On the Rez

The writer, an admirer of Indian traditions of freedom and heroism, visits an old friend on the Pine Ridge Reservation, explores the place, and discovers a modern-day Indian hero

This article is about the Oglaga Sioux Indians who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States. When I describe this subject to non-Indians, they often reply that it sounds bleak. "Bleak" is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves. Many thousands of people—not just Americans but German and French and English people, and more—visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness. The Indians understand that the visitors are there out of curiosity and out of an admiration which sometimes reaches such a point that the visitors even wish they could be Indians too. I am a middle-aged non-Indian who wears his hair in a thinning ponytail copied originally from the traditional-style long hair of the leaders of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, because I thought it looked cool. When I'm driving across a field near the town of Oglala, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I see my friend Floyd John walking across it the other way, I stop, and he comes over to the car and leans in the window and smiles a big-tooth grin and says, "How ya' doin', wannabe?"

I kind of resent the term "wannabe" (what's wrong with wanting to be something, anyway?), but in my case there's some truth to it. I don't want to participate in traditional Indian religious ceremonies—dance in a sun dance or pray in a sweat lodge or go on a vision quest with the help of a medicine man. The power of these ceremonies has an appeal, but I'm content with what little religion I already have. I think Indians dress better than anyone, but I don't want to imitate more than a detail or two; I prefer my clothes humdrum and inconspicuous, and a cowboy hat just doesn't work for me. I don't want to collect Indian art, though pots and beadwork and blankets made by Indians remain the most beautiful art objects in the American West, in my opinion. I don't want to be adopted into a tribe, be wrapped in a star quilt and given a new name, honor though that would be. I don't want to stand in the dimness under the shelter at the powwow grounds in the group around the circle of men beating the drums and singing ancient songs, and lose myself in that moment when all the breaths and all the heartbeats become one. What I want is just as "Indian," just as traditional, but harder to pin down.

In 1608 the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony, in Virginia, proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a subemperor of the Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. "I also am a king," he said, "and this is my land." Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy, between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe, in 1785. Taken to St. James's Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, a victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with government officials just as he was accustomed to do on the prairie—sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against him, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader, carelessly replied, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man."

That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them. When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do whatever they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age came from the freedom that Columbus and other explorers were rumored to have found. Suddenly imagination was given a whole continent full of people who had never heard of Charlemagne or Pope Leo X or quitrents or the laws of entail, and who were doing fine. Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who would provide the name for the continent, brought back news that in this land "every one is his own master." If this land new to Europeans was the setting, the lives of these untrammeled people suggested the plot: we could drop anchor in the bay, paddle up the river, wade up the creek, meet a band of Indians, and with them disappear forever into the country's deepest green. No tyranny could hold us; if Indians could live as they liked, so could we.

The popular refrain about Indians nowadays is that they and their culture were cruelly destroyed. But beyond the sphere of rhetoric the Indians as a people did not die out, awful though their suffering was. Killing people is one thing; killing them off is another. The destruction story gives the flattering and wrong impression that European culture showed up in the Americas and simply mowed down whatever was in its way. In fact the European arrivals were often hungry and stunned in their new settlements, and what they did to Indian culture was for years more than matched by what encounters with Indians did to theirs. By way of the settlers, Indian crops previously unknown outside the Americas crossed the Atlantic and changed Europe. Indian farmers were the first to domesticate corn, peanuts, tomatoes, pumpkins, and many kinds of beans. Russia and Ireland grew no potatoes before travelers found the plant in Indian gardens in South America; throughout Europe the introduction of the potato caused a rise in the standard of living and a population boom. Before Indians no one in the world had ever smoked tobacco. No one in the Bible (or in any other pre-Columbian text, for that matter) ever has a cigarette, dips snuff, or smokes a pipe. The novelty of breathing in tobacco smoke or chewing the dried leaves caught on so fast in Europe that early colonists made fortunes growing tobacco; it was America's first cash crop.

Surrounded as we are today by pavement, we assume that Indians have had to adapt to us. But for a long time much of the adapting went the other way. In the land of the free, Indians were the original "free"; early America was European culture reset in an Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part made them American and different from what they had been before. Influence is harder to document than corn and beans but as real. We know that Iroquois Indians attended meetings of the colonists in the years before the American Revolution and advised them to unite in a scheme for self-government based on the confederacy that ruled the six Iroquois nations. Benjamin Franklin said, at a gathering of delegates from the Colonies in Albany in 1754, "It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union and be able to execute it in such a manner that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." His use of the term "ignorant savages" is thought to have been ironic; he admired the Iroquois plan, and it formed one of the models for the U.S. Constitution.

When I go to Indian reservations in the West, and especially to the Pine Ridge Reservation, I sometimes feel unsure where to put my foot when I open the car door. The very ground is different from where I usually stand. There are fewer curbs, fewer sidewalks, and almost no street signs, mailboxes, or leashed dogs. The earth here is just the earth, unadorned, and the places people walk are made not by machinery but by feet. Those smooth acres of asphalt marked with lines to tell you where to park and drive that cover so much of America are harder to find on the reservations. If the Iroquois hadn't resisted the French in the 1600s, the Northeast would be speaking French today; if the Comanche hadn't opposed the Spanish, the American Southwest would now be Mexico. The Oglala Sioux reservation, actively or otherwise, continues to resist the modern American paving machine. Walking on Pine Ridge, I feel as if I am in actual America, the original version, which was here before we came and will still be here after we're gone. There are windblown figures crossing the road in the distance who might be drunk, and a scattering of window-glass fragments in the weeds that might be from a car accident, and a baby naked except for a disposable diaper playing in a bare-dirt yard, and an acrid smell of burning trash—all the elements that usually evoke the description "bleak." But there is greatness here too, and an ancient glory endures in the dust and the weeds. Bil Gilbert, the biographer of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee war chief and statesman, says that the Indians of North America resembled the ancient Greeks in their ability to produce heroes, and that both societies considered heroism more important than wealth or power. In American history the names of Sequoya and Osceola and Black Hawk and Roman Nose and Chief Joseph and Looking Glass and Satank and Quanah Parker and Cochise and Geronimo ring like names of heroes out of Homer.

The Western Sioux, also called the Lakota, included seven tribes. Together they never numbered more than 70,000 souls in all, but they have given America and the rest of the world heroes in quantity far out of proportion to the size of their population. Sitting Bull, a warrior and medicine man, became one of the most famous Americans of all time. Spotted Tail, of the Sicangu, or Brule Sioux, was perhaps the greatest Indian diplomat and negotiator. Other Sioux, such as Rain in the Face and Gall and Pawnee Killer, were known mainly for deeds in battle. Among the Oglala the number of heroes is unusually high. First among them is Crazy Horse, the victor of the Little Bighorn, whose determined resistance and martyr's death won him a nearly mystical reputation. Red Cloud, the tribe's leader during the early reservation years, spoke to power in Washington and New York as no Indian had done before. The Oglala chiefs Little Wound and Red Dog and American Horse and He Dog and Young Man Afraid of His Horses attained eminence within the tribe and beyond. Black Elk, the holy man known worldwide through his teachings in the book Black Elk Speaks, was an Oglala and lived on Pine Ridge.

A surprising amount of Oglala culture is the same today as it was in pre-reservation times. The Oglala still produce heroes, even though the wider market for them seems to have waned. If you want to see a lot of combat veterans in one place, go to a Veterans' Powwow in Pine Ridge village on an August afternoon. There's probably more foreign shrapnel walking around the small towns of the reservation than there is in similar towns anywhere else in America; some Oglala families can give you a genealogy of warriors that begins at Operation Desert Storm and goes back to the Little Bighorn and before. The Oglala have always honored warriors, and they honor children as well. The Lakota word for child, wakanyeja, translates literally as "the child is also holy." An Oglala hero of recent history was a girl athlete who died just before she turned eighteen. She starred for the Lady Thorpes, the girls' basketball team at Pine Ridge High School, from 1987 through 1991. I have only heard about her and read local news stories about her, but words fail me when I try to say how much I admire her. Her name was SuAnne Big Crow.

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Ian Frazier received the inaugural Thurber Prize for American Humor, in 1997. His article in this issue of The Atlantic is drawn from his latest book, On the Rez, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next month.

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