Robe, Rosebud Yellow
Rosebud Yellow Robe
Lakota Sioux educator Rosebud Yellow Robe (1907–1992) used storytelling and performance to provide numerous generations of children with an enthusiastic inside look at the folklore and culture of Native Americans. She spent her life fighting prejudice and ignorance with patience, talent and pride—leaving a lasting impression on everyone she met.
Yellow Robe was born on February 26, 1907, in Rapid City, South Dakota. The first of three daughters, Yellow Robe's father named her in honor of the Lakota (Teton Sioux) Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where her extended family was enrolled as members of the Sioux Nation. Her father was educator Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, and her mother, Lillian Belle Springer—of Swiss-German ancestry—was a volunteer nurse at the Rapid City Indian School. Their loving, inter-racial marriage was both a foundation and an inspiration for Yellow Robe's highly-developed tolerance and temperance. Her father's mother, Tahcawin (Fawn), was a niece of Sitting Bull—considered to be one of the Sioux's most celebrated leaders.
Yellow Robe's elementary education took place in a one-room school close to her home. She attended the high school in Rapid City, South Dakota and, in the late 1920s, was one of the first female Native American students at the University of South Dakota. Beyond her formal education, however, Yellow Robe embarked on a more traditionally Native American apprenticeship with the help of her father. She recalled in Marjorie Weinberg's biography entitled The Real Rosebud how her father taught her and her sisters "as many Lakota traditions as he could … [there were] occasions when elderly Indians would visit the grounds of the Indian School and tell stories in the Lakota language. Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe would have Rosebud listen, even though she could not understand a word, and later he would retell the stories in English." Yellow Robe's mother died in 1922, which prompted her to take over the care of her two younger sisters.
Yellow Robe attracted attention and admiration while enrolled at the University of South Dakota, thanks to her participation in the annual "Strollers" productions. These student presentations included many traditional Native American dances—such as the rabbit dance, the hoop dance and the war dance—performed by Rosebud Yellow Robe in full costume and with a palpable reverence that the audiences found contagious. While at the University, she also rushed a sorority and was accepted, only to be dropped later when the members learned that their charter required members to be Caucasian. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife visited the South Dakota Black Hills area on August 4, 1927, and attended a ceremony—presided over by Chief Chauncy Yellow Robe—in which President Coolidge was made an honorary member of the Sioux tribe. Rosebud Yellow Robe helped conduct the heartfelt ceremony and personally placed the stunning, handmade Sioux warbonnet on the President's head. The entry in Notable Native Americans (1995) describes how "Rosebud's grace and beauty were not lost on the press reporters, who commented on the 'beautiful Indian maiden'."
Was a Native in the City
Yellow Robe moved to New York City in 1927 as a young woman of 20—eager to renovate the population's misconceptions about Native American culture through education and the aesthetic appeal of her traditional performances. At the time, the only exposure the common person had to "Indians" was through the stereotypical, inaccurate portrayals offered by radio shows and silent films. In her 2004 biography The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman, family friend and author Weinberg explained that Indians were seen "as savages—either noble or cutthroat." In an excerpt from his 2005 review of Weinberg's biography in American Indian Literatures, Harvey Markowitz clarified: "Among the many unintended consequences of nineteenth-century assimilationist Indian policy was its tendency to split native communities into … opposed factions…. [There] were individuals whom federal officials labeled "blanket Indians' because of their staunch resistance to all government efforts at "civilization and Christianization.'… [and] so-called "progressivist' Indians who repudiated their native cultures and values for those of Euroamerican society. Falling between these two camps were tribal members who … attempted to construct bridges that would allow Indians to operate in both worlds." This last group is the one that both Chauncy and Yellow Robe would have identified with.
Yellow Robe began formally educating children about Native American culture and traditions in the early 1930s. Years later, in a 1975 interview for the Rapid City Journal she remembered the experience: "When I first lectured to public school classes in New York, many of the smaller children hid under their desks, for they knew from the movies what a blood-thirsty scalping Indian might do to them." In 1929, Yellow Robe married newspaper reporter Arthur (de Cinq Mars) Seymour, who had met her for the first time while covering the President's 1927 visit. They had a daughter that same year whom they named Tahcawin de Cinq-Mars Moy (referred to as "Buddy") after Rosebud Yellow Robe's paternal grandmother. Seymour supported Yellow Robe both as her spouse, and as her manager. He helped book her at events that would assist her in her desire to expose the general population to the true nature of Indian culture.
In the mid-1930s, Yellow Robe spent two years at CBS radio writing and performing her own scripts on the air. She worked at the same time, and in the same studio as Orson Welles—prompting the widespread belief that the "Rosebud" uttered in the dying breath of the protagonist of his 1941 masterwork Citizen Kane was inspired by Yellow Robe. She was sought after by photographers and film directors alike for her unusual, refined Sioux beauty. She even declined to take the title role in Cecil B. De Mille's Indian film, Ramona. Yellow Robe's first husband died in 1949, and in 1951 she married photographer Alfred A. Frantz—years after meeting him when he, too, covered the 1927 ceremony for President Coolidge.
In 1930, Yellow Robe became the director of the ever-evolving Jones Beach Indian Village on Long Island in New York. She remained there as director for the next 20 years, as described by Barnett and Klein's 2005 American National Biography supplement: "She wore the clothing of her culture, working mostly with children, teaching them about Native Americans through handicraft, games, songs, and stories. Through [her] work, tens of thousands of children were provided with a new and realistic depiction of American Indians." Weinberg—who attended the Village as a child—described how Yellow Robe "dressed in a nineteenth-century Lakota Indian costume: a deerskin dress, leggings, and moccasins, plus a feathered warbonnet (not customarily worn by women) …" Children who attended the Village with Yellow Robe staged turtle races, listened to expertly told stories, made handicrafts including carving, pottery, metalwork, weaving, leatherwork, musical instruments and painting. Yellow Robe spent from 1930 to 1950 alternating seasonally between the Indian Village project in the summer months, and speaking and performing in schools all winter long. Each year ended with the Annual American Indian Art Exhibit where the projects the children had been working on were showcased and judged. Winners were awarded with authentic Indian artifacts which were then displayed in participating local schools.
A woman of diverse talents, Yellow Robe also appeared repeatedly throughout the 1950s on NBC children's programs, as well as doing spots for Bob Montgomery Presents. She was also a respected author. Her first book, Album of the American Indian was published in 1969 and painted a vivid and detailed picture of how seven different Indian tribes lived from day to day before the appearance of the Europeans—as well as mourning the bloodshed and isolation that followed. In 1979 she published her second book, a collection of Native American folk tales for children titled Tonweya and the Eagles. The stories featured a young boy named Chano, (short for Canowicakte or "Kill in the Woods", her father's tribal name that was changed to Chauncy when he attended the Carlisle Indian School), who learned how to hunt, ride bareback, wrestle, swim and footrace as well as becoming familiar with the characteristics and lifestyles of the native creatures. This book garnered critical acclaim for its authentic chronicling of traditional tales in a format and style that was engaging for both child and adult readers. The compilation—stories passed down from her father and woven together with a fictional biographical storyline based on her father as a young man—was a great success, appearing in translation and frequently excerpted in academic texts.
Left Lakota Legacy
In 1984 the W.H. Over Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, commissioned a life-sized portrait of Yellow Robe done in oils and she was the focus of a three-day celebration in May of 1989 that included the observation of "Rosebud Yellow Robe Day" and the presentation of an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of South Dakota. The reason for the accolade, quoted in Notable Native Americans (1995) read, "paying tribute to Yellow Robe as a gifted communicator 'who, through her talents and native background, promote[d] an authentic view of Indian life and character and who [was] able through her techniques of cultural exchange to pass her scholarly knowledge on to mixed audiences of young and old which numbered many thousands throughout the years.'"
Although Yellow Robe died of cancer on October 5, 1992, her spirit clearly continued to inspire people. Write Idea—a textbook published by the MacMillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company in 1993—honored the beloved storyteller by attempting to continue the dissemination of a better understanding of Native American culture. In 1994, the National Dance Institute and folk artist Judy Collins joined a chorus of a thousand children from all over the globe to perform a tribute titled "Rosebud's Song" at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Liz Sonneborn's A to Z of Native American Women noted that the program "was dedicated to Rosebud Yellow Robe for devot[ing] her life to children and to preserving and passing on Native American stories and culture." In 1993 and 1994, the University of South Dakota also created the Rosebud Yellow Robe Society for philanthropists as well as a Native American student scholarship established in her name.
Many biographical excerpts focusing on Rosebud Yellow Robe actually spend a surprising amount of space and time covering the biographical details of her father's life. While she always attributed her education and motivation to her father, it was her unique and boundless personal energy, enthusiasm and patience that planted her permanently in the hearts and minds of so many young people. As her grandson Luke Yellow Robe stated in his Foreward to Weinberg's biography, Yellow Robe "set in motion for her people and family a lifetime pursuit of achievement and learning, a pursuit to be duplicated so that we can see the importance of rising above circumstance. Her example has served as an internal compass that has inspired [many] to navigate through the obstacles and barriers of life in order to be an inspiration." Weinberg, in her biography's introduction, said it best when she pointed out that Yellow Robe's unique gifts "had much more to do with encouraging human relationships than with 'Indianness'. Her acceptance of people as they are, her responsiveness to the needs of others, and her ability to encourage their differences while rejoicing in their achievements." Yellow Robe's infectious optimism, tireless generosity and solemn appreciation for her heritage have assured her place in history as a champion of tolerance and compassion in an uncertain age.
A to Z of Native American Women, edited by Liz Sonneborn, Facts On File, Inc., 1998.
Barnett, Karen Bachman and Catherine Dyer Klein, American National Biography: Supplement 2, edited by Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Notable Native Americans, edited by Sharon Malinowski, Gale Research, Inc., 1995.
Weinberg, Marjorie, The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman, University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Yellow Robe Frantz, Rosebud, Tonweya and the Eagles and Other Lakota Tales, Dial Books for Young Readers, 1979.
Markowitz, Harvey, "The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman (review)," Studies in American Indian Literatures, Project Muse, http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri/journals/studies_in_american_indian_literatures/v017/17.1markowitz.html (January 5, 2006).