by Phil G. Busey, Sr.
True inspiration lies in the stories of individuals who touch our lives. Often we do not recognize the significance of ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstance. Life is about people and not events. Simple is great. It is from these lives lived we take heart, courage and hope. There is nothing more important. There is nothing more meaningful and nothing more powerful.
Mildred Cleghorn was such a person. She changed my life and countless others. I was asked to represent the Ft. Sill Apache Tribe to get a small tract of land into trust for a possible gaming facility. Th
The Ft. Sill Apache is actually Geroni
This simple acquisition required a long legal battle and help of the BIA and Congress. The central defining point though was the true inspiration in Mildred and her people’s story. No sterile legal argument could ever come close in the persuasion this real life account brought. When we met with Counsel for the Secretary of Interior, the room was full of attorney’s. Mildred was to tell her story. She did. It was riveting and awe inspiring. It was tragic. Everyone in the room was gripped by silence and empathy. The hardest present melted. With tears in his eyes Counsel rose from his chair, walked across the room, grabbed Mildred by the shoulders and quietly said for you we will get this done. Three long years later it was.
Mildred was self made: a simple person of immense faith that reached to everyone. Never did she express any anger for the treatment of her ancestors and people. The past was prologue to building a future. She was a teacher graduating from OSU. Her handmade Indian dolls line halls in the Department of Interior. Profoundly, she was one of a few surviving American’s born prisoners of war of the US. President Clinton recognized her and the others in a tribute at the White House long overdue.
Mildred told as a little girl she felt sad and different because she could not play with her friends from school. Their parents were soldiers. She had to talk to them through barbed wire at Ft. Sill. Her tribe was almost destroyed. Her people scattered: lands given then taken away. All as punishment for the fight Geronimo waged to keep their sacred homelands in the mountains of New Mexico. Atrocities’ were on both sides. But the power of the United States was far greater than this small band of Indians. Geronimo fought against, ironically mostly Buffalo Soldiers. The final ultimatum was surrender or every tribal member, including woman and children would be killed. Forced to surrender he did to save his people and a long tragic ordeal began. Families were lined up along a railroad track and children taken from their mothers by soldiers. They were sent to Carlise Indian School: forbidden to speak their language and forever to be white. The rest of the tribe was imprisoned in St. Augustine Florida, then Alabama and finally after disease and death the few left were removed to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Finally, released they were dispersed to allotted lands no less than a mile apart so they could never come together again as a tribe. Yet they did. Despite all Mildred fought years to restore her tribe without hate and with unspeakable courage. She never gave up.
I was blessed to have known her and call her friend. She relied on Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me”. Despite every injustice and hardship she lived her faith in the face of immense obstacles with forgiveness. When failure was possible and spirits low she placed her hand gently under my chin lifting my head up. We can do this she said.
I think of her often. Because of this quiet, unselfish but strong Native American woman of indomitable
As Rotarians our presence in our community is more important than ever. Touching peoples lives is what we are about. We can all be grateful for the positive impacts we bring to so many people.
Mildred made handmade dolls of Native American women like the one she is holding. Her collection was in the Secretary of interiors offices and now are in the Smithsonian.