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  • Isabelle, of “Belle’s Diner,” was one of the first successful entrepreneurs on the Pine Ridge Reservation but the words that come into my head to describe my mom are – courageous, resilient (actually down-right tough!), strong, strong-willed (actually ‘stubborn’ is pretty fitting too). Some of her usual sayings were: Never, never, NEVER give up! If you get knocked down just get back up and start over! Where there’s a will there’s a way!

    Isabelle Rooks Pourier was born in 1922. Her mom passed away when Isabelle was nine years old and she was sent to the Pine Ridge Boarding School. From the time I can remember she used to tell us stories about the horrors of boarding school. There were ‘matrons’ instead of the infamous nuns of the Catholic boarding schools, but they must have been just as mean.

    Mom told how afraid she was when she and her little sisters, ages 7 and 5, first entered the boarding school. They had different areas for different ages so the sisters had to be separated. She remembered how horrible it was as they took the youngest, little Lucille, away and she rarely got to see her after that. She recalled the cutting of hair and how some kids were punished for speaking their Native language. Isabelle also said she had to fight a lot because the kids who were ‘full-bloods’ made fun of her so she would fight, which then earned her some respect. She told how she yearned to have a slip (undergarment) but that was not something issued, so she stole a bed sheet and hid in a closet to cut it up and sewed by hand with just a needle/thread. It took several days to make herself that precious slip. The school recruited girls for the ‘chorus’ and taught them about music, how to harmonize, etc. The chorus became very good and they traveled to perform in surrounding states….. All dressed in Native dress and singing classical contemporary songs! That had to be when she began to love music…AND she was so good she was known as “the songbird” at school.

    She married my dad at 18 and had 7 children. I can’t imagine raising all those kids without running water and electricity. She often had to kill a chicken before cooking it, she knew how to chop wood, sew our clothes, tend a garden and can the produce AND she was singing most of the time!

    Dad died of a heart attack when mom was 44 years old. She was left with debts and the 4 youngest kids to raise. She went to work scrubbing floors at the local hospital and also worked at an electronics plant for several years, also tried to keep dad's cow herd going for a time. She worked hard haying on a big ole tractor and milked the cow before starting her day, but she was not making ends meet. It was then that she got the bright idea to open a Laundromat at Kyle on the rez. It actually became a booming business! She decided to serve coffee and her caramel rolls for while people waited for their laundry. She then added a daily special and one of those days was Indian Taco day. Well, mom made the best bread dough around and before long the whole business was about the caramel rolls and the Indian Tacos.

    Along with good food though, I think the people liked the atmosphere of Belle’s Diner. She had it fixed up ‘homey’ even though most would think it was just a shack. It was always cozy with a pot-belly wood stove going in the corner. She was friendly to everyone and had an easy, spontaneous sense of humor. She knew how to treat people and if things were slow for awhile she would sit down and just visit with them.

    This is such a small piece of her story, but ‘Belle’ was a survivor to the max…and she Never, Ever gave up!
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