Looking for a grave — and comfort, and answers — on Memorial Day

MISSOULA, Mont. — I called my husband and asked if he would go with me to the cemetery.

It would be a nice walk, I told him.

We met at a sporting goods store before driving to the Missoula City Cemetery, where mowing crews and street cleaners were out in full force. Others had been arriving during the week to set out fresh flowers and silk floral arrangements on graves in recognition of Memorial Day.

Let’s look for some Indians, I said to Frankie.

“Indians?”

Yes, look for Indian headstones.

I’m a 13-hour drive from my family’s cemetery in Twin Buttes, N.D. Right now, I wish I were back on the Fort Berthold Reservation so I could put fresh flowers on my mother’s and grandmother’s graves.

Our family cemetery is on a hill that overlooks Lake Sakakawea. It’s a peaceful and beautiful location.

Since I’m not home, I’m in search of a surrogate grave, where I can pay respect to the departed. I know my relatives will be taking care of Mom and Grandma.

When Frankie and I arrive at the Missoula City Cemetery, I’m cloaked with memories of gravesite visits. They’ve usually been comforting. We have a fence, chairs and benches at our family site. It seems like when I’m there, another relative always drive by. They will stop and we’ll visit and talk and laugh.

On this day, however, I’m on new ground.

And I’m not seeing any recognizable Native names in the Missoula City Cemetery, names like I’m used to hearing among my Mandan, Hidatsa or Lakota relatives, names like Spotted Bear, Poor Buffalo or Little Swallow.

I looked around the cemetery, which had enough bodies to fill a small city.

I needed help searching among these 21,000 gravesites. I decided to check with the cemetery office workers to see if they knew any Native burial plots. Jane Plummer said she only knew of one, over near Marigold Lane. And it was clearly inscribed.

I thanked her and left the office with a peanut butter cookie.

By the time I started walking to Marigold Lane, I had plenty of time to look at headstones. I didn’t know any of these people’s life stories.

I saw four, white, tiny, rounded granite headstones, marked by a monument pillar. The stone read: Children of J.R. and E. Latimer. Claries: 3 years, 5 months, 6 days. Alice: 3 years, 8 months, 29 days. Thomas: 2 years, 3 months, 17 days. Mary: 3 months, 16 days.

What happened to these children? How did their parent’s cope with the death of four little ones?

The children died in 1877, 1878, and 1882. And who was alive today to remember these babies? Whoever it was, they paid tribute by sticking four blooming lilac stems into the ground at the base of each headstone.

I walked on.

I saw an elderly man and introduced myself.

“I’m looking for my father’s first wife,” said Robert H. Laing. “I didn’t even know he was married.”

I offered to help him look. I wasn’t much help. Thankfully, the maintenance manager, Ron Regan, stopped to give better directions than I could.

We found the headstone. It was inscribed with a woman’s name: Olga Eleanor. Wife of Robert G. Laing. Family members learned of Olga about two decades after she died in 1923. A family friend happened to see the headstone and shared the information with Laing.

Since then, he’s been trying to learn more about Olga. He held a death certificate in his hand that said she died after being crushed by a falling tree at age 29.

He was sorry his father never talked about her. “Those generations just kept it to themselves. They don’t tell you,” he said. He was certain his father never got over her death.

Laing and I say goodbye. He walked away, into the maples and willows. By now, my husband has spotted me. He gives me a report: “I don’t think any Indians are buried here.”

I tell him I found one. And I start leading him to the gravesite.

Where is Ron Regan when you need him?

I eventually got Frankie back to the headstone. We read the granite inscription: Frederick Duane Slenes. June 22, 1955. April 13, 1995. Salish Kootenai Tribal Member.

• Jodi Rave covers Native issues for Lee Enterprises. Reach her (800) 366-7186 or jodi.rave@lee.net.

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