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
PowWow

Every summer in early August, Pine Ridge opens out like a road map unfolding, as people begin to arrive for the big tribal powwow. First you see one motor home with an unfamiliar license plate, then you see three, then ten. They have lawn chairs strapped to the back or the roof, and they're emblazoned with brand names—Tioga or Itasca or HitchHiker or Wanderer. Suddenly the village seems enlarged—a spread-out encampment rather than a small town. Here and there cars are pulled off the pavement alongside the road, and people in shorts, carrying cameras or binoculars, are stepping through the sagebrush in the fields. A pale bunch of teenagers sit on the curb outside Big Bat's licking ice-cream cones, making a row of white knees. At the cement picnic tables west of town a family of seven—two white-haired oldsters, blond dad, blonde mom, and three blond children—carefully lay out seven places for a picnic lunch. Then they sit, hold hands, and bow their heads in prayer; their extra-long motor home has Utah plates.

Some early arrivals pitch tents and set up campsites among the trees just west of the powwow grounds. There are two-man and four-man high-tech nylon tents in luminous shades, and old-fashioned canvas tents, and several white-canvas tepees with pennants of colored cloth hanging from the ends of the tepee poles. People indicate their campsite boundaries with low fences made of wooden stakes connected by twine or by strips of yellow-plastic tape bearing the words POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. Next to many tents are stacks of freshly split firewood. The tent neighborhood grows, and soon acquires at least two sketchy streets with many vehicles parked along them here and there. One morning the big tractor-trailer trucks begin to arrive—first the stock trucks, with the steers and bucking horses and bulls for the powwow rodeo, and then the long caravan of carnival attractions and rides.

The sound of foreign languages on the streets of Pine Ridge during powwow time raises this place to a category of its own among mid-American towns. It reminds you that Pine Ridge village is also the capital of a nation, one that receives emissaries from far away. The fascination that many German people, for example, have with the Oglala had seemed merely odd to me until I saw Germans and other foreigners at the powwow. They were excited, all eyes and ears and electronic gadgetry, and they made what surrounded them seem exciting. I reflected that the moment in history when white people and Native Americans first discovered each other was so momentous and fateful and even thrilling for each culture that some of us feel compelled to re-enact it again and again. The powwow's mood of curiosity about the Other wasn't limited to the visitors' side. One evening during powwow week I went for a walk along a dirt road in an out-of-the-way part of the village, and as I came down into a little hollow, I met five or six Oglala boys sitting on bicycles. By accident or on purpose they were in a line across the road, blocking it so that I had to stop. Along the road on both sides midsummer foliage screened out all other sights and sounds; we could have been on any creek-bottom road on the Plains. The boys looked at me with unblinking dark eyes. Then the biggest boy, straddling his bicycle and bumping it back and forth between his knees, said to me, "Where did you come from—Europe?"

By Wednesday afternoon of powwow week Pine Ridge was jumping. The rodeo was going on—the "Old Man Events," for cowboys forty-five and older—and the powwow itself would begin that evening. Wherever you looked, near or in the distance, you saw people, and yet somehow at no single place did they constitute a crowd. Many had dressed up for the day's events; even more had not. For a while I just went around checking out what people wore. A group of Oglala veterans who would march in the powwow's grand-entry parade stood talking next to an olive-drab van with white lettering on its sides listing the names of battles in Vietnam. They had on berets, service patches, medals, and feathers; one guy was in crisp jungle-camouflage fatigues, his trousers bloused below the knee into jungle boots of olive nylon and shiny black leather. On his head he wore a black baseball cap with a single eagle feather on a leather thong hanging down behind. As I looked at him, he nodded back at me and asked if I was a veteran. One of his companions had a clipboard with a list of names; they needed more guys to march in the parade. I said no, I wasn't, and I half slunk away.

I saw a young woman in dark-purple jeans, a silky black blouse, sunglasses, and silver earrings in the shape of baying coyotes, her straight black hair hanging well below her waist and held by a single tie between her shoulder blades; a young man all in denim, from his jeans to his sleeveless vest to his oversize Superfly-style denim cap, on which was pinned a large button that read I LIKE A GOOD BEER BUZZ IN THE MORNING; limping Indian rodeo riders with their identifying numbers still attached to their backs, and orthopedic bandages peeking out from their shirts at the wrist or wrapped around the outside of their blue jeans at the knee; a slim young man in a black T-shirt with white lettering that said MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS; old Indian men in light-colored Western dress shirts with dark string ties, their hair slicked back; old Indian women in flouncy, many-colored Spanish-style skirts with their hair piled up high and held by combs; little girls in buckskin dresses decorated with elk's teeth; a big, long-haired man wearing a blue-and-white head rag, narrow, reptilian sunglasses, a loud Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned over his stomach, and a heavy chrome-silver watch chain looped from his belt to his right front jeans pocket; and a curly-haired man with a drink-ravaged face, a beaded belt that said BULL PLUME, a yellow-straw cowboy hat, pegged jeans, and pointy-toed cowboy boots cut off below the ankles, so that they resembled slippers with high heels. Of course, most people had on the usual shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers combination of the summer fairgoer, which made the exotic getups look even better.

All the activity—the rodeo, the vehicles and horses, the thousands of strolling feet—stirred up a great dust that rose above the village and hung high in the air. Late in the day, as the sun declined, it illuminated the dust and gave the sky a reddish tinge. Pinkish-red light glowed on the western sides of the Pine Ridge water towers. The carnival rides began, and neon tubes in soft shades lit up on the whirling armatures of the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. The carnival's three electric generators roared. Speakers on the façades of the rides played loud rock-and-roll music, and as I stood at a point with speakers on one side and generators on the other, I decided there wasn't much difference between the two sounds.

I went into the powwow grounds, passing through a gate in the chain-link fence that surrounded it. Admission was free. At the center of the grounds, and at the center of the powwow, is an open space about forty steps across, where the dancing competitions and other ceremonies and contests are held. A circular structure, poles supporting a roof, encloses this space. Spectators gather under the structure as if at a theater-in-the-round. Some stand or sit on the ground, but most sit on folding lawn chairs they have brought. The best way to observe a powwow is from your own lawn chair, and you may feel a bit unmoored and not quite present if you haven't got one. Outside the ring of spectators is a kind of circular promenade lined with booths selling Indian tacos and crafts and lemonade. Many powwow-goers occupy this zone, walking round and round.

I did not know for sure what was going on. No program notes had been provided; as at most powwows, events seemed to proceed by spontaneity, with a tacit understanding among the main people involved. A tribal official was talking at great length on the loudspeaker, allowing himself many weighty pauses. The spectators remained attentive to the still-empty powwow circle, as if expecting that at any minute something would materialize there. After a while the drum groups, from Pine Ridge and other reservations, began to arrive. A group of men in matching ribbon shirts carried a flat drum the size of a truck wheel to a place near the announcer's booth, and a minute later they had set it up and had started to drum and sing.

The men sat on metal folding chairs in a circle around the drum, hitting it hard with leather-wrapped drumsticks and singing a traditional song in loud, high-pitched unison, above which a single higher voice occasionally rose. Full dark had fallen by now, and the overhead lights had come on, but many corners of the powwow grounds were half lit or in shadow. Shadows made it hard to see all the faces of the singers. In a circle around them intent white people watched and listened, some holding microphones to catch the sound. The observers' faces were wide-eyed, but the singers, as they leaned into the light and back out of it, had their eyes screwed shut and their mouths wide open in song. Some of the singers held a hand to one ear to plug it, the way musicians in recording studios do. They sang at full voice, from deep inside themselves, all of them hitting each note and word with vehemence and at exactly the same time. The singing, a survival from hundreds of years ago, filled the arena and echoed to the prairie sky.

Elaborately feathered dancers entered the powwow circle for the men's Traditional Dance competition. The crowd of spectators standing behind the rows of lawn chairs grew, and those in back couldn't really see. The view from there reminded me of a crowded exhibition of famous paintings I went to once in a museum in New York City: occasionally a gap in the throng would occur, and through it would come a dazzling glimpse of color and form; then the ranks would close and all Icould see was the backs of people's heads again. At a less crowded spot I worked my way to the front. The dancers were all going counterclockwise, each dancing as if alone, stepping to the drum music, some crouching down low. All of them had numbers pinned on like those worn by rodeo riders or distance racers; the powwow judges would award cash and other prizes to the best dancers in each category and subcategory. A dancer came right by me. He was a big man, and in his costume—turkey-feather bustle three feet across, feathered anklets, feathered gauntlets, beaded headband, tall roach made of a porcupine tail atop his head—he seemed magnified in every dimension, almost a spirit-being. Then I saw the wristwatch he had on beneath the gauntlet, and the sweat on his temple, and the concentration in his eyes.

Now I wanted to be someplace quiet and empty. I maneuvered through the crowd and went past the taco and lemonade stands, out the gate in the chain-link fence, through the field full of parked cars. The carnival had shut down, and the rock-and-roll no longer played, and only one generator still purred. I walked to downtown Pine Ridge, past the tribal building, up the hill to the old hospital, and onto the open field with a jogging track that some people call the Path the Doctors Walk On. I went half a lap around and sat down. The grass was damp; dew had begun to fall. I could hear the amplified voice of the announcer at the powwow. Then his voice stopped, and the only sound was the singing and drumming. It came through the darkness high and strong and wild, as if blown on the wind. It could have been ten voices singing or it could have been a thousand. At moments it sounded like other night noises, coyotes or mosquitoes, or like a sound the land itself might make. I imagined what hearing this would have done to me if I were a young man from Bern, Switzerland (say), traveling the prairie wilderness for the first time in 1843. I knew it would have scared and thrilled me to within an inch of my life.

SuAnne

One afternoon Le and I were driving on Highway 18 in Pine Ridge when I noticed a single-story factory-style building across a weedy field. It had some lettering and a mural of a landscape on the front. A sign by the highway said it was the SuAnne Big Crow Health and Recreation Center, and below that were the words HAPPYTOWN, USA. I asked Le if he knew who SuAnne Big Crow was. He said, "She was a basketball star for Pine Ridge High School who helped 'em win the state championship and died in a car wreck a few years back. It was when I was living in New York, though, so that's about all I know."

A day or two later I drove up to the building and parked in the dirt parking lot out front. Up close, I could see that the mural painted on the building's wall of corrugated steel depicted Sioux country from the Black Hills to the prairie and Pine Ridge. The tops of the letters of SUANNE in the center's name were lost in the white clouds over the Hills. A chunk of cinder block propped open the green-steel front door. I went in. First to greet me was the smell of hamburgers frying. Over the many times I would return, that frying smell would always be there. I would bring it away with me in my clothes and even in the pages of my notebooks, and when I happened to meet it in other places, I would always think of the SuAnne Big Crow Center. I never much liked hamburgers or their smell before, but now it is a happy and inspiring aroma in my mind.

The entry hall had fluorescent lights above and a banner that said WELCOME TO HAPPYTOWN, USA. The images in the hall were a temporarily confusing combination of Oglala pride and 1950s-revival style. The words for "Boys" and "Girls" on the restroom doors on my left were in Sioux. On a table in a corner was a highly polished pair of brown-and-white saddle shoes. Above them hung the flag of the Oglala nation, and next to the flag was a large framed portrait of a young Elvis Presley—a more Indian-looking Elvis, it seemed to me, with a darker complexion and blacker, straighter hair. Framed photographs of a teenage girl smiling in a basketball warm-up jacket, making a shot in a basketball game, looking serious in a formal dress next to a boy in a tuxedo, added the aura of a shrine.

The hall led on the left to a café in a big room with a lunch counter and tables and booths. The back end of a 1955 Packard affixed to one wall held potato and macaroni salads in its open trunk. A few late lunch customers were eating burgers in the booths or helping themselves to salad. A loud jukebox played fifties and sixties songs. Old-time Pepsi memorabilia decorated the walls, along with black-and-white photo portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and several more portraits of Elvis. Kids of junior high age and younger were hanging out—eating ice-cream cones, playing video games.

At the end of the hallway on the right was a smaller room, with glass trophy cases along the walls. The trophies were all from the athletic career of SuAnne Big Crow. I looked at the trophies, I watched a short video playing on a VCR in the room, I read some framed news stories about SuAnne Big Crow, and a sense of discovery came over me. Here was a hero—not a folk hero, a sports hero, a tribal hero, or an American hero but a combination of all these. I had thought that Oglala heroes existed mostly in the past. But a true Oglala hero appeared in the late 1980s, in suffering Pine Ridge, right under everyone's nose, while the rest of the world was looking the other way: SuAnne Big Crow.

Imagine that when you were a little kid you thought, as kids often do, that your father was the strongest man in the world; but when you got older, you discovered that your father actually was the world's strongest man, and you watched him win the gold medal in weight lifting in the Olympics. Or imagine that an older kid you looked up to when you were in elementary school, instead of fading in luster in the usual way as time went on, not only fulfilled every expectation you had for him but surpassed these with glorious public feats you never dreamed of. Imagine that the hopeful, innocent, unbounded fantasy you had about someone you really admired when you were a child did not meet the usual puncturing and deflation but simply continued to grow; that you kept it with the same innocence and hope, finding more justification for it every day; that the person you admired, someone as familiar to you as yourself and yet at the same time set apart, took the hope invested in her onward into the larger world without a hitch, increasing her fame and achievements and admirers geographically along the way. And imagine that against odds upon odds she won, won at everything important she tried, won so blithely as to hardly show her strength; and that she carried the hope invested in her unstoppably aloft, defying the death and fear in the world. And imagine that as she did this she somehow carried you with her, lifted you, too, above the fear and the death, and gave you and all the people around you someone to be—a self, a freedom, a name. Warfield Moose Sr., SuAnne's teacher of Lakota studies at Pine Ridge High School, said of her, "She showed us a way to live on the earth." Such was SuAnne's stature and generosity that she was able to do that not only for her Oglala people but for those who knew her and knew of her in the state of South Dakota and beyond.

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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