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

SuAnne Marie Big Crow was born on March 15, 1974, at Pine Ridge Hospital—the brick building, now no longer a hospital, just uphill from the four-way intersection in town. Her mother, Leatrice Big Crow, known as Chick, was twenty-five years old. Chick had two other daughters: Cecelia, called Cee Cee, who was three, and Frances, called Pigeon, who was five. Chick had been born a Big Crow, and grew up in her Grandmother Big Crow's house in Wolf Creek, a little community about five miles east of Pine Ridge. Chick had a round, pretty face, dark eyes, a determined chin, and wiry reddish-brown hair. Her figure was big-shouldered and trim; she had been a good athlete as a girl. Now she worked as an administrative assistant for the tribal planning office, and she was raising her daughters with the help of her sisters and other kin. People knew that Everett "Gabby" Brewer was the father of the two older girls, but Chick would never say who SuAnne's father was. If asked, Chick always said she didn't want to talk about it. When SuAnne got old enough to wonder, people sometimes told her that her father was Elvis. And sometimes, when SuAnne wore her hair a certain way with a curl in front, you would have to admit that a resemblance was there.

SuAnne's birth came at a dark time on the reservation. The ongoing battle between supporters and opponents of the tribal president Dick Wilson's government showed no signs of letup, with violence so pervasive and unpredictable that many people were afraid to leave their homes. Wilson's people, sometimes called goons, were on one side, and supporters of the American Indian Movement on the other. Just the month before, a nine-year-old boy named Harold Weasel Bear had been shot and seriously wounded as he sat in his father's pickup in Whiteclay; his father was a Wilson man. The AIM leader, Russell Means, had campaigned against Wilson for the presidency that winter, and had gotten more votes than Wilson in the primary. In the runoff election, however, Wilson won, by about 200 votes out of the more than 3,000 cast. Means had promised to "destroy" the existing system of tribal government if he won, and many people were glad he wouldn't get a chance. He accused Wilson of stealing the election, and the federal Civil Rights Commission later agreed, saying that almost a third of the votes cast seemed to be improper and that the election was "permeated with fraud."

The beatings and stompings and shootings and bombings on the reservation would continue until two FBI agents investigating a reservation murder were killed the following year, after which a general exhaustion plus the presence of hundreds of FBI investigators brought the level of violence down. In those days if you were on the Pine Ridge Reservation, you picked a side, and Chick Big Crow was for Dick Wilson all the way. She still calls Dick Wilson one of the greatest leaders the tribe ever had. Distinctions between those with anti- and pro-Dick Wilson loyalties, between AIM and goon, mean less today than they did then. Before SuAnne's sixteenth birthday she would have a lot to do with helping those divisions to heal.

As a Big Crow, SuAnne belonged to a tiospaye—the Lakota word for an extended family group—that's one of the largest on Pine Ridge. Chick says that her branch of the family descends from Big Crows of the Sans Arc Lakota, a tribe much smaller than the Oglala, who lived on the plains to the north and west. A medicine man has told her that among the Sans Arc long ago there was a chief named Big Crow who was greater than any chief we know of. This chief was also so wise that he never put himself forward and never identified himself to the whites so that they could single him out as chief; he knew the jealousy and division this would cause. For years the chief led the Sans Arc in war and peace, carefully avoiding all notoriety as the tribe prospered and grew strong. After he died, the tribe began to quarrel internally and dwindled away. The memory of this chief vanished except among a few, according to the medicine man. After SuAnne died, the medicine man told Chick that she had been the spirit of this great leader come back to reunite the people.

SuAnne grew up with her sisters in her mother's three-bedroom house in Pine Ridge. Even today people talk about what a strict mother Chick Big Crow was. Her daughters always had to be in the house or the yard by the time the streetlights came on. The only after-school activities she let them take part in were the structured and chaperoned kind; unsupervised wanderings and (later) cruising around in cars were out. In an interview when she was a teenager, SuAnne said that she and her sisters had to come up with their own fun, because their mother wouldn't let them socialize outside of school.

Chick Big Crow was (and is) strongly anti-drug and -alcohol. On the reservation Chick has belonged for many years to the small but adamant minority that takes that stance. When SuAnne was nine years old, she was staying with her godmother on New Year's Eve when the woman's teenage son came home drunk and shot himself in the chest. The woman was too distraught to do anything, so SuAnne called the ambulance and the police and cared for her until the grown-ups arrived. Perhaps because of this incident, SuAnne became as opposed to drugs and alcohol as her mother was. She gave talks on the subject to school and youth groups, made a video urging her message in a stern and wooden tone, and as a high-schooler traveled to distant cities for conventions of like-minded teens. I once asked Rol Bradford, a former Pine Ridge teacher and coach who is also a friend of her family, whether SuAnne's public advocacy on this issue wasn't risky, given the prominence of alcohol in the life of the reservation. "You have to understand," Rol Bradford said, "SuAnne didn't respond to peer pressure, SuAnne was peer pressure. She was the backbone of any group she was in, and she was way wiser than her years. By coming out against drinking, I know she flat-out saved a lot of kids' lives. In fact, she even had an effect on me. It dawned on me that if a sixteen-year-old girl could have the guts to say these things, then maybe us adults should pay attention too. I haven't had a drink since the day she died."

As strongly as Chick forbade certain activities, she encouraged the girls in sports. At one time or another they did them all—cross-country running and track, volleyball, cheerleading, softball, basketball. Some of the teams were at school and others were sponsored by organizations in town. In the West girls' basketball is a bigger deal than it is elsewhere. High school girls' basketball games in states like South Dakota and Montana draw full-house crowds, and newspapers and college recruiters give nearly the same attention to star players who are girls as to those who are boys. There were many good players on the girls' teams at Pine Ridge High School and at the parochial Red Cloud School when SuAnne was little. SuAnne idolized a star for the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes named Lolly Steele, who set many records at the school. On a national level SuAnne's hero was Earvin "Magic" Johnson, of the Los Angeles Lakers pro team. Women's professional basketball did not exist in those years, but men's pro games were reaching a level of popularity to challenge baseball and football. SuAnne had big posters of Magic Johnson on her bedroom walls.

She spent endless hours practicing basketball. When she was in the fifth grade, she heard somewhere that to improve your dribbling you should bounce a basketball a thousand times a day with each hand. She performed this daily exercise faithfully on the cement floor of the patio; her mother and sisters got tired of the sound. For variety she would shoot layups against the gutter and the drainpipe, until they came loose from the house and had to be repaired. As far as anyone knew, no girl in an official game had ever dunked a basketball—that is, had leaped as high as the rim and stuffed the ball through the hoop from above—and SuAnne wanted to be the first in history to do it. To get the feel, she persuaded a younger boy cousin to kneel on all fours under the basket. With a running start, and a leap using the boy's back as a springboard, she could dunk the ball.

Charles Zimiga, who would coach SuAnne in basketball during her high school years, remembers the first time he saw her. He was on the cross-country track on the old golf course, coaching the high school boys' cross-country team (a team that later won the state championship), when SuAnne came running by. She was in seventh grade at the time. She practiced cross-country every fall, and ran in amateur meets, and sometimes placed high enough to be invited to tournaments in Boston and California. "The fluidness of her running amazed me, and the strength she had," Zimiga said. "I stood watching her, and she stopped right in front of me—I'm a high school coach, remember, and she's just a young little girl—and she said, 'What're you lookin' at?' I said, 'A runner.' She would've been a top cross-country runner, but in high school it never did work out, because the season conflicted with basketball. I had heard about her before, but that day on the golf course was the first time I really noticed her."

By the time SuAnne was in eighth grade, she had grown to five feet five inches ("But she played six foot," Zimiga says); she was long-limbed, well-muscled, and quick. She had high cheekbones, a prominent, arched upper lip that lined up with the basket when she aimed the ball, and short hair that she wore in no particular style. She could have played every game for the varsity when she was in eighth grade, but Coach Zimiga, who took over girls' varsity basketball that year, wanted to keep peace among older players who had waited for their chance to be on the team. He kept SuAnne on the junior varsity during the regular season. The varsity team had a good year, and when it advanced to the district playoffs, Zimiga brought SuAnne up from the JV for the playoff games. She tended to get into foul trouble; the referees rule strictly in tournament games, and SuAnne was used to a more headlong style of play. She and her cousin Doni De Cory, a five-foot-ten-inch junior, combined for many long-break baskets, with Doni throwing downcourt passes to SuAnne on the scoring end. In the district playoff against the team from Red Cloud, SuAnne scored thirty-one points. In the regional playoff game Pine Ridge beat a good Todd County team, but in the state tournament they lost all three games and finished eighth.

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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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