A barrier-breaking military veteran who pushed through heartbreak to help others at vulnerable moments in their lives, Kathleen Robinson also embodied the first nations quest for a culturally coherent life. She was 55 when she died on Oct. 8.
She was born in Regina, on April 27, 1956, and spent her early years with her mother and large extended family on the White Bear Reserve near Carlyle in southeastern Saskatchewan. When her mother died in the early 1960s, Kathleen, like so many first nations children of that era, was summarily removed from her community and placed with a non-native family in Wawota, about 30 kilometres away. They fostered her into young adulthood, when she set off to find her place in the world.
Meeting a man in the U.S. Air Force drew her to enlist as well, in 1978. It proved a fortunate move. She thrived on the military life and discipline; and she found her calling as an airplane electrical systems specialist. She worked on every plane the Air Force flew, from the lumbering B-52 to the nimble, viper-like F-16. She loved knowing how everything worked, and being able to fix what went wrong.
She worked her way up to crew boss, the first woman in the U.S. Air Force to have an electrical systems crew of her own. Whether on home turf or hazardous overseas assignments, she progressed steadily, earning numerous merit awards.
Eventually, Robinson attained the rank of staff sergeant, an uncommon achievement for a woman in the 1980s.
She probably would have spent her entire career in the Air Force had she not been diagnosed with a heart condition. Doctors believed it was caused by rheumatic fever she'd contracted at the age of four or five. Lacking adequate medical facilities on the reserve, she had not been promptly or properly treated. This forced her medical discharge in 1987.
Brokenhearted, she cast about for something else to do. She had always loved to read, so, thinking perhaps to become a teacher, she took a degree in English from Minot State University in North Dakota.
While working on this degree, she also began reconnecting with her first family, making frequent trips back to White Bear. A friend took her to meetings of the Native American Church on the reserve.
Robinson thought it was the most beautiful religion she'd come across. Her foster family had raised her Roman Catholic, but she had never felt it addressed her as a first nations person. She'd explored many religions since, but somehow nothing stuck, until she encountered the Native American Church. Rooted in traditional spiritual practices of what are now northern Mexico and the American Southwest, and involving both medicinal and sacramental uses of the peyote cactus, the church has spread across North America, its practices evolving and diversifying along with the people it serves.
For Robinson, it became a profound means of connecting with her roots, a meeting place of first nations tradition and contemporary reality. Moreover, its people became like a family, easing her nagging sense of displacement. It was in the church that she received her Indian name, Red Dawn Woman.
When she finished her degree, Robinson decided to come back to Canada. She found work in the registrar's office of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (later First Nations University) in Regina. Eventually becoming an academic counsellor, she assisted students – many of them "a little older, maybe a little fearful," as her daughter Dominga recalls – to find their way into higher education. "I don't know how many she brought home," laughs Dominga. "She'd host them for a week or so until they found a place to stay, regularly going above and beyond her job description.
A second daughter, Sterling, was born in 1995. Six years later, Robinson moved back to the reserve. By now her band, the Pheasant Rump Nakota (Assiniboine), had their own land separate from the White Bear First Nation (a land claim Robinson had assisted with when she first returned to Canada). She settled there, and began working with the Yorkton Tribal Council Child and Family Services. Having been a child in care herself, she wanted to help children whose plight she understood.
Some time in the early 2000s, the reserve began holding sun dances, a traditional annual ceremony of the Nakota. Robinson took the opportunity to learn, and became a regular participant as her culture and spirituality became central in her life.
In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following treatment, she enjoyed a year of good health, but the cancer came back in her spine. The many compression fractures that resulted were painful, but what hurt most of all was receiving help instead of giving it.
Kathleen Robinson was laid to rest with her grandparents at the Pheasant Rump Cemetery, with traditional Elders officiating. She leaves her two daughters, two "adopted" daughters and numerous relatives by blood and of the heart.
Special to The Globe and Mail