Tag Archives: grandmother

Marisa Miakonda Cummings

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I would like to begin by introducing myself. My English name is Marisa Cummings. My Omaha or Umoⁿhoⁿ name is Miakonda or Moon Power. I was given my Buffalo Tail Clan name by my great-grandmother, Edith Walker Springer. My father is the late Michael Cummings, or Stampeding Buffalo. My father’s mother is Eunice Walker Mohn, or Buffalo Tail Clan Woman. My grandmother’s parents are the late Charles Amos Walker, or White Chest, and the late Ida Springer Walker, or New Moon. I am an Omaha woman. I am a Buffalo Tail Clan woman of the Sky people. I am the oldest child of eight children. I am the mother of four children.

As I wrote the paragraph to introduce myself, I was mentally translating from Umoⁿhoⁿ to English. The Umoⁿhoⁿ language is a beautiful conduit of culture. Self introductions are very important in our community. One must know who they are to know where they are going in this life. Language allows us to express ourselves to one another as human beings, to talk to the Creator, and express ourselves through song and ceremony. As language is a conduit for expressing thoughts and feelings, and relaying cultural knowledge, it is essential that our Umoⁿhoⁿ language is revered and preserved for our future generations. We must preserve our language to talk to our Creator through our ceremonies as we were instructed to do in our language.

Marisa3My grandmother grew up hearing Umoⁿhoⁿ spoken as the primary language at home; it was her first language. She has told me about her parents waking well before sunrise and praying in Umoⁿhoⁿ in the kitchen. Her father, Charles Walker or Mongaska, was taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a military-style school founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard Pratt under the authority of the U.S. government with the founding principle that Native Americans were a vanishing race and their only hope for survival was assimilation to white mainstream culture. The first thing done was to cut off the children’s sacred hair. The second step was to make them stop speaking their traditional language and converse in English. My great-grandfather came back to the reservation after his stay at Carlisle and remained fluent in both Umoⁿhoⁿ and English. He served on our tribal council for over 25 years. My grandmother’s mother, Ida or Metexi, was sent to Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Nebraska. She also returned to the reservation and spoke fluent Umoⁿhoⁿ. Both of my great-grandparents survived assimilation and Indian boarding schools and retained their Umoⁿhoⁿ language in daily practice in and outside of their home.

Tragedy struck when my grandmother was 10 years old. Her mother passed away and left eight orphaned children. Her father decided to send her, at age 14, to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. There was no more playing in the timber, no more collecting wild plums and gooseberries. She was alone. She said that she often wondered what she did wrong. Was her father angry with her? Why would he send her away? My grandmother graduated from Haskell and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, with the courage to start a life for herself.

My father was born in 1955. He was considered a “half-breed,” as his father was a white man. However, his grandfather, Charlie Walker, took pity on him and gave him the Umoⁿhoⁿ Buffalo Tail Clan name Te-Nuga-Na-Tide. My father was an incredible man. He received his master’s degree from Iowa State University and went to work for the corporate world. He always instilled in me the power of education and the importance of coming back to help the people with the education I received. I was raised to be of service and make a difference. My father also raised me like a first-born son. He made me tough, taught me to always speak up and use my voice, to be courageous and strategic. He told me that women have a strong place in leadership and that Native women will be at the front of the movement to bring back language and culture. He was very proud when I graduated with a degree from the University of Iowa.

Marisa1As a young woman, I was always interested in our language. I would ask my grandma and great-grandma to tell me stories. I would sit at their feet or at the kitchen table in my grandma’s trailer while I asked one question after another. I think she got tired of me at times. I still am always asking questions of my grandmother. How do I say this? Do you remember this? She is the matriarch of our family. I am blessed that my children can be close to her and experience her unconditional love and knowledge.

In 1978, the Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed. Our ceremonies, songs, and dances were no longer illegal. We could legally pray in the manner the Creator intended for us to pray. Yet, so many of the songs, ceremonies, and teachings were no longer practiced. In my life journey, I have rediscovered my love of ceremony. I enjoy collecting and preparing medicine. I love that I have the ability to be a lifelong learner of culture and ceremony, but in order to make that true connection, I must relearn a language that is rooted in my DNA. I believe that we can relearn our sense of true self and heal both individually and collectively.

My children have been born in a generation where our ceremonies are being revived and practiced. My children have been exposed to ceremonies, songs, dance, and love of our way of life. As I embrace our ceremonies and language, I know that I am also healing those who went before me. As I heal, I give reverence to ancestors whose hearts broke when they saw English replace Umoⁿhoⁿ in their homes, those who watched alcohol replace ceremony, and those who witnessed government commodities replace our sacred foods. As we revive our sacred way of life, we renew and honor all of those who went before us.

Visit omaha-nsn.gov for more information. Omaha Magazine

After Cancer and High School

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A small sigh of hopelessness escaped Ema Johanning’s lips as she looked up at the daunting steps of Bellevue West High School. Pain radiated down her left leg. It felt like someone had driven a screwdriver in the socket where it met her pelvic bone, twisting and twisting with each step.

Don’t worry about it, Ema’s doctors said. It’s just growing pains, an overemotional teenager trying to get attention, or just all in her head.

Ema could not escape the savage nightmarish monster that haunted her. Exhausted, dehydrated, and malnourished, Ema soon lost nearly 30 pounds. She threw up almost daily—all because of her agonizing leg.

Nikki Johanning, her mother and a former CNA, knew something was not right. Pills, fluids, and six visits to the ER did nothing to diminish the pain.

“Can you please admit my daughter. I can’t physically take care of her anymore,” Johanning tearfully begged doctors at yet another ER visit at Children’s Hospital. Ema could no longer walk and used a wheelchair just to get from the couch to the bathroom. In addition, Johanning had Ema’s three siblings to take care of at home, an exhausted husband who would sometimes have to stay up at night with Ema only to work the next day, and no family in the area to help out.

Ema-Johanning-1“I never took ‘no’ for an answer,” Johanning recalls. “If we sat back and waited, I don’t know if Ema would be here.”

Ema was admitted for pain control and underwent further tests.

Ema woke up groggy from medication. She heard her mother sobbing as she held Ema’s hand. It was one of the few times Ema had ever seen her cry.

“What’s wrong? Mom, tell me.”

Cancer. Ewing’s scarocoma. Malignant.

Ema felt like she had the wind knocked out of her. She barely heard her mother. The blinds were drawn tight. Even the smallest sliver of sunshine hurt, but there in the darkness of the room, Ema felt a hazy sense of relief rush through her.

“At least it’s not in my head,” she said as she hugged her mom. “We are going to beat this, and I’m going to be fine.”

Ewing’s sarcoma is a type of rare bone cancer that affects children or young adults like Ema and can be difficult to diagnose. It typically begins in the legs and hips, but can develop in other areas.

“It was my 16th birthday present,” Ema says now with a small, sad smile. Ema cancelled her sweet 16 birthday bash scheduled for later that week.

According to St. Jude’s Research Hospital, there is only a 56 percent survival rate for those aged 15 to 19. So while most of her friends were worried about homework, boys, or parties, Ema would have an IV attached to her arm full of chemotherapy.

It was an aggressive plan to attack the cancer hard and fast: three days of the “red devil” through a circular port in the hospital, and then two weeks at home depending on blood counts. If her counts rebounded, she would have another five days of treatment. This lasted a year from February until the end of May.

Ema would need a partial hip replacement and undergo physical therapy as well in June.

Johanning placed throw up buckets around the house. Her vomit was so hazardous that even a single splash burned her mother’s foot. Even Ema’s tough military father became squeamish.

But it really hit home when Ema lost her hair.

“The magic went away,” her mother says.

As Ema watched her locks of dark hair fall, so did her innocence. The reality seemed to weigh heavily on her teenage shoulders. She could no longer blend in with the crowd and lost her identity. All her future aspirations seemed to waver in the harsh light of her newly shaved head.

“The hardest part for me and her dad is you teach them to be the best people they can be, then watch that poison drip down into your child,” Johanning says. Her mother could not throw on a Band-Aid or kiss away the pain.

“I’d be lost without mom. She was my rock…my best friend,” Ema says.

In the oncology wing at Children’s Hospital, Ema gained strength from Nurse Anisa Hoie.

Ema-Johanning-2

“Don’t you feel like you belong here with a bunch of baldies all in one room?” Hoie asked her. Ema started laughing, the first time in her long cancerous journey.

She saw little kids playing games and suddenly realized she shouldn’t be feeling sorry for herself.

“Who am I to say my life isn’t worth fighting for,” Ema vents.

That teenage invulnerability though, that feeling of being untouchable by death, was gone.

“Cancer is like taking the most likable part of yourself and having to say good-bye to it because it’s killing you,” Ema says.

She attended her junior prom with just a smattering of brown hair with a flower tucked behind her ear, smiling in one picture with her two friends.

“I rocked that dress,” Ema says laughing. It was, of course, purple. Ema believes this is her “soul color,” universal for cancer survivors.

Now in remission, she finally feels free. The 20-year-old Ema shows off a tattoo on her shoulder: a heart with an owl and the cancer ribbon inside and “Forever Strong” etched on the outside. Her mother, grandmother, and other family members tatted up with “Believe” in support.

Her black hair has grown back—thicker and curlier than before. A puckered long scar travels up her left thigh. Ema was self-conscious of it at first, but now takes pride in the reminder. She is alive.

“A friend said to me, ‘The only one happier to see it than you and your mom is me,’” Ema says in a voice thick with tears.

Ema missed most of her sophomore and junior years of high school, yet she continued doing her coursework from home, despite short term memory issues and other side effects that still plague her. Ema graduated in May 2015. When she walked down the aisle Ema unzipped her graduate gown to proudly display the tank top underneath emblazoned proudly with “Suck it Cancer.”

“Everyone thought I flashed,” Ema says giggling at the memory. “My friends said, ‘you didn’t do what I think you did, did you?’”

College for Ema meant not only worrying about classes, but how to negotiate the small pharmacy (22 medications) she took with her to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall. 

“We didn’t know if she would live or die, and now she is going to college—it’s amazing,” Johanning says.

Ema is hoping to sky-dive with her father at the five-year mark. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate is 70 percent for a tumor that has not spread, but only 15 to 30 percent if it has metastasized.

In the meantime, it is the little things in life Ema appreciates the most.

“I look at me still being here as a second chance at life,” Ema says. FamilyGuide