Wounded Knee Between The Wars

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Despite the branching family ties, however, the Sioux dwelt far apart from each other. My hosts, for example, lived in one-room log cabins isolated by their own hundred sixty acres of land (it was grazed over by the family’s horses, economically useless but splendid to see). One cabin belonged to the matriarch of the family, Mary Fast Horse, and the other to her only son and his family. Their unswerving kindness and generosity to me—a mere stranger—remains my strongest and fondest memory of Pine Ridge. The old lady—she must have been in her seventies—was wonderfully goodhearted and equally wonderful to behold. She wore four or five ankle-length dresses simultaneously, a pair of practical lace-up boys’ shoes, and baggy brown lisle stockings. She also laughed quite a lot though at no cost to her moral authority—the scoundrelly in-law, a one-eyed conniving character who looked like Popeye, always gave her a wide berth. Although I certainly didn’t merit it, the old lady was devoted to my wellbeing and, I think, even fond of me. I know I was fond of her, though I once abused her kindliness badly by asking for a cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon. What ensued was an eloquent commentary on the shortcomings of the simple life. The old lady got a heavy ax, dragged it behind her for about a hundred yards, made her way down the steep bank of a creek, chopped a branch off a cottonwood tree, dragged ax and branch back to the cabin, chopped the branch into kindling, filled a large pot with water from the pump, started a fire in her enormous iron stove (it took up about a quarter of her cabin), and one hour later, thoroughly shamefaced, I had a cup of lukewarm muck. By then Mary had asked me to call her ina , or mother, and I fear I had already begun to treat her with the carelessness of a favored son. A protected son, too: once I asked her how to say “I love you” in Dakota, but she refused to tell me, figuring I would use the phrase to pursue “bad girls.”

It would be hard to describe living on the reservation, for the days and weeks had no demarcations. Time was chiefly punctuated, sporadically and unpredictably, by someone or other acquiring money for beer. Around the eternal business of sixpacks life itself seemed to swirl: how we would get some, when we would get some, whom we would share them with, where we would sit and drink them. For the young men of the reservation the six-pack had become the one possible break in the monotony, a sort of unit of hope in a hopeless existence.

My one adventure of the anthropological sort was attending one night, in a pitch-black cabin, a medicine-man ceremony. The heart of the ritual was the medicine man lying in a trance on the floor trussed up like Houdini while blue, sparkling lights danced mysteriously—I have no idea how—over the walls and ceiling. At one point there was some angry muttering in the dark because the medicine man, according to my translator, had just announced that the spirits were irked by my presence. A minute or so later I got a resounding whack on the head from an invisible hand. That was startling enough, but what was far more startling was discovering a day later that my translator, a thoroughly amiable and superior young man, was widely known to have ax-murdered a kinswoman. That dark deeds of mayhem might erupt on the reservation and go utterly unpunished—the young man was unpopular but not conspicuously so—suggested that wilder passions than boredom lay under the surface of reservation life. If so, I had scant experience of them, though once on a black, starless night three young thugs—one of them white—came at me with beer bottles. In the dark I heard their Sioux girl friend plead with them to “leave the guy from New York alone,” and so I escaped unscathed. After a while I began spending most of my time galloping blissfully around on a horse, something I had never done before (or since), until the days melted into a blur and, like the Oglala Sioux, I too became restless.

My departure from Pine Ridge was not as lively as my arrival, but I remember it far more vividly. I was heading for the Mexican mountains, for ten weeks of reservation life had convinced me that I could go anywhere and thrive anywhere—a gallant feeling but, alas, short-lived. The day before leaving I had given away a heap of my clothing, and when a crowd gathered to see me off, there in plain sight were several of my shirts, on the backs of tall people, short people, fat people, thin people, elderly people, and little children. No thank-you could have been more eloquent than the sight of that ill-dressed multitude. I shook hands all around and then said good-by to Mary Fast Horse. We looked at each other, and then, too inhibited to embrace, we shook hands in the solemn Pine Ridge way. Just as the car began moving up the dirt path, however, the old lady gathered up her five skirts and her seventy-odd years and ran after the car. We stopped, I looked at her and she at me, and once again we shook hands. I have never seen her again, for though I was happy on the reservation, I have never returned to it. The reason for this I know quite well. It was not because a second visit could not possibly be as happy as the first one, nor because I knew, all too well, that the feckless, shapeless reservation life that gave me so much pleasure gave the Oglala Sioux so much pain. I have not returned for the same reason that the English writer George Orwell never returned to his old prep school: because on seeing Pine Ridge in after years I would think, I could not help but think, “How small everything has grown and how terrible is the deterioration in myself.”