at 14 years of age but did get her GED in 1969. Twenty years later she pursued college credits and state certification so she could teach the Dakota language.
Although she is close to 70 years old now she still dances at powwows as a Golden Age Jingle Dress Dancer. She has the distinction of being a “Whip Lady” and when she carries her whip at powwows she gets the dancers up and in the arena dancing. “Many still respect that tradition,” she said. The whip she carries was presented to her by the family of Sarah Herald when she passed on. It is a tradition that no doubt Howard’s family will honor someone else with when their mother passes, too.
But don’t look for that to happen anytime soon. Howard is a very busy and active lady. She teaches three classes at Four Winds High School in the Dakota language and culture. The first class has 23 students, the second has 19 and the third has 13 students.
Initially she was to teach in the elementary school, the fifth through eighth graders, but now she is in the high school and she says she really likes it there.
The students really give her respect and learn from her. They call her “Kunsi” pronounced kooshi and in Dakota it means Grandma.
Teaching her language and culture is at the very heart of who Catherine Howard is.
Nearly everything is an opportunity to try to teach the Native ways and Dakota language to her young pupils. Last fall she was one of the organizers of a buffalo kill on the reservation. An adult buffalo was separated from the Spirit Lake Nation Tribe’s herd, killed and the meat, bones, hide, organs - everything - was used in the old ways - like it used to be done by the people of the plains. All through this process Howard was explaining what they were doing and why they were doing it to school children who stood wide-eyed watching it all, a very valuable learning experience - a teachable moment for Howard and the others who were helping.
Howard has many of those each and every day as she constantly strives to find ways to teach her students. “I’m always busy thinking how I can do this and how I can do that, I’m always on the go,” she says with a laugh.
It’s that laugh and hearty sense of humor that keeps her, going, that and her faith she says.
Look for her at powwows and other social gatherings on the Spirit Lake Nation and don’t be surprised if she tries to teach you a word or two of Dakota while she’s at it - she can’t help herself - she’s a teacher.
“Hey chi tu?”
Is that right?