Rest in Paradise: Tillie Fay Walker remembered for life of service

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The late Tillie Walker attended the bronze statue dedication of her father near the Knife River Villages in Stanton, N.D. She died Feb. 3, 2018 at age 88. PHOTO BY JODI RAVE
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Services were held at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 9, at the Water Chief Hall in Mandaree. Deacon Joanne Keene will officiate. Her wake service will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, at Water Chief Hall, Mandaree. Burial will be in Independence Congregational Cemetery, Independence. Family and friends will gather at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Fulkerson Stevenson Funeral Home and leave for the wake services at 4 p.m.

Tillie Faye Walker, named Hishua Adesh (Blossoming Mint), was born at home in the Independence community on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation on July 11, 1928. Tillie was born a member of the MaXho XhaDa or Alkalai Lodge clan, and was a child of the Apukawiku or Low Cap Clan. Tillie’s mother, Mercy Baker Walker was the daughter of Louis Baker and Emma Taylor, but was raised by her grandmother, First Sprout and grandfather, Two Chief. Her father, Hans Walker Sr. was the son of Joseph and Susie Walker Youngbird, who were both Hidatsa from the Lucky Mound community.

Tillie and her siblings grew up in a world centered on traditional Mandan and Hidatsa values and culture, a bi- and tri-lingual world where most community members spoke or could communicate in English, Hidatsa, and Mandan. They lived in a log house built by their father, and ate the delicious food their mother prepared from her extensive gardens. Both parents enjoyed visiting their relatives and made sure their children knew their relatives and the traditional values embedded in those relationship norms – from respect and dedication, to helping your relatives, to teasing.

Tillie began her education in the local Independence school, and moved to the mission school in Elbowoods when she was a few years older. She finished her high school degree at Sanish High School, then continued on to work toward her postsecondary degree at Haskell and Willamette University before finishing her BA in business administration at the University of Nebraska. This was a time period in which it was unusual for tribal members to complete a college degree, especially so for women. Tillie’s father wanted his daughters to have the same opportunities his sons did – this in an era in which educational opportunities were constrained for women, and when many believed that women would not benefit from or use a higher education degree.

While in college she constantly worked to help fund her education, from driving a pea truck to working for the Nebraska Legislature. After graduation, Tillie and two of her friends took a train to Philadelphia – without a job or a place lined up to live – and she approached the American Friends Service Committee and asked for a job. They hired her on the spot, and eventually that position led to the creation of the United Scholarship Service, an organization conceptualized, organized, and driven by Tillie that brought promising Native youth to fully funded slots in elite private boarding schools. She recruited students from all over Indian Country, and many national and community leaders and activists who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s were those she had identified, cultivated, and supported during their studies through her organization – or who she had employed as staff.

“She was incredibly independent, even when we were little,” her sister, Reba recalls. This independence, her energy and hardworking nature cultivated by her parents, and her natural charisma and sense of fun made her a force to be reckoned with. She mentored and was a role model to many of the original red power activists involved in the National Indian Youth Council, including Clyde Warrior, Mel Thom, and Hank Adams. Tillie and others began to question the status quo power structures of how federal power was exerted on tribal lands, from staffing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to land use rights, to issues of leasing and resource extraction.

Her work on the national level caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he began to organize for the Poor People’s Campaign, and she met him shortly before his assassination when he brought her into the campaign organizing. Tillie served as one of the key Native organizers for the campaign, and recruited tribal members and leaders from across the country to participate. She made sure to include elders such as George Crow Flies High and Mattie Grinnell, who made the trip to Washington D.C., to participate in the marches, sit-ins, and testimonies as part of the campaign. She also gave fiery and memorable testimony to the secretary of the interior and the commissioner of Indian affairs during the campaign, as detailed in several academic histories of red power activism. Through these decades of work on the national scene, Tillie influenced the very direction of activism and federal Indian policy. She considered the implementation of Indian Preference hiring in Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be her biggest professional accomplishment.

Those guided and mentored by her remember her as a mixture of being highly educated and very traditional, during a time period in which many saw those qualities as in conflict. She lived and worked off-reservation in Denver, but she had a constant stream of older and younger relatives and friends visiting her. They remember that almost her entire record collection was powwow music, and that she always had corn in various stages of drying in her apartment. Her family remembers that she had knowledge of traditional medicines – likely cultivated in her by her mother, Mercy, who held a traditional medicine bundle and helped care for the Lone Man Shrine – and would tell her niece and nephews bedtime stories that included traditional origins stories.

After Tillie’s mother, Mercy suffered a stroke, she eventually moved back to Fort Berthold to help take care of her mom. She moved back to her family’s house in what remained of the Independence district (vastly changed due to the land loss associated with the Garrison Dam), near Mandaree. She helped her mom and continued her extensive gardens, and ran for and won a tribal council seat in the 1980s. While on council she worked on the Garrison Unit Joint Tribal Advisory Committee (JTAC), that advocated for a fuller accounting of and compensation for the land taking associated with the Garrison Dam. The work she and others did secured an additional $143 million in federal compensation for the eminent domain taking of the heart of the Fort Berthold land base.

After retiring, Tillie continued to work for her tribal community. She enjoyed visiting, organizing, and rabble rousing with her close friends Celeste Witham, Rosemarie Mandan, Wanda Fox, and Phyllis Cross. She picked and preserved juneberries and bullberries, made beautiful star quilts, and never missed Mandaree Powwow. She had a longstanding love affair with chocolate (especially Godiva chocolate) and never missed the “Letterman Show,” often closing her evening with “Mudakua” and a crossword puzzle. She was a role model, a confidante, a supporter, and a mentor to many of her lucky nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

Tillie lived in the country outside Mandaree for decades, in the house her parents built during the relocation process due to the Garrison Dam flooding. When her mobility required her to be closer to services, she lived in New Town for several years, and eventually settled in Bismarck to be close to her younger sister, Reba. In 2014, Tillie and Reba bought and donated lands associated with a historical Hidatsa village site to the Three Affiliated Tribes. Tillie gave a substantial donation to the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum, with no strings attached to how the money would be spent. In 2016, Tillie was successful in her two-decade effort to have the Independence Congregational Church designated as a historic place on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite her accomplishments and substantial service to her tribe and Indian Country, she never talked about herself and all the work she did – a reflection of the traditional values modeled by her parents. Although affected by Alzheimer’s, Tillie remained true to her character – independent, fun-loving, and generous to her relatives to the last of her days.

Tillie passed away Feb. 3, 2018, and is survived by her younger sister, Reba Walker; niece, Leah Ann Walker; and nephews, Tom Walker and Reid Walker.

She was preceded in death by her father, Hans Walker, Sr.; her mother, Mercy Baker Walker; and her two brothers, Melvin Walker and Hans Walker, Jr.

Everyone who was lucky enough to know Tillie will miss the light and generosity she brought to our lives.

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