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An End to an Era
~ Mary Burrows
On a crisp Halloween morning, I left home to
travel to Crazy Horse Memorial for the funeral
of a former co-worker and great lady.
Just a short distance from Custer City, I came
upon the end of a long line of vehicles with their
lights on, escorted by law enforcement vehicles.
I knew immediately that it was Freda at the head
of that line, so I fell in behind the end car, knowing I could never get ahead of such a massive tribute and arrive at the Memorial before it did.
The wake had been held the evening before at Freda's home south of Custer where she lived with her husband Vern. When we crested the hill north of town, I could see a two-mile long string of vehicles on their way to Crazy Horse Mountain. All along the way, oncoming vehicles pulled to the right to honor the person, unknown to them, who was taking their last ride.
At the gate to the Memorial, the hearse pulled off to meet a waiting horse and wagon that would head the funeral cortege as it climbed the hill to the Welcome Center and the last tributes by Freda's friends and family.
Theresa Freda Mesteth Goodsell (Tawachin Waste Win: Benevolent Minded Woman) was born 24 June 1929 to George and Christina Standing Bear Mesteth in Manderson, SD, at the home of her grandparents Stephen and Louise Standing Bear. Freda's grandfather had gone to Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody, had fallen ill in Germany, and was nursed by the woman who would become his wife and join him in his life on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Freda grew up a member of a family of farmers and ranchers. She was the seventh of ten children. Her primary education came at Manderson Day School, and her secondary, as she said, “the Mission School,” Holy Rosary Mission, possibly a boarding school, and now Red Cloud Indian School, on Pine Ridge Reservation.
From the tribute: “As a member of a large extended Lakota ranching and farming family, 'Freda' as she was called rather than Theresa learned many life skills early on. These included industrious self-sustaining activities such as homemaking, methods of modern and traditional food preparation, fine needlework and sewing, and the traditional Native American arts of hide tanning and beading. Like her other siblings, she was also expected to ride horseback, drive a team and wagon, milk cows and move cows to and from pastures. She also participated in gardening, cultivating and harvesting of crops for family members and livestock.”
I met Freda at Crazy Horse Memorial® when she was in her 85th year. She worked every day and still made quilts, beautiful star quilts for which she is famous. She was the matriarch of what is known as “the Indian Room,” or IR, and there wasn't much she didn't know about the various stones in the jewelry, the artists represented in the cases, or Native Lakota culture. People who visited from all over the country and world stopped to visit with Freda.
Described by this writer as an end to an era: Freda straddled a bit of both worlds that had existed in Lakota country only 50 years prior to her birth. Crazy Horse, the last hold-out “wild” Indian had brought his band of less than of 1000, with only 150 fighting warriors, in to Red Cloud Agency in the White River country, now Ft. Robinson State Park in Nebraska, and several months thereafter was stabbed in the back with a bayonet when he saw bars on the guardhouse door and resisted arrest.
By the time of Freda's birth, the Mesteths and Standing Bears had settled in to the agrarian lifestyle enforced by the government, but still continued many of their Native traditional behaviors alongside Euro-minded land possession and square houses. Although she did not say, any traditional behaviors or language were surely “discouraged” at the Mission School.
Following World War II, Freda moved to Custer City from the reservation to live with two of her sisters and care for her and their children while they worked in the ever expanding tourism industry in the Black Hills. After Freda joined the work force, she performed as a laundry worker, housekeeper, carpenter at a munitions box factory, and as caregiver to the Ziolkowski children at Crazy Horse Mountain. In the early '50s, Freda was hospitalized south of Custer at the State Tuberculosis Sanitarium or Sanator. As she healed, she engaged in occupational therapy that included needlework, crochet, knitting, embroidery, and applique.
Sometimes misfortune is a stepping stone to a brighter future. Using the skills she learned at the hospital and applying the industriousness and perseverance learned from her culture, along with an impeccable eye for beauty and color, Freda embarked, though not on purpose, on her career: that of a Master quilt maker. At first, she made star quilts and gave them away for ceremonies and gifts. That eventually led to sales to collectors and museums.
In 1959, she married Vern Goodsell and they began a life devoted to each other and to their children, their families, their employees, and their co-workers. Thus the massive attendance at the wake and the service at Crazy Horse Memorial.®
It was a great day in the gift shop when we sold a “Freda” quilt. As well as with individuals world-wide, the breathtaking, colorful quilts are in collections at The Vatican; The Smithsonian Institution; the Buffalo Bill Cody Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyoming; the Akta Lakota Museum at St. Joseph's School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, and in the firehouse station associated with the 9-11 Memorial Site in New York City.
I also learned from Freda that she attended the Sun Dance on Pine Ridge every summer. For that event, she packed nine personal lodges (tipis), and planned for prayers and cooking. That first summer, I asked Freda if she would pray for my grandson Gaven, who was born with a congenital heart defect. She gracefully vowed to pray for him, even though this uninformed wasicu did not bring a substantial offering with my request. And she continued to do so every Sun Dance she attended after that. I was thankful to be able to report to Freda, through a friend and co-worker, that Gaven received a pulmonary valve transplant of human tissue in August of this year and is doing extremely well and attending school. I have no doubt that her and others' prayers offered to Creator were instrumental in this miraculous turn of events. I also belatedly sent a tribute.
Freda also made quilts for the children at the St. Joseph School in Chamberlain. We were all saddened to learn that she had fallen earlier this year and broken her wrist. And we were even more concerned when she could not attend the Native American Day celebration at Crazy Horse.
Lifelong friends and first-time visitors were welcomed with equal warmth to the home of Freda and Vern Goodsell. The talented extended family includes metal smith Robert Sun Bear, artists Arthur Amiotte and Bart Brafford, along with others unknown to the writer. (Yes, we are all related: Mitakuye Oyasin!) The family gathered at their home for social and celebratory events. At the wake, I'm sure Freda whispered to all in attendance, “Bless you for coming to be with us.”