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

The first afternoon I spent on the reservation can stand for many: we went to Big Bat's, gassed up, got supplies, and drove around. That day Le and Floyd John wanted to show me around the reservation, which meant a lot of driving, but being on the reservation almost always does. Two thirty-two-mile round trips between Oglala and Pine Ridge in a day are not uncommon. Then there are the longer drives, up to Rapid City to see doctors or relatives; to Chadron, Nebraska, to take a television to a repair shop; to Hot Springs, South Dakota, to drop Floyd John off at the veterans hospital; to see a medicine man who lives miles off the paved road. It seemed as if every time I looked at the gas gauge, it was falling back to empty, and every time I checked the odometer, I had added another 300 miles. The Oglala may have lost the prairie vastnesses they used to hunt, but they are still obliged to roam. The supplies we picked up beforehand were usually beer. Afternoons almost always began with a trip to Whiteclay, a mile and three quarters from the town of Pine Ridge. Selling alcohol is illegal on the reservation but legal in Nebraska.

The reservation landscape is dense with stories. As we drove around, Le told me some of them, and Floyd John occasionally joined in. In the valley of the White River northwest of Oglala, on paved roads and gravel roads near where they grew up, Le said, "I was riding over this bridge one night with the He Crow boys when we saw a ghost. We heard the hoofs of a horse climbing out of the creek bottom, and then the sound came onto the road right in front of us, and there wasn't nothin' there. Then just for a second we saw the face and body of this Indian rider. The ghost said, 'Hey'—and man, did we go gallopin' hell for leather out of there! We didn't stop till we reached the ridgetop. I never laughed so hard.

"That flat ground above the creek over there is where Francis Slow Bear died. He was playin' cards one night at his brother's cabin, back in the hills, and he decided to walk home, and everybody told him to stay till morning, but he went anyway. It was late November, and a blizzard hit. A cowboy found him the next morning, froze to death just above his cabin. He had got lost in the blizzard, probably snow-blind. His tracks showed he had walked in circles before he died.

"The people who lived in that house raised a deer. It grew up big and used to run with their dogs and chase cars. One day it heard the call of the wild and disappeared.... My aunt Rose White Magpie lives back there. There's a black pickup truck in her yard that was in the movie Thunderheart. ... Just the other side of the hill is where somebody shot down the FBI helicopter that was lookin' for fugitives after the FBI guys was killed near Oglala back in 1975.... The guy in that house sent away to the National Enquirer for a white woman, and he got one, too." (Floyd John: "He didn't send away. He just mentioned in a story they did about Pine Ridge that he was lookin' for one, and a woman over in Europe somewhere read it and came here and met him and married him.").... "That's where Uncle John Bank lived. He always drank Four Roses whiskey.... That was Spencer Crow's place. Spencer was our fat guy. Every town on the rez has its fat guy, and he was Oglala's. He weighed four hundred and seventy pounds.

"That's where Lyman Red Cloud lives, old Chief Red Cloud's great-grandson. That's where the Young Man Afraid of His Horses family lives.... Vera Good Lance's ... My sister Aurelia's ... The sun-dance grounds ... Somebody dumped three fifty-five-gallon barrels of toxic waste in that schoolyard a few weeks ago.... That's Tobacco Road, where the Tobaccos lived.... "

After a stretch of silence Le added, "But August, 1977, was the really sad time on the reservation. They ran out of black crepe in all the stores around here, and all the women on the reservation were cryin'."

"What happened in August, 1977?" I asked.

"What happened? Elvis died!"

One morning when I had nothing else planned, I walked around the town of Whiteclay. Whiteclay, site of so many fistfights, and of shootings and beatings and stabbings. Next-to-last stop of so many cars whose final stop was a crash. Junkyard, dusty setting for sprawled bodies, vortex consuming the Oglala Sioux. Sad name to be coupled with the pretty name of Nebraska.

A man who worked for years as a bartender at the Jumping Eagle Bar, in Whiteclay, once spread his ten fingers before me and showed me the many scars on his hands from fistfights he'd been in there. He said he often broke up fights with a pump handle, and kept a loaded shotgun hanging behind the bar. So many mournful Oglala stories have Whiteclay at their end. When I was a kid, I liked movies about Wild West towns, those saloon-filled places where a cowboy riding in on Main Street always heard raucous laughter, and a gunshot or two, and glass breaking, and the tinkling of a barroom piano. Whiteclay is a Wild West town survived into the present which shows how uncongenial such a place would really be. In Whiteclay decades of barroom violence have smashed all the saloon windows and mirrors and broken all the stools over people's heads, and now no bars remain. Elsewhere Indian bars bolt stools and other furniture to the floor and serve drinks only in flimsy plastic cups that can't be used as weapons. Whiteclay has gone even further: there are abandoned houses and grain silos where you can drink protected somewhat from the weather, but the town's liquor sales are now all carry-out. Today no commercial establishment in Whiteclay allows its customers to drink indoors.

Whiteclay is two rows of stores and houses that line its main street, Nebraska Highway 87, for about a block and a half. The side streets are all unpaved. Some of the buildings are of wood, with porch roofs extending over the dirt sidewalk and high false fronts like town buildings in western movies. Others are made of cinder blocks, with thick windows of opaque glass bricks or small, slitlike window openings with bars and steel mesh imprisoning red-neon Budweiser signs. About two dozen people live in Whiteclay. The town has four stores that sell alcohol—beer and malt liquor only. It also has a Napa auto-parts store (now closed), a Big A auto-parts store (also closed), a car-repair shop that sells auto parts, and a convenience store that sells some auto parts. There's a post office, a secondhand store, two grocery stores, and a pawnshop. Some of the buildings on the main street are boarded shut. A wreckage of beer cans and bottles and other miscellany—a broken shopping cart, a baby's shoe—accumulates in drifts here and there.

Even at 9:30 in the morning Whiteclay effervesces and bubbles as if acid were eating it away. On this particular Saturday there were loud cars cruising slowly, laughter, shouts. A group of tall men drinking twenty-four-ounce beers stood by the side door of the Jumping Eagle Inn, which is not an inn but a package store. Two gray-faced women in heavy plaid flannel shirts conferred by the side of the road and then smiled together and set out at a walk. Because Whiteclay is within walking distance of the reservation, the town usually has a lot of pedestrians. When the crowds get too big or unruly, the Nebraska Highway Patrol comes and makes everybody who's on foot walk back across the Pine Ridge border. Groups of evictees stagger along the highway out of town; when they see the Nebraska patrolman leave, they come back. Nebraska police officers made fifty-six alcohol-related arrests in Whiteclay in 1997. Whiteclay businesses paid almost $88,000 in Nebraska state liquor taxes in 1997, and another $152,000 in state sales taxes, and most of their customers came from the reservation. But Pine Ridge residents jailed in Nebraska can't really get treatment at state-subsidized alcohol-treatment centers. Those facilities are intended only for Nebraska residents.

Seen from the air Whiteclay would look like a small appendage to a multi-acre expanse of junk cars. The junkyard, on the prairie behind the Arrowhead Inn, is enclosed by a rambling fence made of corrugated iron alternating with chain-link mesh. The fence is permeable, and the cars provide some of the customers of the Arrowhead Inn with places to sit as they drink. Women too preoccupied with drinking to be called prostitutes accompany men into the junkyard in exchange for a car radio or a bottle of wine. Large auto junkyards like this one are a common feature of Western towns that sell alcohol on the borders of Indian reservations.

Presented by

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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