PRESS & MEDIA
PRESS & MEDIA
Pg 112 lay open on a white banquet table in a Presbyterian church community hall on the rolling prairie hills of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Twenty of us car pooled in a caravan out of Colorado and onto the Lakota Rez in South Dakota to spend the front end of our Thanksgiving break working, learning, and enjoying the Lakota people, and their Lakota traditions.
Not a one of the 20 something of us from Colorado were there to practice the Presbyterian faith professed within these four walls. Instead the church was kind enough to allow this secular group of adults and teenagers to find lodging in their community hall while we all engaged in what has morphed into inescapably spiritual work on the Rez.
Many of our group had spent the day swinging a hammer at donated, warped, waned, and bowed 2x4s and plywood decking. We tried to make enough squared up 16 on center wall frames to wrap a 20 x 30 foot cinder block foundation. A foundation covered with reclaimed wood stripped out of a torn down hotel from Rapid City and donated plywood we screwed and nailed down to smooth the floor. Building materials arrive on the Rez from what is available not from what is shopped for. The goal is to build a modest home with volunteer labor, most without construction experience, for a humble Lakota family of five. This Lakota family’s home for many years is an old bumper pull camper trailer a half mile from an improved road. The building site is down the hill from the camper on the footprint of the original family home that was tragically destroyed years ago.
The wind blew the dust and grass chaff off the dry horse pasture into the eyes and noses of a few stove up adults and a herd of nimble teenagers moving lumber like a Tetris game. Manipulating wood to find a fit that could promise a straight wall to plumb up on the foundation during a future visit, while 80 horses curiously looked on.
Later at supper back at the Presbyterian church community hall Waylon, the Lakota man for whom the house was being built, thumbed the pages of a book entitled “Eye Witness at Wounded Knee” while his hamburger cooled on the plate between his elbows under the book. We asked Waylon to eat his food while it was hot, but Waylon replied. “This food will be here when you leave but the book won’t, it always leaves with you, so I need to read it when I can.” This book makes its way to the Reservation every trip as part of a resource library for those interested in the Lakota history. The book's photo journalism centers our intention onto the “why” of our purpose here. (we latter gave Waylon the book in gratitude and that is another story behind this story)
Waylon, is a tall slender quiet and warm Lakota man in his mid 30s. His dark black hair is shaved close with a #3 clipper guard I bet. He wears a clean snap button up western shirt and jeans confessing a hard day doing life’s work on the Rez.
Waylon was taken off the reservation and away from his family as a young child by a white social worker in 1985. He says he remembers playing outside of his home while his drunk dad and grandfather fought. He describes the day a sedan pulled up and a social worker picked him up and took him to a foster family in Rabid City. He never saw his dad again... He grew up in dozens of different foster homes in a white world.
Waylon opened the book to page 112. On the page was a picture of the frozen body of the Lakota Chief Spotted Elk also know as Chief Big Foot, a derogatory name assigned by a US Calvary soldier. Chief Spotted Elk, known for being a warrior and skilled in diplomacy, peacefully surrendered himself and his band to the 7th Calvary on December 28th The very next day he was gunned down alongside nearly 153+ non-combatant Lakota men, women and children during a hostile attack perpetrated by the United States Carvery on an unarmed Indian camp along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890; an event that for a century would be known in white history books as “The Battle of Wounded Knee.” This name would latter be changed to the more appropriate name, “The Wounded Knee Massacre” a hundred years latter.
Waylon laid the book on the table and said “When I was in Junior High our school took a trip from Rapid City onto the reservation to the Wounded Knee sight. We were shown this picture of this dead Indian. I saw this picture and understood the battle through the eyes of a white child. I saw this Indian man shot dead in the snow because of what we were told he did to the whites. Latter when I moved back onto the reservation I asked my auntie about my family. She told me about my grandpa and then she showed me a picture of my grandpa's grandpa’s grandpa”.
When I asked why he returned to the reservation his simple answer is “This is my home. My family is here, this is where I belong.”
Waylon pointed to the picture of the frozen body of Chief Spotted Elk rolled over onto his back from a face in the snow position and propped up for the photo. “This is my grandpa. When my auntie showed me this picture I no longer saw the picture and understood the massacre through the eyes of a white child. I saw it through my Indian eyes.”
I sat quietly not knowing what to say. Then uncomfortable with the long silence I asked Waylon what he felt when he no longer saw the picture through the eyes of a white person.
“ That is a good question.” He responded softy. “I guess I never thought about it until now.” He paused for a long while. Waylon’s eyes filled with tears and his lip trembled, He turned his soft brown eyes into mine and gently said; “Furious”.
How he said “furious” was strangely paradoxical to the word.
At that moment the white plastic banquet table between us with the book turned to page 112 became larger than the chasm created by a hundred seventeen years of racism and genocide that continues since the day Chief Spotted Elk bled out into the snow.
There between Waylon and I, a Native American man and a white man, lay the body of Waylon's great great grandfather dead in the snow. Incapacitated by a bullet fired from a distant hillside and then killed at point blank range by a white Calvary soldier.
Certainly I am not culpable for the death of Chief Spotted Elk. Waylon knew I wasn’t culpable, still the man laying dead and frozen depicted in the photo didn’t sit well with me. My white legacy is morally reprehensible with over 500 treaties made and over 500 treaties broken, changed or nullified. Treaties ditched primarily to seize land and serve the cry of Manifest Destiny exclusively for white settlers which started with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Then the subsequent Trail of Tears and culminating with the Massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded knee and now continuing with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the development of cultural sites.
I came to learn that the chasm I felt was greater for me than for Waylon. I’m guessing I have decided to own plenty of white guilt. I think I come to the guilt honestly; when I see a lack of regard towards another human race, the one doing all the lacking is almost without fail an ethnocentric white person. I’m feeling that by association of my skin color the legacy of racism is projected onto me and I do feel shame.
I’ve learned that there are four cardinal virtues among the Lakota people; courage, generosity, honesty and humility. Waylon said when he looks at the picture of Chief Spotted Elk dead in the snow he has to “accept” what happened. To me that take unimaginable courage. Since I have never seen a member of my family laying dead at the hands of an occupying Army I can only imagine the courage it takes to invite acceptance into your heart. Waylon looked into my eyes and into the eyes of all of us gathered and reminded the group that non of us were at Wounded Knee the night of December 29, 1890 he does not hold any of us responsible; he reminded us of our intention, we are all on the Rez to do good things for his people. When Waylon expressed that, a burden lifted from my heart. I sensed I was given permission from either myself or Waylon to accept grace; the unconditional love and mercy given to us by our creator. Waylon expressed he didn’t feel a great chasm between he and I as I expressed I did. Waylon’s emotions validated my angst and in doing so I felt forgiveness even though I myself wasn’t directly culpable ….directly culpable???
There is no word for goodbye in the Lakota language instead the Lakota will say Tókša akhé, later again we will walk together. I have learned when visitors, who have shared, time, talent and presence with the People of this reservation leave-their leaving is extremely painful to those left behind.
The tradition of this group is to ride the reservation on horseback with the Lakota people on the last day before we depart the reservation and head home.
Horses are important to the Lakota people. The horse represents freedom without restraint-liberating people from there own bindings; probably a good feeling for a nomadic people confined to a small fraction of their legacy of space.
A nature experience is purifying to me because there is this osculating mental chit-chat and still quietness which shifts my focus from inward to outward and awakens my senses. Riding side by side with another in conversation carries with it genuine presence and a spirit of empathy…I don’t know why, but-it sure feels that way. I was so looking forward to riding with this group and even more so riding with Waylon after the cathartic experience I had the evening before with Waylon and the others at supper.
Horses are Waylon’s thing. From what I have seen the man has a deep spiritual connection with them or the horses have a deep spiritual connection with him, I’m not sure which but you see it right away. Either way I was looking forward to riding with and learning horsemanship from Waylon.
It was getting along in the day. The sun had scooted west and slipping lower on the horizon tinting the sky a purplish blue as it does in South Dakota when winter time is breaching. There were more riders than willing horses. Many of the group had not ridden the Rez before. I had ridden last Spring and the Girl Child and I had a three hour trip to Sturgis for the Thanksgiving festivities with the family so I opted not to ride. Instead I curry combed the horses to settle them and remove goat heads buried in their fur and help saddle them for the others, then when the riders hit the trail on horseback I’d drive out and head West.
All the riders were mounted and eager to go. Waylon sat atop his tall white horse, silhouetted against the purplish blue sky mottled with silvery gray stratocumulus clouds, those puffy clouds with an icy sheen that appear this time of year when the air aloft gets cold. Three Ferruginous Hawks soared the horizon and skimmed the tawny prairie grass within the frame of my vision. I reflect on this image because a white horse symbolizes the balance between wisdom and power. Hawks are the protectors and visionaries. They hold the key to higher levels of consciousness and have the ability to move between the seen and unseen realms gracefully, joining both worlds together.
The Girl Child and I needed to leave and I needed to say goodbye but of course there is no Lakota word for goodbye and leaving is painful for those left behind. I went to Waylon, an image of wisdom and power on his white horse, under those three Hawks soring above and told him I was heading out. What struck me is, I a stranger on this land, stood below this powerful image of a man on horseback. I have no way to know for sure because my experience is bleached by my history. But I attempted to reframe the power of the image and imagine myself as Chief Spotted Elk who had surrendered himself and his people and was suffering from pneumonia, wounded by a bullet fired from a distant hill laying on the frozen prairie mud at the foot of a mounted Calvary Soldier who was taking aim at my heart. But of course I was no great warrior or leader, just a visitor with nothing to fear.
A Lakota virtue is humility; Waylon didn’t say farewell off the back of his horse. He humbly dismounted his horse and walked over to me, a white visitor to his land, and embraced me in a bear hug. The kind of comforting hug a loving grandparent gives a child. The Lakota people say “mitakuye oyasin” a simple prayer that can be interpreted to mean we are all connected. The embrace was hardy and honest and pulled close the chasm that page 112 opened on that white banquet table.
Andre kept wheeling the logs I stacked onto the little red hand truck to the rear of his stock trailer carving tracks into the dried cow manure that covered the wood planks of the floor. My loading and his hauling became a rhythmic ebb and flow broken only by me stumbling over logs that rolled on their own recognizance from the supply pile under my clumsy feet. We worked the pile from here to there for nearly three hours stopping once to sit on the tail board and enjoy a pair of Silver Bullet barley sodas that Andre had squirreled away in an Igloo cooler tucked behind the driver seat of his truck. When the trailer looked to be squatting to the level of a load of Andre’s fat cows we stopped. Thinking we tossed in three and a half to four cords or elm wood meeting the weight limit of the rig, Andre closed the rear gate.
All plans were in place to leave early Friday morning promptly 6:00 a.m…. we pulled away from the house at 6:52 sharp as scheduled.
6 hours 29 minutes later we were in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation at our Rendezvous point in the parking lot of Our Lady of the Sioux Catholic Church. A white Ford Expedition pulled into the parking lot along with several other vehicles. Waylon, a Lakota and resident of the Rez who I’ve become friends with over the past year stepped out of the Expedition, I greeted him with a hearty handshake. Waylon matched my handshake with a hearty warm bear hug. Then Woman Who Stands Alone Sacred, also known by her white name Aurelia, a Tipi Raiser board member introduce Andre and I to 20 people from the Washington DC area. This group is completing a week of volunteer work with the Tipi Raisers, a non profit committed to helping the Oglala Lakota people smooth the edges of Reservation life just a little with a loving dose of stewardship.
While Andre and I were driving up from Colorado in an air condition pickup cab this group had spent the day under the hot and humid South Dakota sun hiking on the muddy trails of the Reservation's Badlands and building the walls of a small house that will someday shelter Waylon and his family. Certainly my knees and legs were stiff and sore from sitting too long on the drive. The volunteer's muscles burned from walking miles and swinging hammers in the heated wind that sucked the water from their bodies. So it came as a surprise to me under the blue sky and baking sun in the parking lot when I said, “Hi I’m Joe and this is Andre and you all get to unload all the wood we threw in this trailer last night”. Not a one of them balked, groaned or got little pissy pants about my offer, though most of them fetched themselves a drink of water and went to the bathroom before we formed a Caravan to the drop point.
We pulled onto a washed out rutted driveway that climbed a hill to a small white house with a red tin roof. Two horses were tied out in the yard uncomfortably suspicious, twitching with peaked ears at our arrival. Three dogs ran down to greet us and celebrated our arrival with enough enthusiasm to bring Norbert out to the drive in his Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and white pearl snap button up shirt and his arms osculating back and forth in huge welcoming waves.
Norbert is a light framed sixty plus year old Northern Arapahoe man from the Wind River Agency in Wyoming. He married a Lakota woman who gave him beautiful sons. His wife of many years recently died of cancer. Norbert worked training horses until his arthritis made it difficult to do any regular work. He calls himself “retired mostly”.
Norbert identified a convenient place to unload the wood about 50 feet from where Andre could back the trailer. The volunteers formed two parallel lines behind the trailer. I joined a couple of the volunteers inside the trailer and fed two fifty foot daisy chains of people passing logs down the line growing a once absent pile of firewood larger. It was a bucket brigade of sorts moving logs instead of bucketed water to a wood stack instead of a consuming fire. As the dust generated from the dried manure on the trailer floor settled onto my sweaty arms and neck, and laid down a scratchy film on the back of my throat and an organic nucleus for eye crustys to form and snot to build formidable buggers in my nose the pile of wood in the trailer quickly got smaller. In under forty minutes the trailer was empty and a handsome pile of firewood sat in the green grass anticipating a cold winter ahead.
My grandma championed the phrase “many hands make light work”. This joyous upbeat corps of beltway volunteer’s took the word “work” out of the entire process and replaced it with fellowship.
With age comes wisdom and a cranky back. Norbert, a Native American and retired horse trainer and Andre, a cowboy and a retired engineer, very well read on Native American history, stood in the drive and “supervised the unloading” while deep in conversation forming connections from the primordial power of The Human experience. Norbert with his infectious smile kept clasping his hands together and bringing them to his chest saying “this is a good day, this is a very good day for me.”
To the indigenous people fire is cleansings and renewing. Fire symbolizes the heart of people and smoke carries prayers to the Great Spirit and the ash becomes new growth, new thoughts and new ideas. This wood moved by the love of many will be the core of a fire that heats a home and lifts the spirit this winter. The symbol for fire is a circle, and a circle is a model of life very fitting when I think of the journey these logs have made.
The group honestly earned an appetite and worthy of being tired loaded into cars and faded off down the drive. Andre and I stood scouting out a path to back the trailer down the rutted drive to the highway while Norbert again expressed his gratitude with his smile, hands clasped together forming a double fist over his heart repeating “This is a good day, this is a very good day for me”.
The three dogs were less enthusiastic about our leaving and ambivalently laid in the shade of a tree watching our departure.
Aurelia or Woman Who Stands Alone Sacred, a beautiful name for a genuine person, invited Andre and I back to where the group was staying for a meal and fellowship before we headed back to Colorado. I sat forking my way through a hamburger patty brushed with some beans and rice and listened to the conversations going on around the table. No doubt this has been a week of labor for the volunteers but I could tell their shared experiences of selflessness and hearted labor have been good for the soul from the melodic voices filling in the spaces of the dinning hall.
Back in January I felled the first of 137 elm trees on the lot that will become the new Pike’s Peak Veterinary Clinic. When the tree hit the dirt I thought something good, something spiritual must come of this tree's wood. The Lakota people pray mitakuye oyasin which means we are all connected. This was the second load of wood sent to the Rez on the 400 mile ribbon of asphalt that connects Colorado Springs to Pine Ridge, this is the first load I got to see being received.
“This is a good day, this is a very good day for me.”
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