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
This article is about the Oglaga Sioux Indians who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States. When I describe this subject to non-Indians, they often reply that it sounds bleak. "Bleak" is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves. Many thousands of people—not just Americans but German and French and English people, and more—visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness. The Indians understand that the visitors are there out of curiosity and out of an admiration which sometimes reaches such a point that the visitors even wish they could be Indians too. I am a middle-aged non-Indian who wears his hair in a thinning ponytail copied originally from the traditional-style long hair of the leaders of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, because I thought it looked cool. When I'm driving across a field near the town of Oglala, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I see my friend Floyd John walking across it the other way, I stop, and he comes over to the car and leans in the window and smiles a big-tooth grin and says, "How ya' doin', wannabe?"
I kind of resent the term "wannabe" (what's wrong with wanting to be something, anyway?), but in my case there's some truth to it. I don't want to participate in traditional Indian religious ceremonies—dance in a sun dance or pray in a sweat lodge or go on a vision quest with the help of a medicine man. The power of these ceremonies has an appeal, but I'm content with what little religion I already have. I think Indians dress better than anyone, but I don't want to imitate more than a detail or two; I prefer my clothes humdrum and inconspicuous, and a cowboy hat just doesn't work for me. I don't want to collect Indian art, though pots and beadwork and blankets made by Indians remain the most beautiful art objects in the American West, in my opinion. I don't want to be adopted into a tribe, be wrapped in a star quilt and given a new name, honor though that would be. I don't want to stand in the dimness under the shelter at the powwow grounds in the group around the circle of men beating the drums and singing ancient songs, and lose myself in that moment when all the breaths and all the heartbeats become one. What I want is just as "Indian," just as traditional, but harder to pin down.
In 1608 the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony, in Virginia, proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a subemperor of the Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. "I also am a king," he said, "and this is my land." Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy, between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe, in 1785. Taken to St. James's Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, a victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with government officials just as he was accustomed to do on the prairie—sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against him, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader, carelessly replied, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man."
That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them. When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do whatever they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age came from the freedom that Columbus and other explorers were rumored to have found. Suddenly imagination was given a whole continent full of people who had never heard of Charlemagne or Pope Leo X or quitrents or the laws of entail, and who were doing fine. Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who would provide the name for the continent, brought back news that in this land "every one is his own master." If this land new to Europeans was the setting, the lives of these untrammeled people suggested the plot: we could drop anchor in the bay, paddle up the river, wade up the creek, meet a band of Indians, and with them disappear forever into the country's deepest green. No tyranny could hold us; if Indians could live as they liked, so could we.
The popular refrain about Indians nowadays is that they and their culture were cruelly destroyed. But beyond the sphere of rhetoric the Indians as a people did not die out, awful though their suffering was. Killing people is one thing; killing them off is another. The destruction story gives the flattering and wrong impression that European culture showed up in the Americas and simply mowed down whatever was in its way. In fact the European arrivals were often hungry and stunned in their new settlements, and what they did to Indian culture was for years more than matched by what encounters with Indians did to theirs. By way of the settlers, Indian crops previously unknown outside the Americas crossed the Atlantic and changed Europe. Indian farmers were the first to domesticate corn, peanuts, tomatoes, pumpkins, and many kinds of beans. Russia and Ireland grew no potatoes before travelers found the plant in Indian gardens in South America; throughout Europe the introduction of the potato caused a rise in the standard of living and a population boom. Before Indians no one in the world had ever smoked tobacco. No one in the Bible (or in any other pre-Columbian text, for that matter) ever has a cigarette, dips snuff, or smokes a pipe. The novelty of breathing in tobacco smoke or chewing the dried leaves caught on so fast in Europe that early colonists made fortunes growing tobacco; it was America's first cash crop.
Surrounded as we are today by pavement, we assume that Indians have had to adapt to us. But for a long time much of the adapting went the other way. In the land of the free, Indians were the original "free"; early America was European culture reset in an Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part made them American and different from what they had been before. Influence is harder to document than corn and beans but as real. We know that Iroquois Indians attended meetings of the colonists in the years before the American Revolution and advised them to unite in a scheme for self-government based on the confederacy that ruled the six Iroquois nations. Benjamin Franklin said, at a gathering of delegates from the Colonies in Albany in 1754, "It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union and be able to execute it in such a manner that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." His use of the term "ignorant savages" is thought to have been ironic; he admired the Iroquois plan, and it formed one of the models for the U.S. Constitution.
When I go to Indian reservations in the West, and especially to the Pine Ridge Reservation, I sometimes feel unsure where to put my foot when I open the car door. The very ground is different from where I usually stand. There are fewer curbs, fewer sidewalks, and almost no street signs, mailboxes, or leashed dogs. The earth here is just the earth, unadorned, and the places people walk are made not by machinery but by feet. Those smooth acres of asphalt marked with lines to tell you where to park and drive that cover so much of America are harder to find on the reservations. If the Iroquois hadn't resisted the French in the 1600s, the Northeast would be speaking French today; if the Comanche hadn't opposed the Spanish, the American Southwest would now be Mexico. The Oglala Sioux reservation, actively or otherwise, continues to resist the modern American paving machine. Walking on Pine Ridge, I feel as if I am in actual America, the original version, which was here before we came and will still be here after we're gone. There are windblown figures crossing the road in the distance who might be drunk, and a scattering of window-glass fragments in the weeds that might be from a car accident, and a baby naked except for a disposable diaper playing in a bare-dirt yard, and an acrid smell of burning trash—all the elements that usually evoke the description "bleak." But there is greatness here too, and an ancient glory endures in the dust and the weeds. Bil Gilbert, the biographer of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee war chief and statesman, says that the Indians of North America resembled the ancient Greeks in their ability to produce heroes, and that both societies considered heroism more important than wealth or power. In American history the names of Sequoya and Osceola and Black Hawk and Roman Nose and Chief Joseph and Looking Glass and Satank and Quanah Parker and Cochise and Geronimo ring like names of heroes out of Homer.
The Western Sioux, also called the Lakota, included seven tribes. Together they never numbered more than 70,000 souls in all, but they have given America and the rest of the world heroes in quantity far out of proportion to the size of their population. Sitting Bull, a warrior and medicine man, became one of the most famous Americans of all time. Spotted Tail, of the Sicangu, or Brule Sioux, was perhaps the greatest Indian diplomat and negotiator. Other Sioux, such as Rain in the Face and Gall and Pawnee Killer, were known mainly for deeds in battle. Among the Oglala the number of heroes is unusually high. First among them is Crazy Horse, the victor of the Little Bighorn, whose determined resistance and martyr's death won him a nearly mystical reputation. Red Cloud, the tribe's leader during the early reservation years, spoke to power in Washington and New York as no Indian had done before. The Oglala chiefs Little Wound and Red Dog and American Horse and He Dog and Young Man Afraid of His Horses attained eminence within the tribe and beyond. Black Elk, the holy man known worldwide through his teachings in the book Black Elk Speaks, was an Oglala and lived on Pine Ridge.
A surprising amount of Oglala culture is the same today as it was in pre-reservation times. The Oglala still produce heroes, even though the wider market for them seems to have waned. If you want to see a lot of combat veterans in one place, go to a Veterans' Powwow in Pine Ridge village on an August afternoon. There's probably more foreign shrapnel walking around the small towns of the reservation than there is in similar towns anywhere else in America; some Oglala families can give you a genealogy of warriors that begins at Operation Desert Storm and goes back to the Little Bighorn and before. The Oglala have always honored warriors, and they honor children as well. The Lakota word for child, wakanyeja, translates literally as "the child is also holy." An Oglala hero of recent history was a girl athlete who died just before she turned eighteen. She starred for the Lady Thorpes, the girls' basketball team at Pine Ridge High School, from 1987 through 1991. I have only heard about her and read local news stories about her, but words fail me when I try to say how much I admire her. Her name was SuAnne Big Crow.
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.
Le moved from the city to upstate New York, suffered various misadventures including a conviction for DWI, and eventually decided to go back to the reservation. Meanwhile—this was about four years ago—my wife and two kids and Imoved to Missoula, Montana. Not long after we arrived, Ibought a 1988 Chevy Blazer and drove the 780 miles to Oglala, South Dakota, for the first of many visits to Le and to the Pine Ridge Reservation. When I reached the boundary of tribal land, it was so early in the morning that no one else was about. I had the radio tuned to KILI, the Pine Ridge station, which broadcasts from the reservation near the village of Porcupine. It was playing Lakota singing and drumming. Under an overcast sky the prairie looked drained of color. Here and there I saw burned patches, the black extending in tongues where the wind had pushed the fire. In the middle of one burned patch was a car seat, also burned. A wheel rim with shreds of tire still on it hung from a fence post. Two rows of tires lay flat on the roof of a turquoise-colored trailer, anchoring the roof against the wind.
How many boundaries this reservation has had over the years! About a century and a half ago the lands set aside for the Sioux by treaty stretched from the Powder River in the west to the Heart River in the north to the Missouri River in the east to the North Platte River in the south—an immense expanse in the middle of the continent, covering parts of the present states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Since then Sioux lands have shrunk and shrunk again, leaving behind vestigial boundaries like a drying sea. The present reservation, the second largest in the country but only a small part of the Sioux's original holdings, has gone through many bureaucratic changes and transfers of land ownership to people outside the tribe; today some Oglala own parcels that have been divided so often they are measured not in acres but in square yards, feet, and inches.
Past the village of Red Shirt, inside the border of the reservation, the road I was on entered a piece of grassy tableland that declines steeply at its edges into badlands. Locals call this the Red Shirt Table Road. At certain places beside the road the badlands are like an erosion carnival opening at your feet. Travelers on the Red Shirt Table Road, frustrated by its lack of public restrooms, sometimes pull over, step out, stroll a short distance away from the car, and accidentally plunge into the chasms below. Some of the pillars of rock still have on top a flat piece of prairie the size of a living-room rug, from which the eroded rock face complicatedly descends hundreds of feet to the canyon floor. Some of the monoliths are jagged on top, like newspaper torn against the grain. Others are rounded and smooth, and as shiny as old pants. In places the ranks recede, one eroded gray-and-pink wall of rock behind another, all the way to the horizon. The Red Shirt Table Road is the worst-paved road I have ever driven. Even here on the flat the badlands seem to want to make their point. Sinks afflict the road's asphalt, creating places where you drive down in and then up the other side. Plates of roadway lurch up toward you, bumper-high. Potholes slurp and open wide. Not every road on Pine Ridge or in its vicinity is as bad as this (and this road has since been somewhat improved), but anyone who visits the reservation more than twice learns that Pine Ridge is a difficult place to get to. No major thoroughfare or rail line runs to it, or even very close by.
Within fifteen miles or so the Red Shirt Table Road left the bumpiness of the tableland and became a good gravel surface running straight through an expanse of little bare-top clay hills like gray haystacks and then through rolling prairie with low buttes to the east and west. The road then turned to asphalt again, this section smooth and newly paved. I continued to the junction with Highway 18, turned left, and drove on a mile or so to the village of Oglala. A woman sorting mail in the gray-cement post office told me how to find the house of a woman named Sarah Brave, who told me through her closed screen door how to find Le.
His house stood by a bend in the road with no other houses around, as singular as a letter in an alphabet book. It was a standard government-built house of the kind often seen on military bases or Indian reservations. It was one story, with faded brown siding and a yard run mostly to weeds. Six or eight cars and a pickup truck, in various stages of dilapidation, made a loose semicircle around one corner. I pulled into the rutted mud driveway, opened the door, and stepped out onto a flattened Budweiser can. Le was standing in the yard. We had not seen each other in a year and a half. He greeted me without surprise. We hugged each other and shook hands, and Le felt the pulse in my wrist with his thumb. He said, "Hoka hey, Little Brother. I am honored to be in your presence." His breath was Budweiser and a chemical I couldn't place. He was wearing cowboy boots, faded pegged blue jeans, a red cowboy shirt with buttons of blue imitation mother-of-pearl, and a neck brace in a color sometimes called "flesh" extending from his collarbone up to his ears. On the front of the neck brace, just above his collarbone, large raised letters said FRONT. He had his hair in a piled-high style I'd seen before. Combined with the brace, it gave him the look of a starched-collar lady from out of the past.
"I was in a car wreck three weeks ago," he explained. "Me and this guy named Archambault that I went to Indian boarding school with was drinking in Whiteclay, Nebraska, and in the afternoon we started hitchhiking back to Pine Ridge. We got picked up by Joe Red Star and Mark Goings, and me and Archambault got in the back seat, and I hadn't hardly got in when them guys floored it and we was flyin' up Highway Four-oh-seven, and then suddenly we was off the road on the right and I looked up and saw the light pole comin' at us. I was yellin' 'Hey, hey, hey!' and we took out the light pole and rolled four times. I went flyin' over the front seat and hit the windshield with the back of my head and shoulders, and I had the top of the car pressed right against my face. Man, there was a whole lot of moanin' and groanin' in that car. It took the emergency-medical-technician guys three and a half hours to cut us out."
Le invited me in, and we climbed the single cinder block he used for a doorstep. His door latch was a green-and-white plastic fish stringer, which he tied to a nail inside. He asked if I'd had breakfast and offered me a beer. I replied that I had quit drinking. He said, "That reminds me—I've got to take my pills again." He produced half a dozen pill bottles of various sizes and shook pills from them into his palm. Hospitably, he first offered a large orange capsule to me: "Want one?" I declined, with thanks. Then he washed them all down with a few swigs of beer. He sat on a stove log and I on the only chair. The amount of stuff in his house overthrew my attempt to take it in. There was a nonworking clock on the wall, and a brown hole near it where the oven pipe used to be, and a cast-iron woodstove, and a plastic milk crate full of silver-tinsel Christmas wreaths, and a yellow hardhat, and a photograph of a statuesque Indian woman in a T-shirt smiling and holding a .357 Magnum revolver ("That's my nephew's wife, Deborah. She's a rowdy from the Fort Apache Reservation"), and a rolled-up section of snow fence, and a poster from the movie Incident at Oglala, and a copy of the collected short stories of Ernest Hemingway, and several sports trophies, and the paperwork from Le's recent hospital bills. A door just behind me opened into a room filled several feet deep with suitcases, plastic picnic coolers, backpacks, baby carriers, trunks, and heavyweight canvas tote bags.
I asked if all this stuff was his. He said, "Most of it belongs to my sister Florence. She lived here for a while with her kids and grandkids, until the tribe gave her a new house in a development in Oglala on the other side of Highway Eighteen. Before that my dad lived here. It was his house originally, and they all moved in here with him. It had a fire in '83, and when they fixed it up afterward, they didn't put in no insulation, so when the temperature drops, it can get pretty chilly in here. When winter comes, I'll just get me a fat woman and let her sleep on the windy side."
Back in the yard he led me on a brief tour of the accumulated cars. All of them, according to him, were much closer to being drivable than they appeared. He kept saying, "Oh, it'll run. Put a new battery and a windshield and a new set of tires and some gas in it, and it'll run." Then he said, "Let's go—I'll take you to see my mom and dad." We got in my car. He did not put on his seat belt, but I insisted that he put on his seat belt. We headed north, on the road I had driven from Red Shirt Table. I asked him if anyone on the reservation called him Le. I knew that his birth name was Leonard Thomas Walks Out; Sarah Brave had referred to him as Leonard. "There's people here who call me Le or Laid-Back, but most call me Leonard," he said. "Or Lenny. And there's still a few real old-timers who remember when I was the baby of my family, before Floyd John was born. One old lady, Leonora Fast Horse, saw me at the post office the other day and said, 'Look! It's Baby Leo!' I mean, here I'm goin' on fifty-five years old!"
After about three miles Le directed me onto a grassy track leading off to the right. In the high weeds next to it were pieces of a broken guitar. The track led onto a low rise with a barbed-wire fence around a small plot of gravestones and crosses set back from and above the road; it would be hard to spot if you didn't know it was there. I took off my baseball cap and walked quietly as we entered the cemetery grounds. The more Le talked, the quieter I became. On this little patch of earth a vastness of suffering and disaster had converged. Among the murders, suicides, and car accidents the headstones could not describe, these three seemed central to Le's life:
Albert C. Walks Out. February 23, 1933 - August 3, 1957. An older brother. Heroic soldier in the Korean War. On leave, stopped to help some Indians whose car had a flat tire. Beaten to death with a tire iron.
Elizebith Walks Out. May 22, 1906 - April 7, 1958. Le's mom. Died as a result of an accident on Highway 87 between Rushville and Whiteclay, Nebraska. "She had gone over there shopping with Amos Red Paint and they ran out of gas and they were pushing the car by the side of the road when a bootlegger from Whiteclay with no headlights ran into them from behind. She got both her legs cut off and died seven days later. My dad, Asa Walks Out, lived to be ninety-one. He died just last summer. We buried him on top of her, but we don't have a marker for him yet."
Asa Elda Walks Out Jr. March 7, 1935 - February 14, 1959. "My mom died eight months after Albert, and Elda—we called him Eldee—died ten months after my mom. Eldee was just out of the Army and he could kick anyone's ass. He didn't even care if he got his own ass kicked once in a while. He'd get back in the car with his nose all bloodied and say, 'Well, at least I got the anger out of me!' He was running my dad's spread near here, and me and him had gone up to Rapid to buy sixteen hundred pounds of cattle feed, and we were coming back in the pickup drinking whiskey and beer, and he started telling me that he'd made a terrible mistake. He said he had married too young and in a Catholic ceremony and now he couldn't get out of it, and he was in love with a fifteen-year-old girl. So we got back to his place and I was outside unloading the truck when one of his kids come running out of the house saying, 'Mommy and Daddy is fightin'.' So I picked the kid up and comforted him and went inside and asked what they were fightin' about, and Eldee said, 'We're not fightin', we're just talkin'.' Then he takes me out in the yard and says, 'She won't give me a divorce. I'm goin'.' I said, 'Where to? I'll go with you.' He says, 'Where I'm goin' you can't follow. Take care of my kids.' He gets a rifle out of the truck and I think, Whoa, I better get the kids back in the house. I go in and right away I hear BLAM—he shoots himself right in the head. I run out and he's flat on his back and blood is gushing from his forehead eighteen inches in the air.
"After that I went crazy for a while, writing bad checks. I got caught, went to prison, got out, stole a government truck, ended up back in prison again. When Eldee shot himself, I was sixteen years old."
Le closed the cemetery gate, pulling on it hard, and he latched it with its barbed-wire latch. Then we drove back the way we had come. As we approached his house, Le said, "Floyd John ought to be awake by now. Let's go eat up his food." We drove on, and he directed me to turn onto a puddled road just past the Loneman School. The ruts were deep and the car jounced, and Le's neck caused him to wince with each jounce. The going got muddier and muddier. I stopped and shifted into four-wheel drive. The ruts then split up into an every-man-for-himself profusion across a mudflat, and I must have guessed wrong, because soon I was roaring across it at maximum rpms, slewing back and forth, going nearly sideways sometimes, and hurling up flying mud around me like a magnetic field. Floyd John heard us coming—anyone would have—and he was standing outside his green tar-paper shack as we squished to a stop in his yard. The car had mud on the hood and the windshield and the side windows. I turned off the steaming engine. Floyd John walked to the car, looked me over, and asked, "Well, bro, are you likin' the rez as much as you liked New York?"
"Tell me, Floyd John—when are they going to finish building the subway out to your house?"
"Any day, any day. The king snakes and the bull snakes are workin' on it right now."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Some people who live in the cities and towns near reservations treat their Indian neighbors decently; some don't. In Denver and Minneapolis and Rapid City police have been known to harass Indian teenagers and rough up Indian drunks and needlessly stop and search Indian cars. Local banks whose deposits include millions in tribal funds sometimes charge Indians higher interest rates than they charge whites. Gift shops near reservations sell junky caricature Indian pictures and dolls, and until not long ago beer coolers had signs on them that said INDIAN POWER. In a big discount store in a reservation-border town a white clerk observes a lot of Indians waiting at the checkout and remarks, "Oh, they're Indians—they're used to standing in line." Some people in South Dakota hate Indians, unapologetically, and will tell you why; in their voices you can hear a particular American meanness that is centuries old.
When teams from Pine Ridge play non-Indian teams, the question of race is always there. When Pine Ridge is the visiting team, usually the hosts are courteous and the players and fans have a good time. But Pine Ridge coaches know that occasionally at away games their kids will be insulted, their fans will feel unwelcome, the host gym will be dense with hostility, and the referees will call fouls on Indian players every chance they get. Sometimes in a game between Indian and non-Indian teams the difference in race becomes an important and distracting part of the event.
One place where Pine Ridge teams used to get harassed regularly was the high school gymnasium in Lead, South Dakota. Lead is a town of about 3,200 northwest of the reservation, in the Black Hills. It is laid out among the mines that are its main industry, and low, wooded mountains hedge it around. The brick high school building is set into a hillside. The school's only gym in those days was small, with tiers of gray-painted concrete on which the spectator benches descended from just below the steel-beamed roof to the very edge of the basketball court—an arrangement that greatly magnified the interior noise.
In the fall of 1988 the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game. SuAnne was a full member of the team by then. She was a freshman, fourteen years old. Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from the Lead fans. They were yelling fake Indian war cries, a "woo-woo-woo" sound. The usual plan for the pre-game warm-up was for the visiting team to run onto the court in a line, take a lap or two around the floor, shoot some baskets, and then go to their bench at courtside. After that the home team would come out and do the same, and then the game would begin. Usually the Thorpes lined up for their entry more or less according to height, which meant that senior Doni De Cory, one of the tallest, went first. As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder. Some fans were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation's receiving federal aid. Others yelled, "Where's the cheese?"—the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese. The Lead high school band had joined in, with fake Indian drumming and a fake Indian tune. Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, "I can't handle this." SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place. She was so eager that Doni became suspicious. "Don't embarrass us," Doni told her. SuAnne said, "I won't. I won't embarrass you." Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.
She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind. On the court the noise was deafening. SuAnne went right down the middle and suddenly stopped when she got to center court. Her teammates were taken by surprise, and some bumped into each other. Coach Zimiga, at the rear of the line, did not know why they had stopped. SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball. Then she stepped into the jump-ball circle at center court, facing the Lead fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance. SuAnne knew all the traditional dances (she had competed in many powwows as a little girl), and the dance she chose is a young woman's dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time. "I couldn't believe it—she was powwowin', like, 'Get down!'" Doni De Cory recalls. "And then she started to sing." SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl. The crowd went completely silent. "All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling—it was like she reversed it somehow," a teammate says. In the sudden quiet all they could hear was her Lakota song. SuAnne dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast. The audience began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.
Because this was one of the coolest and bravest deeds I ever heard of, I want to stop and consider it from a larger perspective that includes the town of Lead, all the Black Hills, and 125 years of history.
Lead, the town, does not get its name from the metal. The lead the name refers to is a mining term for a gold-bearing deposit, or vein, running through surrounding rock. The word, pronounced with a long e, is related to the word "lode." During the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s prospectors found a rich lead in what would become the town of Lead. In April of 1876 Fred and Moses Manuel staked a claim to a mine they called the Homestake. Their lead led eventually to gold and more gold—a small mountain of gold—whose wealth may be guessed by the size of the hole its extraction has left in the middle of present-day Lead.
In 1877 a mining entrepreneur from San Francisco named George Hearst came to the Hills, investigated the Manuels' mine, and advised his big-city partners to buy it. The price was $70,000. At the time of Hearst's negotiations the illegal act of Congress that would take this land from the Sioux had only recently passed. The partners followed Hearst's advice, and the Homestake Mine paid off its purchase price four times over in dividends alone within three years. When George Hearst's only son, William Randolph, was kicked out of Harvard for giving his instructors chamber pots with their names inscribed on the inside, George Hearst suggested that he come West and take over his share in the Homestake Mine. William Randolph Hearst chose to run the San Francisco Examiner instead. His father gave him a blank check to keep it going for two years; gold from Lead helped to start the Hearst newspaper empire. Since the Homestake Mine was discovered, it has produced at least $10 billion in gold. It is one of the richest gold mines in the world.
Almost from the moment that George Armstrong Custer's expedition entered the Black Hills, in 1874, to investigate rumors of gold, there was no way the Sioux were going to be allowed to keep this land. At Custer's announcement that the expedition had found "gold in the roots of the grass," the rush began. By 1875 the Dakota Territorial Legislature had already divided the Black Hills land into counties; Custer County, in the southern Hills, was named in that general's honor while he was still alive, and while the land still clearly belonged to the Sioux. Many people in government and elsewhere knew at the time that taking this land was wrong. At first the Army even made halfhearted attempts to keep the prospectors out. A high-ranking treaty negotiator told President Ulysses S. Grant that the Custer expedition was "a violation of the national honor." When the Sioux killed Custer at the Little Bighorn, in 1876, their victory only enraged the country and destroyed any chance of fairness that remained. One of the commissioners who worked on the 1877 "agreement" that gave paper legitimacy to the theft said that Custer should not have gone into the Hills in the first place, and with the other commissioners reminded the government that it was making the Sioux homeless and that it owed them protection and care. The taking of the Black Hills proceeded inexorably all the same.
Sioux leaders of Crazy Horse's generation began working to receive fair compensation for the Hills in the early 1900s. The Black Hills claim that the Sioux filed with the U.S. Court of Claims in the 1920s got nowhere. In 1946 the government established the Indian Claims Commission specifically to provide payment for wrongly taken Indian lands, and in 1950 the Sioux filed a claim for the Black Hills with the ICC. After almost twenty-five years the ICC finally ruled that the Sioux were entitled to a payment of $17.5 million plus interest for the taking of the Hills, a decision that the Court of Claims upheld. In 1980 the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling and awarded the Sioux a total of $106 million. Quoting from the Court of Claims, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history"—which was to say officially, and finally, that the Black Hills had been stolen.
By the time of the Supreme Court ruling, however, the Sioux had come to see their identity as linked to the Hills themselves, and the eight tribes involved decided unanimously not to accept the money. They said, "The Black Hills are not for sale." The Sioux now wanted the land back—some or all of it—and trespass damages as well. They especially wanted the Black Hills lands still owned by the federal government. These amount to about 1.3 million acres, a small proportion of what was stolen. At the moment the chances that the Sioux will get these or any other lands in the Black Hills appear remote. The untouched compensation money remains in a federal escrow account, where it, plus other compensation money, plus accumulated interest, is now more than half a billion dollars.
Inescapably, this history is present when an Oglala team goes to Lead to play a basketball game. It may even explain why the fans in Lead were so mean: fear that you might perhaps be in the wrong can make you ornerier sometimes. In all the accounts of this land grab and its aftermath, and among the many greedy and driven men who had a part, I cannot find evidence of a single act as elegant, as generous, or as transcendent as SuAnne's dance at center court in the gym at Lead.
For the Oglala, what SuAnne did that day almost immediately took on the status of myth. People from Pine Ridge who witnessed it still describe it in terms of awe and disbelief. Amazement swept through the younger kids when they heard. "I was, like, 'What did she just do?'" recalls her cousin Angie Big Crow, an eighth grader at the time. All over the reservation people told and retold the story of SuAnne at Lead. Anytime the subject of SuAnne came up when I was talking to people on Pine Ridge, I would always ask if they had heard about what she did at Lead, and always the answer was a smile and a nod—"Yeah, I was there," or "Yeah, I heard about that." To the unnumbered big and small slights of local racism that the Oglala have known all their lives SuAnne's exploit made an emphatic reply.
Back in the days when Lakota war parties still fought battles against other tribes and the Army, no deed of war was more honored than the act of counting coup. To "count coup" means to touch an armed enemy in full possession of his powers with a special stick called a coup stick, or with the hand. The touch is not a blow, and serves only to indicate how close to the enemy you came. As an act of bravery, counting coup was regarded as greater than killing an enemy in single combat, greater than taking a scalp or horses or any prize. Counting coup was an act of almost abstract courage, of pure playfulness taken to the most daring extreme. Very likely, to do it and survive brought an exhilaration to which nothing else could compare. In an ancient sense that her Oglala kin could recognize, SuAnne counted coup on the fans of Lead.
And yet this coup was an act not of war but of peace. SuAnne's coup strike was an offering, an invitation. It gave the hecklers the best interpretation, as if their silly, mocking chants were meant only in good will. It showed that their fake Indian songs were just that—fake—and that the real thing was better, as real things usually are. We Lakota have been dancing like this for centuries, the dance said; we've been doing the shawl dance since long before you came, before you got on the boat in Glasgow or Bremerhaven, before you stole this land, and we're still doing it today. And isn't it pretty, when you see how it's supposed to be done? Because finally what SuAnne proposed was to invite us—us onlookers in the stands, namely the non-Lakota rest of this country—to dance too. She was in the Lead gym to play, and she invited us all to play. The symbol she used to include us was the warm-up jacket. Everyone in America has a warm-up jacket. I've got one, probably so do you, so did (no doubt) many of the fans at Lead. By using the warm-up jacket as a shawl in her impromptu shawl dance, she made Lakota relatives of us all.
"It was funny," Doni De Cory says, "but after that game the relationship between Lead and us was tremendous. When we played Lead again, the games were really good, and we got to know some of the girls on the team. Later, when we went to a tournament and Lead was there, we were hanging out with the Lead girls and eating pizza with them. We got to know some of their parents, too. What SuAnne did made a lasting impression and changed the whole situation with us and Lead. We found out there are some really good people in Lead."
America is a leap of the imagination. From its beginning people have had only a persistent idea of what a good country should be. The idea involves freedom, equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness; nowadays most of us probably could not describe it much more clearly than that. The truth is, it always has been a bit of a guess. No one has ever known for sure whether a country based on such an idea is really possible, but again and again we have leaped toward the idea and hoped. What SuAnne Big Crow demonstrated in the Lead high school gym is that making the leap is the whole point. The idea does not truly live unless it is expressed by an act; the country does not live unless we make the leap from our tribe or focus group or gated community or demographic and land on the shaky platform of that idea of a good country which all kinds of different people share.
This leap is made in public, and it's made free. It's not a product or a service that anyone will pay you for. You do it for reasons unexplainable by economics—for ambition, out of conviction, for the heck of it, in playfulness, for love. It's done in public spaces, face-to-face, where anyone may go. It's not done on television, on the Internet, or over the telephone; our electronic systems can only tell us if a leap made elsewhere has succeeded or failed. The places you'll see it are high school gyms, city sidewalks, the subway, bus stations, public parks, parking lots, and wherever people gather during natural disasters. In those places and others like them the leaps that continue to invent and knit the country continue to be made. When the leap fails, it looks like the L.A. riots, or Sherman's march through Georgia. When it succeeds, it looks like the New York City Bicentennial Celebration in July of 1976, or the civil-rights march on Washington in 1963. On that scale, whether it succeeds or fails, it's always something to see. The leap requires physical presence and physical risk. But the payoff—in terms of dreams realized, of understanding, of people getting along—can be so glorious as to make the risk seem minuscule.
I find all this hopefulness, and more, in SuAnne's dance at center court in the gym in Lead. My high school football coach used to show us films of our previous game every Monday after practice, and whenever he liked a particular play, he would run it over and over again. If I had a film of SuAnne at Lead (as far as I know, no such film or video exists), I would study it in slow motion frame by frame. There's a magic in what she did, along with the promise that public acts of courage are still alive out there somewhere. Mostly I would run the film of SuAnne again and again for my own braveheart song. I refer to her, as I do to the deeds of Crazy Horse, for proof that it's a public service to be brave.