Savanah Smith (Nakoda, Anishinaabe, Metis)
Fort Peck Community College
Any time I think of the word Elder, my mind and my heart go directly to my paternal Grandmother, Ruth. Grandma Ruth was one of my absolute favorite people growing up, we lived with her from just after I was born until I was nearly 4 years old. I have so many memories with my grandma it’s hard to choose a few to elaborate on.
Some of my favorite things to do were to go “rummaging” — getting up super early on a Saturday morning never bothered me with her. We’d get the paper and stop at every single rummage sale listed. To this day I still love “hitting the rummages” but I’m more of a cruise around and let the sale find me type. While rummaging, my grandma always picked up little trinkets or décor with birds, especially hummingbirds. She loved to find a good deal and to laugh, she had the best smile. She always had coffee and a meal in case anyone stopped over for a visit; she’d even pour me a cup and let me add as much French vanilla creamer as I wanted.
The thing about Grandma Ruth that has left the biggest impression on me was her ability to cook. Anything that she made was the best possible version of a dish you could imagine. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was only 3 years old, and I never got the chance to ask where she learned to cook. We did watch a lot of cooking shows together, and she was always frantically writing down the recipes, “how much salt did he say, my girl?”. I can remember sitting on this wooden counter height stool next to the stove watching her add ingredients, a little of this and a little of that. Never once did she refer to any of those recipes she so feverishly scribbled down. She was one of those cooks that knew just how much to add. She made chokecherry jams and Jellies, canned pickles, hung dry meat the old way, and could cook recipes from memory just like Emeril Lagasse.
When we moved to into our own place, Grandma Ruth would come stay with us a few times a month. She would always bring groceries for a meal she would prepare. Usually when I got home from school, she’d be at the table playing a game of cards with my dad or visiting my mom while something simmered on the stove. These nights were always full of laughs. I especially loved that whenever she came, she slept in my room with me. We would visit and giggle, and she would always share her wisdom with me.
Grandma Ruth Passed in March 2005, I was a sophomore in high school, and it was the first time I had lost anyone close to me. All the time we had spent together, the things I learned from her, never felt like enough. I was so young and had many things left to learn and questions to ask her. After she passed my aunt was and has continued to be harassed by hummingbirds. My grandma loved hummingbirds and it just made sense that she came back as one to remind us she was with us. I never experienced a hummingbird in my lifetime but always longed for my grandma to visit me in that way.
The older I get, that feeling of not having enough time to learn from her, how to be a better cook, how to crochet, make jams and syrups, and especially to gain knowledge of my own cultural background, is an ache within me. One thing that makes me feel especially close to her is cooking and sharing a meal with the people I love. When I cook always put good energy and thoughts into what I’m preparing. I don’t measure ingredients but with my heart just like she showed me. The older I get the stronger the pull to be near my ancestors and their ways gets. I’ve recently started back to school and am working towards my AA in Native American Studies. I plan to go on to get my bachelors in Indigenous ethnobotany. Since starting back to school I’ve been in the process of divorcing and have 3 children with various demands. No matter life’s challenges I have tried to remain hopeful even when things have felt hopeless. I think of my grandma who lost her own mother at 3 years old, who went through life without a maternal figure and was still able to impart so much maternal insight to me in the short time we had together. I am so privileged to have the life I do, to have a supportive and loving family, and beautiful children I get the opportunity to cook for, nourish, and share memories with.
I didn’t know it then, but my Grandma Ruth was an elder. She shared her knowledge with me through everything that she did. Thrifting, preserving food, preparing food, collecting items to give to others, laughing (even when she was sad), making coffee to share, serving others and a whole lifetime of lessons she gave freely. I am so proud to be her granddaughter.