Wounded Knee Between The Wars


For two months in the summer of 1956 I lived in a tent among the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge Reservation, whose ancestors had tasted victory at the Little Bighorn and deep grief at Wounded Knee Creek, a few miles from where I was staying. The tent was United States Army surplus, property of my hosts, and present-day Indian militancy was then nowhere to be seen under the immense South Dakota skies. In those days the past seemed utterly dead to the Sioux. Once when I asked some tribal elders whether they planned to mark the occasion of their victory over Custer, they considered the idea a poor joke. On the other hand, the great summer holiday was the Fourth of July, when Indians from all over Pine Ridge camped together in army tents to drink and dance and hear patriotic speeches. It is one of the oddest and deepest facts about reservation life that the Sioux, descendants of nomads, like to go camping. In an aimless, bohemian sort of way they are still nomadic.

I had my first glimpse of this when my partner and I (we were anthropology students, pro tem , at Columbia University—he bent on getting his master’s degree, I on spending a pleasant summer) arrived bearing appropriate gifts —a few cases of beer and twenty pounds of meat—at the shack of a Sioux whom my partner knew from a previous visit. We burst in at four A.M. , but no matter. The entire household roused itself in a trice and began partying, as if four in the morning were indistinguishable from four in the afternoon. This was almost literally true on the reservation, for the Sioux, who have little work, attach little importance to sleeping eight hours at a stretch. Given anything to do, they will do it at any hour of the day or night. My Sioux cronies, for example, thought nothing of waking me at dawn to share a six-pack of warm beer with them. When the party finally expired, several miles from its starting point and twenty-four hours later, I remember wondering how the partygoers were going to get home, but the Sioux never felt tethered to home. They cheerfully slept anywhere, in parked cars or on floorboards, with no sense of inconvenience, so they never worried in the morning where they might end up that night. This could turn even a short trip to the store into a wayward voyage. By the time you started the motor, four or five people had piled into the car, and what with visits to relatives and other side jaunts you might not get back for a day or so. All this I found intensely exhilarating at the time. Dispensing with routine schedules is a liberating prospect when you are twenty-two years old. It took me a while to realize that the Indians’ careless, shapeless days, their eagerness to go anywhere at any time (that summer five young Sioux I knew made a two-thousand-mile round trip to an Apache reservation just for a weekend jaunt) was due to a restless boredom so intense it was eating them alive. The Sioux were well aware of this condition and had a word in the Dakota language meaning “stiff-tailed” to describe their inability to sit still.

What made this diurnal nomadism possible, however, was a strong and noble virtue: the hospitality the Sioux accord to everyone they recognize as a kinsman, which takes in, for any family, an enormous number of people. I had always heard about the laws of hospitality operating in olden times, but Pine Ridge was the only place I ever saw them in their ancient vigor and rigidity. My Sioux hosts and I would sit down to a meager dinner consisting, likely enough, of Silver Cup bread, boiled steer’s heart, and canned stewed tomatoes, but meager as it was, any relative that came by unfailingly received his share and a place to sleep if he wanted it. Sometimes when the kinsman was disliked—my hosts, the Fast Horse people, were plagued by a scoundrelly in-law—the chagrin of sharing was written on people’s faces, but share they nonetheless did, even food they urgently needed for their next meal. To suppress one’s strongest inclinations this way out of deference to a rule of honor is an act of great dignity and certainly dignified household life on the reservation.

The hospitality rules had their comic side, however. Once, growing tired of boiled heart, I decided to lay in a supply of steaks for the family. That evening, inevitably, several relatives came by to share our prosperity; you could not buy food anywhere in Pine Ridge without everybody knowing about it within two hours. Later a few more relatives arrived, and they too sat down with us. At last, just as we were about to eat, a madly clanging jalopy came careening over the hilltop —the scoundrelly in-law had arrived with his family just in the nick of time. The net result, by some inner law of reservation economics, was that every person’s share of the feast was exactly as meager as usual. This constant sharing of one’s prosperity, I think, kept the Indians at Pine Ridge on a more or less equal level of impoverishment, with the few who were lucky enough to have jobs supporting, in various degrees, the many who did not. There was a kind of safety net under every member of the reservation, woven by the ties of kinship.