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
Le War Lance

So Le War Lance and I became friends. I mentioned him in a book; I said that I had noticed an Indian waiting to cross the street in front of my apartment in New York City, that I had asked on impulse if he was Sioux, and that he had replied, "I'm an Oglala Sioux Indian from Oglala, South Dakota." I described a conversation that Le War Lance and I had had on the subject of Crazy Horse and how he had told me, "Crazy Horse was my gran'father!" Le War Lance liked what I wrote about him; he said that I told the truth. I included a photograph of him in the book, and for a while he was carrying a paperback copy around in his back pocket so that he could show the photo to people from time to time. I kept running into him in various parts of the city: by the statue of Garibaldi in Washington Square Park at two in the morning, as I was returning from some party, or on a park bench in Columbus Circle in the middle of the afternoon. He wrote down his phone number for me and added mine to the long list of phone numbers he keeps in his head. He called me often, and he still does. I've known Le War Lance now for going on twenty years. All my other friends I met in school, at work, or through connections from work. Le War Lance is the only friend I have whom I met originally on the street.

Le's appearance has varied over those years. He is about six feet tall, and he has a broad face rather like the actor Jack Palance's. Le's eyes can be merry and as flat as a smile button, or deep and glittering with malice or slyness or something he knows and I never will. He is fifty-seven years old. I have seen his hair, which is black streaked with gray, when it was more than two feet long and held with beaded ponytail holders a foot or so apart, and I have seen it much shorter, after he had shaved his head in mourning for a friend who had died. He has big hands that can grip a basketball as easily as I can hold a softball, and long arms. He is almost never able to find shirts or coats with long-enough sleeves. I've seen him in fancy tooled cowboy boots, in oversize Italian loafers with metal buckles, and in running shoes; in many different cowboy hats, in knit ski caps, and in snowmobiler caps with fur earflaps. I've seen him fat and thin. For a while he was about 260 pounds, a pro-football heft. Then he became slim and rangy-looking. He told me he was losing weight because he had cancer. I asked what kind of cancer he had, and he replied, "Generic." He told me he would be dead in six weeks, and even gave the date on which he would die, which he said had been revealed to him in a dream. That was about eight years ago. He has gained back a lot of the weight since then.

Le and I have fallings-out from time to time. He often is not a very nice guy. If he has done only a few of the things he says he has done, it's amazing he isn't in jail. (Evidently, he did go to prison for car theft and writing bad checks, back in the early 1960s.) When he's drinking, which is frequently, he tells me all kinds of stories. I don't completely disbelieve any of them. For years I thought his story about jumping off the Space Needle, in Seattle, attached by just a Band-Aid to the end of a bungee cord in a promotional stunt for the Johnson & Johnson company might have a grain of truth in it somewhere. When I reminded him of it recently, he laughed and said that if he told me that, he had just been having fun with me. Other stories that are only slightly less wild have turned out to be true.

He calls me every few weeks, it seems, to ask for money. It's good that he does, I suppose; it keeps me from getting sentimental when I think of him. Even now I can feel that my words want to pull him in a wrong direction, toward a portrait that is rose-tinted and larger than life, while he is pulling the other way, toward reality. Sometimes when he calls, his voice is small and clear, like neat printed handwriting; other times, depending on his mood and how much he's had to drink, his voice is sprawling and enlarged, like a tall cursive signature with flourishes on the tail letters and inkblots and splatters alongside. I have wired him money many times, for more purposes than I can remember—to help a friend who was stranded at a Micmac Indian reserve, in Canada, to resole a pair of boots, to fix a heater, to buy any number of car parts and tanks of gas, to provide a wreath on a coffin, to provide a suit of clothes for a relative who had just died, to buy a used mobile home, to buy steamer trunks to hold the presents at a giveaway ceremony, to pay a DWI fine. After a while the wire-transfer company sent me a good-customer card that lets me take a dollar or so off the service charge. I get a satisfaction from these transactions that would be complicated to explain. Of course, I also often get annoyed. Once, when I said I had no money to send, Le became angry and told me that he would not be seeing me again, that he expected soon to die. Then he told me to "suck on a banana and make it real," and hung up. I didn't hear from him for a year or more after that, and I began to worry that maybe he actually had died. At Christmas I sent a card to his girlfriend's address and inquired about him. Four or five days after I mailed the card, I found a message on my answering machine—Le's voice, the extra-large version, in a rising volume: "Hey, Little Brother, I hear you forgot my name!" I played it over several times. I was delighted to hear from him again.

For a while I was seeing Le every few weeks. When he happened to be downtown, he stopped by my apartment, and on weekend afternoons I sometimes made the trip up to Washington Heights, where he was then living with his girlfriend. Most visits we sat around and drank beer and talked and watched TV. Though I didn't meet Le's girlfriend, I met a number of his Lakota friends and relatives who were staying in his apartment. There was a skinny guy with glasses named Will, whom Le introduced as his brother; they looked so unlike that I asked Will if he really was Le's brother, and Will said, "Well, that's what he introduces me as." Another guy, Thomas Yellow Hair, I recognized right away. He was the marcher featured prominently in a big photograph of an American Indian Movement protest march hanging on Le's wall. A guy in a Western shirt and blue jeans who was so thin that his beaded belt seemed to go around him twice Le also introduced as his brother. In this case he really was a brother—Floyd John, born five years and five days after Le. Floyd John said little the first time I saw him. Le told me that Floyd John was a veteran who had served two tours in Vietnam, and that after he had signed up for the second tour, their uncle had given him his own name—Loves War. To make conversation, I asked Floyd John which branch of the service he had been in. Floyd John said, "Army." He said nothing else to me the rest of the afternoon.

I usually showed up with beer. Once I brought a six-pack of a beer called Moosehead, which I happened to have in my refrigerator because a guest had left it. It was not a brand I would have bought myself. When I pulled it out of the shopping bag, the shouts of derision from Le and Floyd John (who had begun talking to me by then) were something to hear. I might as well have pulled an actual moosehead out of the sack. How could I have been so peculiar as to bring this extremely non-Budweiser, off-brand beer? Le and Floyd John never got over it. They still remind me of that Moosehead incident to this day. If this were 150 years ago and I were an eccentric white traveler passing through the Oglala camps, I have no doubt what my Indian name would be.

When other people were around, Le did not tell yarns the way he often did when we were alone. Mostly we all sat in Le's living room and watched old Western movies on cable TV. Generally Le and the others preferred Westerns to anything else that was on. I did too. My own TV didn't get cable, and the other channels in New York didn't seem to care about Westerns at all. When I first moved to the city, I complained about this, and pointlessly told people that the only movie I could ever find on television in New York was Daddy Long Legs, starring Fred Astaire. Most of my favorite movies are Westerns. That sound of Indians screaming and yipping and firing guns as they circle a wagon train was the basic TV background noise of my childhood.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me that those TV and movie war cries were made by actual people with names. It didn't, though, until I watched Westerns in Le's living room. Often an Indian would cross the screen to tomahawk a soldier, or would catch a bullet and fall, and (depending on the movie) Le or Floyd John would say, "That's Burgess Red Cloud."

"No," the other would reply, "that's what's-his-name, Kills Enemy. Lived over there with Mildred? Was it Bob? Bob Kills Enemy?"

"No, not Bob."

"Burgess Red Cloud was the guy in the buffalo-horn hat in How the West Was Won."

"No, man—Burgess wasn't in that movie."

"That guy—there—that's Marvin Thin Elk."

"Yeah, that's Marvin."

"That's Vince LaDuke. He played the Indian guy on Bonanza."

"That guy that just got shot off the roof—I forget his name—wasn't he the guy the Mennonites gave a trailer house to over by Manderson? Died of alcoholism?"

"I don't know. Now, that guy right there, that's Matthew Two Bulls as a younger man. You can't hardly recognize him. He's the greatest Lakota drummer and singer of all time. Of course, they had to get Victor Mature to play Crazy Horse."

"Victor Mature as Crazy Horse! It's insane!"

One time a face appeared and Le said, "There's Lot Cheyenne! Hang on, Lot!" and both he and Floyd John began to laugh. Le said to me, "Lot Cheyenne lives near where we used to, over by Oglala on the reservation, and he told us about this movie, or maybe it was another one—anyway, him and these other Indians was supposed to attack a wagon train, and they all had it in their contracts that they was gonna get twenty-five dollars a day, and if any of them fell off his horse he'd get a bonus of fifty dollars. So Lot and them went riding and hollering up to the wagon train, and a cowboy sticks his head out and fires one shot with a pistol, and immediately all thirty Indians go sprawling off their horses onto the ground!"

A footnote: Thousands of Indians have been in movies. They appeared in some of the first movie footage ever made—starting in 1894 an assistant to Thomas Edison filmed documentary scenes of Indian life and Indian performers in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. The first American hit movie was a ten-minute-long Western called The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903. It had no Indians, but many films that imitated it did, as the Western became the basic American movie genre. Like the Wild West Shows, some movie directors preferred to use "real" Indians. By that they generally meant Plains Indians like Sioux or Cheyenne. Around 1910 a moviemaker named Thomas Ince brought a group of Sioux to his studio, near Los Angeles, and set them up in a village there so as to have a ready supply. To the many categories of Sioux a new one was added: the Inceville Sioux, as these movie-actor Indians were sometimes called.

Westerns tended to use actors who didn't look even remotely Indian in Indian roles, but Indian actors like William Eagleshirt and Chief Thundercloud and Chief Big Tree and Lois Red Elk and Jay Silverheels played those parts too. Generally their names were pretty far down in the credits, their characters called simply "Indian" or "Indian Brave." John Ford, perhaps the greatest director of westerns, often used the dramatic landscape of Arizona's Monument Valley for the setting of his films. Monument Valley is on the Navajo Reservation, and the Indian actors in John Ford westerns are usually Navajo. In one movie they play Comanche, in another Arapahoe, in another Cheyenne; but whenever background dialogue was required, they spoke Navajo. If you look closely at the Navajo in a John Ford western—for example, when they are Apache waiting along a ridgetop for the approach of the unsuspecting cavalry in Fort Apache—sometimes they seem to be trying hard not to smile.

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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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