Native Road Trip IV
We headed town to Pine Ridge reservation, through the badlands. Pine Ridge is the most depressed county in the entire U.S. River and I passed through the tiny ghost town of Scenic, found at a corner of the Badlands just north of Pine Ridge. Scenic is a classic western cowboy town: rolling tumbleweeds, abandoned trading post, an old frontier prison with a shackle chain still hanging from the ceiling, and only two businesses still open: a gas station and the Longhorn Saloon. The Longhorn is a tiny bar established in 1906, recognizable for its many steer skulls nailed across the top edge of the building. Reflecting the frontier racism, the sign on front prominently warning "No Indians Allowed." The sign has been modified and currently reads, "Indians Allowed". Is that progress? (Keep in mind that the sole patronage of the saloon now is alcohol sales to people coming up from the reservation, which is dry) The woman working at the gas station eyed River and me very curiously, perhaps not used to someone wearing a T-shirt for the "Native American Rights Fund" and a vest adorned with "American Indian Movement" patches, and his chatterbox of a kid stopping in town during daylight. We continued south toward the site of Wounded Knee. River watched out the window as we passed clusters of tar-paper shacks and trailors, constituting a "town" on the rez...no stores, no gas stations. I talked with River about the history of the Ghost Dance and its role in Pine Ridge. In the late 1880's, a Paiute man named Wovoka had a series of visions that started a new religion among the Plains Indians. Wovoka told the people that God had showed him that through hardship would come new life, and that if the people formed a circle--literally, but also symbolically as a community--and prayed together for peace, the turmoil of this world would burn away and the people would live. Wovoka warned them that this "burning away" would hurt very much, but it would establish a departure from our old mistakes to a new way of ministry and interconnection with life. This new way of understanding became known as the Ghost Dance. The spooky-sounding name comes from a misunderstanding by Whites on the frontier, who heard Wovoka talking about setting our old lives aside to die, and then seeing new life being born within us. They lacked the understanding that he was talking about transformative struggle, and assumed he was urging some type of cult-like sorcery. The people who listened became very peaceful, very non-violent. They endured slurs, attacks, and nasty rumors directed at them from outside, but they remained calm and continued to pray and sing. Their peacefulness did not assuage their enemies, though, who saw it as a sign of weakness. This clash of ideas--peace versus hostility--erupted on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. There, about 300 Ghost Dancers were hewn down by machine gun fire and left for dead, the crosses and birds painted on their garments still shining in the snow. This was the final massacre of the so-called "Indian Wars." The site is now marked by a common trench grave and monument with names engraved on it. To Native people today or every tribe, the site is a shrine; it represents the difficult choice between fighting back and hating your adversaries, or becoming willing to suffer while praying and seeking peace with them, acknowledging them as our brothers and sisters whom we love despite misunderstandings and differences. And although that choice ended in tragedy in 1890, it has inspired thousands of people in the decades since then. To us, it represents the truth that despite our human flaws, our adversaries, and the risks we take to love and attend to others, there is still worth and purpose in continuing to mend wounds, seek good for those who do not seek good for us, and even keep loving...keep loving. The lesson of Wounded Knee is this: Even with the wounds upon you brought by those who condemn what you seek to do, keep loving. Keep seeing them--even your adversaries--as holy people, children of our Creator, and continue the work of tending to the wounds of others even as others might add wounds to you. This is a hard choice. Today, Wounded Knee is a windswept field with a very simple monument marking the cemetary. There are no fancy tour buses, no restaurants, no shops, no neon signs--just a meager arch and a stone marker. Grasshoppers swarmed away from us as we strode through the grass toward the hilltop, and I showed River where the events happened: "That's the ridge where the soldies were lined up. That's where chief Big Foot's tipi stood. That's where his body was found. Those distant ravines were where people hid. This is the long ditch dug as a mass grave by men paid $2 a body to clean up, days later. That's where the church once stood where the wounded were gathered to die of starvation (nobody nursed them, they just brought them in from the snow--still alive--to perish, while a banner wishing "Merry Christmas" still hung from the pulpit)." This was a more solemn time on our trip, obviously, and I hoped it would sink in somewhat to River. But I didn't want him to see it as a place where a brilliant dream had died, or where a prayer for peace failed. I wanted him to see it as a place where prayers for peace mean enough to be worth giving your life for--a place wherethe brilliance of a dream can succeed because people are ready to seek it to their last breath. It is a place that represents fidelity, perseverence, and courage, not a place of despair and loss. Okay, one funny thing did happen there. A group of Lakotas were waiting for us to walk back so they could offer up small souveniers ofr sale: necklaces, dream catchers, earrings. They supposed we were just two more tourists who'd come to gawk and drive on, so they donned the persona that appeals most to tourists. They assured us they were full-blooded Sioux, and explained the poverty on the Rez and how they were making aliving selling these items, all of which is true. I asked them whether they spoke Lakota and the woman said, "Oh yes! I learned from my grandmother, who spoke it to us all the time!" Well, I speak some Lakota too, so I replied, "Hau, ma'Lakota sni, tuka chik'ala Lakota wowaglake!" They were SO busted! They stood around, embarrasedly kicking at the gravel, forced to admit now that they did not speak Lakota after all...This "tourist" had unintentionally called them out. I sure didn't mean to--I wasn't trying to prove anything ot catch anyone, just make a conversation! So River and I explained our Ojibway people to them a bit, and we bought a pouch for River to wear around his neck, and drove on until nightfall.