Authors: Mary Crow Dog
Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions
The Sun Dance People
The Rain Dance People
The Pueblo Indians
The Sound of Flutes
Picture History of Ancient Rome
Saloons of the Old West
The Woman Who Dared
American Indian Myths and Legends(with Alfonso Ortiz)
A.D. 1000, Living on the Brink of Apocalypse
Crying for a Dream
Mary Crow Dog
Copyright © 1990 by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by Richard Erdoes.
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First published in 1990 by Grove Weidenfeld
Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4542-0 (pbk.)
Cover Design by David Zimet/Robert Anthony, Inc.
Cover photograph © Richard Erdoes
an imprint of Grove Atlantic
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
1A Woman from He-Dog
3Civilize Them with a Stick
4Drinking and Fighting
6We AIM Not to Please
7Crying for a Dream
8Cankpe Opi Wakpala
10The Ghosts Return
12Sioux and Elephants Never Forget
13Two Cut-off Hands
14Cante Ishta—The Eye of the Heart
15The Eagle Caged
16Ho Uway Tinkte—My Voice You Shall Hear
A Woman from He-Dog
A nation is not conquered until
the hearts of its women
are on the ground.
Then it is done, no matter
how brave its warriors
nor how strong their weapons.
Iam Mary Brave Bird. After I had my baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name—Ohitika Win, Brave Woman, and fastened an eagle plume in my hair, singing brave-heart songs for me. I am a woman of the Red Nation, a Sioux woman. That is not easy.
I had my first baby during a firefight, with the bullets crashing through one wall and coming out through the other. When my newborn son was only a day old and the marshals really opened up upon us, I wrapped him up in a blanket and ran for it. We had to hit the dirt a couple of times, I shielding the baby with my body, praying, “It’s all right if I die, but please let him live.”
When I came out of Wounded Knee I was not even healed up, but they put me in jail at Pine Ridge and took my baby away. I could not nurse. My breasts swelled up and grew hard as rocks, hurting badly. In 1975 the feds put the muzzles of their M-16s against my head, threatening to blow me away. It’s hard being an Indian woman.
My best friend was Annie Mae Aquash, a young, strong-hearted woman from the Micmac Tribe with beautiful children. It is not always wise for an Indian woman to come on too strong. Annie Mae was found dead in the snow at the bottom of a ravine on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The police said that she had died of exposure, but there was a .38-caliber slug in her head. The FBI cut off her hands and sent them to Washington for fingerprint identification, hands that had helped my baby come into the world.
My sister-in-law, Delphine, a good woman who had lived a hard life, was also found dead in the snow, the tears frozen on her face. A drunken man had beaten her, breaking one of her arms and legs, leaving her helpless in a blizzard to die.
My sister Barbara went to the government hospital in Rosebud to have her baby and when she came out of anesthesia found that she had been sterilized against her will. The baby lived only for two hours, and she had wanted so much to have children. No, it isn’t easy.
When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience.” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.
It is not the big, dramatic things so much that get us down, but just being Indian, trying to hang on to our way of life, language, and values while being surrounded by an alien, more powerful culture. It is being an iyeska, a half-blood, being looked down upon by whites and full-bloods alike. It is being a backwoods girl living in a city, having to rip off stores in order to survive. Most of all it is being a woman. Among Plains tribes, some men think that all a woman is good for is to crawl into the sack with them and mind the children. It compensates for what white society has done to them. They were famous warriors and hunters once, but the buffalo is gone and there is not much rep in putting a can of spam or an occasional rabbit on the table.
As for being warriors, the only way some men can count coup nowadays is knocking out another skin’s teeth during a barroom fight. In the old days a man made a name for himself by being generous and wise, but now he has nothing to be generous with, no jobs, no money; and as far as our traditional wisdom is concerned, our men are being told by the white missionaries, teachers, and employers that it is merely savage superstition they should get rid of if they want to make it in this world. Men are forced to live away from their children, so that the family can get ADC—Aid to Dependent Children. So some warriors come home drunk and beat up their old ladies in order to work off their frustration. I know where they are coming from. I feel sorry for them, but I feel even sorrier for their women.
To start from the beginning, I am a Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I belong to the “Burned Thigh,” the Brule Tribe, the Sicangu in our language. Long ago, so the legend goes, a small band of Sioux was surrounded by enemies who set fire to their tipis and the grass around them. They fought their way out of the trap but got their legs burned and in this way acquired their name. The Brules are part of the Seven Sacred Campfires, the seven tribes of the Western Sioux known collectively as Lakota. The Eastern Sioux are called Dakota. The difference between them is their language. It is the same except that where we Lakota pronounce anL,the Dakota pronounce aD.They cannot pronounce anLat all. In our tribe we have this joke: “What is a flat tire in Dakota?” Answer: “A bdowout.”
The Brule, like all Sioux, were a horse people, fierce riders and raiders, great warriors. Between 1870 and 1880 all Sioux were driven into reservations, fenced in and forced to give up everything that had given meaning to their life—their horses, their hunting, their arms, everything. But under the long snows of despair the little spark of our ancient beliefs and pride kept glowing, just barely sometimes, waiting for a warm wind to blow that spark into a flame again.
My family was settled on the reservation in a small place called He-Dog, after a famous chief. There are still some He-Dogs living. One, an old lady I knew, lived to be over a hundred years old. Nobody knew when she had been born. She herself had no idea, except that when she came into the world there was no census yet, and Indians had not yet been given Christian first names. Her name was just He-Dog, nothing else. She always told me, “You should have seen me eighty years ago when I was pretty.” I have never forgotten her face—nothing but deep cracks and gullies, but beautiful in its own way. At any rate very impressive.
On the Indian side my family was related to the Brave Birds and Fool Bulls. Old Grandpa Fool Bull was the last man to make flutes and play them, the old-style flutes in the shape of a bird’s head which had the elk power, the power to lure a young girl into a man’s blanket. Fool Bull lived a whole long century, dying in 1976, whittling his flutes almost until his last day. He took me to my first peyote meeting while I was still a kid.
He still remembered the first Wounded Knee, the massacre. He was a young boy at that time, traveling with his father, a well-known medicine man. They had gone to a place near Wounded Knee to take part in a Ghost Dance. They had on their painted ghost shirts which were supposed to make them bulletproof. When they got near Pine Ridge they were stopped by white soldiers, some of them from the Seventh Cavalry, George Custer’s old regiment, who were hoping to kill themselves some Indians. The Fool Bull band had to give up their few old muzzle-loaders, bows, arrows, and even knives. They had to put up their tipis in a tight circle, all bunched up, with the wagons on the outside and the soldiers surrounding their camp, watching them closely. It was cold, so cold that the trees were crackling with a loud noise as the frost was splitting their trunks. The people made a fire the following morning to warm themselves and make some coffee and then they noticed a sound beyond the crackling of the trees: rifle fire, salvos making a noise like the ripping apart of a giant blanket; the boom of cannon and the rattling of quick-firing Hotchkiss guns. Fool Bull remembered the grown-ups bursting into tears, the women keening: “They are killing our people, they are butchering them!” It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes, thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.
I wish I could tell about the big deeds of some ancestors of mine who fought at the Little Big Horn, or the Rosebud, counting coup during the Grattan or Fetterman battle, but little is known of my family’s history before 1880. I hope some of my great-grandfathers counted coup on Custer’s men, I like to imagine it, but I just do not know. Our Rosebud people did not play a big part in the battles against generals Crook or Custer. This was due to the policy of Spotted Tail, the all-powerful chief at the time. Spotted Tail had earned his eagle feathers as a warrior, but had been taken East as a prisoner and put in jail. Coming back years later, he said that he had seen the cities of the whites and that a single one of them contained more people than could be found in all the Plains tribes put together, and that every one of the wasičuns’ factories could turn out more rifles and bullets in one day than were owned by all the Indians in the country. It was useless, he said, to try to resist the wasičuns. During the critical year of 1876 he had his Indian police keep most of the young men on the reservation, preventing them from joining Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse. Some of the young bucks, a few Brave Birds among them, managed to sneak out trying to get to Montana, but nothing much is known. After having been forced into reservations, it was not thought wise to recall such things. It might mean no rations, or worse. For the same reason many in my family turned Christian, letting themselves be “whitemanized.” It took many years to reverse this process.
My sister Barbara, who is four years older than me, says she remembers the day when I was born. It was late at night and raining hard amid thunder and lightning. We had no electricity then, just the old-style kerosene lamps with the big reflectors. No bathroom, no tap water, no car. Only a few white teachers had cars. There was one phone in He-Dog, at the trading post. This was not so very long ago, come to think of it. Like most Sioux at that time my mother was supposed to give birth at home, I think, but something went wrong, I was pointing the wrong way, feet first or stuck sideways. My mother was in great pain, laboring for hours, until finally somebody ran to the trading post and called the ambulance. They took her—us—to Rosebud, but the hospital there was not yet equipped to handle a complicated birth, I don’t think they had surgery then, so they had to drive mother all the way to Pine Ridge, some ninety miles distant, because there the tribal hospital was bigger. So it happened that I was born among Crazy Horse’s people. After my sister Sandra was born the doctors there performed a hysterectomy on my mother, in fact sterilizing her without her permission, which was common at the time, and up to just a few years ago, so that it is hardly worth mentioning. In the opinion of some people, the fewer Indians there are, the better. As Colonel Chivington said to his soldiers: “Kill ‘em all, big and small, nits make lice!”
I don’t know whether I am a louse under the white man’s skin. I hope I am. At any rate I survived the long hours of my mother’s labor, the stormy drive to Pine Ridge, and the neglect of the doctors. I am an iyeska, a breed, that’s what the white kids used to call me. When I grew bigger they stopped calling me that, because it would get them a bloody nose. I am a small woman, not much over five feet tall, but I can hold my own in a fight, and in a free-for-all with honkies I can become rather ornery and do real damage. I have white blood in me. Often I have wished to be able to purge it out of me. As a young girl I used to look at myself in the mirror, trying to find a clue as to who and what I was. My face is very Indian, and so are my eyes and my hair, but my skin is very light. Always I waited for the summer, for the prairie sun, the Badlands sun, to tan me and make me into a real skin.
The Crow Dogs, the members of my husband’s family, have no such problems of identity. They don’t need the sun to tan them, they are full-bloods—the Sioux of the Sioux. Some Crow Dog men have faces which make the portrait on the buffalo Indian nickel look like a washed-out white man. They have no shortage of legends. Every Crow Dog seems to be a legend in himself, including the women. They became outcasts in their stronghold at Grass Mountain rather than being whitemanized. They could not be tamed, made to wear a necktie or go to a Christian church. All during the long years when practicing Indian beliefs was forbidden and could be punished with jail, they went right on having their ceremonies, their sweat baths and sacred dances. Whenever a Crow Dog got together with some relatives, such as those equally untamed, unregenerated Iron Shells, Good Lances, Two Strikes, Picket Pins, or Hollow Horn Bears, then you could hear the sound of the can gleska, the drum, telling all the world that a Sioux ceremony was in the making. It took courage and suffering to keep the flame alive, the little spark under the snow.
The first Crow Dog was a well-known chief. On his shield was the design of two circles and two arrowheads for wounds received in battle—two white man’s bullets and two Pawnee arrow points. When this first Crow Dog was lying wounded in the snow, a coyote came to warm him and a crow flew ahead of him to show him the way home. His name should be Crow Coyote, but the white interpreter misunderstood it and so they became Crow Dogs. This Crow dog of old became famous for killing a rival chief, the result of a feud over tribal politics, then driving voluntarily over a hundred miles to get himself hanged at Deadwood, his wife sitting beside him in his buggy; famous also for finding on his arrival that the Supreme Court had ordered him to be freed because the federal government had no jurisdiction over Indian reservations and also because it was no crime for one Indian to kill another. Later, Crow Dog became a leader of the Ghost Dancers, holding out for months in the frozen caves and ravines of the Badlands. So, if my own family lacks history, that of my husband more than makes up for it.
Our land itself is a legend, especially the area around Grass Mountain where I am living now. The fight for our land is at the core of our existence, as it has been for the last two hundred years. Once the land is gone, then we are gone too. The Sioux used to keep winter counts, picture writings on buffalo skin, which told our people’s story from year to year. Well, the whole country is one vast winter count. You can’t walk a mile without coming to some family’s sacred vision hill, to an ancient Sun Dance circle, an old battle-ground, a place where something worth remembering happened. Mostly a death, a proud death or a drunken death. We are a great people for dying. “It’s a good day to die!” that’s our old battle cry. But the land with its tar paper shacks and outdoor privies, not one of them straight, but all leaning this way or that way, is also a land to live on, a land for good times and telling jokes and talking of great deeds done in the past. But you can’t live forever off the deeds of Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. You can’t wear their eagle feathers, freeload off their legends. You have to make your own legends now. It isn’t easy.
The father says so—E’yayo!
The father says so—E’yayo!
You shall see your grandfather!
You shall see your kindred—E’yayo!
The father says so.
A’te he’ye lo.
Child let me grasp your hand,
Child let me grasp your hand.
You shall live,
You shall live!
Says the father.
A’te he’ye lo.
—Ghost Dance song
Our people have always been known for their strongfamily ties, for people within one family group caring for each other, for the “helpless ones,” the old folks and especially the children, the coming generation. Even now, among traditionals, as long as one person eats, all other relatives eat too. Nobody saves up money because there is always some poor relative saying, “Kanji, I need five bucks for food and gas,” and he will not be refused as long as there is one single dollar left. Feeding every comer is still a sacred duty, and Sioux women seem always to be cooking from early morning until late at night. Fourth and fifth cousins still claim relationship and the privileges that go with it. Free enterprise has no future on the res.
At the center of the old Sioux society was the tiyospaye, the extended family group, the basic hunting band, which included grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws, and cousins. The tiyospaye was like a warm womb cradling all within it. Kids were never alone, always fussed over by not one but several mothers, watched and taught by several fathers. The real father, as a matter of fact, selected a second father, some well-thought-of relative with special skills as a hunter or medicine man, to help him bring up a boy, and such a person was called “Father” too. And the same was true for the girls. Grandparents in our tribe always held a special place in caring for the little ones, because they had more time to devote to them, when the father was out hunting, taking the mother with him to help with the skinning and butchering.
The whites destroyed the tiyospaye, not accidentally, but as a matter of policy. The close-knit clan, set in its old ways, was a stumbling block in the path of the missionary and government agent, its traditions and customs a barrier to what the white man called “progress” and “civilization.” And so the government tore the tiyospaye apart and forced the Sioux into the kind of relationship now called the “nuclear family"—forced upon each couple their individually owned allotment of land, trying to teach them “the benefits of wholesome selfishness without which higher civilization is impossible.” At least that is how one secretary of the interior put it. So the great brainwashing began, those who did not like to have their brains washed being pushed farther and farther into the back country into isolation and starvation. The civilizers did a good job on us, especially among the half-bloods, using the stick-and-carrot method, until now there is neither the tiyospaye nor a white-style nuclear family left, just Indian kids without parents. The only thing reminding one of the old Sioux family group is that the grandparents are playing a bigger role than ever. With often no mother or father around, it is the old folks who are bringing up the kids, which is not always a bad thing.
My father, Bill Moore, was part Indian, but mostly white, French with a little Spanish mixed in—Spanish not chicano. He was in the navy and later became a trucker. He lives in Omaha—I think. All that’s left of him is his picture on the mantelpiece showing him in navy uniform, a lean-faced, sharp-eyed man. He stayed around just long enough until mom got pregnant with me. Then he split, telling my mother he was tired of all that baby shit. He just left. He was not interested in us, nor in the kids he had with another wife whom he did not want either and placed on welfare. I don’t know what became of them. So there is just that one picture left to remind me that I, too, had a father like everybody else. My mother never talked of him; my grandfather—his own father—never talked of him. So all I know is that he wanted no part of me and liked to drink. That’s the only things I was ever told about him.
I saw him twice in the flesh. He came back when I was eleven in order to ask his father for some money. The second time I saw him was when he came for his brother’s funeral. He looked right through me as if I had not been there. His eyes were dead. He did not even ask who I was. As a matter of fact he did not talk at all, just grinned when some jokes were told and looked uncomfortable in his tight, new cow-boy boots. After the funeral he just shook hands all around, without uttering a word, in a hurry to be off again. My mother divorced him in 1954 when I was one year old.
When I was nine or ten my mother married again. This stepfather was even worse than my real father, who at least was not around. My stepfather was. He was a wino and started us kids drinking when I was barely ten years old. After my mother married this man I did not want to be around. I did not like the way he stared at me. It made me uncomfortable. So I just kept away from my mother’s place. I rather was on my own, took care of myself, hating myself for having allowed him to teach me to drink. On the rare occasions when I went home I always got into arguments with my mother, telling her, “Why did you marry that man? He’s no dad. He doesn’t love us. He does nothing for us.”
So I and my mother did not get along then. I was a natural-born rebel. They were married and I could do nothing about it. So I drank and ripped off as I got older, living like a hobo, punishing my mother that way. I had to mature. My mother had to mature also. We get along now, really like and respect each other. I realize that I was very intolerant. My mother could not help herself. The little settlements we lived in—He-Dog, Upper Cut Meat, Parmelee, St. Francis, Belvidere—were places without hope where bodies and souls were being destroyed bit by bit. Schools left many of us almost illiterate. We were not taught any skills. The land was leased to white ranchers. Jobs were almost nonexistent on the reservation, and outside the res whites did not hire Indians if they could help it. There was nothing for the men to do in those days but hit the bottle. The men were psychologically crippled and thus my mother did not have much choice when it came to picking a husband. The men had nothing to live for, so they got drunk and drove off at ninety miles an hour in a car without lights, without brakes, and without destination, to die a warrior’s death.
There were six of us kids. A seventh had died as a baby. First, my oldest sister, Kathie, then my brother Robert, then Barbara, who is closest to me in life-style and has had experiences almost exactly like mine. Then came Sandra, and then myself, the youngest. After me came a little boy. We adopted him. This came about when my mother visited his parents for some reason or other. She found nobody at home except this baby boy, dirty, bawling with hunger, and soaking wet, in a box under the dresser. All alone. Everybody gone. Barhopping, most likely. It got my mother mad and somehow she worked it out so we could adopt the baby. He was very spoiled. Everything he wanted he got. So at least one kid in the family got pampered.
After father left, mother became our sole financial support. In order to earn a living she went to be trained as a nurse. When she had finished her training the only job she could find was in Pierre, some hundred miles away. There was nobody there to take care of us while she worked, so she had to leave us behind with our grandparents. We missed her at times. We would see her only rarely. She did not have many chances to come home because she had no transportation. She could not afford a car and it was impossible to get around without one. So she was not there when we needed her because she had to care for white patients. It was only after I was almost grown-up that I really became acquainted with her.
Like most reservation kids we wound up with our grandparents. We were lucky. Many Indian children are placed in foster homes. This happens even in some cases where parents or grandparents are willing and able to take care of them, but where the social workers say their homes are substandard, or where there are outhouses instead of flush toilets, or where the family is simply “too poor.” A flush toilet to a white social worker is more important than a good grandmother. So the kids are given to wasičun strangers to be “acculturated in a sanitary environment.” We are losing the coming generation that way and do not like it.
We were lucky, having good, warm-hearted grandparents until we, too, were taken away to a boarding school. My grandma was born Louise Flood and she was a Sioux. Her first husband’s name was Brave Bird. I have tried to find out about this ancestor of mine. I looked in all the Lakota history books. There were Brave Bears, and Brave Bulls, and Brave Wolves, but no Brave Birds listed. I should have asked when grandma was still alive. They lived on their allotted land way out on the prairie. When grandma was young the whole tribe lived on commodities. Every head of household had a ration card, keeping this precious object in a small, beautifully beaded pouch around his neck, the kind which now costs collectors as much as three hundred dollars. Once a month everybody had to go for their supplies—coffee, sugar loaves, sacks of flour, bacon—mostly starch but filling enough while it lasted, and if we were not cheated out of part of it. Sometimes there was a beef issue of living cattle, the stringiest, skinniest beasts imaginable. This meat-on-the-hoof was driven into a huge corral and then our men were allowed to play buffalo hunters for a couple of hours and ride after them and shoot down those poor refugees from the glue factory and butcher them. This was always a big occasion, good entertainment one could talk about. One day, Grandfather Brave Bird hitched up his wagon and team to drive six hours to town to get his government issue. He went all by himself. On the way home he ran into a thunderstorm. Lightning spooked the horses. They raced off at a dead run, upsetting the wagon. The box seat got ripped off with Brave Bird still in it, entangled in the reins. The horses dragged him through the brush, over rocks, and finally for a couple of miles along a barbed-wire fence. He was dead when they found him.
At that time my grandmother had two girls and two boys. These uncles of mine got TB as they grew up, were taken to an institution, and died from this disease. Tuberculosis is still a problem with us, striking men more often than women. At least they died when they were grown-up, not as children as often happens. At least my grandmother thinks that is where and how they died. She never got any records. All she got was a box to bury.
There was a man called Noble Moore. He had a family and his wife died, and grandma had a family and her husband had died. So the widow and the widower got together and married. By this time my mom was already grown-up. Now Moore had a son of the same age called Bill. One thing led to another and mom married Bill, our absentee head of family, the ex-navy trucker in Omaha. Grandma had the father and my mother wound up with the son. In this kind of lottery grandma won the big prize, because the old man was as good and sober and caring as his son was the opposite.
Grandpa and Grandma Moore were good to us, raising us ever since we were small babies. Grandfather Noble Moore was the only father I knew. He took responsibility for us in his son’s place. He gave us as good a home as he could. He worked as a janitor in the school and had little money to take care of a large family, his own and that of his son. Nine people in all plus always some poor relatives with no jobs. I don’t know how he managed, but somehow he did.
The old couple raised us way out on the prairie near He-Dog in a sort of homemade shack. We had no electricity, no heating system, no plumbing. We got our water from the river. Some of the things which even poor white or black ghetto people take for granted we did not even know existed. We knew little about the outside world, having no radio and no TV. Maybe that was a blessing.
Our biggest feast was Thanksgiving because then we had hamburgers. They had a wonderful taste to them which I still remember. Grandpa raised us on rabbits, deer meat, ground squirrels, even porcupines. They never seemed to have money to buy much food. Grandpa Moore and two of his brothers were hunting all the time. It was the only way to put some fresh, red meat on the table, and we Sioux are real tigers when it comes to meat. We can’t do without it. A few times grandpa came back from fishing with a huge mud turtle and threw it in the pot. That was a feast for him. He said one could taste seven different kinds of meat flavors in a turtle stew—chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, deer, wild duck, antelope, all these. We also got the usual commodities after OEO came in.
Our cabin was small. It had only one room which served as our kitchen, living room, dining room, parlor, or whatever. At night we slept there, too. That was our home—one room. Grandma was the kind of woman who, when visitors dropped in, immediately started to feed them. She always told me: “Even if there’s not much left, they gonna eat. These people came a long ways to visit us, so they gonna eat first. I don’t care if they come at sunrise or at sundown, they gonna eat first. And whatever is left after they leave, even if it’s only a small dried-up piece of fry bread, that’s what we eat.” This my grandmother taught me. She was Catholic and tried to raise us as whites, because she thought that was the only way for us to get ahead and lead a satisfying life, but when it came to basics she was all Sioux, in spite of the pictures of Holy Mary and the Sacred Heart on the wall. Whether she was aware of how very Indian she had remained, I cannot say. She also spoke the Sioux language, the real old-style Lakota, not the modern slang we have today. And she knew her herbs, showing us how to recognize the different kinds of Indian plants, telling us what each of them was good for. She took us to gather berries and a certain mint for tea During the winter we took chokecherries, the skin and the branches. We boiled the inside layers and used the tea for various sorts of sicknesses. In the fall she took us to harvest chokecherries and wild grapes. These were the only sweets we had. I never discovered candy until much later when I was in school. We did not have the money for it and only very seldom went to town.
We had no shoes and went barefoot most of the time. I never had a new dress. Once a year we would persuade somebody to drive us to the Catholic mission for a basement rummage sale. Sometimes we found something there to put on our feet before it got cold, and maybe a secondhand blouse or skirt. That was all we could afford. We did not celebrate Christmas, at least not the kind of feast white people are used to. Grandma would save a little money and when the time came she bought some crystal sugar—it looked like small rocks of glass put on a string—some peanuts, apples, and oranges. And she got some kind of cotton material, sewing it together, making little pouches for us, and in each put one apple, one orange, a handful of peanuts, and some of that crystal sugar which took forever to melt in one’s mouth. I loved it. That was Christmas and it never changed.
I was too small to know about racism then. When I was in third grade some relative took me to Pine Ridge and I went into a store. It was not very big, a small country grocery. One of my teachers was inside. I went right to the vegetable and fruit bins where I saw oranges just like the one I always got on Christmas. I sure wanted one of them. I picked the biggest one. An uncle had given me a nickel to go on a wild spree with and I wanted to use it paying for the orange. The store owner told me, “A nickel ain’t enough to pay for one of them large Sunkist navel oranges, the only ones I got. Put it back.” I still remember that. I had to put that damned orange back. Next to me, the wasičun teacher saw me do it and she made a face saying out loud, so that everyone in the store could hear it: “Why can’t those dirty Indians keep their hands off this food? I was going to buy some oranges, but they put their dirty hands on them and now I must try to find some oranges elsewhere. How disgusting!” It made a big impression on me, even though I could not understand the full meaning of this incident.
Grandma told me: “Whatever you do, don’t go into white people’s homes. ‘Cause when they come into our homes they make fun of us, because we are poor.” When we were growing up at He-Dog there were a few Indian shacks and the garage for buses and the filling station and that was totally it. Then the government started to move us to Parmelee where they put up new OEO houses, small, matchstick structures without cellars which the people called “poverty houses.” A school was also built and a few white teachers moved there. I made friends with a little white girl. She said, “Come to my house.” I answered, “No, I ain’t supposed to go to nobody’s house.” She said, “My ma ain’t home. She’s visiting neighbors. Just come!” So I sneaked over there without grandma knowing it. The white girl had many toys, dolls, a doll-house. All the things I used to admire in theSears, Roebuck Cataloguewhich I always studied in the outhouse. She had everything. She said, “Sit down and play with my toys.” I did. I thought she was my friend. Suddenly I heard the door banging, banging, banging. It was the little girl’s mother and she was yelling, “You open this door! You got some nerve coming into my home. You locked me out.” She was screaming and I was shaking. I did not know what to do. I told her, “I did not lock you out. I did not even know that door was locked.” She yelled, “Where is my whip?” She went into the hallway and got hold of a big, thick leather belt. She said, “Get over here!”
I ran as fast as I could back to my grandmother’s house. I told her, “That white woman is going to whip me.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I just went into her house and she wants to whip me. Her little girl got me into trouble. I didn’t do nothing. Hide me, grandma!” I was so scared.
By about that time the lady was coming. Grandma told me, “You stay in here!” Then she got her big butcher knife. She went out standing in the doorway and told that woman, “You goddam white trash, you coming any closer and I’ll chop your ears off.” I never saw anybody run as fast as did that white lady.
In South Dakota white kids learn to be racists almost before they learn to walk. When I was about seven or eight years old, I fought with the school principal’s daughter. We were in the playground. She was hanging on the monkey bar saying, “Come on, monkey, this thing is for you.” She also told me that I smelled and looked like an Indian. I grabbed her by the hair and yanked her down from the monkey bar. I would have done more, but I saw the principal coming.
As I said, grandma spoke Sioux fluently. So does my mother. But we were not allowed to speak it and we were not taught. Many times I asked my grandmother, “Why don’t you teach me the language?” Her answer always was: “ ‘Cause we want you to get an education, to live a good life. Not have a hard time. Not depend on nobody. Times coming up are going to be real hard. You need a white man’s education to live in this world. Speaking Indian would only hold you back, turn you the wrong way.”
She thought she was helping me by not teaching me Indian ways. Her being a staunch Catholic also had something to do with it. The missionaries had always been repeating over and over again: “You must kill the Indian in order to save the man!"That was part of trying to escape the hard life. The missions, going to church, dressing and behaving like a wasičun—that for her was the key which would magically unlock the door leading to the good life, the white life with a white-painted cottage, and a carpet on the floor, a shiny car in the garage, and an industrious, necktie-wearing husband who was not a wino. Examples abounded all around her that it was the wrong key to the wrong door, that it would not change the shape of my cheekbones, or the slant of my eyes, the color of my hair, or the feelings inside me. She had only to open her eyes to see, but could not or would not. Her little dream was nourished and protected by the isolation in which she lived.
Grandma had been to mission school and that had influenced her to abandon much of our traditional ways. She gave me love and a good home, but if I wanted to be an Indian I had to go elsewhere to learn how to become one. To grandma’s older sister, Mary, for instance, the one who is married to Charlie Little Dog. I call them grandfather and grandmother, too, after the Sioux manner. He is a hundred and four years old now and grandma Little Dog about ninety-eight. They are very traditional people, faithful to the ancient rituals. They still carry their water from the river. They still chop wood. They still live like the Sioux of a hundred years ago. When Charlie Little Dog talks, he still uses the old words. You have to be at least sixty or seventy years old to understand what he is talking about—the language has changed that much. So I went to them if I wanted to hear the old tales of warriors and spirits, the oral history of our people.
I also went to grand-uncle Dick Fool Bull, the flute maker, who took me to my first peyote meeting, and to people like the Bear Necklaces, the Brave Birds, Iron Shells, Hollow Horn Bears, and Crow Dogs. One woman, Elsie Flood, a niece of grandma’s, had a big influence upon me. She was a turtle woman, a strong, self-reliant person, because a turtle stands for strength, resolution, and long life. A turtle heart beats and beats for days, long after the turtle itself is dead. It keeps on beating all by itself. In traditional families a beaded charm in the shape of a turtle is fastened to a newborn child’s cradle. The baby’s navel cord is put inside this turtle charm, which is believed to protect the infant from harm and bad spirits. The charm is also supposed to make the child live to a great old age. A turtle is a strength of mind, a communication with the thunder.
I loved to visit Aunt Elsie Flood to listen to her stories. With her high cheekbones she looked like grandma. She had a voice like water bubbling, talking with a deep, throaty sound. And she talked fast, mixing Indian and English together. I had to pay strict attention if I wanted to understand what she told me. She always paid her bills, earning a living by her arts and crafts, her beautiful work with beads and porcupine quills—what she called “Indian novelties.” She was also a medicine woman. She was an old-time woman carrying her pack on her back. She would not let a man or younger woman carry her burden. She carried it herself. She neither asked nor accepted help from anybody, being proud of her turtle strength. She used turtles as her protection. Wherever she went, she always had some little live turtles with her and all kinds of things made out of tortoiseshell, little charms and boxes. She had a little place in Martin, halfway between Rosebud and Pine Ridge, and there she lived alone. She was very independent but always glad to have me visit her. Once she came to our home, trudging along as usual with the heavy pack on her back and two shopping bags full of herbs and strange things. She also brought a present for me—two tiny, very lively turtles. She had painted Indian designs on their shells and their bottoms. She communicated with them by name. One she called “Come” and the other “Go.” They always waddled over to her when she called them to get their food. She had a special kind of feed for them, leaving me whole bags of it. These small twin turtles stayed tiny. They never grew. One day the white principal’s son came over and smashed them. Simply stomped them to death. When she heard it my aunt said that this was an evil sign for her.
The turtle woman was afraid of nothing. She was always hitchhiking, constantly on the road thumbing her way from one place to the other. She was a mystery to some. The Indians held her in great respect, saying that she was “wakan,” that she was some sort of holy person to whom turtles had given their powers. In the summer of 1976 she was found beaten to death in her home. She was discovered under the bed, face down and naked, with weeds in her hair. She had never hurt anyone or done an unkindness to anybody, only helped people who needed it. No Indian would have touched a single hair on her head. She died that way. I still grieve for her. Her death has never been investigated. The life of an Indian is not held in great value in the State of South Dakota. There is no woman like her anymore.
So many of my relations and friends who were ever dear to me, or meant something to me, or meant something to the people, have either been killed or found dead on some out-of-the-way road. The good Indians die first. They do not grow old. This turtle aunt of mine was one of the traditionally strongest women of her generation. To bring back what knowledge she had is going to take time. It will take another generation or two to bring it back.
In spite of our grandparents trying so hard to be good Christians, some Indian beliefs rubbed off on them. I remember when I was little, if someone was sick, Grandfather Moore would fill one of the tubs used for watering the cattle and put live ducks in it, saying: “If those birds stay in and swim awhile, swim around, that sick person is gonna be all right. But if the ducks just jump out and leave, the sick one won’t get better.” He never explained it, just expected everybody to take it on faith. Much later, when my sister Barbara lost her baby, some relatives and friends held a peyote meeting for her. Barb asked our mother and grandmother to come and they actually did. They must have been a little uneasy among all these heathenish goings-on, but they lasted all night and behaved well, as if they had been doing it all their lives. I am sure they worried that the priest would hear about it. I also remember having been told that once, when a person living in a tent behind our shack fell ill, grandfather got a medicine man to doctor him and suck the evil poisons out of his system.
I lived the simple life at He-Dog until I had to go to boarding school. We kids did not suffer from being poor, because we were not aware of it. The few Indians nearby lived in the same kind of want, in the same kind of dilapidated shacks or one-room log cabins with dirt floors. We had nothing to compare our life to. We existed in a vacuum of our own. We were not angry because we did not know that somewhere there was a better, more comfortable life. To be angry, poverty has to rub shoulders with wealth, as for instance ghetto people in squalid tenements living next door to the rich in their luxury apartments as I have seen during my visits to New York. TV has destroyed the innocence, broken through the wall that separates the rich whites from the poor nonwhites. The “boob tube” brainwashes people, but if they are poor and nonwhite, it also makes them angry seeing all those things advertised that they can never hope to have—the fancy homes and cars, the dishwashers and microwaves, the whole costly junk of affluent America. I wonder whether the advertisers who spend a hundred thousand dollars on a commercial are aware of broadcasting a revolutionary message.
As we had no electricity we also had no “idiot box” and therefore felt no envy. Except for that one incident in the white lady’s home, I had not yet encountered racism in its varied forms, and that one event I had not fully comprehended. It left me afraid of white people, though, that and some stories I had heard. As I hardly met any white people, they did not bother me. I liked the food I got; I did not know any other, and hunger is a good cook. I liked our shack. Its being overcrowded only meant womblike security to me. Again, except for that white lady’s house, I only knew the kind that looked like ours, except for the filling station, but that was not a home. I had food, love, a place to sleep, and a warm, potbellied, wood-fed stove to sit near in the winter. I needed nothing more. Finally, I had something white kids don’t usually have—horses to ride. No matter how poor we Sioux are, there are always a few ponies around. When I was a small girl you could buy a nice-looking pinto for ten dollars So I was riding from as early an age as I can remember. I liked the feel of a horse under me, a feeling of mastery, of freedom, of wildness, of being Indian. It is a feeling shared by everybody on the reservation. Even the most white-manized Sioux is still half horse. I never particularly wished for anything during my earlier childhood except to own an Appaloosa, because I had seen a picture of one in a magazine and fell in love with it. Maybe one day, if I live, I’ll get my wish.
Grandfather Moore died in 1972. He passed away peacefully in his sleep. I was glad he had such an easy death. He was a good, loving man, a hard-working janitor. I miss him. I miss grandma. They protected us as long as they were able, but they could not protect us from being taken away to boarding school.
Civilize Them with a Stick
… Gathered from the cabin, the wickiup, and the tepee,
partly by cajolery and partly by threats;
partly by bribery and partly by force,
they are induced to leave their kindred
to enter these schools and take upon themselves
the outward appearance of civilized life.
—Annual report of the Department of Interior, 1901
It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like. Even now, when these schools are much improved, when the buildings are new, all gleaming steel and glass, the food tolerable, the teachers well trained and well-intentioned, even trained in child psychology—unfortunately the psychology of white children, which is different from ours—the shock to the child upon arrival is still tremendous. Some just seem to shrivel up, don’t speak for days on end, and have an empty look in their eyes. I know of an eleven-year-old on another reservation who hanged herself, and in our school, while I was there, a girl jumped out of the window, trying to kill herself to escape an unbearable situation. That first shock is always there.
Although the old tiyospaye has been destroyed, in the traditional Sioux families, especially in those where there is no drinking, the child is never left alone. It is always surrounded by relatives, carried around, enveloped in warmth. It is treated with the respect due to any human being, even a small one. It is seldom forced to do anything against its will, seldom screamed at, and never beaten. That much, at least, is left of the old family group among full-bloods. And then suddenly a bus or car arrives, full of strangers, usually white strangers, who yank the child out of the arms of those who love it, taking it screaming to the boarding school. The only word I can think of for what is done to these children is kidnapping.
Even now, in a good school, there is impersonality instead of close human contact; a sterile, cold atmosphere, an unfamiliar routine, language problems, and above all the maza-skan-skan, that damn clock—white man’s time as opposed to Indian time, which is natural time. Like eating when you are hungry and sleeping when you are tired, not when that damn clock says you must. But I was not taken to one of the better, modern schools. I was taken to the old-fashioned mission school at St. Francis, run by the nuns and Catholic fathers, built sometime around the turn of the century and not improved a bit when I arrived, not improved as far as the buildings, the food, the teachers, or their methods were concerned.
In the old days, nature was our people’s only school and they needed no other. Girls had their toy tipis and dolls, boys their toy bows and arrows. Both rode and swam and played the rough Indian games together. Kids watched their peers and elders and naturally grew from children into adults. Life in the tipi circle was harmonious—until the whiskey peddlers arrived with their wagons and barrels of “Injun whiskey.” I often wished I could have grown up in the old, before-whiskey days.
Oddly enough, we owed our unspeakable boarding schools to the do-gooders, the white Indian-lovers. The schools were intended as an alternative to the outright extermination seriously advocated by generals Sherman and Sheridan, as well as by most settlers and prospectors over-running our land. “You don’t have to kill those poor benighted heathen,” the do-gooders said, “in order to solve the Indian Problem. Just give us a chance to turn them into useful farmhands, laborers, and chambermaids who will break their backs for you at low wages.” In that way the boarding schools were born. The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families—sometimes for as long as ten years—suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots—caricatures of white people. When they found out—and they found out quickly—that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives. I still have a poster I found among my grandfather’s stuff, given to him by the missionaries to tack up on his wall. It reads:
Let Jesus save you.
Come out of your blanket, cut your hair, and dress like a white man.
Have a Christian family with one wife for life only.
Live in a house like your white brother. Work hard and wash often.
Learn the value of a hard-earned dollar. Do not waste your money on giveaways. Be punctual.
Believe that property and wealth are signs of divine approval.
Keep away from saloons and strong spirits.
Speak the language of your white brother. Send your children to school to do likewise.
Go to church often and regularly.
Do not go to Indian dances or to the medicine men.
The people who were stuck upon “solving the Indian Problem” by making us into whites retreated from this position only step by step in the wake of Indian protests.
The mission school at St. Francis was a curse for our family for generations. My grandmother went there, then my mother, then my sisters and I. At one time or other every one of us tried to run away. Grandma told me once about the bad times she had experienced at St. Francis. In those days they let students go home only for one week every year. Two days were used up for transportation, which meant spending just five days out of three hundred and sixty-five with her family. And that was an improvement. Before grandma’s time, on many reservations they did not let the students go home at all until they had finished school. Anybody who disobeyed the nuns was severely punished. The building in which my grandmother stayed had three floors, for girls only. Way up in the attic were little cells, about five by five by ten feet. One time she was in church and instead of praying she was playing jacks. As punishment they took her to one of those little cubicles where she stayed in darkness because the windows had been boarded up. They left her there for a whole week with only bread and water for nourishment. After she came out she promptly ran away, together with three other girls. They were found and brought back. The nuns stripped them naked and whipped them. They used a horse buggy whip on my grandmother. Then she was put back into the attic—for two weeks.
My mother had much the same experiences but never wanted to talk about them, and then there I was, in the same place. The school is now run by the BIA—the Bureau of Indian Affairs—but only since about fifteen years ago. When I was there, during the 1960s, it was still run by the Church. The Jesuit fathers ran the boys’ wing and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart ran us—with the help of the strap. Nothing had changed since my grandmother’s days, I have been told recently that even in the ‘70s they were still beating children at that school. All I got out of school was being taught how to pray. I learned quickly that I would be beaten if I failed in my devotions or, God forbid, prayed the wrong way, especially prayed in Indian to Wakan Tanka, the Indian Creator.
The girls’ wing was built like an F and was run like a penal institution. Every morning at five o’clock the sisters would come into our large dormitory to wake us up, and immediately we had to kneel down at the sides of our beds and recite the prayers. At six o’clock we were herded into the church for more of the same. I did not take kindly to the discipline and to marching by the clock, left-right, left-right. I was never one to like being forced to do something. I do something because I feel like doing it. I felt this way always, as far as I can remember, and my sister Barbara felt the same way. An old medicine man once told me: “Us Lakotas are not like dogs who can be trained, who can be beaten and keep on wagging their tails, licking the hand that whipped them. We are like cats, little cats, big cats, wildcats, bobcats, mountain lions. It doesn’t matter what kind, but cats who can’t be tamed, who scratch if you step on their tails.” But I was only a kitten and my claws were still small.
Barbara was still in the school when I arrived and during my first year or two she could still protect me a little bit. When Barb was a seventh-grader she ran away together with five other girls, early in the morning before sunrise. They brought them back in the evening. The girls had to wait for two hours in front of the mother superior’s office. They were hungry and cold, frozen through. It was wintertime and they had been running the whole day without food, trying to make good their escape. The mother superior asked each girl, “Would you do this again?” She told them that as punishment they would not be allowed to visit home for a month and that she’d keep them busy on work details until the skin on their knees and elbows had worn off. At the end of her speech she told each girl, “Get up from this chair and lean over it.” She then lifted the girls’ skirts and pulled down their underpants. Not little girls either, but teenagers. She had a leather strap about a foot long and four inches wide fastened to a stick, and beat the girls, one after another, until they cried. Barb did not give her that satisfaction but just clenched her teeth. There was one girl, Barb told me, the nun kept on beating and beating until her arm got tired.
I did not escape my share of the strap. Once, when I was thirteen years old, I refused to go to Mass. I did not want to go to church because I did not feel well. A nun grabbed me by the hair, dragged me upstairs, made me stoop over, pulled my dress up (we were not allowed at the time to wear jeans), pulled my panties down, and gave me what they called “swats"—twenty-five swats with a board around which Scotch tape had been wound. She hurt me badly.
My classroom was right next to the principal’s office and almost every day I could hear him swatting the boys. Beating was the common punishment for not doing one’s homework, or for being late to school. It had such a bad effect upon me that I hated and mistrusted every white person on sight, because I met only one kind. It was not until much later that I met sincere white people I could relate to and be friends with. Racism breeds racism in reverse.
The routine at St. Francis was dreary. SixA.M., kneeling in church for an hour or so; seven o’clock, breakfast; eight o’clock, scrub the floor, peel spuds, make classes. We had to mop the dining room twice every day and scrub the tables. If you were caught taking a rest, doodling on the bench with a fingernail or knife, or just rapping, the nun would come up with a dish towel and just slap it across your face, saying, “You’re not supposed to be talking, you’re supposed to be working!” Monday mornings we had cornmeal mush, Tuesday oatmeal, Wednesday rice and raisins, Thursday cornflakes, and Friday all the leftovers mixed together or sometimes fish. Frequently the food had bugs or rocks in it. We were eating hot dogs that were weeks old, while the nuns were dining on ham, whipped potatoes, sweet peas, and cranberry sauce. In winter our dorm was icy cold while the nuns’ rooms were always warm.
I have seen little girls arrive at the school, first-graders, just fresh from home and totally unprepared for what awaited them, little girls with pretty braids, and the first thing the nuns did was chop their hair off and tie up what was left behind their ears. Next they would dump the children into tubs of alcohol, a sort of rubbing alcohol, “to get the germs off.” Many of the nuns were German immigrants, some from Bavaria, so that we sometimes speculated whether Bavaria was some sort of Dracula country inhabited by monsters. For the sake of objectivity I ought to mention that two of the German fathers were great linguists and that the only Lakota-English dictionaries and grammars which are worth anything were put together by them.
At night some of the girls would huddle in bed together for comfort and reassurance. Then the nun in charge of the dorm would come in and say, “What are the two of you doing in bed together? I smell evil in this room. You girls are evil incarnate. You are sinning. You are going to hell and burn forever. You can act that way in the devil’s frying pan.” She would get them out of bed in the middle of the night, making them kneel and pray until morning. We had not the slightest idea what it was all about. At home we slept two and three in a bed for animal warmth and a feeling of security.
The nuns and the girls in the two top grades were constantly battling it out physically with fists, nails, and hair-pulling. I myself was growing from a kitten into an undersized cat. My claws were getting bigger and were itching for action. About 1969 or 1970 a strange young white girl appeared on the reservation. She looked about eighteen or twenty years old. She was pretty and had long, blond hair down to her waist, patched jeans, boots, and a backpack. She was different from any other white person we had met before. I think her name was Wise. I do not know how she managed to overcome our reluctance and distrust, getting us into a corner, making us listen to her, asking us how we were treated. She told us that she was from New York. She was the first real hippie or Yippie we had come across. She told us of people called the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Weathermen. She said, “Black people are getting it on. Indians are getting it on in St. Paul and California. How about you?” She also said, “Why don’t you put out an underground paper, mimeograph it. It’s easy. Tell it like it is. Let it all hang out.” She spoke a strange lingo but we caught on fast.
Charlene Left Hand Bull and Gina One Star were two full-blood girls I used to hang out with. We did everything together. They were willing to join me in a Sioux uprising. We put together a newspaper which we called theRed Panther.In it we wrote how bad the school was, what kind of slop we had to eat—slimy, rotten, blackened potatoes for two weeks—the way we were beaten. I think I was the one who wrote the worst article about our principal of the moment, Father Keeler. I put all my anger and venom into it. I called him a goddam wasičun son of a bitch. I wrote that he knew nothing about Indians and should go back to where he came from, teaching white children whom he could relate to. I wrote that we knew which priests slept with which nuns and that all they ever could think about was filling their bellies and buying a new car. It was the kind of writing which foamed at the mouth, but which also lifted a great deal of weight from one’s soul.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, when everybody was at the big powwow, we distributed our newspapers. We put them on windshields and bulletin boards, in desks and pews, in dorms and toilets. But someone saw us and snitched on us. The shit hit the fan. The three of us were taken before a board meeting. Our parents, in my case my mother, had to come. They were told that ours was a most serious matter, the worst thing that had ever happened in the school’s long history. One of the nuns told my mother, “Your daughter really needs to be talked to.” “What’s wrong with my daughter?” my mother asked. She was given one of ourRed Panthernewspapers. The nun pointed out its name to her and then my piece, waiting for mom’s reaction. After a while she asked, “Well, what have you got to say to this? What do you think?”
My mother said, “Well, when I went to school here, some years back, I was treated a lot worse than these kids are. I really can’t see how they can have any complaints, because we was treated a lot stricter. We could not even wear skirts halfway up our knees. These girls have it made. But you should forgive them because they are young. And it’s supposed to be a free country, free speech and all that. I don’t believe what they done is wrong.” So all I got out of it was scrubbing six flights of stairs on my hands and knees, every day. And no boy-side privileges.
The boys and girls were still pretty much separated. The only time one could meet a member of the opposite sex was during free time, between four and five-thirty, in the study hall or on benches or the volleyball court outside, and that was strictly supervised. One day Charlene and I went over to the boys’ side. We were on the ball team and they had to let us practice. We played three extra minutes, only three minutes more than we were supposed to. Here was the nuns’ opportunity for revenge. We got twenty-five swats. I told Charlene, “We are getting too old to have our bare asses whipped that way. We are old enough to have babies. Enough of this shit. Next time we fight back.” Charlene only said, “Hoka-hay!”
We had to take showers every evening. One little girl did not want to take her panties off and one of the nuns told her, “You take those underpants off—or else!” But the child was ashamed to do it. The nun was getting her swat to threaten the girl. I went up to the sister, pushed her veil off, and knocked her down. I told her that if she wanted to hit a little girl she should pick on me, pick one her own size. She got herself transferred out of the dorm a week later.
In a school like this there is always a lot of favoritism. At St. Francis it was strongly tinged with racism. Girls who were near-white, who came from what the nuns called “nice families,” got preferential treatment. They waited on the faculty and got to eat ham or eggs and bacon in the morning. They got the easy jobs while the skins, who did not have the right kind of background—myself among them—always wound up in the laundry room sorting out ten bushel baskets of dirty boys’ socks every day. Or we wound up scrubbing the floors and doing all the dishes. The school therefore fostered fights and antagonism between whites and breeds, and between breeds and skins. At one time Charlene and I had to iron all the robes and vestments the priests wore when saying Mass. We had to fold them up and put them into a chest in the back of the church. In a corner, looking over our shoulders, was a statue of the crucified Savior, all bloody and beaten up. Charlene looked up and said, “Look at that poor Indian. The pigs sure worked him over.” That was the closest I ever came to seeing Jesus.
I was held up as a bad example and didn’t mind. I was old enough to have a boyfriend and promptly got one. At the school we had an hour and a half for ourselves. Between the boys’ and the girls’ wings were some benches where one could sit. My boyfriend and I used to go there just to hold hands and talk. The nuns were very uptight about any boy-girl stuff. They had an exaggerated fear of anything having even the faintest connection with sex. One day in religion class, an all-girl class, Sister Bernard singled me out for some remarks, pointing me out as a bad example, an example that should be shown. She said that I was too free with my body. That I was holding hands which meant that I was not a good example to follow. She also said that I wore unchaste dresses, skirts which were too short, too suggestive, shorter than regulations permitted, and for that I would be punished. She dressed me down before the whole class, carrying on and on about my unchastity.
I stood up and told her, “You shouldn’t say any of those things, miss. You people are a lot worse than us Indians. I know all about you, because my grandmother and my aunt told me about you. Maybe twelve, thirteen years ago you had a water stoppage here in St. Francis. No water could get through the pipes. There are water lines right under the mission, underground tunnels and passages where in my grandmother’s time only the nuns and priests could go, which were off-limits to everybody else. When the water backed up they had to go through all the water lines and clean them out. And in those huge pipes they found the bodies of newborn babies. And they were white babies. They weren’t Indian babies. At least when our girls have babies, they don’t do away with them that way, like flushing them down the toilet, almost.
“And that priest they sent here from Holy Rosary in Pine Ridge because he molested a little girl. You couldn’t think of anything better than dump him on us. All he does is watch young women and girls with that funny smile on his face. Why don’t you point him out for an example?”
Charlene and I worked on the school newspaper. After all we had some practice. Every day we went down to Publications. One of the priests acted as the photographer, doing the enlarging and developing. He smelled of chemicals which had stained his hands yellow. One day he invited Charlene into the darkroom. He was going to teach her developing. She was developed already. She was a big girl compared to him, taller too. Charlene was nicely built, not fat, just rounded. No sharp edges anywhere. All of a sudden she rushed out of the darkroom, yelling to me, “Let’s get out of here! He’s trying to feel me up. That priest is nasty.” So there was this too to contend with—sexual harassment. We complained to the student body. The nuns said we just had a dirty mind.
We got a new priest in English. During one of his first classes he asked one of the boys a certain question. The boy was shy. He spoke poor English, but he had the right answer. The priest told him, “You did not say it right. Correct yourself. Say it over again.” The boy got flustered and stammered. He could hardly get out a word. But the priest kept after him: “Didn’t you hear? I told you to do the whole thing over. Get it right this time.” He kept on and on.
I stood up and said, “Father, don’t be doing that. If you go into an Indian’s home and try to talk Indian, they might laugh at you and say, ‘Do it over correctly. Get it right this time!’”
He shouted at me, “Mary, you stay after class. Sit down right now!”
I stayed after class, until after the bell. He told me, “Get over here!” He grabbed me by the arm, pushing me against the blackboard, shouting, “Why are you always mocking us? You have no reason to do this.”
I said, “Sure I do. You were making fun of him. You embarrassed him. He needs strengthening, not weakening. You hurt him. I did not hurt you.”
He twisted my arm and pushed real hard. I turned around and hit him in the face, giving him a bloody nose. After that I ran out of the room, slamming the door behind me. He and I went to Sister Bernard’s office. I told her, “Today I quit school. I’m not taking any more of this, none of this shit anymore. None of this treatment. Better give me my diploma. I can’t waste any more time on you people.”
Sister Bernard looked at me for a long, long time. She said, “All right, Mary Ellen, go home today. Come back in a few days and get your diploma.” And that was that. Oddly enough, that priest turned out okay. He taught a class in grammar, orthography, composition, things like that. I think he wanted more respect in class. He was still young and unsure of himself. But I was in there too long. I didn’t feel like hearing it. Later he became a good friend of the Indians, a personal friend of myself and my husband. He stood up for us during Wounded Knee and after. He stood up to his superiors, stuck his neck way out, became a real people’s priest. He even learned our language. He died prematurely of cancer. It is not only the good Indians who die young, but the good whites, too. It is the timid ones who know how to take care of themselves who grow old. I am still grateful to that priest for what he did for us later and for the quarrel he picked with me—or did I pick it with him?—because it ended a situation which had become unendurable for me. The day of my fight with him was my last day in school.
Drinking and Fighting
Got them real bad relocation blues,
Got them long-haired Injun big city woes.
One drunk Indian yells ‘cause he’s being mugged,
Some young Indian complains his phone is bugged,
But nobody is getting hugged.
Passerby says: “How, big chief,
What’s your beef?”
Ugh, ugh, big chief, how, how.
Hio, yana-yanay, hi-oh.
Got them sweet muscatel relocation blues,
Got them lemon-vodka big city woes.
Something rubs my leg. “Hi there, pussycat.”
Has a pink and naked tail, some big rat!
Home sweet home!
Hear the police whistle blow,
Someone pissing in the snow,
Tweet, tweet, ugh, ugh, clank, clank.
Hio, yana-yanay, hi-oh.
St. Francis, Parmelee, Mission, were the towns I hung out in after I quit school, reservation towns without hope. Towns that show how a people can be ground under the boot, ground into nothing. The houses are made of tar paper and almost anything that can be scrounged. Take a rusty house trailer, a small, old one which is falling apart. Build onto it a cube made of orange crates. That will be the kitchen. Tack on to that a crumbling auto body. That will be the bedroom. Add a rotting wall tent for a nursery. That will make a typical home, larger than average. Then the outhouse, about fifty feet away. With a blizzard going and the usual bowel troubles, a trip to the privy at night is high adventure. A big joke among drunks was to wait for somebody to be in the outhouse and then for a few guys to root it up, lift it clear off the ground, and turn it upside down with whoever was inside hollering like crazy. This was one of the amusements Parmelee had to offer.
Parmelee, St. Francis, and Mission were drunk towns full of hang-around-the-fort Indians. On weekends the lease money and ADC checks were drunk up with white lightning, muscatel-mustn’t tell, purple Jesus, lemon vodka, Jim Beam, car varnish, paint remover—anything that would go down and stay down for five minutes. And, of course, beer by the carload. Some people would do just about anything for a jug of wine, of mni-sha, and would not give a damn about the welfare of their families. They would fight constantly over whatever little money they had left, whether to buy food or alcohol. The alcohol usually won out. Because there was nobody else, the staggering shapes took out their misery on each other. There was hardly a weekend when somebody did not have an eye gouged out or a skull cracked. “Them’s eyeballs, not grapes you’re seeing on the floor,” was the standing joke.
When a good time was had by all and everybody got slaphappy and mellow—lila itomni, as they said—they all piled into their cars and started making the rounds, all over the three million acres of Rosebud and Pine Ridge, from Mission Town to Winner, to Upper Cut Meat, to White River, to He-Dog. To Porcupine, Valentine, Wanblee, Oglala, Murdo, Kadokah, Scenic, Ghost Hawk Park—you name it. From one saloon to the other—the Idle Hour, Arlo’s, the Crazy Horse Cafe, the Long Horn Saloon, the Sagebrush, the Dew-Drop Inn, singing forty-niner songs:
give me whiskey, honey,
Suta, mni wakan,
I do love you,
Those cars! It was incredible how many people they could cram into one of their jalopies, five of them side by side and one or two on their laps, little kids and all. The brakes were all gone, usually, and one had to pump them like crazy about a mile before coming to a crossing. There were no windshields wipers. They were not needed because there were no windshields either. If one headlight was working, that was cool. Often doors were missing, too, or even a tire. That did not matter because one could drive on the rim. There were always two cases of beer in the back and a few gallons of the cheapest California wine. The babies got some of that too. So they took off amid a shower of beer cans, doing ninety miles with faulty brakes and forty cans of beer sloshing in their bellies. A great way to end it all.
At age twelve I could drink a quart of the hard stuff and not show it. I used to be a heavy drinker and I came close to being an out-and-out alcoholic—very close. But I got tired of drinking. I felt it was all right to drink, but every morning I woke up sick, feeling terrible, with a first-class hangover. I did not like the feeling at all but still kept hitting the bottle. Then I stopped. I haven’t touched a drop of liquor for years, ever since I felt there was a purpose to my life, learned to accept myself for what I was. I have to thank the Indian movement for that, and Grandfather Peyote, and the pipe. Having children played a big role too, though I stopped drinking even before I had my first baby.
Barb and I have a lot of friends. Most of them are drinkers and I tell them I don’t booze anymore. When I go with them I drink 7UP. They keep asking me, “Are you too good for us, or what?” And I tell them, “I just don’t find that alcohol is doing you any good. And if you feel that I’m acting too good for you, then that’s up to you. You can have that feeling. If you want to drink, go ahead, don’t mind me.” I do not preach to them. In their drunken state they ask Barb or me what to do. Sometimes we feel like mother hens. They come and tell me their problems. So I try to talk to them in a way that peyote would want me to advise them. They listen to me and tell me that I am right and that they will stop, but they are not strong enough to do it. They say I am right, but the next day they just go out and get full again. I do not judge them. I am the last person in the world to have a right to do that, and I know where they are coming from. I tell them, “Enjoy your Budweiser, I’ll stay with my 7UP or Pepsi.”
I started drinking because it was the natural way of life. My father drank, my stepfather drank, my mother drank—not too much, but she used to get tipsy once in a while. My older sisters drank, Barbara starting four years before me, because she is that much older. I think I grew up with the idea that everybody was doing it. Which was nearly true, even with some of the old traditionals who always pour a few drops out of their bottles and glasses, sprinkle it on the floor or into corners for the spirits of their departed drinking companions, saying in Sioux, “Here, cousin, here is a little mni-sha for you, savor it!”
I started drinking when I was ten, when my mother married that man. He was always drinking, so I would sneak in and help myself to some of his stuff. Vodka mostly—that’s what he liked. In school I crept into the vestry and drank the church wine, Christ’s blood. He must have understood, hanging out with people like us. At any rate no lightning struck me. The first time I got drunk was when some grown-up relatives had a drinking party. One woman asked me, “Do you want some lemonade?” I said yes and she gave me a big, tall glass of lemonade and put some of that stuff in it. That was my first time. I was trying to walk across the room and could not, just kept falling down, while everybody laughed at me.
Liquor is forbidden on the reservation, which is something of a joke, and drinking it is illegal. But towns like Winner, St. Francis, and Mission have a population which is almost half white and the wasičuns want to have their legal booze. So they incorporated these towns, which are within the reservation, putting them under white man’s law. Which means that you have bars there and package stores. Also all around the reservation are the white cow towns with their saloons. Even if you are stuck in the back country, you can always find a bootlegger. My sister Barb was my best friend, the one who really loved me. She was the one who got me up in the morning and put clothes on me, watched over me. One day a boy took me to a John Wayne movie. Afterward we went “uptown” to hustle some hard stuff. The town hardly had four or five streets, two of them paved, and maybe two dozen shacks and mobile homes sprinkled around, but it had an “uptown,” and a “downtown.” So uptown we went to the cabin of a half-blood bootlegger, getting ourselves a pint of moonshine, the kind they call “liquid TNT, guaranteed to blow your head off,” and a small bottle of rum. As we were coming out of the door we collided with Barb, who had come to get her ration of wet goods. She made a face as if she couldn’t believe her eyes and said, “What in hell are you doing here?”
I answered, “What areyoudoing here? I didn’t know you patronized this place.”
She got really mad. “It’s all right for me. I am seventeen. But you are not supposed to be doing that. You are too young!” She took the bottles away from us, threatening to crack the head of the boy if he dared to interfere. In her excitement she smashed the bottles against the corner of the log cabin instead of saving them for herself and her friends.
Another time, after a school dance, I was sitting with a boy I liked, smoking a cigarette, and out of nowhere suddenly there was Barbara yanking the cigarette out of my mouth. She threw it on the floor and stomped on it right in front of everybody. I hit her, yelling, “But you do it.” And again she said, “Yeah, but I’m older.” We used to fight a lot, out of love and desperation.
After I quit school the situation at home got worse and worse. I had nothing but endless arguments with my mother and fights with my stepfather. So I ran away. At first only for two weeks to a place that was not very far, just a few miles, then I stayed away for months, and in the end, altogether. I drank and smoked grass all the time. At age seventeen that was just about all I did. Whiskey, straight whiskey, and not Johnny Walker or Cutty Sark either. Then I changed over to gin because I liked the taste. How I survived the wild, drunken rides which are such an integral part of the reservation scene, I don’t know. One time we were coming back from Murdo at the usual eighty miles an hour. The car was bursting at the seams, it was so full of people. In the front seat were two couples kissing, one of the kissers being the driver. One tire blew out. The doors flew open and the two couples fell out arm in arm. The girls were screaming, especially the one at the bottom who was bleeding, but nobody was seriously hurt. I must have lost more than two dozen relatives and friends in such accidents. One of those winos was out in his car getting a load on. He had a woman with him. His old lady was in another car, also getting smashed. Somebody told her he was making it with that other woman. So she started chasing them all over Pine Ridge. In the end she caught up with them. I do not think they were lovers. He was at that stage where the bottle was his only mistress. His wife shook her fists at them, screaming, “I smash you up! I total you!” All the other drivers on the road who watched those cars drunkenly lurching about scrambled to get out of the way, running their cars off the highway into the sage-brush. Well, the wife succeeded in bringing about a head-on collision at full speed and all three of them were killed.
Supposedly you drink to forget. The trouble is you don’t forget, you remember—all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined. As a result there are always fights. One of the nicest, gentlest men I knew killed his wife in a drunken rage. One uncle had both his eyes put out while he was lying senseless. My sister-in-law Delphine’s husband lost one eye. She herself was beaten to death by a drunken tribal policeman. Such things are not even considered worth an investigation.
I fight too. During my barhopping days I went into a Rapid City saloon for a beer. Among Sioux people, Rapid City has a reputation for being the most racist town in the whole country as far as Indians are concerned. In the old days many South Dakota saloons had a sign over the door readingNO INDIANS AND DOGS ALLOWED!I sat down next to an old honky lady. Actually she looked about thirty, but when you are seventeen that seems old. She gave me a dirty look, moving to another stool away from me, saying, “Goddam, dirty Injun. You get out into the streets and the gutter where you belong.”
I came back, “What did you say?”
“You heard me. This place ain’t for Indians. Dammit, isn’t there a place left where a white man (I remember, she actually said “man") can drink in peace without having to put up with you people?”
I felt the blood pounding in my head. In front of me where I was sitting was a glass ashtray. I broke it on the counter and cut her face with the jagged edge. In my insane drunken rage I felt good doing it. Possibly I would have felt good even had I been sober.
One time I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, visiting a girl friend among the Sac and Fox Indians. She is poor but always cleans out her whole icebox to feed me. Her tribe happened to be having a powwow with a lot of young people participating, over sixty of them young men. The full-bloods were all standing or sitting around a drum, drinking beer. A lot were dancing with roaches or war bonnets on their heads, feather bustles on their butts, and bells on their ankles. The songs were militant. Some of the white boys and breeds were catching on to that and started hassling the skins. I should make clear that being a full-blood or breed is not a matter of bloodline, or how Indian you look, or how black your hair is. The general rule is that whoever thinks, sings, acts, and speaks Indian is a skin, a full-blood, and whoever acts and thinks like a white man is a half-blood or breed, no matter how Indian he looks. So the full-bloods told the others, “If you are ready to get it on with us, so get it on!” The half-bloods and white boys had white or cowboy shirts on while the skins wore ribbon shirts and chokers. They wore their hair long, often in braids. The others wore it short. It was easy to tell friend from foe. They got it on. It was one of the biggest drunken free-for-alls I was ever involved in. It lasted about half an hour, but already after five minutes the breeds had three casualties. One man got his face knocked in, the others had concussions. In the end there were about nine of these white shirts lying on the ground under a big tree, bloody and knocked out. One had a broken arm. It’s something you can’t stop once it starts. If somebody in that fighting mood yells at you, “Go, get ‘em!” you can’t tell that person, who has been fucked over for so many years, that he is wrong, that he should be a pacifist.
In Seattle I went with my Blackfoot girl friend Bonnie to a little bar on skid row, I think it was called the Tugboat Cafe. This was in a neighborhood frequented by Indians. It was Christmastime and the stores and bars were hung with blinking red and green lights. We wanted to buy booze for a Christmas and New Year’s party. My friend said, “I’m gonna call my folks to wish them happy holidays.” We found a phone booth on a street corner. Bonnie was making her long-distance call when a drunk white guy tried to force his way in, yelling at Bonnie to get out, that he wanted to use the phone, saying, “What’s so important for an Indian to make a phone call? I bet you don’t even know how to dial. Use a tom-tom!”
Bonnie said, “You goddam honky, leave me alone!” She was trying to fight him off. He had a beer bottle and he busted it on her head and face. She staggered out of the booth dripping blood. I rushed to her aid and we tried to fight him, but the blood was running down into her eyes so that she could not see. He hit her again, knocking her sprawling into the gutter. She was lying there, looking up at me but not seeing a thing, calling my name. I yelled for the cops, but the white winos hid that guy and the police made no effort to find him. People were milling around me—white, black, and Indian. One white lady pushed me aside, shouting, “Get out of the way, I’m trained as a nurse, what you’re doing is all wrong.”
I told her, “Don’t push me. This is my friend.” But she still insisted: “Get out of the way. Can you believe that? Those Indians are really something!” I threw her against the car and she fell on her ass. The cops promptly arrested me. If you are an Indian woman, especially in a ghetto, you have to fight all the time against brutalization and sexual advances. After a while you yourself begin to strike out blindly, anticipating attacks even when none are intended. Many of these brawls are connected with drinking, but many occur just because you are an Indian. Also in Seattle I saw a white man kicking a passed-out Indian in the head with his boots, screaming, “This is for Wounded Knee!”
By nature I am not a violent person. When I get mad, I start shaking, my blood starts to heat up, and I am afraid I might hurt somebody fighting or get hurt myself. So I try to cool off and stay out of it. But if I see an Indian sister being abused, harassed, getting beaten or raped, I have to take up for her. Once I am in the middle of a fight, though, I enjoy it. I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.
Nowadays I have learned better to control myself and situations as they arise, or if I cannot control them, avoid getting sucked into them. Barbara tells me that she prefers to sit back and watch a fight, rather than join in. She told me, “There is nothing sweeter than revenge, but don’t do it physically. Revenge yourself with mind power, let your mind do the fighting.” But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, Barb’s mind is often in her fists. I have seen it.
One night, at Rosebud, Barb had a date with a boy called Poor Bear. She was sober, but he had a load on and the liquor had roused his fighting spirit. They were driving past the tribal office when Poor Bear suddenly stopped the car, saying, “That’s where all our trouble comes from, from inside that building!” He had a shotgun in his trunk, took it out, and methodically busted every window in the building. Then he drove to the top of a hill overlooking Rosebud where he parked the car to admire his handiwork. The tribal police were there in no time. “We’re just checking,” they said. They found a half-empty gallon jug of wine and some whiskey under the seat that Barb had not known about, and finally the gun and some spent shells. They said, “So you’re the ones who’ve been shooting up the tribal building, huh?” They took Poor Bear in and Barb had to bail him out. He only got a year’s probation for this stunt. Down where I live they are rather relaxed about this kind of thing because it happens all the time.
I am a wife and mother now and my husband is a medicine man. I have my baby with me nearly all the time. I don’t drink anymore. So it stands to reason that I try very hard not to get into fights. But no matter how hard I try, I sometimes still find myself in the middle of an uproar. There seems to be no escape. One evening, early in 1975, we were on an Indian reservation in Washington State where my husband had to run some ceremonies—Leonard, myself, my little boy Pedro, another Sioux leader, and my friend Annie Mae. We had taken rooms in a motel inside a border town inhabited mostly by whites, half in and half outside the reservation. We were just leaving to drive back home. Leonard, as always, had his long braids wrapped in strips of red trade cloth. As we were putting our things into the car we noticed that the gas tank was leaking. It had been okay before. As we were standing around, trying to figure out how to fix it, two rednecks came up. They started making offensive remarks: “Look at those Indians, look at their long hair. How long since you’ve been to a barber?” They just stood there, staring at us and laughing. Leonard told them, “We did not come here to fight. We came here on business. What do you want? This is an Indian reservation, do you know that? Let’s not have any trouble.”
The honkies laughed, grabbed Leonard’s braids, and yanked them hard. Then they jumped him. At that moment two Indian friends came out of a barn, Russ and Iron Shell, and they joined in the fight. I had my baby to protect. Then another carload of rednecks came onto the scene. One guy had a sawed-off shotgun, the others were armed with base-ball bats. I tried to head them off, pleading with them to leave us alone, but they just kept going after our men. I heard later that beating up Indians was a regular pastime among the white lumberjacks and fishery workers in that area. Suddenly I saw that a police car was parked across the street. I told Annie Mae, “Take Pedro. Watch over him,” and I ran over to the police. There were two of them, state troopers. I told them, “Look what’s going on. We didn’t do anything. They’re hurting our men. Why don’t you do something?” The troopers said nothing, just started up their car and drove off. They stopped about fifty yards away and sat there, watching and grinning. By then the hoodlums were demolishing our car with their bats, busting all the windows. I ran over to an Indian friend’s house and she gave me her car for a getaway, to make it possible for us to escape. When I got back a few more skins had joined our men. The street was full of honkies with shotguns and baseball bats. As I drove up I heard gunshots. Pedro was in the front seat of our car and one shot just missed his leg. Two more police cars drove up. The troopers told the honkies, “Break it up, fellows, go home to the little woman. Call it a day!” Then they started arresting the Indians.
It was the usual sequence. Honkies, be so kind, and go home! Then arrest the Indians for “disturbing the peace.” Put them in jail. Charge them. Let them get bailed out. Drag them into court. Collect the fine. I got scars in my face from this incident, barely an inch from my eye. I kicked one of the honkies in the head, between the legs, wherever I could kick him. Alcohol was not involved in that fracas, except among the honkies. It gets tiresome, almost boring. These things remind me of an old joke: One Indian tells his white neighbor: “You’ve stolen my land, shot my father, raped my wife, got my daughter with child, turned my son on to whiskey. One day I’m gonna lose my patience. Better watch that shit!”
It seemed that my early life, before I met Leonard and before I went to Wounded Knee, was just one endless, vicious circle of drinking and fighting, drinking and fighting. Barb was caught up in the same circle, except that she was running with a different crowd most of the time. She was unusual in that she could drink just one beer or one glass of wine and then stop if she wanted to. Most of us at that stage could not do that.
I had not been drinking for years, but when I heard that one of my closest friends had been found dead with a bullet through her head I broke down completely and felt a sudden need for a drink. I happened to be in New York at the time. Shaking, and with tears streaming down my face, I blindly staggered to the nearest bar and downed four margaritas, one after the other. It had no effect on me. I remained totally sober. And it did not help my sadness. That was the last time.
People talk about the “Indian drinking problem,” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.
I am roaming,
In the snow I see
My old boots are worn
And down at the heels.
On what road am I?
The white man’s road,
Or the Indians’?
There are no signposts.
The road is uphill,
And the wind in my face.
Still I go on.
Iwas a loner, always. I was not interested in dresses, makeup, or perfume, the kinds of things some girls are keen on. I was scared of white people and uneasy in their company, so I did not socialize with them. I could not relate to half-bloods and was afraid that full-bloods would not accept me. I could not share the values my mother lived by. For friends I had only a few girls who were like me and shared my thoughts. I had no place to go, but a great restlessness came over me, an urge to get away, no matter where. Nowhere was better than the place I was in. So I did what many of my friends had already done—I ran away. Barbara, being older, had already set the precedent. A clash with my mother had sent Barb on her way. My mother was, at that time, hard to live with. From her point of view, I guess, we were not easy to get along with either. We didn’t have a generation gap, we had a generation Grand Canyon. Mother’s values were Puritan. She was uptight. I remember when Barbara was about to have her baby, mom cussed her out. Barb was still in high school and my mother was cursing her, calling her a no-good whore, which really shook my sister up. Barb said, “I’m going to have your grandchild, I thought you’d be happy,” but my mother was just terrible, telling Barb that she was not her daughter anymore. My sister lost her baby. She had a miscarriage working in a kitchen detail one morning. They gave her a big, heavy dishpan full of cereal to carry and that caused it right there. She lost the baby. She could not get over mother’s attitude.
My other sister, Sandra, when she was going to have her eldest boy, Jeff, my mother did the same thing to her, saying, “What the hell are you trying to do to me? I can’t hold up my head among my friends!” She was more concerned about her neighbors’ attitude than about us. Barb told her, “Mom, if you don’t want us around, if you are ashamed of your own grandchildren, then, okay, we’ll leave.”
I understood how mom was feeling. She was wrapped up in a different culture altogether. We spoke a different language. Words did not mean to her what they meant to us. I felt sorry for her, but we were hurting each other. After Barbara lost her baby she brooded. It seemed as if in her mind she blamed mother for it, as if mother had willed that baby to die. It was irrational, but it was there all the same. Once mother told us after a particularly emotional confrontation, “If you ever need any help, don’t come to me!” Of course she did not mean it. She will stick up for us, always, but looking over her shoulder in case her friends should disapprove. To be able to hold up your head among what is called “the right kind of people,” that is important to her. She has a home, she has a car. She has TV and curtains at the windows. That’s where her head is. She is a good, hardworking woman, but she won’t go and find out what is really happening. For instance, a girl who worked with mother told her she couldn’t reach Barbara at work by phone. Immediately mom jumped to the conclusion that Barb had quit her job. So when my sister got home, she got on her case right away: “I just don’t give a damn about you kids! Quitting your job!” continuing in that vein.
Barb just rang up her boss and handed the phone to mom, let her know from the horse’s mouth that she had not quit. Then she told mother: “Next time find out and make sure of the facts before you get on my case like that. And don’t be so concerned about jobs. There are more important things in life than punching a time clock.”
There was that wall of misunderstanding between my mother and us, and I have to admit I did not help in breaking it down. I had little inclination to join the hang-around-the-fort Indians, so one day I just up and left, without saying good-bye. Joining up with other kids in patched Levi’s jackets and chokers, our long hair trailing behind us. We traveled and did not give a damn where to.
One or two kids acted like a magnet. We formed groups. I traveled with ten of those new or sometimes old acquaintances in one car all summer long. We had our bedrolls and cooking utensils, and if we ran out of something the pros among us would go and rip off the food. Rip off whatever we needed. We just drifted from place to place, meeting new people, having a good time. Looking back, a lot was based on drinking and drugs. If you had a lot of dope you were everybody’s friend, everybody wanted to know you. If you had a car and good grass, then you were about one of the best guys anybody ever knew.
It took me a while to see the emptiness underneath all this frenzied wandering. I liked pot. Barb was an acid freak. She told me she once dropped eight hits of LSD at a time. “It all depends on your mood, on your state of mind,” she told me. “If you have a stable mind, it’s going to be good. But if you are in a depressed mood, or your friend isn’t going to be able to handle it for you, then everything is distorted and you have a very hard time as that drug shakes you up.”
Once Barb took some acid in a girl friend’s bedroom. There was a huge flag on the wall upside down. The Stars and Stripes hanging upside down used to be an international signal of distress. It was also the American Indian’s sign of distress. The Ghost Dancers used to wrap themselves in upside-down flags, dancing that way, crying for a vision until they fell down in a trance. When they came to, they always said that they had been in another world, the world as it was before the white man came, the prairie covered with herds of buffalo and tipi circles full of people who had been killed long ago. The flags which the dancers wore like blankets did not prevent the soldiers from shooting them down. Barb was lying on the bed and the upside-down flag began to work on her mind. She was watching it and it was just rippling up the wall like waves; the stripes and the stars would fall from the flag onto the floor and would scatter into thousands of sprays of light, exploding all over the room. She told me she did not quite know whether it was an old-fashioned vision or just a caricature of one, but she liked it.
After a while of roaming and dropping acid she felt burned out, her brain empty. She said she got tired of it, just one trip after the other. She was waiting, waiting for something, for a sign, but she did not know what she was waiting for. And like her, all the other roaming Indian kids were waiting, just as the Ghost Dancers had waited for the drumbeat, the message the eagle was to bring. I was waiting, too. In the meantime I kept traveling.
I was not into LSD but smoked a lot of pot. People have the idea that reservations are isolated, that what happens elsewhere does not touch them, but it does. We might not share in all the things America has to offer some of its citizens, but some things got to us, all right. The urban Indians from L.A., Rapid City, St. Paul, and Denver brought them to us on their visits. For instance, around 1969 or 1970 many half-grown boys in Rosebud were suddenly sniffing glue. If the ghetto Indians brought the city with them to the reservation, so we runaways dragged the res and its problems around with us in our bedrolls. Wherever we went we formed tiny reservations.
“You are an interesting subculture,” an anthropologist in Chicago told me during that time. I didn’t know whether that was an insult or a compliment. We both spoke English but could not understand each other. To him I was an interesting zoological specimen to be filed away someplace; to me he was merely ridiculous. But anthropologists are a story in themselves.
It is hard being forever on the move and not having any money. We supported ourselves by shoplifting, “liberating” a lot of stuff. Many of us became real experts at this game. I was very good at it. We did not think that what we were doing was wrong. On the contrary, ripping off gave us a great deal of satisfaction, moral satisfaction. We were meting out justice in reverse. We had always been stolen from by white shopkeepers and government agents. In the 1880s and ‘90s a white agent on the reservation had a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year. From this salary he managed to save within five or six years some fifty thousand dollars to retire. He simply stole the government goods and rations he was supposed to distribute among the Indians. On some reservations people were starving to death waiting for rations which never arrived because they had been stolen. In Minnesota the Sioux died like flies. When they complained to their head agent, he told them to eat grass. This set off the so-called Great Sioux Uprising of the 1860s, during which the Indians killed that agent by stuffing earth and grass down his throat.
Then the peddlers arrived with their horse-drawn wagons full of pins and needles, beads and calico, always with a barrel of Injun whiskey under the seat. In no time the wagons became log-cabin stores, the stores shopping emporiums which, over the years, blossomed into combination supermarkets-cafeterias-tourist traps-Indian antiques shops-craft centers-filling stations. The trading post at Wounded Knee which started with almost nothing was, after one short generation, worth millions of dollars.
It did not take a genius to get rich in this business. There was always only one store in any given area. You got your stuff there or you did not get it at all. Even now, trading posts charge much higher prices than stores in the cities charge for the same articles. The trading posts have no competition. They sell beads to Indian craftworkers at six times the price of what they buy them for in New York and pay the Indian artists in cans of beans, also at a big markup. They give Indians credit against lease money coming in months later—at outrageous interest rates. I have seen traders take Indian jewelry and old beadwork in pawn for five dollars’ worth of food and then sell it for hundreds of dollars to a collector when the Indian owner could not redeem the article within a given time. For this reason we looked upon shoplifting as just getting a little of our own back, like counting coup in the old days by raiding the enemy’s camp for horses.
I was built just right for the job. I looked much younger than I really was, and being so small I could pretend that I was a kid looking for her mother. If my friends were hungry and wanted something to eat, they would often send me to steal it. Once, early in the game, I was caught with a package of ham, cheese, bread, and sausages under my sweater. Suddenly there was this white guard grabbing me by the arm: “Come this way, come this way!” He was big and I was scared, shaking like a leaf. He was walking down the aisle ordering me to follow him, looking over his shoulder every two or three seconds to make sure that I was still behind him. Whenever he was not looking at me I threw the stuff back into the bins as I was passing them. Just threw them to both sides. So when I finally got to the back they searched me and found nothing. I said: “You goddam redneck. Just because I’m an Indian you are doing this to me. I’m going to sue you people for slander, for making a false arrest.” They had to apologize, telling me it had been a case of mistaken identity. I was fifteen at the time.
There was a further reason for our shoplifting. The store owners provoked it. They expected us to steal. Being Indian, if you went into a store, the proprietor or salesperson would watch you like a hawk. They’d stand next to you, two feet away, with their arms crossed, watching, watching. They didn’t do that with white customers. If you took a little time choosing an item they’d be at your elbow at once, hovering over you, asking, “May I help you?” Helping you was the furthest from their mind.
I’d say, “No, I’m just looking.” Then if they kept standing there, breathing down my neck, I’d say, “Hey, do you want something from me?” And they answer, “No, just watching.”
“Watching what? You think I’m gonna steal something?”
“No. Just watching.”
“Well, don’t stare at me.” But still they were standing there, following every move you made. By then the white customers would be staring, too. I didn’t mind, because I and the store owners were in an open, undeclared war, a war at first sight. But they treated even elderly, white-haired, and very respectable Indians the same way. In such situations even the most honest, law-abiding person will experience a mighty urge to pocket some article or other right under their noses. I knew a young teacher, a college graduate, who showed me a carton of cigarettes and a package of Tampax with that incredulous look on her face, saying, “Imagine, I stole this! I can’t believe it myself, but they made it impossible for me not to steal it. It was a challenge. What do I do now? I don’t even smoke.” I took it as a challenge, too.
While I was roving, an Indian couple in Seattle took me in, giving me food and shelter, treating me nice as if they had been my parents. The woman’s name was Bonnie and we became close friends in no time. I managed to rip off the credit card of a very elegant-looking lady—the wife of an admiral. Ship ahoy! I at once took my friend to a fancy store and told her to take anything she wanted. I “bought” her about two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes, courtesy of the navy. Another time I pointed out a similarly well-dressed woman to a store manager, saying, “I work for that lady over there. I’m supposed to take these packages to the car. She’ll pay you.” While the manager argued with the lady, I took off with the packages down the road and into the bushes.
Once I got a nice Indian turquoise ring, a bracelet, and a pin. I always admired the beautiful work of Indian artists, getting mad whenever I saw imitations made in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I learned to watch the storekeepers’ eyes. As long as their eyes are not on you, you are safe. As long as they are not watching your hands. You can also tell by the manner in which they talk to you. If they concentrate too much on your hands, then they won’t know what they are saying. It helps if you have a small baby with you, even a borrowed one. For some reason that relaxes their suspicions. I had no special technique except studying them, their gestures, their eyes, their lips, the signs that their bodies made.
I was caught only twice. The second time I happened to be in Dubuque, Iowa. That was after the occupation of Alcatraz, when the Indian civil rights movement started to get under way, with confrontations taking place between Indians and whites in many places. I had attached myself to a caravan of young militant skins traveling in a number of cars and vans. While the caravan stopped in Dubuque to eat and wash up, I went to a shopping mall, saw a sweater I liked, and quickly stuffed it under my Levi’s jacket.
I got out of the store all right, and walked across the parking lot where the caravan was waiting. Before I could join it, two security guards nabbed me. One of them said, “I want that sweater.” I told him, “But I don’t have no sweater.” He just opened my jacket and took the sweater from under my arm. They took me back to the office, going through my ID, putting down my name, all that kind of thing. They had a radio in the office going full blast and I could hear the announcer describing the citizens’ concern over a huge caravan of renegade Indians heading their way. One of the guards suddenly looked up at me and asked, “Are you by any chance one of those people?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “They’re just half a mile behind me and they’ll be here soon, looking for me.”
He said, “You don’t have to sign your name here. Just go. You can take that damn sweater too. Just get out of here!”
The incident made me realize that ripping off was not worth the risks I took. It also occurred to me there were better, more mature ways to fight for my rights.
Barb was less lucky. During the riots at Custer, South Dakota, she spent two days in the Rapid City jail. She was pulled in for third-degree burglary. It was the usual liberating of some food for which they were arrested, Barb and an Indian boy, but when she went before the judge and he told her that she was facing fifteen years, it made her sit up. She too started to reflect that if you had to go to jail it shouldn’t be for a Saran-Wrapped chicken worth two bucks.
Most of the arrests occurred not for what we did, but for what we were and represented—for being skins. For Instance once, near Martin, South Dakota, we had a flat tire and pulled off the road to fix it. It was late at night, dark, and very cold. While the boys were attending to the car, we girls built a good-sized fire to warm our backsides and make some coffee, coffee—pejuta sapa—being what keeps a roaming skin going. A fire truck went by. We did not pay any attention to it. A little while later the truck came back followed by two police cars. The police stared at us but kept on going, but pretty soon they made a U-turn and came back.
Across the road stood a farmhouse. The owner had called the police saying that Indians were about to burn his house down. All we were doing was fixing the tire and making coffee. The farmer had us arrested on a charge of attempted arson, trespassing, disturbing the peace, and destroying private property—the latter because in building our fire we had used one of his rotten fence posts. We spent two days in jail and then were found not guilty.
Little by little, those days in jail began adding up. We took such things in stride because they happened all the time, but subconsciously, I think, they had an effect upon us. During the years I am describing, in some Western states, the mere fact of being Indian and dressing in a certain way provoked the attention of the police. It resulted in having one’s car stopped for no particular reason, in being pulled off the street on the flimsiest excuse, in being constantly shadowed and harassed. It works subtly on your mind until you start to think that if they keep on arresting you anyway you should at least give them a good reason for it.
I kept on moving, letting the stream carry me. It got to a point where I always looked forward to my next joint, my next bottle of gin. Even when the friends around me seemed to cool down I could not stop. Once I got hold of fifty white cross tablets—speed—and started taking them. The people I saw in the streets were doing it, why shouldn’t I do it also? It gave me a bad case of the shakes and made me conclude that roving was not that much fun anymore. But I knew of no other way to exist.
Sexually our roaming bands, even after we had been politically sensitized and joined AIM, were free, very free and wild. If some boy saw you and liked you, then right away that was it. “If you don’t come to bed with me, wincincala, I got somebody else who’s willing to.” The boys had that kind of attitude and it caused a lot of trouble for Barb and myself, because we were not that free. If we got involved we always took it seriously. Possibly our grandparents’ and mother’s staunch Christianity and their acceptance of the missionaries’ moral code had something to do with it. They certainly tried hard to implant it in us, and though we furiously rejected it, a little residue remained.
There is a curious contradiction in Sioux society. The men pay great lip service to the status women hold in the tribe. Their rhetoric on the subject is beautiful. They speak of Grandmother Earth and how they honor her. Our greatest culture hero—or rather heroine—is the White Buffalo Woman, sent to us by the Buffalo nation, who brought us the sacred pipe and taught us how to use it. According to the legend, two young hunters were the first humans to meet her. One of them desired her physically and tried to make love to her, for which he was immediately punished by lightning reducing him to a heap of bones and ashes.
We had warrior women in our history. Formerly, when a young girl had her first period, it was announced to the whole village by the herald, and her family gave her a big feast in honor of the event, giving away valuable presents and horses to celebrate her having become a woman. Just as men competed for war honors, so women had quilling and beading contests. The woman who made the most beautiful fully beaded cradleboard won honors equivalent to a warrior’s coup. The men kept telling us, “See how we are honoring you ...” Honoring us for what? For being good beaders, quillers, tanners, moccasin makers, and child-bearers. That is fine, but... In the governor’s office at Pierre hangs a big poster put up by Indians. It reads:
WHEN THE WHITE MAN
DISCOVERED THIS COUNTRY
INDIANS WERE RUNNING IT—
NO TAXES OR TELEPHONES.
WOMEN DID ALL THE WORK—
THE WHITE MAN THOUGHT
HE COULD IMPROVE UPON
A SYSTEM LIKE THAT.
If you talk to a young Sioux about it he might explain: “Our tradition comes from being warriors. We always had to have our bow arms free so that we could protect you. That was our job. Every moment a Pawnee, or Crow, or white soldier could appear to attack you. Even on the daily hunt a man might be killed, ripped up by a bear or gored by a buffalo. We had to keep our hands free for that. That is our tradition.”
“So, go already,” I tell them. “Be traditional. Get me a buffalo!”
They are still traditional enough to want no menstruating women around. But the big honoring feast at a girl’s first period they dispense with. For that they are too modern. I did not know about menstruating until my first time. When it happened I ran to my grandmother crying, telling her, “Something is wrong. I’m bleeding!” She told me not to cry, nothing was wrong. And that was all the explanation I got. They did not comfort me, or give horses away in my honor, or throw the red ball, or carry me from the menstruation hut to the tipi on a blanket in a new white buckskin outfit. The whole subject was distasteful to them. The feast is gone, only the distaste has remained.
It is not that a woman during her “moontime” is considered unclean, but she is looked upon as being “too powerful.” According to our old traditions a woman during her period possesses a strange force which could render a healing ceremony ineffective. For this reason it is expected that we stay away from all rituals while menstruating. One old man once told me, “Woman on her moon is so strong that if she spits on a rattlesnake, that snake dies.” To tell the truth I never felt particularly powerful while being “on my moon.”
I was forcefully raped when I was fourteen or fifteen. A good-looking young man said, “Come over here, kid, let me buy you a soda"—and I fell for it. He was about twice my weight and a foot taller than I am. He just threw me on the ground and pinned me down. I do not want to remember the details. I kicked and scratched and bit but he came on like a steamroller. Ripped my clothes apart, ripped me apart. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone what had happened to me. I think I worked off my rage by slashing a man’s tires.
Rapes on the reservations are a big scandal. The victims are mostly full-blood girls, too shy and afraid to complain. A few years back the favorite sport of white state troopers and cops was to arrest young Indian girls on a drunk-and-disorderly, even if the girls were sober, take them to the drunk tanks in their jails, and there rape them. Sometimes they took the girls in their squad cars out into the prairie to “show you what a white man can do. I’m really doin’ you a favor, kid.” After they had done with them, they often kicked the girls out of their cars and drove off. Then the girl who had been raped had to walk five or ten miles home on top of everything else. Indian girls accusing white cops are seldom taken seriously in South Dakota. “You know how they are,” the courts are told, “they’re always asking for it.” Thus there were few complaints for rapes or, as a matter of fact, for forced sterilizations. Luckily this is changing as our women are less reluctant to bring these things into the open.
I like men as friends, like to socialize with them, to know them. But going to bed with one is a commitment. You take responsibility for each other. But responsibility in a relationship was not what our young men wanted, some ninety percent of them. They just wanted to hop in the sack with us. Then they’d be friends. If you didn’t cooperate then they were no longer interested in you as a person. With some of them, their whole courtship consists in pointing at you and then back at their tent, sleeping bag, or bedroll, saying, “Woman, come!” I won’t come that easily. So I was a lot by myself and happy that way.
Once I played a joke on one of our great macho warriors, a good-looking guy, a lady’s man. Women were always swarming over him, especially white groupies. One night, during a confrontation in California, I was lying in my sleeping bag when the great warrior (and he is a great warrior, I don’t call him that facetiously) suddenly came up: “I had a little fight with my old lady. Can I share your sleeping bag?”
He did not wait for an answer but at once wedged himself in. This happened before Wounded Knee when I was in my eighth month. He put his hand upon my breast. I did not say anything. Then his hand wandered farther down, coming to a sudden stop atop that big balloon of a belly. “What in hell is this?” I smiled at him very sweetly. “Oh, I’m just about to have my baby. I think I feel my birth pangs coming on right now!” He got out of the sleeping bag even faster than he had crept in.
One Sioux girl whose lover had left her for a Crow woman was making up forty-niner songs about him. Forty-niners are songs which are half English and half Indian, common to all tribes, often having to do with love and sometimes funny or biting. We were always singing them while we were on the move. So that girl made up this one:
Honey, you left me for to go,
Crow Fair and Indian Rodeo,
Hope you get the diarrhea,
It became a great favorite with us, though I don’t remember all of it. One song was all Indian except for the refrain: “Sorry, no pizza today.” But to sum up: our men were magnificent and mean at the same time. You had to admire them. They had to fight their own men’s lib battles. They were incredibly brave in protecting us, they would literally die for us, and they always stood up for our rights—against outsiders!
Sexual harassment causes a lot of fights between Indians and whites. Our boys really try to protect us against this. At Pierre, South Dakota’s state capital, during a trial of AIM Indians, a lot of us came to lend our moral support, filling the motel, eight to ten people in a room. Barb was with a group occupying three rooms on the ground floor. On her way out to go to the car for some stuff, she passed three cowboy-type white boys leaning against a wall drinking beer and wine. Barb said she could smell the liquor on their breath from some ways off. They at once hemmed her in, making their usual remarks: “Look at the tits on that squaw. Watch her shaking her ass at us. I bet we could show that Injun squaw a good time,” speculating aloud how it would be having her. My sister tried to ignore them, but in the end just turned around and ran back into the motel. The only one she could find there was Tom Poor Bear, an Oglala boy from Pine Ridge. Barb told him that some honkies had been harassing her outside. Tom at once went out with her and these cowboys again started with the same kind of shit, the same sort of sexual harassment. When they noticed Poor Bear they slowly began walking off. Tom called to them, “Hey, you guys come back and apologize.”
The cowboy who had made the most offensive remarks turned around and fingered Poor Bear. He was grinning. “I don’t apologize to her kind ever. She’s nothing but a squaw.”
Poor Bear told him, “You motherfucker, I’ll show you who’s nothing!” Then the fight started, all three of them jumping Tom, stomping him, three wasičuns against one skin. So again Barb scrambled back into the motel and in the lobby ran into Bobby Leader Charge, a Rosebud boy who was only fifteen years old at the time. Young as he was, Bobby just came out of that lobby like a thunderbolt, according to Barb, and joined the fight. By that time the cowboys had been reinforced by three more friends and again we were badly outnumbered. They were beating up on Poor Bear and Leader Charge, really hurting them, kicking them in the groin, going after their eyes. So once again Barbara was trying to round up more help. Luckily, at that moment Russel with the Means brothers and Coke Millard appeared at the motel. The whole sling of them rushed out. The honkies tried to get away, but were not fast enough. Coke Millard knocked one of them right over the top of a parked car. One cowboy got knocked out, just lying there. Another tried crawling away on his hands and knees. The others had run for it. This finished the incident as far as our men were concerned, and all went back to the motel.
But it was not finished. In no time the whole motel was lit up with searchlights as about half a dozen squad cars pulled up in front of it with their red lights flashing and sirens howling. Out of each car stepped two troopers with riot guns, helmets, and plastic shields, positioning themselves at both sides of each car. Already the loudspeaker was blaring: “This is the sheriff speaking. You Indians in there, you are wanted for assault and battery. We know you’re in there. Come on out with your hands on your heads or we’ll come in shooting!” Barb and the others peeked out from behind their window shades. Seeing the muzzles of all those riot guns and sawed-off shotguns pointing at them, they had little desire to come out. South Dakota police are notoriously trigger-happy when dealing with Indians, especially AIM people. One of the Means brothers went to the telephone and called up a white friend of ours who was in an upstairs room with one of the lawyers, helping with the trials. He told him to get his ass down to their room double quick, to bring the lawyer, and please, not to ask any foolish questions, just to hurry up.
It was two o’clock in the morning and very cold. Somehow it is always exceedingly hot or very, very cold in South Dakota. So, looking down from my room on the second floor I saw the two of them shivering, none too happy walking between the motel wall and the row of squad cars and troopers pointing their guns. Then I saw two pairs of hands reaching for them out of Room 108 and yanking them inside. I did not know at the time what it was all about. Barbara told me later that the two of them started negotiating by phone with the sheriff saying, “Our Indian friends and clients have been assaulted by a bunch of vicious, white, drunken, would-be rapists, but they are willing to withdraw these charges if your cowboys withdraw theirs.”
While they were arguing back and forth on the phone, the others had a little problem with Coke, who had consumed a few beers and was singing his death song: “It’s a good day to die! Let me out of here! I want to die a warrior’s death. Let me count coup on them pigs! Hoka-hay!” They had to hold him back, literally sitting on him in order to keep him from going outside and getting himself killed. In the end both sides agreed to withdraw charges and call it quits to prevent a massacre. The squad cars drove off and all was quiet again, but it had been a near thing. There is always the danger for us that one little incident will set off a major confrontation.
Looking back upon my roving days, it is hard to say whether they were good or bad, or whether I accomplished or learned anything by being endlessly, restlessly on the move. If nothing else, my roaming gave me a larger outlook and made me more Indian, made me realize what being an Indian within a white world meant. My aimlessness ended when I encountered AIM.
We AIM Not to Please
They call us the New Indians.
Hell, we are the Old Indians,
the landlords of this continent,
coming to collect the rent.
The American Indian Movement hit our reservation like a tornado, like a new wind blowing out of nowhere, a drumbeat from far off getting louder and louder. It was almost like the Ghost Dance fever that had hit the tribes in 1890, old uncle Dick Fool Bull said, spreading like a prairie fire. It even was like the old Ghost Dance song Uncle Dick was humming:
Maka sitomniya teca ukiye
Oyate ukiye, oyate ukiye . . .
A new world is coming,
A nation is coming,
The eagle brought the message.
I could feel this new thing, almost hear it, smell it, touch it. Meeting up with AIM for the first time loosened a sort of earthquake inside me. Old Black Elk in recounting his life often used the expression “As I look down from the high hill of my great old age...” Well, as I am looking from the hill of my old age—I am thirty-seven now but feel as if I have lived for a long time—I can see things in perspective, not subjectively, no, but in perspective. Old Black Elk had a good way of saying it. You really look back upon ten years gone past as from a hill—you have a sort of bird’s-eye view. I recognize now that movements get used up and the leaders get burned out quickly. Some of our men and women got themselves killed and thereby avoided reaching the dangerous age of thirty and becoming “elder statesmen.” Some leaders turned into college professors, founded alternative schools, or even took jobs as tribal officials. A few live on in the past, refusing to recognize that the dreams of the past must give way to the dreams of the future. I, that wild, rebellious teenager of ten years ago, am nursing a baby, changing diapers, and making breakfast for my somewhat extended family. And yet it was great while it lasted and I still feel that old excitement merely talking about it. Some people loved AIM, some hated it, but nobody ignored it.
I loved it. My first encounter with AIM was at a powwow held in 1971 at Crow Dog’s place after the Sun Dance. Pointing at Leonard Crow Dog, I asked a young woman, “Who is that man?”
“That’s Crow Dog,” she said. I was looking at his long, shining braids. Wearing one’s hair long at the time was still something of a novelty on the res. I asked, “Is that his real hair?”
“Yes, that’s his real hair.”
I noticed that almost all of the young men wore their hair long, some with eagle feathers tied to it. They all had on ribbon shirts. They had a new look about them, not that hangdog reservation look I was used to. They moved in a different way, too, confident and swaggering, the girls as well as the boys. Belonging to many tribes, they had come in a dilapidated truck covered with slogans and paintings. They had traveled to the Sun Dance all the way from California, where they had taken part in the occupation of Alcatraz Island.
One man, a Chippewa, stood up and made a speech. I had never heard anybody talk like that. He spoke about genocide and sovereignty, about tribal leaders selling out and kissing ass—white man’s ass. He talked about giving up the necktie for the choker, the briefcase for the bedroll, the missionary’s church for the sacred pipe. He talked about not celebrating Thanksgiving, because that would be celebrating one’s own destruction. He said that white people, after stealing our land and massacring us for three hundred years, could not come to us now saying, “Celebrate Thanksgiving with us, drop in for a slice of turkey.” He had himself wrapped up in an upside-down American flag, telling us that every star in this flag represented a state stolen from Indians.
Then Leonard Crow Dog spoke, saying that we had talked to the white man for generations with our lips, but that he had no ears to hear, no eyes to see, no heart to feel. Crow Dog said that now we must speak with our bodies and that he was not afraid to die for his people. It was a very emotional speech. Some people wept. An old man turned to me and said, “These are the words I always wanted to speak, but had kept shut up within me.”
I asked one of the young men, “What kind of Indians are you?” “We are AIM,” he told me, “American Indian Movement. We’re going to change things.”
AIM was born in 1968. Its fathers were mostly men doing time in Minnesota prisons, Ojibways. It got its start in the slums of St. Paul taking care of Indian ghetto problems. It was an Indian woman who gave it its name. She told me, “At first we called ourselves ‘Concerned Indian Americans’ until somebody discovered that the initials spelled CIA. That didn’t sound so good. Then I spoke up: ‘You guys all aim to do this, or you aim to do that. Why don’t you call yourselves AIM, American Indian Movement?’ And that was that.”
In the beginning AIM was mainly confined to St. Paul and Minneapolis. The early AIM people were mostly ghetto Indians, often from tribes which had lost much of their language, traditions, and ceremonies. It was when they came to us on the Sioux reservations that they began to learn about the old ways. We had to learn from them, too. We Sioux had lived very isolated behind what some people called the “Buckskin Curtain.” AIM opened a window for us through which the wind of the 1960s and early ‘70s could blow, and it was no gentle breeze but a hurricane that whirled us around. It was after the traditional reservation Indians and the ghetto kids had gotten together that AIM became a force nationwide. It was flint striking flint, lighting a spark which grew into a flame at which we could warm ourselves after a long, long winter.
After I joined AIM I stopped drinking. Others put away their roach clips and airplane glue bottles. There were a lot of things wrong with AIM. We did not see these things, or did not want to see them. At the time these things were unimportant. What was important was getting it on. We kids became AIM’s spearheads and the Sioux set the style. The AIM uniform was Sioux all the way, the black “angry hats” with the feathers stuck in the hatband, the bone chokers, the medicine pouches worn on our breasts, the Levi’s jackets on which we embroidered our battle honors—Alcatraz, Trail of Broken Treaties, Wounded Knee. Some dudes wore a third, extra-thin braid as a scalp lock. We made up our own songs—forty-niners, honoring songs, songs for a warrior behind bars in the slammer. The AIM song was made up by a fourteen-year-old Sioux boy. The Ojibways say it was made up by one of their own kids, but we know better.
We all had a good mouth, were good speakers and wrote a lot of poetry, though we were all dropouts who could not spell. We took some of our rhetoric from the blacks, who had started their movements before we did. Like them we were minorities, poor and discriminated against, but there were differences. I think it significant that in many Indian languages a black is called a “black white man.” The blacks want what the whites have, which is understandable. They wantin.We Indians wantout!That is the main difference.
At first we hated all whites because we knew only one kind—the John Wayne kind. It took time before we met whites to whom we could relate and whose friendships we could accept. One of our young men met a pretty girl. She said she was Indian and looked it. She told him, “Sleep with me.” In bed, in the middle of the night, he somehow found out that she was Puerto Rican. He got so mad that she was not a real skin that he beat up on her. He wanted to have to do only with Indian girls and felt tricked. He had run away from a real bad foster home, seeking refuge among his own kind. Later he felt ashamed for what he had done and apologized. Eventually we were joined by a number of Chicano brothers and sisters and learned to love and respect them, but it took time. We lived in a strange, narrow world of our own, suspicious of all outsiders. Later, we found ourselves making speeches on campuses, in churches, and on street corners talking to prominent supporters such as Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, Rip Torn, Jane Fonda, and Angela Davis. It was a long-drawn-out process of learning and experiencing, this widening of our horizons.
We formed relationships among ourselves and with outsiders. We had girls who would go to bed with any warrior who had done something brave. Other girls loved one boy only. Usually a boy would say to a girl, “Be my old lady,” and she might answer, “Ohan, you are my old man.” They would go find a medicine man to feather and cedar them, to smoke the pipe with them, to put a red blanket around their shoulders. That made them man and wife Indian style. Then they slept under the same blanket. The white law did not recognize such a marriage, but we would respect it. It might last only a few days. Either of them could have a run-in with the law and wind up in jail or be blown away by the goons. We did not exactly lead stable lives, but some of these marriages lasted for years. Short or long, it was good while it lasted. The girl had somebody to protect and take care of her; the boy had a wincincala to cook his beans or sew him a ribbon shirt. They inspired each other to the point where they would put their bodies on the line together. It gave them something precious to remember all their lives. One seventeen-year-old boy had a twenty-two-year-old girl-friend. He called her “grandma.” He had a T-shirt made for her with the wordGRANDMAon it, and one for himself with the legendI LOVE GRANDMA. He was heartbroken when she left him for an “older man.” Some of the AIM leaders attracted quite a number of “wives.” We called them “wives of the month.”
I got into one of these marriages myself. It lasted just long enough for me to get pregnant. Birth control went against our beliefs. We felt that there were not enough Indians left to suit us. The more future warriors we brought into the world, the better. My older sister Barbara got pregnant too. She went to the BIA hospital where the doctors told her she needed a cesarean. When she came to, the doctors informed her that they had taken her womb out. In their opinion, at that time, there were already too many little red bastards for the taxpayers to take care of. No use to mollycoddle those happy-go-lucky, irresponsible, oversexed AIM women. Barb’s child lived for two hours. With better care, it might have made it. For a number of years BIA doctors performed thousands of forced sterilizations on Indian and Chicano women without their knowledge or consent. For this reason I was happy at the thought of having a baby, not only for myself but for Barbara, too. I was determined not to have my child in a white hospital.
In the meantime I had nine months to move around, still going from confrontation to confrontation. Wherever anthros were digging up human remains from Indian sites, we were there threatening to dig up white graves to display white men’s skulls and bones in glass cases. Wherever there was an Indian political trial, we showed up before the courthouse with our drums. Wherever we saw a bar with a signNO INDIANS ALLOWED,we sensitized the owners, sometimes quite forcefully. Somehow we always found old jalopies to travel in, painted all over with Red Power slogans, and always found native people to take us in, treating us to meat soup, fry bread, and thick, black coffee. We existed entirely without money, yet we ate, traveled, and usually found a roof over our heads.
Something strange happened then. The traditional old, full-blood medicine men joined in with us kids. Not the middle-aged adults. They were of a lost generation which had given up all hope, necktie-wearers waiting for the Great White Father to do for them. It was the real old folks who had spirit and wisdom to give us. The grandfathers and grandmothers who still remembered a time when Indians were Indians, whose own grandparents or even parents had fought Custer gun in hand, people who for us were living links with a great past. They had a lot of strength and power, enough to give some of it to us. They still knew all the old legends and the right way to put on a ritual, and we were eager to learn from them. Soon they had us young girls making flesh offerings or piercing our wrists at the Sun Dance, while young warriors again put the skewers through their breast and found out the hard way where they came from. Even those who had grown up in cities, who had never been on a horse or heard an owl hoot, were suddenly getting it together. I am not bragging, but I am proud that we Lakotas started this.
The old grandmothers especially made a deep impression upon me. Women like Lizzy Fast Horse, a great-grandmother, who scrambled up all the way to the top of Mount Rushmore, standing right on the top of those gigantic bald pates, reclaiming the Black Hills for their rightful owners. Lizzy who was dragged down the mountain by the troopers, handcuffed to her nine-year-old great-granddaughter until their wrists were cut, their blood falling in drops on the snow. It is really true, the old Cheyenne saying: “A nation is not dead until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” Well, the hearts of our old full-blood women were not on the ground. They were way up high and they could still encourage us with their trilling, spine-tingling brave-heart cry which always made the hairs on my back stand up and my flesh break out in goose pimples whenever I heard it, no matter how often.
We did freak out the honkies. We were feared throughout the Dakotas. I could never figure out why this should have been so. We were always the victims. We never maimed or killed. It was we who died or got crippled. Aside from ripping off a few trading posts, we were not really bad. We were loud-mouthed, made a lot of noise, and got on some people’s nerves. We made Mr. White Man realize that there were other Indians besides the poor human wrecks who posed for him for a quarter—but that should not have made them kill us or hide from us under their beds. “The AIMs is coming, the AIMs is coming” was the cry that went up whenever a couple of fourteen-year-old skins in Uncle Joe hats showed up. The ranchers and the police spread the most fantastic rumors about us. The media said that we were about to stage bank robberies, storm prisons, set fire to the state capitol, blow up Mount Rushmore, and assassinate the governor. The least we were accused of was that we were planning to paint the noses of the giant Mount Rushmore heads red. Worst of all we were scaring the tourists away. The concessionaires at Rushmore and in all the Black Hills tourist traps were losing money. It was only right to kill us for that.
I think it was their bad conscience which made the local whites hate us so much. Bill Kunstler, the movement lawyer who defended us in a number of trials, once said: “You hate those most whom you have injured most.” The whites near the reservations were all living on land stolen from us—stolen not in the distant past, but by their fathers and grandfathers. They all made their living in some way by exploiting us, by using Indians as cheap labor, by running their cattle on reservation land for a mere pittance in lease money, by using us as colorful props to attract the Eastern tourists. They could only relate to the stereotyped song-and-dance Indian, locking their doors and cowering behind their curtains whenever we came to town, crying: “The AIMs is coming, get the police.” Always a day or two after we made our appearance all the gun shops in the place were sold out. White folks took to toting guns again. They carried revolvers wherever they went, slept with loaded .38s under their pillows, drove around with high-powered rifles in racks behind the seats of their pickups. It was rumored that the then governor of South Dakota, who once vowed to put every AIM member behind bars or six feet underground, had imported a special, quick-firing, newly invented type of machine gun from West Germany and installed it in the dome of the state capitol, where he spent hours, training the gun on Indians who happened to walk by, zeroing in, moving the gun silently back and forth, back and forth. It may be only a story, but knowing the man, I am prepared to believe it. I did not mind their being afraid of us. It was better than being given a quarter and asked to pose smilingly for their cameras.
We were not angels. Some things were done by AIM, or rather by people whocalledthemselves AIM, that I am not proud of. But AIM gave us a lift badly needed at the time. It defined our goals and expressed our innermost yearnings. It set a style for Indians to imitate. Even those Native Americans who maintained that they wanted to have nothing to do with AIM, that it ran counter to their tribal ways of life, began to dress and talk in the AIM manner. I have had some conflicts with the American Indian Movement at some time or another. I don’t know whether it will live or die. Some people say that a movement dies the moment it becomes acceptable. In this case there should be some life left in its body, at least in the Dakotas. But whatever happens, one can’t take away from AIM that it fulfilled its function and did what had to be done at a time which was decisive in the development of Indian America.
The Sun Dance at Rosebud in the late summer of 1972 will forever remain in my memory. Many of the AIM leaders came to Crow Dog’s place to dance, to make flesh offerings, to endure the self-torture of this, our most sacred rite, gazing at the sun, blowing on their eagle-bone whistles, praying with the pipe. It was like a rebirth, like some of the prophesies of the Ghost Dancers coming true. The strange thing was seeing men undergoing the ordeal of the Sun Dance who came from tribes which had never practiced this ritual. I felt it was their way of saying, “I am an Indian again.”
This Sun Dance was also an occasion for getting to know each other, for a lot of serious talk. I was happy watching the women taking a big part in these discussions. One of the AIM men laughingly said, “For years we couldn’t get the women to speak up, and now we can’t get them to shut up.” I just listened. I was still too shy and too young to do anything else but stay in the background.
The people were tensed up. Everything was in ferment. The mood was bitter. News reached us after the Sun Dance that Richard Oaks, from the Mohawk tribe, a much loved and respected leader at Alcatraz, had been murdered by a white man. Not long before that a Sioux, Raymond Yellow Thunder, a humble, hard-working man, had been stripped naked and forced at gunpoint to dance in an American Legion hall at Gordon, Nebraska. Later he was beaten to death—just for the fun of it. Before that a millionaire rancher had shot and killed an unarmed Indian from Pine Ridge, Norman Little Brave, and gone unpunished. Norman had been a sober-minded churchgoer, but that had not saved him. It was open season on Indians again and the people were saying, “Enough of this shit!” It was out of these feelings of anger, hope, and despair that the “Trail of Broken Treaties” was born.
I am still proud that it was born at Rosebud, among my people. That is probably bad. The feeling of pride in one’s particular tribe is standing in the way of Indian unity. Still it is there and it is not all bad. The man who first thought of having caravans of Indians converging upon Washington from all directions was Bob Burnette. He had been tribal chairman at Rosebud and he was not an AIM member. Other Indian leaders of this caravan, such as Hank Adams, Reuben Snake, and Sid Mills—Sid and Hank from the Northwest, where they had been fighting for native fishing rights—were not AIM. Neither were the Six Nation people from upstate New York or the representatives of some Southwestern tribes, but though they had not started it, it was the AIM leaders who dominated this march in the end.
The Trail of Broken Treaties was the greatest action taken by Indians since the Battle of the Little Big Horn. As Eddie Benton, the Ojibway medicine man, told us: “There is a prophecy in our tribe’s religion that one day we would all stand together. All tribes would hook arms in brotherhood and unite. I am elated because I lived to see this happen. Brothers and sisters from all over this continent united in a single cause. That is the greatest significance to Indian people . . . not what happened or what may yet happen as a result of our actions.”
Each caravan was led by a spiritual leader or medicine man with his sacred pipe. The Oklahoma caravan followed the Cherokees’ “Trail of Tears,” retracing the steps of dying Indians driven from their homes by President Andrew Jackson. Our caravan started from Wounded Knee. This had a special symbolic meaning for us Sioux, making us feel as if the ghosts of all the women and children murdered there by the Seventh Cavalry were rising out of their mass grave to go with us.
I traveled among friends from Rosebud and Pine Ridge. My brother and my sister Barbara were among this group. I did not know what to expect. A huge protest march like this was new to me. When we arrived in Washington we got lost. We had been promised food and accommodation, but due to government pressure many church groups which had offered to put us up and feed us got scared and backed off. It was almost dawn and still we were stumbling around looking for a place to bed down. I could hardly keep my eyes open. One thing we did accomplish: in the predawn light we drove around the White House, honking our horns and beating our drums to let President Nixon know that we had arrived.
We were finally given a place to sleep in, an old, dilapidated, and abandoned church. I had just crawled into my bedroll when I saw what I thought to be a fair-sized cat walking over it. I put my glasses on and discovered that it was a big rat, the biggest and ugliest I had ever seen. The church was in an uproar. Women screamed. Mine was not the only rat in the place, as it turned out. An old lady who had hitchhiked two thousand miles from Cheyenne River to get to Washington complained that the toilets were broken. It was the first week of November and there was no heat. An elderly Canadian Indian dragged himself around on crutches. His legs were crippled and he could find no soft place to rest. A young girl shouted that there were not only rats but also millions of cockroaches. A young Ojibway man said that he had not left the slums of St. Paul for this kind of facility. I told him that I had expected nothing else. Did he think Nixon would put him up at the Holiday Inn with wall-to-wall carpeting and color TV? Everywhere groups were standing huddled together in their blankets. People were saying, “They promised us decent housing. Look how they’re treating us. We ain’t gonna stand for this.”
Somebody suggested, “Let’s all go to the BIA.” It seemed the natural thing to do, to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on Constitution Avenue. They would have to put us up. It was “our” building after all. Besides, that was what we had come for, to complain about the treatment the bureau was dishing out to us. Everybody suddenly seemed to be possessed by the urge to hurry to the BIA. Next thing I knew we were in it. We spilled into the building like a great avalanche. Some people put up a tipi on the front lawn. Security guards were appointed. They put on red armbands or fastened rainbow-colored bits of cloth to their ribbon shirts or denim jackets. They watched the doors. Tribal groups took over this or that room, the Iroquois on one floor, the Sioux on another. The Oklahoma Indians, the Northwest Coast people, all made themselves a place to stay. Children were playing while old ladies got comfortable on couches in the foyer. A drum was roaring. I could smell kinnikinnick—Indian tobacco. Someone put up a sign over the front gate readingINDIAN COUNTRY. The building finally belonged to us and we lost no time turning it into a tribal village.
My little group settled down in one room on the second floor. It was nice—thick carpets, subdued light, soft couches, and easy chairs. The bureaucrats sure knew how to live. They had marble stairs, wrought-iron banisters, fine statues and paintings depicting the Noble Savage, valuable artifacts. I heard somebody speaking Sioux. I opened a door and there was Leonard Crow Dog talking to some young men, telling them why we were here, explaining what it all meant. Somebody motioned to me: “Quiet! Crow Dog is talking!” Young as I was, Crow Dog seemed an old man to me, old with responsibilities, but he was only thirty-two then. It did not occur to me that one day I would bear his children.
The takeover of the BIA building had not been planned. We honestly thought that arrangements for our stay had been made. When the promises turned out to be the same old buffalo shit, as one of the leaders put it, we simply occupied the BIA. It was a typical spontaneous Indian happening. Nobody had ordered us to do it. We were not very amenable to orders anyhow. It’s not our style. The various tribal groups caucussed in their rooms, deciding what proposals to make. From time to time everybody would go down into the great hall and thrash out the proposals. The assembly hall had a stage, many chairs, and loudspeakers. Always discussions opened with one of the medicine men performing a ceremony. I think it was a black civil rights organization which brought in the first truckload of food. Later various church groups and other sympathizers donated food and money. The building had a kitchen and cafeteria and we quickly organized cooking, dishwashing, and garbage details. Some women were appointed to watch the children, old people were cared for, and a medical team was set up. Contrary to what some white people believe, Indians are very good at improvising this sort of self-government with no one in particular telling them what to do. They don’t wait to be told. I guess there were altogether six to eight hundred people crammed into the building, but it did not feel crowded.
The original caravan leaders had planned a peaceful and dignified protest. There had even been talk of singing and dancing for the senators and inviting the lawmakers to an Indian fry bread and corn soup feast. It might have worked out that way if somebody had been willing to listen to us. But the word had been passed to ignore us. The people who mattered, from the president down, would not talk to us. We were not wanted. It was said that we were hoodlums who did not speak for the Indian people. The half-blood tribal chairmen with their salaries and expense accounts condemned us almost to a man. Nixon sent some no-account underling to tell us that he had done more for the American Indian than any predecessor and that he saw no reason for our coming to Washington, that he had more important things to do than to talk with us—presumably surreptitiously taping his visitors and planning Watergate. We wondered what all these good things were that he had done for us.
We had planned to have Crow Dog conduct a ceremony at the grave of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Iwo Jima, and who had died drunk and forgotten in a ditch. The army, which was in charge of Arlington Cemetery, forbade this ceremony “because it would be political, not religious.” Slowly our mood changed. There was less talk of dancing and singing for the senators and more talk about getting it on. Dennis Banks said that AIM was against violence, but that it might take another Watts to bring home to the public the plight of Native Americans. Russel Means remarked to some reporters that the media were ignoring us: “What do we have to do to get some attention? Scalp somebody?” It was on this occasion that I learned that as long as we “behaved nicely” nobody gave a damn about us, but as soon as we became rowdy we got all the support and media coverage we could wish for.
We obliged them. We pushed the police and guards out of the building. Some did not wait to be pushed but jumped out of the ground-floor windows like so many frogs. We had formulated twenty Indian demands. These were all rejected by the few bureaucrats sent to negotiate with us. The most we got out of these talks was one white official holding up an Indian baby for a snapshot, saying, “Isn’t she sweet?” We had not come for baby-kissing nor for kissing ass. The moderate leaders lost credibility. It was not their fault. Soon we listened to other voices as the occupation turned into a siege. I heard somebody yelling, “The pigs are here.” I could see from the window that it was true. The whole building was surrounded by helmeted police armed with all kinds of guns. A fight broke out between the police and our security. Some of our young men got hit over the head with police clubs and we saw the blood streaming down their faces. There was a rumor, which turned out to be true, that we had received an ultimatum: “Clear out—or else!”
I felt the tension rise within the building, felt it rising within me, an ant heap somebody was plunging a stick into, stirring it up. I heard a woman screaming, “They are coming, they are going to kill us all!” Men started shouting, “Women and children upstairs! Get upstairs!” But I went downstairs. I saw the riot squad outside. They had just beaten up two Indians and were hauling them off to jail. We barricaded all doors and the lowest windows with document boxes, Xerox machines, tables, file cabinets, anything we could lay our hands on. Some brothers piled up heavy typewriters on windowsills to hurl down on the police in case they tried to storm the building. Young men were singing and yelling, “It’s a good day to die!” We started making weapons for ourselves. Two or three guys discovered some archery sets and were ready to defend themselves with bow and arrows. Others were swinging golf clubs, getting the feel of them. Still others were tying pen knives to fishing rods. A letter opener taped to a table leg became a tomahawk. Floyd Young Horse, a Sioux from Cherry Creek, was the first to put war paint on his face in the ancient manner. Soon a lot of young men did the same. Many wrapped themselves in upside-down American flags—like the Ghost Dancers of old.
I took apart a pair of scissors and taped one half to a broken-off chair leg and went outside to join the security. My brother was one of the guards. He saw me and laughed. He had been four years in the marines and had taught me to take apart, clean, and fire a .38. Seeing me with my measly weapon broke him up. “What are you going to do with that thing?” “Get them in the balls before they can hit me!”
At last the police were withdrawn and we were told that they had given us another twenty-four hours to evacuate the building. This was not the end of the confrontation. From then on, every morning we were given a court order to get out by sixP.M.Came six o’clock and we would be standing there ready to join battle. I think many brothers and sisters were prepared to die right on the steps of the BIA building. When one of the AIM leaders was asked by a reporter whether the Indians were not afraid that their women and children could get hurt, he said, “Our women and children have taken this risk for four hundred years and accept it,” and we all shouted “Right on!” I don’t think I slept more than five or six hours during the whole week I was inside the BIA.
Every morning and evening was crisis time. In between, the negotiations went on. Groups of supporters arrived, good people as well as weirdos. The Indian commissioner Lewis Bruce stayed one night in the building to show his sympathy. So did LaDonna Harris, a Kiowa-Comanche and a senator’s wife. One guy who called himself Wavy Gravy, who came from a place in California called the Hog Farm and who wore a single enormous earring, arrived in a psychedelically decorated bus and set up a loudspeaker system for us. At the same time the police cut all our telephone wires except the one connecting us with the Department of the Interior. A certain Reverend McIntire came with a bunch of followers waving signs and singing Christian hymns. He was known to us as a racist and Vietnam War hawk. Why he wanted to support us was a big mystery. Cameramen and reporters swarmed through the building; tourists took snapshots of our guards. It was as if all these white people around the BIA were hoping for some sort of Buffalo Bill Wild West show.
For me the high point came not with our men arming themselves, but with Martha Grass, a simple middle-aged Cherokee woman from Oklahoma, standing up to Interior Secretary Morton and giving him a piece of her mind, speaking from the heart, speaking for all of us. She talked about everyday things, women’s things, children’s problems, getting down to the nitty-gritty. She shook her fists in Morton’s face, saying, “Enough of your bullshit!” It was good to see an Indian mother stand up to one of Washington’s highest officials. “This is our building!” she told him. Then she gave him the finger.
In the end a compromise was reached. The government said they could not go on negotiating during Election Week, but they would appoint two high administration officials to seriously consider our twenty demands. Our expenses to get home would be paid. Nobody would be prosecuted. Of course, our twenty points were never gone into afterward. From the practical point of view, nothing had been achieved. As usual we had bickered among ourselves. But morally it had been a great victory. We had faced White America collectively, not as individual tribes. We had stood up to the government and gone through our baptism of fire. We had not run. As Russel Means put it, it had been “a helluva smoke signal!”
Crying for a Dream
The white man’s reality are his streets with their banks, shops, neon lights, and traffic, streets full of policemen, whores, and sad-faced people in a hurry to punch a time clock.
But this is unreal. The real reality is underneath all this. Grandfather Peyote helps you find it.
You should know that the movement for Indian rights was first of all a spiritual movement and that our ancient religion was at the heart of it. Up to the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Indian religion was forbidden. Children were punished for praying Indian, men were jailed for taking a sweat bath. Our sacred pipes were broken, our medicine bundles burned or given to museums. Christianizing us was one way of making us white, that is, of making us forget that we were Indians. Holding on to our old religion was one way of resisting this kind of slow death. As long as people prayed with the pipe or beat the little water drum, Indians would not vanish, would continue to exist as Indians. For this reason our struggles for Indian rights over the past hundred years came out of our ancient beliefs. And so, under the impact of AIM and other movements, more and more native people abandoned the missionaries and went back to the medicine men and peyote road men.
I went that way, too. Hand in hand with my radicalization went my going back to Indian traditions. To white people this may seem contradictory, but for me and for my friends it was the most natural thing in the world. This process had already begun when I was still a child. I felt that the kind of Christianity the priests and nuns of St. Francis dished out was not good for my digestion. Jesus would have been all right except that I felt he had been coopted by white American society to serve its purpose. The men who had brought us whiskey and the smallpox had come with the cross in one hand and the gun in the other. In the name of all-merciful Jesus they had used that gun on us. Our sacred pipe and Grandfather Peyote had not been coopted and so I was instinctively drawn to them. Not that I could have put it in these words at the time.
To be an Indian I had to go to the full-bloods. My mother and grandmother were Indians, but I am a half-breed and I could not accept this. The half-breeds, the iyeskas, I thought, never really cared for anybody but themselves, having learned that “wholesome selfishness” alone brought the blessings of civilization. The full-bloods have a heart. They are humble. They are willing to share whatever happiness they have. They sit on their land which has a sacred meaning for them, even if it brings them no income. The iyeskas have no land because they sold theirs long ago. Whenever some white businessmen come to the res trying to make a deal to dig for coal or uranium, the iyeskas always say, “Let’s do it. Let’s get that money. Buy a new car and a color TV.” The full-bloods say nothing. They just sit on their little patches of land and don’t budge. It is because of them that there are still some Indians left. I felt drawn to my stubborn old full-blood relatives, men like my Uncle Fool Bull who always spoke of a sacred herb, a holy medicine which was the Creator’s special gift to the Indian people. He told me the legend of an old woman and her granddaughter who were lost in the desert and on the point of dying when they heard a little voice calling to them, a voice coming out: of a tiny herb which saved their lives, and how the women brought this sacred medicine to their tribe and to all the native people of this hemisphere. I listened to these stories and one day I told my mother, “I’m gonna grow up to be an Indian!”
She did not like it. She was upset because she was a Catholic and was having me brought up in her faith. She even had me confirmed. I sometimes try to imagine how I must have looked in my white outfit, with veil and candle, and it always makes me smile. I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple. It was old Grandpa Dick Fool Bull who took me to my first peyote meeting. It was not until I was grown-up that I really got to know him and found out that he was a close relative. The last peyote meeting I had with him he was already over a hundred years old. He stood up and he talked for nearly three hours. He was preparing himself for his death. He was talking about going into the happy hunting grounds, the Milky Way, the great ultimate road to meet with all his old friends, with Carl Iron Shell and Good Lance. He talked about being with them again and being again with his kind of people, the sort who have all died out, the people who themselves had been a hundred years old when Grandpa Fool Bull was still young, who would be waiting for him with a drum and, maybe, a kettle full of steaming buffalo hump. He was really anxious to go. And he remembered and recalled all kinds of things, like being in an old-style saloon one time, leaning against the bar behind which there was a wall with just kegs and kegs of beer and whiskey stacked up to the ceiling. And these two white men came in. They got into a fight and started shooting at each other. Grandpa Fool Bull managed to crawl behind a barrel of Old Crow. He barely got himself settled when a bullet came in and it landed right close to his head, knocking a hole in that keg, and all the good red-eye started pouring out and his open mouth was right underneath that hole and he was having himself a high old time in his hiding place going on a happy drunk while those crazy white sons of bitches took a full hour to kill each other. And he talked about how he wanted to be buried in the old Indian way, wrapped in his star blanket with Crow Dog praying for him and burning sweetgrass. He was not sad at all. He was even joking about it and he still had all his wits about him. He was not feeble or sickly either. He just thought that it was about time for him to travel that road. And a short while later he died. I wished I had made an effort to know him better while I still had the chance. He was the last man among us who knew how to make and play the siyotanka, the old Sioux courting flute. A year ago as I was walking near the tribal office I had a vision. It was very real. I saw Fool Bull standing there with one of his flutes in his hand. I wanted to go up to him and say, “How wonderful, Grandpa Fool Bull, you aren’t dead after all,” and then he changed into somebody else and was just another idle old man leaning against the wall of the tribal office waiting for God knows what.
Well, Grandpa Fool Bull took me to my first peyote meeting and I sat close by him the whole night. Even though I was a young girl I took a lot of medicine. I saw a lot of good things, and I suddenly understood. I understood the reality contained in this medicine, understood that this herb was our heritage, our tradition, that it spoke our language. I became part of the earth because peyote comes from the earth, even tastes like earth sometimes. And so the earth was in me and I in it, Indian earth making me more Indian. And to me Peyote was people, was alive, was a remembrance of things long forgotten.
The medicine was brought to me four times during the night by a man I did not know. It came to me before it came to Grandpa Fool Bull because I was sitting on his right. The man said something to me in Indian, very fast. I could not speak Sioux at the time, but it seemed to me that I could understand what he said, take in the meaning of his words. I was in the power. I heard my long-dead relatives talking to me. It was a feeling, a message coming to me with the voice of the drum, coming down the staff, speaking in the whirr of the feathers, breathing in the smoke of the fire, the smell of the burning cedar. I felt the drumbeat in my heart. My heart became the drum, both beating and beating and beating. I heard things. I did not know whether to believe what the voice told me, what Grandfather Peyote told me. Even now I cannot explain it.
When the sun rose, after we had eaten our morning food and drunk the ice-cold water from the stream, I felt as I had never felt before. I felt so happy, so good. When I got home I blurted out to my mother that I had been to a Native American Church meeting. Mom was hurt. In the end she shrugged her shoulders: “Well, it’s up to you. I can’t tell you what to do!” But she also added something that I liked: “Remember, whatever, the Indian is closest to God.” I understood what she meant.
Two weeks later I was staying at my grandmother’s and a dream came to me. It was in the nighttime, toward morning. I tried to wake up but could not. I was awake and not awake. I could not move. I was crying. I opened my eyes once and saw my grandmother sitting by my bed. She was asking whether I was all right, but I could not answer her. In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie—sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back—I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.
For a long time after that dream I felt depressed, as if all life had been drained from me. I was still going to school, too young to bear such dreams. And I grieved because we had to live a life that we were not put on this earth for. I asked myself why things were so bad for us, why Indians suffered as they did. I could find no answer.
Crow Dog always says: “Grandfather Peyote, he has no mouth, but he speaks; no eyes, but he sees; no ears, but he hears and he makes you listen.” Leonard does not read or write. He tells me: “Grandfather Peyote, he is my teacher, my educator.” When he was in jail for having been at Wounded Knee, the prison psychiatrist visited him in his “house"—that’s what they call their tiny cells. Crow Dog told him: “I don’t need you. Peyote, he is my psychiatrist. With the power of this holy herb I could analyze you.” The shrink did not know what to make of it. To a judge, Leonard said: “Peyote is my lawyer.”
Crow Dog is a peyote road man. He is showing the people the road of life. Only after I married Crow Dog did I really come to understand this medicine. Leonard has the peyote, which we call peyuta or unkcela, and he has his sacred pipe. He is a peyote priest, but also a traditional Lakota medicine man, a yuwipi, and a Sun Dancer. Some people criticize him, or rather all of us who take part in Crow Dog’s ceremonies. They say we should be one or the other, believe in the peyote or in the pipe, not in both. But Leonard cannot put his beliefs into separate little cubbyholes. He looks upon all ancient Indian religions as different aspects of one great overall power, part of the same creative force. Grandfather Peyote is just one of the many forms Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila, the Great Spirit, takes. The peyote button, the pipe, a deer, a bird, a butterfly, a pebble—they are all part: of the Spirit. He is in them, and they are in him.
Dreams and visions are very important to us, maybe more important than any other aspect of Indian religion. I have met Indians from South and Central America, from Mexico and from the Arctic Circle. They all pray for visions, they are all “crying for a dream,” as the Sioux call it. Some get their visions from fasting for four days and nights in a vision pit on a lonely hilltop. Others get their visions fasting and suffering during the long days of the Sun Dance, gazing at the blinding light in the sky. The Ghost Dancers went around and around in a circle, chanting until they fell down in a swoon, leaving their own bodies, leaving the earth, wandering along the Milky Way and among the stars. When they woke up they related what they had seen. Some found “star flesh” in their clenched fists, and moon rocks, so it is said. Still others receive their dreams out of the flash of lightning and the roar of thunder. Some tribes get their visions with the help of sacred mushrooms or jimsonweed. Not a few experience insight in the searing steam of the sweat lodge. Crow Dog receives what for lack of a better term I call sudden flashes of revelation during a vision quest as well as during a peyote meeting.
The Aztec word for the sacred herb waspeyotl,meaning caterpillar, because this cactus is fuzzy like the hairs on a caterpillar. Our Sioux word for medicine is pejuta. Peyote, pejuta, that sounds very close. Maybe it is just a coincidence. It is certain that peyote came to us out of Mexico. In the 1870s the Kiowas and Comanches prayed with this medicine and established what they called the Native American Church. By now the peyote religion is common among most tribes all the way up to Alaska. Since peyote does not grow farther north than the Rio Grande, we must get our medicine from the border region. It is in the Southwest that we have our “peyote garden.”
Peyote came to the Plains Indians just when they needed it most, at a time when the last of the buffalo were being killed and the tribes driven into fenced-in reservations, literally starving and dying of the white man’s diseases, deprived of everything that had given meaning to their lives. The Native American Church became the religion of the poorest of the poor, the conquered, the despoiled. Peyote made them understand what was happening and made them endure. It was the only thing that gave them strength in those, our darkest days. Our only fear is that the whites will take this from us, too, as they have taken everything else. I am sure there are some people at this moment saying, “This is too good for those dumb Indians. Let us take it away from them and get high.” Sometimes whites come to Leonard to “see the medicine man,” like somebody at a country fair come to see the calf with two heads, and often the first words they say are, “Hey, got any peyote, chief?” Already I have seen white people misusing peyote, using it just like another drug to get stoned on. Already our sacred medicine is getting scarce.
It is perfectly legal for Indians to buy and use peyote as a sacrament in a religious ceremony—to buy it at a price, that is. As peyote is being fenced in, like us Indians, and as it is getting harder to come by, all along the Texas border dealers are selling it at exorbitant prices to the Native American Church people. For the sellers it is something like a gold rush. Peyote has been hit by inflation. It has been subjected to the rule of supply and demand, and selling it has become a business—can you imagine, an herb which grows wild in abundance, which nature has put on this earth for the use of the native peoples since the beginning of time.
Peyote makes me understand myself and the world around me. It lets me see the royalness of my people, the royalness of peyote, how good it can be. It is so good, and yet it can be dangerous if a person misuses it. You have to be in the right mind, approach it in the right way. If people have the wrong thoughts about it, it could hurt them. But peyote has never hurt me, it has always treated me well. It helped me when nothing else could. Grandfather Peyote knows you; you can’t hide from him. He makes the unborn baby dance inside its mother’s womb. He has that power. When you partake of this medicine in the right way, you feel strength surging through you, you “get into the power,” other-world power given specially to you and no one else. This also is common to all Indians whether or not they use peyote, this concept of power.
Peyote is a unifier, that is one of its chief blessings. This unifying force brought tribes together in friendship who had been enemies before, and it helped us in our struggle. I took the peyote road because I took the AIM road. For me they became one path. I have visited many tribes. They have different cultures and speak different languages. They may even have different rituals when partaking of this medicine. They may be jealous of each other, saying, “We are the better tribe. Our men used to fight better than yours. We do things better.” But once they meet inside the peyote tipi, all differences are forgotten. Then they are no longer Navajos, or Poncas, Apaches, or Sioux, but just Indians. They learn each others’ songs and find out that they are really the same. Peyote is making many tribes into just one tribe. And it is the same with the Sun Dance which also serves to unite the different Indian nations.
The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival. Once I saw a star shining through the opening on top of the tipi. It shone upon the sacred altar and it gave me a song. Many songs have no words, but you can put in words if you want to. It’s up to the peyote to put words into your song. Women always took part in peyote meetings but for a long time they were not supposed to sing. They were not supposed to pray with the staff, because the staff is a man and women should not try to be men. I was one of the first women to sing during meetings. I have a very high voice, and I am told that I sound like a sad little girl. Leonard’s sisters are all fine singers, especially Christine with her deep, strong voice. Now many women sing while holding the staff and shaking the gourd.
Leonard is the best of all peyote singers in the whole country and I am not saying this just because I am his wife. He knows literally hundreds and hundreds of different songs from many tribes. He must have made up at least a hundred songs himself. While his songs are traditional, he puts something new and special into them which is hard to define. At times his voice does not seem to belong to an ordinary human being. At other times it sounds as if two or three people were singing together, not just he alone. He puts birdcalls into his songs. He has made up a few roadrunner songs and while you hear him singing in Sioux, at the same time you can also hear the call of the roadrunner, very fast. You’d swear there was a roadrunner racing through the tipi, around and around, but it exists only in the song.
When I sit in the circle with Poncas, Otos, Winnebagos, or Cheyennes, I feel as if I am among my own people. We cannot understand each other except by talking English, but through peyote we speak one tongue, spiritually. The ceremony might change a little from tribe to tribe, but not much. Essentially it is always the same. The Navajos might use cornhusk cigarettes during their ritual, while we use the pipe and can-shasha, Indian willow bark tobacco. The Navajos form their main altar in the shape of a half-moon; another tribe may shape it another way. In some places they have their meetings inside the house in an ordinary room, cleared and purified for the purpose. Somewhere else they prefer to meet in a tipi. When Navajo people visit Leonard, he runs his ceremony Navajo style. If we go down to Arizona, the Navajos might put up a meeting for us in the Sioux manner. The differences are minor. Always the meeting lasts from sundown to sunup, always you have the songs, the staff, the gourd, the fan, the drum, the smoking, the fire, the drink of cold water. It is only when you travel below the border that peyote is worshiped in a markedly different way. In 1975 Leonard held a Ghost Dance at his place and to our great surprise a couple of Mexican Indians showed up—Yaqui, Huichol, and Nahuatl. How they knew about the Ghost Dance and what exactly had made them travel this long distance to Crow Dog’s place was something of a mystery. One, a guy from Oaxaca, came in his typical Mexican Indian outfit and told us that his Nahua name was Warm Southwind. The Sioux, with their peculiar kind of Lakota humor, immediately named him “Mild Disturbance.” We found out that these Indian brothers from Aztec and Maya country also were peyote people, but from what they told us their rituals were not at all like ours, going back to the dawn of history.
The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices—one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air. Crow Dog’s father, Henry, had a fan of magpie feathers and the magpie taught him a song. Magpie feathers are for doctoring. Water bird feathers are the road man’s companions. The water bird is the chief symbol of the peyote religion. A fan made from its feathers is used by the road man to bless the water. Hawk feathers are for good understanding. A scissortail fan represents the Indian mothers, Indian maidens with black hair wearing white buckskin dresses. Everybody would like to own a macaw feather fan, but these are hard to come by. The macaw speaks all tongues and unifies the tribes. You can see good things in a macaw parrot fan. The strange thing is that in prehistoric Indian ruins going back a thousand years, in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, the feathers and remains of macaws have been found. I have also seen many centuries-old rock paintings depicting parrots. The feathers, mummies, and paintings of these macaws are found some fifteen hundred to two thousand miles north from the nearest place where these huge parrots occur in the wild. It proves that the North American pueblos were in communication with the Aztecs and Toltecs. I often wonder whether the prehistoric Anasazi were peyote people and imported their macaws to use the feathers during their rituals. Maybe someday I will find out.
The first adherents of the Native American Church were harassed by missionaries and government agents, not because they used peyote as a sacrament, but because all Indian rituals were outlawed as standing in the way of “whitemanizing” the native peoples. In many states, until fairly recently, many who prayed with the sacred medicine had to go to jail. My husband’s family were early victims of this sort of harassment. The Crow Dogs were among the first on our reservation to join the Peyote Church. That was about 1918 or 1920. Leonard’s father, Henry, had a little boy before my husband was born. During the early thirties the family was living in St. Francis, a town dominated by Catholic priests who have their big mission and parochial boarding school there. One winter night one of the priests heard the sound of the peyote drum. It was traced to Henry Crow Dog’s place where a ceremony was in progress. The BIA police received orders to drive Crow Dog from the town. He was the heathen rotten apple who spoiled the barrel of good Christian, submissive apples. The police piled Crow Dog’s belongings, his wife, and children onto his old, horse-drawn buggy and told him to get out of St. Francis or go to jail. A blizzard was raging, and South Dakota blizzards are beyond anything an Eastern city dweller could imagine. Henry drove his buggy to his piece of allotted land some ten miles away. From his own land, he thought, nobody could drive him away. He was traveling in the face of the storm all the way, sometimes through deep snowdrifts. It took him all night. When he reached his land in the wee hours of the morning, they all had to sleep in the wagon. It was the only shelter they had against the icy winds. There was no house there at the time. Shortly after it got light the little boy died from exposure. He was two years old—a big brother whom Leonard never knew. A faith you have suffered for becomes more precious. The more the Crow Dogs and other traditional families were persecuted for their beliefs, the more stubbornly they held on to them.
After Wounded Knee, when I became Crow Dog’s wife, I started to go down south with him to what he called his “peyote gardens.” This always involved a round trip of some three thousand miles and staying with various tribes along the way. I have to admit that in the beginning I had the typical Sioux prejudice against some of the southern tribes. To me they seemed at first to be too peaceful and self-contented, not “committed to the struggle,” the Pueblos especially. They did not have the Plains tribes’ aversion to farming and were growing their corn and squash on fields which they had tended for hundreds of years before the first white man set foot on this continent. In time I recognized that they had an inner strength that we Plains people lacked, strength without macho, without bragging about what great warriors they were, or had been. I had to admire the way they kept the government at arm’s length, kept tourists and photographers out, and managed to hold on to their old ways without theatricals or confrontations. They worked and kept themselves busy. They had, on the whole, fewer problems with alcoholism than we did. Of course, they had been farmers since the dawn of history, great potters, and nowadays also jewelry makers. Through their farming and craftwork they had been able to adapt to the system without being overrun by it.
They lived a lot better than we northern tribes. Their beautiful traditional adobe houses were comfortable, with modern bathrooms and kitchens. They sat by cozy fireplaces. Fine Indian rugs covered their floors; strings of red chilis hung from their rafters. Outside, the family car was always new and shiny, not like our old Sioux jalopies with one headlight out and a window smashed. I could not help noticing the great role women played in Pueblo society. Women owned the houses and actually built them. Children often got their mother’s last name, not their father’s. Sons joined their mothers’ clans. It made me a little jealous. Of course, the Pueblos were lucky. Unlike us poor Sioux who were driven into fenced-in reservations, they still lived in their ancient villages which had already been old when the Spaniards came. Even so the Pueblos have many of the same problems facing us Sioux. They have to protect their land and water from developers, strip miners, uranium seekers, and dam builders. I sometimes think that in their quiet way they might be doing a better job at this than we flamboyant Lakotas. Traveling and meeting many tribes we learned a lot. At least I did.
Having our certificates and other documents proving that we are acting on behalf of all the Native American Church people in the Dakotas, and that Leonard is an official as well as priest of that church, it is now legal for us to go down into Texas and Mexico to harvest our medicine. Leonard only has to show his papers to get all the peyote he wants—if he has the money to pay for it. It took some tough court battles to bring this about. One of the funniest court cases he won arose from an incident on the Navajo reservation. Leonard had been invited to a peyote meeting by some Navajo friends. It was run by a Navajo, but they gave Leonard the job of fire chief. At the beginning an Indian woman came in with a white man. She explained, “He is my husband. That makes it all right for him to partake.” This white guy was dressed like a hippie. He had long hair and beads all over him. He was dressed like an Indian. He took some medicine and seemed to be affected by it. He acted drunk. Halfway through the meeting he suddenly got up to take a leak outside. As he stumbled back into the tipi he did not bend down low enough to clear the entrance hole. His long hair got caught and came off. It was a wig. Underneath he had a crew cut. At once he said, “I am the sheriff of Holbrook, and I arrest the whole bunch of you.” All the Indians burst into laughter, it was so grotesque.
When the trial came up, one of the charges was that the Indians had let a white man participate. Of course, Leonard had only been a guest. It had not been up to him to let or not let the white man participate. When it was Leonard’s turn to speak, he said: “Judge, if it is illegal for a white man to take this medicine, then the sheriff has broken his own law. We did not break it, because we have been allowed to use this herb as a sacrament for a long, long time. But I think the sheriff has not broken any law, because this was a religious meeting and even a white man has the right to participate—if we let him—as long as it is a strictly conducted ceremony. Freedom of religion doesn’t stop at the door of a peyote tipi. Also, the sheriff had no jurisdiction on Indian land in the first place. Inside the reservation he was just a tourist. Only the tribal police would have had the right to make an arrest. This is all I have to say.” We won that case and it was a landmark decision in favor of the peyote church.
When we go down to the peyote gardens we usually travel in four or five cars or trucks. It takes a good number of people to do the harvesting. They have “distributors” on the border, peyote dealers. The last time we had to pay over a hundred dollars for a thousand buttons. Five years ago it was twenty-five dollars. That’s inflation for you. But on the last few trips we did not go to a dealer; we did the harvesting on our own. It is not only cheaper, but a lot more fitting to get the medicine in the right, sacred way, than just to buy it like aspirin or cough drops.
We found a place where we saw the desert sprinkled with peyote. It is a kind of cactus plant. We got up at sunrise and Leonard performed a prayer ceremony that he said would make us find plenty of medicine, that the prayer would help us go to the right spots. We all spread out and looked around. The whole area was covered with cactus, Joshua trees, chapparal, and creosote bushes. Some of the cactuses were gigantic, up to twenty feet high. The peyote was sitting there between all those thorns, prickles, and spikes. It was really hard to get at. I felt that it was good that we had to work for it and got scratched up. It gave the harvest a special meaning for me.
On one occasion Barbara found the chief peyote. It was large, divided into sixteen segments, four times the sacred number of the four directions. When you find a chief peyote you pray for him, to him, with him. We think that every person or family in the Native American Church should have a chief peyote in their home. So when somebody finds him, someone who doesn’t have one yet, we dig him out with the whole root and a lot of his natural soil and take him back with us. Barb did not have a chief peyote yet, so Leonard helped to dig it out and gave it to her, saying, “Just take this peyote and pray with him whenever you need help.” The plant thrived. Barb kept it watered and it grew. Every week she had a little flower on her chief peyote. Every time I saw it, it seemed to have grown. When Barb was not at home, grandmother watered it and made sure that it had enough sunlight. One day my mother visited her and said, “Why don’t you just throw that thing out?” But grandma told her, “Mary and Barb think a lot of this plant and I’m gonna take care of it when they are not here.” It showed that grandma was more Indian than mom, and it also showed the cultural and generation gap between our mother and us.
Some people take the whole peyote plant, but we decided to take only the tops and leave the roots so that the peyote could grow again. It took us a little more than two weeks to harvest about thirty-five thousand peyotes, enough for the whole tribe and for a whole year. While we were gathering our medicine, the rancher who owned the land came up and asked what we were doing on his property. When we explained, he smiled and said we were welcome any time. If we had been forced to pay for them all at the price the dealers were charging just then, it would have meant no shoes for the kids. We would have had to save on food and everything else for the rest of the year. Thirty-five thousand buttons! Maybe all that medicine on his land had influenced the man’s thinking, “sensitized” him, as the AIM guys would say. The first harvesting was a new experience for me. It made me want to go back and do a little better each time, do the gathering in an ever more sacred way, more knowingly.
Once we went harvesting in Old Mexico. As we drove back to the States we had little peyotes lying all over the car, all those little buttons on the dashboard. Somebody said, “Jesus! It’s illegal to bring it across the border. They’ll arrest us and take our medicine away.” I did not want to throw our medicine out the window. So I and another girl decided to eat it. It seemed more respectful. When we got back to our motel in Texas we were all peyoted up. My head was spinning. When you take medicine in a ceremonial context it does not affect you that way. There I was sitting on the carpet in our room and I sure was in the power. Later we found out that the customs inspectors had known all about us, had seen Crow Dog’s certificate, and had waved the other cars ahead of us through with a smile—buttons and all. And there I had struggled getting a record amount of our medicine down into my stomach in record time; for nothing. But later, in the motel, it felt so nice!
Cankpe Opi Wakpala
I knew when I brought my body here,
it might become food for the
worms and magpies.
I threw my body away before
I came here.
—Young man from Eagle Butte
Ido not consider myself a radical or revolutionary. It is white people who put such labels on us. All we ever wanted was to be left alone, to live our lives as we see fit. To govern ourselves in reality and not just on paper. To have our rights respected. If that is revolutionary, then I sure fit that description. Actually, I have a great yearning to lead a normal, peaceful life—normal in the Sioux sense. I could have accepted our flimsy shack, our smelly outhouse, and our poverty—but only on my terms. Yes, I would have accepted poverty, dignified, uninterfered-with poverty, but not the drunken, degrading, and humiliating poverty we had to endure. But normality was a long time in coming. Even now I don’t have the peace I crave.
When my husband was in a maximum-security prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I spent many months in New York with white friends in order to be near him. For the first time I lived a life which white Americans consider “normal.” I have to admit that I developed a certain taste for it. It was a new, comfortable, exciting life for a young Indian hobo girl like me. I became quite a New Yorker. I took my little boy Pedro down to the Village to Pancho’s, buying wonderful-tasting nachos for him and virgin coladas for myself. I liked to go window-shopping. Everything was so much cheaper than on the reservation where the trading posts have no competition and charge what they please. Everything is more expensive if you are poor. I went down to Greene’s; on 38th Street in the millinery district and bought beads at one-sixth the price Indian craftworkers are charged by the white dealer in Rosebud. They had many more beads to choose from, the kinds of beads I had not seen for years, indistinguishable from the old, nineteenth-century ones, like tiny, sweaty green and yellow beads, and cut-glass beads of the type Kiowas use in beading peyote staffs and gourds. I learned to like spicy Szechuan and Hunan food, learned to accept and talk with white friends, and lost some of my shyness to the extent of making public speeches on behalf of my imprisoned husband. I luxuriated in bathtubs with hot and cold running water and admitted that modern flush toilets were suiting me a lot better than our Leaning Tower of Pisa privies, even though they were products of white American technology which I usually condemned. Once, in a fit of total irresponsibility, I blew $99.99 on an imitation Persian rug on special sale at Macy’s. I took this thing home and spread it on the floor of our shack, feeling smugly middle-class. The rug didn’t last long, what with the dogs, the kids, and many people dropping in constantly with their problems. Once even a horse forced its way in through the unlocked door and relieved itself on this proud possession of mine. This rug was a symbol of the good little housewife I could have been. It is the government which made me into a militant. If you approach them hat in hand as a “responsible, respectable” apple, red outside, white inside, you get nowhere. If you approach them as a militant you get nowhere either, except giving them an excuse to waste you, but at least you don’t feel so shitty. Wounded Knee was not the brainchild of wild, foaming-at-the-mouth militants, but of patient and totally unpolitical, traditional Sioux, mostly old Sioux ladies.
The trouble started with Dicky Wilson, or rather it started long ago with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. At that time a government lawyer decided to do something for “Lo, the poor Indian,” and wrote a constitution for all the tribes. Indians were to have their own little governments patterned after that of the Great White Father in Washington. Every Indian nation was to have an elected tribal president and council. Poor benighted Mr. Lo was to have the blessings of democracy bestowed upon him by all-wise white benefactors. The people who thought it all up probably really meant to do well by us. Sometimes I think that the do-gooders do us more harm than the General Custer types. There were two things very wrong with this sudden gift of democracy. The most important was that the Reorganization Act destroyed the old, traditional form of Indian self-government. The Sioux always had their ancient council of chiefs; other tribes were guided by their clan mothers or, as among the Pueblos, by their caciques and kikmongwis, who were priests. All traditional Indian government was founded on religion. The Reorganization Act brought into being a class of half- and quarter-blood politicians whose allegiance was mainly to Washington. The full-blood traditionals never took to these puppet regimes, looking upon them as the work of white men, installed for white men’s advantage. They would have nothing to do with them and often refused to take part in tribal elections. As a result, in many tribes, the chairmen were voted into power by a small minority of half-breed Uncle Tomahawks who did not represent the grass-roots people but only the educated, well-off, landless part-Indians. A great number of tribes were split by the Reorganization Act into “cooperating friendlies” and “recalcitrant hostiles.” The first usually occupied a tribe’s administrative center, the latter the outlying backwoods settlements. This rift created in 1934 has lasted in many places to this day.
The second thing wrong with the whole scheme was that the tribal governments, such as they were, had very little real power. Power remained always in the hands ofthe white superintendent and the white BIA bureaucrats. It was the superintendent who held the purse strings and gave out what few jobs there were. He had the support of Washington. In a conflict between the tribal president and the superintendent, it was always the white superintendent who came out on top. It was the same with the tribal courts, which were allowed to handle only minor offenses—wife-beating, speeding, drunk and disorderly, and such stuff. The so-called ten major crimes, which included everything but simple misdemeanors, were handled by federal courts outside the reservation before white juries. There were some good tribal chairmen, but many of them were corrupt. The typical bad tribal chairman practiced nepotism, filling up all available positions with his relatives. His brother became the chief of police, his nephews tribal policemen, his brothers-in-law tribal judges, his uncle head of the election board. You get the idea. Once such a guy had settled in, it was impossible to get rid of him.
Dicky Wilson at Pine Ridge was about the worst tribal president of this type. Pine Ridge is our neighbor reservation. Together with our own, Rosebud, it forms a very big chunk of land, some two, three million acres. Both are Sioux reservations. The people speak the same language, have the same rituals and customs, and intermarry all the time. Most Rosebud people have Pine Ridge relatives. Pine Ridge Sioux are Oglalas—Red Cloud’s and Crazy Horse’s people. In the early 1960s, Wilson and his wife had to leave the reservation after being accused of conflict-of-interest abuses while he was a plumber for the Pine Ridge housing authority. A few years later he came back and was accused, together with another man, of illegally converting tribal funds. When he became tribal president he abolished freedom of speech and assembly on the reservation. He distributed John Birch Society literature and was showing John Birch Society-made hate films. He misused tribal moneys. He took tribal ballot boxes into his basement and there “counted” the votes. Worst of all, he maintained his rule with the help of his private army, known and feared under the name of the goons. Opponents of his regime had their houses firebombed, their cars and windows riddled with bullets. People were beaten and shot. Pine Ridge experienced a rash of violent deaths, unexplained and uninvestigated. People were afraid to leave their homes. A small girl had her eye shot out. Most of the victims were people who had stood up against Wilson or had otherwise offended him. He had people stomped and beaten in his presence. Things got so out of hand that even the long-suffering back-country full-bloods, known for their capacity to endure in silence, began to grumble. The old treaty chiefs, medicine men, tribal interpreters, and traditionalists finally formed an organization known as OSCRO, Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. Its head was Pedro Bissonette, a close friend who was later killed under mysterious circumstances by Wilson’s goons.
While a sort of undeclared civil war raged on the Pine Ridge Reservation, AIM had come in force to nearby Rapid City, which some Indians called the “most racist town in the United States.” The AIM people were demonstrating against prevailing housing conditions in Indian slums, against discrimination and police brutality. While fights between Indians and whites broke out in Rapid City streets and bars, a Sioux by the name of Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed to death by a white man in front of a saloon in Buffalo Gap, a small hamlet not far from Rapid City. The case was tried in Custer, situated deep inside the Paha Sapa—our sacred Black Hills—and upon Custer converged the AIM people as well as many Sioux from Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River, with the AIM and OSCRO people mingling together. Among the AIM leaders was Russel Means, himself a Pine Ridge Sioux, born and enrolled in the Oglala tribe. His family’s home was at Porcupine, some ten miles from Wounded Knee. Wilson had promised to “personally cut off Russel Means’s braids if he ever set foot on the reservation.” He forbade Means to speak at Pine Ridge. Russel went there anyway and Wilson had him beaten up. Russel wound up in the hospital with a hairline skull fracture, but was soon released. In that explosive situation, OSCRO asked AIM for help against the goons. Thus the stage was set.
For me, Wounded Knee started in Rapid City. This is John Wayne country. Everybody tries to look like the guy in the Marlboro ads. At that time I was not yet Crow Dog’s woman. I had been in love with a young boy who was not cut out to be a husband, much less a father. He had disappeared from my life, but he left me pregnant. I was in my eighth month and very big. My smallness only emphasized my enormous belly. It seemed as if the whole Sioux Nation, all the Seven Campfires, had come to Rapid City to demonstrate against the racism for which the city had become notorious. My brother was there, and Barb. So naturally I was there, too. We all stayed at the Mother Butler Seminary, a hangout for Indian activists. One night I was trying to sleep when a girl called Toony came in, all excited. She was a good friend of mine. She told me, “This whole goddam town is going to blow up any minute!” All business, she put down her bag, pulled out a knife, and stuck it in her boot. Her cowboy boots were tipped with metal. She was showing them off: “These are my special shitkickers. I’m putting on war paint.”
I asked, “What’s going on? Can I come?” “No,” she said, “not you. No way. Not in your condition.”
Outside, Russel and Dennis were drilling some guys in nonviolent tactics. They would blow a whistle and everybody would run into the street. Another whistle and they all would run back into Mother Butler’s. Most of the guys took it as a big joke. Indians are not very good at being drilled—even by their own leaders.
The bars in Rapid City were known to be tough on Indians. The unspoken rule was “Indians enter at their own risk.” Groups of skins were forming to sensitize the saloons. Nobody wanted me around, but I went along anyhow. We trooped from bar to bar, and wherever we went we caused a riot. One redneck told me, “We’re goin’ to make good Injuns out of you!” I kicked him in the shin and he hit me hard in the chest. I charged blindly and we both wound up on the floor. It was sure no way for a lady in my interesting condition to behave. A kind of insane rage seemed to possess, not only me, but everybody. Rapid City had been a bad scene for us ever since the town was founded on land stolen from us after Custer had found gold in the Black Hills. There was not one single Sioux from Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, or Oak Creek who did not bear the scars of humiliations, undeserved arrests, or beatings received in this town whose main sport has always been Indian-baiting. The resentment that had been smoldering for eighty years finally boiled over in one wild night. The police went berserk, going on a rampage with their night-sticks, busting the head of anybody who looked Indian. They arrested skins at random, stuffing them into a big, old Greyhound bus, carting about two hundred of us off to the small, cramped, and decrepit Pennington County Jail. Those of us who had not been arrested snake-danced around the jail, drumming and singing war songs.
It was then that Dennis Banks told us that Wesley Bad Heart Bull had been stabbed to death by a white man and that the trial was about to start at Custer, inside the Black Hills, forty-five miles from Rapid City. Custer! The name itself was a provocation. Custer, a town built on a spot which our legends told us was the home of the sacred thunderbirds, desecrated by tourist traps such as a phony Indian village with a big sign:SEE HOW THEY LIVE!
A couple hundred of us formed up a thirty-car caravan to drive to Custer. It was early February 1973 and it was cold, below freezing. It was snowing heavily. When we arrived the first thing I saw was a huge sign:WELCOME TO CUSTER—THE TOWN WITH THE GUNSMOKE FLAVOR, and another billboard:SEE THE PAGEANT, HOW THE WEST WAS WON!Soon the smoke flavor would be stronger. We had come not to make a riot, but to see justice done. In South Dakota the killing of an Indian was usually treated as a mere misdemeanor and went unpunished, but if an Indian killed a white man he was condemned to death and was lucky to have it bargained down to a life sentence. We were fed up with this kind of judicial double standard.
We gathered before the courthouse. At first everything was dignified, even jolly. A delegation of four or five of our spokesmen (or should I say “spokespersons"? But they were all men; we were not in the spokesperson stage yet) entered the courthouse. A short while later the district attorney came out on the court steps with a smile in order to address us. As I remember, it went like this: “My Indianffrrrriends.I promise you, justice will be done. Depend on it. The man who killed Wesley Bad Heart Bull will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law—forsecond-degree manslaughter.”
At the words “second-degree manslaughter” a deep growl went up. They were like a knife stuck into our bellies. It meant another Indian-killer would go free. Dennis, Russel, and Crow Dog argued with the DA, telling him not to specify the charge, but to let the jury decide whether it was murder or manslaughter. The DA refused. After that things were neither dignified nor jolly. The state highway patrolmen tried to keep the Sioux out of the courthouse. A scuffle broke out. The troopers had been waiting for this—with visored helmets, guns, and long riot sticks. They clubbed down the mother of the murdered Indian, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, and choked her by pressing a riot stick against her throat. Our delegation inside the courthouse was also attacked. I saw Russel being dragged out, sitting on the pavement, handcuffed, dazed, and bleeding, telling the police, “We’re fighting for our lives. You are only fighting for your paychecks.” Crow Dog was jumping out of a broken first-floor courthouse window. Dennis jumped out after him with a big grin: “I’m following my spiritual leader.”
Then all hell broke loose. The police used tear gas, smoke bombs, and fire hoses to drive us away from the courthouse. A few older men and women were still trying to reason with them: “All this isn’t necessary. We just want to be heard.” But it was no good. The troopers and Indians began fighting for possession of the main street in front of the courthouse. A young Indian girl had her clothes torn off in the struggle. I saw two helmeted pigs with huge sticks dragging her almost naked through the snow. She was bleeding. A man in front of Barb was clubbed senseless, lying like a heap of old rags in the middle of the road. One of the pigs yelled at us, “You damn Indians have raised enough cain around here and we’re goin’ to kick your ass. We’re not goin’ to give you a chance to wreck this place. We’re goin’ to crack your goddam heads first.”
Then the Sioux let out a big war whoop and charged. They started trashing a police car parked in the street. In their frustration they jumped on it, kicked it, beat it with their fists. Somebody lit a match and threw it into the gas tank. It wouldn’t light. Somebody else poured gas around it and tried to set it on fire. His matches wouldn’t light. The snow had made everything wet. The guys then tried to tip the squad car over, rocking it back and forth. It did not budge. Everybody vented their fury upon it, but the thing seemed invulnerable. Barb was laughing: “All these Indians and they can’t total one lousy pig car!”
People were scampering in and out of stores, ripping everything out, breaking windows. Two young men came running with a trash can full of gasoline. They ran up the steps of the courthouse, doused the door with gas, and poured some of it inside through a broken window. Some other boys were racing up from the gas station with burning flares, the kind one sets out on the road if one has to fix a flat at night. They chucked the flares at the entrance door where the gas had formed a puddle, but they missed. The flares were hissing harmlessly on the steps. More flares. A sheriff who looked as if he had come out of a Grade B western movie aimed his rifle at one of our men: “If you throw that flare I’ll kill you, so help me!” The sisters were screaming, “Do it, do it, do it! AIM, AIM, AIM, make every aim count!” I was screaming, too. One of the girls had a candle, another a kerosene lamp. Young men were making molotov cocktails and throwing them. The troopers were yelling back, “We’ll kill any man who throws a flare!”
Suddenly a great roar went up, “Aaaaaahhhhhhh!"—the old bear sound the Sioux make when they are killing mad. The gasoline had caught fire. A fire truck came careering around the corner. While firemen and police tried to keep the courthouse from burning down, we set fire to the Chamber of Commerce—an imitation pioneer log cabin. It went up in flames, making a huge fire with sparks flying in all direction. The signWELCOME TO CUSTER—THE TOWN WITH THE GUNSMOKE FLAVORwas burning brightly. All the women made the spine-tingling brave-heart cry. Out of nowhere a gasoline truck appeared and stopped right in front of the burning Chamber of Commerce. The driver was completely freaked out. He couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. He was sitting in his cab, bug-eyed and petrified with fear, not knowing what to do. He just kept staring open-mouthed at the flames. We waved him on, but he just sat there. One of our boys stuck his head inside the cab and yelled at him, “Get your ass out of here. What do you want to do, blow us all up?” He was so scared we almost felt sorry for him. At the same time we had to laugh, it was so ludicrous. Finally he woke up and got the hell out of there as fast as his truck would go.
The fighting lasted from morning until midafternoon, luckily without shooting, just rocks, fists, and clubs. Many Indians were arrested and some were later tried. Sarah Bad Heart Bull was indicted on several counts of rioting and arson, and faced a possible maximum sentence of forty years. Her son’s murderer was acquitted without doing any time at all, while Sarah actually spent a few weeks in jail for having made a nuisance of herself over her son’s death. Barb was arrested and told she was facing ten years, but nothing came of it and she was let go. I was not arrested at all. I left Custer in a car which had an old bumper sticker on its rear fender:CUSTER HAD IT COMING!It made me laugh. That same night, back in Rapid City, we could see ourselves on TV. It had been quite a day.
We had little time to catch our breath. Already the OSCRO people at Pine Ridge were sending out urgent calls for us to help them. Wilson’s goons were on the rampage, maiming and killing people. The Oglala elders thought that we all had been wasting our time and energies in Rapid City and Custer when the knife was at our throats at home. And so, finally and inevitably, our caravan started rolling toward Pine Ridge. Wilson was expecting us. His heavily armed goons had been reinforced by a number of rednecks with Remingtons and Winchesters on gun racks behind their driver’s seats, eager to bag themselves an Injun. The marshals and FBI had come too, with some thirty armored cars equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers. These were called APCs, Armored Personnel Carriers. The tribal office had been sandbagged and a machine gun installed on its roof. The Indians called it “Fort Wilson.” Our movements were kept under observation and reported several times a day. Still we came on.
To tell the truth, I had not joined the caravan with the notion that I would perform what some people later called “that great symbolic act.” I did not even know that we would wind up at Wounded Knee. Nobody did. I went because everybody went, because I was young and it was my lifestyle to go along. It would not have occurred to me not to go. At this time the community hall at Calico, five miles north of Pine Ridge, was the meeting place of OSCRO and all those who opposed Wilson’s regime. Now they were being joined by AIM. People had had a powwow there for a few days, dancing and singing, though Wilson had forbidden it.
The scene upon our arrival was peaceful enough. Kids were playing frisbee. Elders were drinking coffee out of paper cups. An old man was telling me, “What are we to do? If you are with AIM you’re a no-good renegade. If you are with Dickie Wilson you’re a goddam goon. If you are with the government, you’re no Indian at all.” All the old chiefs with the historic great names were there and all the medicine men, people like Fools Crow, Wallace Black Elk, Crow Dog, Chips, and Pete Catches. Only one important traditional man was missing who was too old and sick to attend. Even some tribal judges were there. One of them said to the AIM and OSCRO guys, commenting on what had happened at Custer, “In my job I really have to be against any destruction of private property, but privately I enjoyed what you did. You should have burned that whole goddam town down.” Contrary to what some of the media said later, the over-whelming majority of those present were Sioux, born and bred on the reservation. Russel Means said a few words which I still remember, though I can’t quote them exactly. The drift of his speech was: “If I have to die, I don’t want to die in some barroom brawl, or in a stupid car accident, but want my death to have some meaning. Maybe the time has come when we need some Indian martyrs.” One old man said something to the effect that he had lived all his life in Pine Ridge in darkness. That the whites and men like Wilson had thrown a blanket over the whole reservation and that he hoped we would be the ones to yank this blanket off and let some sunshine in.
It began to dawn upon me that what was about to happen, and what I personally would be involved in, would be unlike anything I had witnessed before. I think everybody who was there felt the same way—an excitement that was choking our throats. But there was still no definite plan for what to do. We had all assumed that we would go to Pine Ridge town, the administrative center of the reservation, the seat of Wilson’s and the government’s power. We had always thought that the fate of the Oglalas would be settled there. But as the talks progressed it became clear that nobody wanted us to storm Pine Ridge, garrisoned as it was by the goons, the marshals, and the FBI. We did not want to be slaughtered. There had been too many massacred Indians already in our history. But if not Pine Ridge, then what? As I remember, it was the older women like Ellen Moves Camp and Gladys Bissonette who first pronounced the magic words “Wounded Knee,” who said, “Go ahead and make your stand at Wounded Knee. If you men won’t do it, you can stay here and talk for all eternity and we women will do it.”
When I heard the words “Wounded Knee” I became very, very serious. Wounded Knee—Cankpe Opi in our language—has a special meaning for our people. There is the long ditch into which the frozen bodies of almost three hundred of our people, mostly women and children, were thrown like so much cordwood. And the bodies are still there in their mass grave, unmarked except for a cement border. Next to the ditch, on a hill, stands the white-painted Catholic church, gleaming in the sunlight, the monument of an alien faith imposed upon the landscape. And below it flows Cankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek along which the women and children were hunted down like animals by Custer’s old Seventh, out to avenge themselves for their defeat by butchering the helpless ones. That happened long ago, but no Sioux ever forgot it.
Wounded Knee is part of our family’s history. Leonard’s great-grandfather, the first Crow Dog, had been one of the leaders of the Ghost Dancers. He and his group had held out in the icy ravines of the Badlands all winter, but when the soldiers came in force to kill all the Ghost Dancers he had surrendered his band to avoid having his people killed. Old accounts describe how Crow Dog simply sat down between the rows of soldiers on one side, and the Indians on the other, all ready and eager to start shooting. He had covered himself with a blanket and was just sitting there. Nobody knew what to make of it. The leaders on both sides were so puzzled that they just did not get around to opening fire. They went to Crow Dog, lifted the blanket, and asked him what he meant to do. He told them that sitting there with the blanket over him was the only thing he could think of to make all the hotheads, white and red, curious enough to forget fighting. Then he persuaded his people to lay down their arms. Thus he saved his people just a few miles away from where Big Foot and his band were massacred. And old Uncle Dick Fool Bull, a relative of both the Crow Dogs and my own family, often described to me how he himself heard the rifle and cannon shots that mowed our people down when he was a little boy camping only two miles away. He had seen the bodies, too, and described to me how he had found the body of a dead baby girl with an American flag beaded on her tiny bonnet.
Before we set out for Wounded Knee, Leonard and Wallace Black Elk prayed for all of us with their pipe. I counted some fifty cars full of people. We went right through Pine Ridge. The half-bloods and goons, the marshals and the government snipers on their rooftop, were watching us, expecting us to stop and start a confrontation, but our caravan drove right by them, leaving them wondering. From Pine Ridge it was only eighteen miles more to our destination. Leonard was in the first car and I was way in the back.
Finally, on February 27, 1973, we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of us wrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.
It was not cold on this next-to-last day of February—not for a South Dakota February anyway. Most of us had not even bothered to wear gloves. I could feel a light wind stirring my hair, blowing it gently about my face. There were a few snowflakes in the air. We all felt the presence of the spirits of those lying close by in the long ditch, wondering whether we were about to join them, wondering when the marshals would arrive. We knew that we would not have to wait long for them to make their appearance.
The young men tied eagle feathers to their braids, no longer unemployed kids, juvenile delinquents, or winos, but warriors. I thought of our old warrior societies—the Kit Foxes, the Strong Hearts, the Badgers, the Dog Soldiers. The Kit Foxes—the Tokalas—used to wear long sashes. In the midst of battle, a Tokala would sometimes dismount and pin the end of his sash to the earth. By this he signified his determination to stay and fight on his chosen spot until he was dead, or until a friend rode up and unpinned him, or until victory. Young or old, men or women, we had all become Kit Foxes, and Wounded Knee had become the spot upon which we had pinned ourselves. Soon we would be encircled and there could be no retreat. I could not think of anybody or anything that would “unpin” us. Somewhere, out on the prairie surrounding us, the forces of the government were gathering, the forces of the greatest power on earth. Then and there I decided that I would have my baby at Wounded Knee, no matter what.
Suddenly the spell was broken. Everybody got busy. The men were digging trenches and making bunkers, putting up low walls of cinder blocks, establishing a last-resort defense perimeter around the Sacred Heart Church. Those few who had weapons were checking them, mostly small-bore .22s and old hunting rifles. We had only one automatic weapon, an AK-47 that one Oklahoma boy had brought back from Vietnam as a souvenir. Altogether we had twenty-six firearms—not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”