Emma Big Bear birthday celebration includes family stories, demonstrations
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
Emma Big Bear Holt’s 145th birthday was celebrated in Marquette July 5, at 127 North Street (Eagles Landing Winery)—Emma’s home near the end of her life.
Organized by the Emma Big Bear Foundation (EBBF), the event featured a recount of Emma’s life from Prairie du Chien’s Chloe Lorenz, who portrayed Emma, as well as a flintknapping demonstration by Robert Kieffer and a Winnebago-style basketmaking program by Mary Techau of Effigy Mounds.
EBBF President Roger Halvorson also welcomed community members who had stories about Emma to share them on camera so that the information can be saved and used in a traveling kiosk the EBBF will soon develop.
“One of these days, we’re not going to be able to take that video,” said Halvorson in opening the event, “so we want to preserve it and reuse it.”
Halvorson told the audience of a recent conversation he had with Luther Lone Tree, one of Emma’s relatives, who currently lives in Arkansas. Lone Tree plans to travel to Wisconsin to deer hunt in the fall, and Halvorson said Lone Tree hopes to stop in and record his memories of Emma, including stories about how Emma enjoyed smoked sturgeon and would make people stop in Prairie du Chien to get her some.
“He has many stories and, eventually, we’ll have that in the kiosk,” Halvorson said. “Then we can tell that story for the next 100 years.”
During Halvorson’s opening remarks about the EBBF and its goals, some of Emma’s relatives entered. Melanie Sainz and her aunt, Marian Miner, whose mother was Emma’s first cousin, were then welcomed to the front to share their stories about Emma.
Although Emma was not Miner’s mother, Miner said she called Emma “Big Mother.”
“We did not call her Emma or her Native American name, Yellow Thunder Woman,” explained Miner. “That was a sign of respect.”
Miner said even more respect was bestowed on Emma because of her family lineage. Emma’s father, Blue Wing, was one of the Ho-Chunk tribal chiefs, making Emma like royalty. However, said Sainz, the Ho-Chunk definition of royalty is different from that of Europeans.
“It means you work harder than anyone else for the people, that you take care of people,” Sainz said.
Miner said one of her most vivid memories of Emma was when Emma hurt her toe when cutting a nail. Miner said Emma needed to go to the doctor, but there was no way she would agree to it, so Miner had to trick her into going one day. Once there, the doctor informed them that the toe needed to be removed—something Emma would not allow.
“She thought she wouldn’t be whole if the toe was removed,” Miner explained. “You don’t go against the wishes of an elder.”
That summer, near the end of Emma’s life, Miner said she visited Emma in the nursing home once per week, traveling down from the Wisconsin Dells area on her day off.
Unfortunately, said Miner, the family was never able to record Emma’s life story.
“She would always clam up,” she said. “It was like she knew when we had a recorder.”
Sainz said Emma has always been one of her role models because, like Emma, Sainz is left handed. Once a high school art teacher, Sainz also makes baskets. She is director of the Little Eagle Arts Foundation, which, with offices in Wisconsin Dells and Phoenix, works to preserve and promote art, creativity and community.
“I retired to bring the arts Emma modeled back to the community,” she said. “As an American, your history starts with us. People are missing out on so much that was developed [by Native Americans]. She was a survivalist. How many people have those skills anymore?”
Basketmaking, which Emma was well-known for, is one thing Sainz and Miner have worked to keep alive. However, said Sainz, that is getting more difficult since black ash, which Emma’s baskets are made of, cannot be easily transported because of the Emerald Ash Borer. Creating a basket is also long and tedious, with 40 hours needed to prepare the wood alone.
Sainz and Miner were not the only people to share their stories Saturday. Author Spencer Lone Tree also spoke about knowing and singing to Emma, as well as a book he is currently working on about Native American life.
Antoinette Kann also came to the event, bearing a painting she did of Emma. She also commented on how much she liked the turtle pins Emma created.