Recent deaths of Native matriarchs leave ripples of respect, honor and gratefulness
First Nation's Focus
RENO, Nev. — Over the past several weeks, tribal communities across Northern Nevada and the Great Basin have dealt with the tragic deaths of four important matriarchs — Flora Greene, Gayle Hanson-Johnson, Patty Hicks and Lois Kane.
In an effort to honor their lives, First Nation’s Focus reached out to family and friends to celebrate their accomplishments. Their stories are below.
Flora Greene (101 years old)
Flora Greene of the Cui-ui-Ticutta Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nixon, Nevada, passed away on April 17, 2018, at the age of 101 and is remembered as an easy-going woman who was full of laughter.
Greene was born Feb. 17, 1917, and raised on the reservation. She was the oldest living alumna of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, having graduated in 1936.
She worked for the tribe’s Head Start program; was the Nevada Indian Commission’s 2012 Contributor Supporter of the Year; earned a Nevada Heritage Award in September 2017 at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s Numaga Indian Days Powwow; and is known for her life’s dedication to the Pyramid Lake tribe.
Some of Greene’s best-known contributions to the tribal community were through her art and craft pieces. She created buckskin gloves and moccasins, as well as intricate handmade toys.
“Her most favorite, I think, was making dolls — she loved to make dolls and she did everything by hand,” said Gladis Hicks, Flora’s best friend. “The dolls are little Indian ladies and men made out of buckskin. She had a pattern that she went by and she would stuff them with cotton, sew them up and use yarn for their hair. All of their clothes were buckskin, and she would bead them and make little belts, necklaces and ornaments; the men would have war bonnets handmade from bird feathers.”
Blanket making, quilting and handcrafting traditional trinkets were also among Greene’s textile crafting skills.
Additionally, Greene is remembered as one of the dedicated grandmothers who would attend local schools to teach children the Paiute language, telling them stories about who they are and where they came from.
“Everyone knows her as ‘Grandma Flora’ — she was a really easy-going woman and the little grade school kids really liked her,” Hicks said. “It’s dying out — I think we’re the last generation that knows something about our people, the way we lived and how hard it was.
“We always lived the hard way, and I think that’s important for the kids to know where they came from and who they are. Flora taught that.”
Gayle Hanson-Johnson (61 years old)
Gayle Hanson-Johnson (Bishop Paiute Tribe) passed away on April 30, 2018, at age 61, leaving behind a legacy of music — she was known for her beautiful singing voice — as well as for passing on traditions as the director for Bishop Paiute Head Start for over 30 years.
She brought back traditional Paiute hand drum songs and taught them to children and others in the tribe, keeping their rich performance culture strong.
Joanne Hanson, Gayle’s sister, said she was always popular growing up and always active in the community, never turning down an opportunity to sing for an audience.
Gayle taught Joanne’s children to sing and carry on traditional songs, similarly to how their father raised them when they were young girls.
“When we were kids, in order to leave the dinner table, we had to sing for him. He said, ‘I don’t care how you sound or if you get the wording right or anything like that, just sing me a song, even a verse if that’s all you can do,’” Joanne recalled.
Joanne said that she and Gayle didn’t realize they had a radio in the car until high school because their father would always sing or talk — something Gayle carried on throughout her life.
Michon Eben — Cultural Resource Manager/Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony — was a friend who knew Gayle Hanson-Johnson all her life and remembers her as a trustworthy woman who used her gift of song to bring joy to her community.
“I remember as a child going to the Fallon-Stampede Indian Rodeo day in the late ‘70s, and she would sing the Flag Song,” Eben said. “I remember being a kid and hearing her, young Gayle, singing the beautiful Flag Song and that as a kid just stuck to me. I always remember that.”
Before singing, she would describe who composed the song, she would ensure that native and non-native people would have a foundation of appreciation for the context of the song, not simply its beautiful melody.
“I could be wrong, but I truly believe sharing our cultural knowledge is what keeps our community together. Whatever knowledge we share, we teach, and it was taught to us, so sometimes I think that we’re carrying on traditions to teach it to the community before it’s lost,” Eben said. “I feel Gayle did that because a lot of people sing a lot of songs, and even though they may not have been her own songs, creating her own CD and being out there, teaching the songs to others — she definitely carried on the tradition.”
Patricia E. Hicks (75 years old)
Patricia “Patty” E. Hicks (Walker River Paiute Tribe) passed away at age 75 in early May 2018 and is remembered as a matriarch who was always happy caring for her family and preparing for new babies.
Hicks — who was born on the Walker River Indian Reservation in Schurz, Nevada — was appointed from 1998-2004 as a commissioner of the Nevada Indian Commission, and she received a Presidential Friendship Medal from former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Among other accomplishments, she taught all kinds of traditional dance and also crafted the regalia that her dance groups wore.
“When I think of all the stuff my mom’s done, she’s made tons of moccasins, beaded all of her children and grandchildren’s outfits, and made us all baby baskets,” Patty’s daughter, Maury Hernandez, said. “And as all of us were having our children, we all got baby baskets.”
Most recently, Hicks was working on moccasins for Hernandez’s pregnant daughter, who is expecting a baby boy in October.
Hernandez said her mother learned traditional beadwork techniques from her own mother and continued beading until she passed away.
“She was just a great, wonderful woman. She loved everybody and what she did. She made it known if you were doing wrong — she told us,” Hernandez said. “She did not quit her Indian makings and songs and stories — that was something that never left her.”
Apart from honoring her heritage, Hicks is also remembered for her professionalism and intelligence.
“She’s a very strong woman, very intelligent. She worked in the legal field with the State Legislature as a legal secretary for years,” said Stacy Cordova, Hicks’ daughter. “She did a lot for the community, even had an Indian dance group that I started in, and I’m 53 years old now, so we’ve all danced and she kept it going all her life.”
Hicks was honored, along with Flora Greene, on September 2017 at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s Numaga Indian Days Powwow with a Nevada Heritage Award, in recognition of individuals who embody the highest level of artistic achievement and the highest level of service.
One of Patty’s granddaughters, Angela Williams, said her grandmother was a loving and caring person who dedicated her whole life to teaching and preserving the Indian culture and was always there when they needed her.
Her grandchildren were devastated with her loss, particularly wondering who would take them to dances in the future; luckily Williams has agreed to carry on the dance group and keep the tradition running.
Lois Kane passed away at 56 years old, also in early May 2018. She is remembered as an educator in the truest sense.
Stacey Montooth, Public Relations/Community Information Officer at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, had a professional working relationship with both Lois Kane and Patty Hicks, and recognized both of their efforts in fortifying the American Indian culture.
“It was their nature to find learning opportunities to help shape our young people,” Montooth said. “They both logged countless volunteer hours and it certainly wasn’t just limited to their leadership with the Eagle Wing Pageant Dancers.”
She added that thanks to Kane and Hicks placing such importance on their heritage, their legacies continue to live on through their dedication to Great Basin traditional songs, dance and music.
“The most important achievement of these ladies was their day-in and day-out modeling of their civic pride. They were exceptional ambassadors for Indian Country. Not only were these proud Native Americans, strong Paiutes, but they were exceptional women,” Montooth said. “Moreover, as Lois married into the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and as Patty worked for the Walker River Paiute Tribe, they both were completely dedicated to their respective communities, even through they grew up somewhere else.
“All told, these women arguably gave more to tribes of which they weren’t enrolled. They both were committed to the preservation and growth of our culture and their enduring works of charity prove it.”
RSIC Board Chairman Arlan D. Melendez had known Kane for about 30 years when Kane began work for the RSIC as a tribal enrollment officer.
Melendez said Kane did a fantastic job researching and documenting tribal history, which greatly helped to establish the current tribal membership program.
“Lois was very dedicated and optimistic person who, because of her friendly attitude, developed many relationship both in the workplace and the community,” Melendez said. “Lois was one of our first language coordinators and again helped establish and develop the Native language program of Paiute, Washo and Shoshone languages. Lois also co-founded the Eagle Wings Pageant Dance, which performed and sang at local schools, conference and community events.
“She left a legacy of kindness and optimism and will be greatly missed.”
USDA Rural Development Nevada State Director Phil Cowee said he is pleased to have the Washoe Tribe as one of 47 communities included in the national program.