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

Floyd John had put on some weight since I'd last seen him, and now he walked with a limp and used a cane. He began to tell me how he had been working on a modular home over at the air base by Rapid City, and a wall had fallen on him and crushed his hip. Then he described which new benefits this entitled him to. The paperwork of it, between agencies of the state and the federal government and the tribe, was so complicated that I couldn't have kept up if he'd explained it to me five times. Le asked him if he had any red beans with hot sauce we could eat, and Floyd John said he had no food in the house. He wasn't due to pick up his commodities for a couple of days. He said that his girlfriend, Wanda, who worked for the tribal police, was due to get paid that afternoon. He climbed with difficulty into the back seat, and we roared and crawfished our way back to the paved road.

First we stopped at the Oglala post office, so that Le and Floyd John could check their mail. The postmaster usually has all the mail sorted and in the boxes by 10:30, a time known thereabouts as "mail": "I'll see you tomorrow morning after mail." Not many on the reservation get their mail brought to where they live; most people have to go in and pick it up, either from a post-office box or by asking at the window for general delivery. In the later years of Red Cloud's life his two-mile trip to the post office and back was the big event of his day. At 10:45 in the morning the rutted lot by the Oglala post office was full of idling cars, some of them making plenty of noise and smoke. Le and Floyd John got out and exchanged a few words with the woman in the station wagon next to us. Then they went into the building and came out again in a second, disappointed and blue. "Nothing," Le said. "A lot of days there's nothing. I usually check it anyway. You never know. A few weeks ago I got a letter from the attorney general of New York, saying that he wasn't gonna come after me and make me go to jail as long as I never set foot in New York State again. It was a pretty friendly letter, all in all."

Like many of the other cars, we then pulled out of the post-office lot and headed for the village of Pine Ridge, fifteen miles away. Pine Ridge is the largest town on the reservation. The center of tribal government is there, and the reservation headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Services hospital. Many days on the reservation include a trip to Pine Ridge. The road from Oglala follows the valley of White Clay Creek much of the way. For some distance the creek bottom and a reservoir are on one side, and then the creek crosses to the other. To the north and south are uplands leading to low, chalk-colored buttes that rise from the prairie like molars from a gumline. Groups of the yellow pines that give Pine Ridge its name fit themselves into the upland creases and folds. On unsettled days cumulus clouds pile up for miles above. We passed a tepee made of white canvas, a tepee made of weathered white plyboard, a Quonset hut, a Seventh-day Adventist church. Trailer homes and one-story houses appeared here and there, mostly set far apart. Wherever their driveways met the road, deltas of muddy tire tracks spread across the pavement.

A rise brought us in view of the Pine Ridge water towers (most towns on the reservation have a water tower fixing them in place, but Pine Ridge has four), and the rise after that showed a slow line of cars below us moving toward the traffic light at the intersection of Highways 18 and 407, in downtown Pine Ridge. The intersection has had a traffic light for only five years or so. Before, it was a four-way stop. People on the reservation called it "the four-way," and many still call it that today. The four-way is the main crossroads of the Oglala nation. On one corner is a wooden bench whose back is a square concrete planter containing weeds and a small pine tree. A large concrete pot full of earth nearby was perhaps once intended to grow flowers. People sit on the bench and cross their knees and talk for hours, just as old men used to do years ago, long before the bench and the flowerpot, telling about the time Queen Victoria kissed them when they were young children in England with Buffalo Bill. "Bullshit Corner" is this corner's unofficial name. On another corner is the Pine Ridge post office, which shares a large brick building with an auditorium called Billy Mills Hall, where most of the important indoor community gatherings are held. On another corner is a two-story brick building containing tribal offices and the offices of the Oglala Department of Public Safety—the tribal police. Floyd John got out and went to look for Wanda there. On another corner is a combination convenience store and gas station that then was called Big Bat's Conoco and now is called Big Bat's Texaco. Le and I parked and went in.

In Pine Ridge, Big Bat's is the place you go. If you're just passing through or visiting, you go to Big Bat's because it's one of the few places on the reservation that look like what you're used to in paved America. Big Bat's has a big, highway-visible red-and-white sign, and rows of pumps dispensing gasoline and diesel fuel, and full-color cardboard advertisements affixed above the pumps, and country music playing from speakers in the canopies overhead; inside, it has the usual brightly lit shelves of products whose empty packages will end up on the floor of your car, and freezers and beverage coolers set into the wall, and a deli counter highlighted in blue neon and staffed by aproned young people who use disposable clear-plastic gloves to put cold cuts on your six-inch or twelve-inch submarine sandwich, and video games, and TV monitors just below ceiling level showing CNN or country-music videos, and plastic tables and window booths where you can sit and eat or just sit, and a row of pay telephones. If you live on the reservation, if you're not just passing through, you go to Big Bat's because that's where everybody goes.

Big Bat's is always busy. No other small-town place I know of has such a plentiful and varied clientele. There are Indians, of course, of all blood degrees, full-blood as well as almost blond. Employees of the tribe and of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal politicos come in for breakfast and for coffee afterward, prolonging conversations that are elliptical and hard to eavesdrop on. Drunks who have been up all night nurse cups of coffee they have bought with change, and use the john. There are truck drivers running overweight and avoiding the weigh stations on the main roads, Oglala teen-agers in groups of four or five wearing the colors of Denver street gangs, Methodist ministers on their way to local volunteer jobs, college professors leading tours of historical sites, TV crews shooting documentary footage, Mormon missionary ladies in polyester raincoats with scarves tied around their heads. In the summer tourists multiply—mid-Americans wearing clothes so casual they might as well be pajamas and toting large video cameras, and fiftyish English couples having those bitter, silent arguments that travelers have, and long-haired New Age people smelling of patchouli oil, and Australian guys with leather Aussie hats and lissome girlfriends, and college kids from Massachusetts singing in a fake-corny way songs they just heard on the radio in their van, and black families in bright sportswear, and strangely dressed people speaking Hungarian, and ash-blonde German women backpackers in their early twenties effortlessly deflecting the attentions of various guys trying to talk to them, and Japanese people by the occasional busload, and once in a while a celebrity with an entourage. Observers who noted about a hundred years ago the disappearance of the American frontier have turned out to be wrong: America will always have its frontier places, and they will always look like Big Bat's.

Le and I each got a twelve-inch club combo sandwich with everything, including jalapeños, and a medium soda. Total cost: $10.62. The sandwiches lasted all day, because half was enough to fill us up, and we saved the rest for later. We sat at a table and ate, and Floyd John and Wanda joined us. Wanda was a short, unsmiling woman with long hair parted in the middle. She wore a heavy shirt unbuttoned like a jacket over a dark pullover and blue jeans. Her wary eyes took me in at a glance when Floyd John introduced us. He said she was the only person on the reservation who knew how to run the computer system for the police department. Wanda accepted this without comment; as we talked, she mostly listened, adding only a remark or two in a small, clear voice quieter than a whisper.

Le turned to three guys seated at a table next to ours and began talking to them in Sioux. He stopped for a moment to introduce me to one of them, who he said was his cousin, but I didn't catch the name. Floyd John joined the discussion, which went back and forth and seemed to be verging on an argument. After the three guys had left, I asked Le what it had been about. "White guys dancing," he said. "My cousin was saying that there was too many white guys dancing at the sun dances on the reservation last summer. Him and his friends think letting white guys or any non-Indians in ruins the ceremonies. They don't think outsiders should be allowed even as helpers or water carriers. They say that you let white guys buy the food and the firewood, the way some sun dances do, and then you've gotta let 'em dance, and then pretty soon people who don't know anything are running the whole ceremony. And he's right that there was hundreds of white guys goin' to the sun dances last summer. But I say if a person's heart is good, let him participate in a respectful way. There's non-Indian people that love the sun dance and are really sincere. You just have to be sure that you have elders and medicine men who run the ceremony as it's supposed to be."

A hundred years ago Oglala who continued to practice their traditional ceremonies despite the government's ban did so in secret, for fear that white people would find out and shut them down; today the fear is that white people will find out and want to join.

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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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