The very word “reservation” speaks of confinement and limiting conditions withheld from complete exposition to the public. Maybe because Reservations mark a legacy of nationalistic inspired exile and genocide shamefully disguised as good will and oddly a reservation is, by treaties to be, a sovereign nation, home to genuine people governed by the same federal government that forced the people onto the reservation under the threat of genocide. I get lost in the quagmire.
My four day pre-Thanksgiving sojourn with the Girl Child into the Pine Ridge Reservation twisted the word “Reservation” into a new light for me. Following the relief efforts post hurricane Katrina the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) distributed 2000 surplus trailer homes to the 326 Native American Reservations within the borders of the United States. These trailer homes built for temporary housing in the hurricane climates were redistributed to address the 90,000 Native American families without adequate housing. Several hundred of these 14’ by 75’ trailer homes are scattered about the Pine Ridge Rez in South Dakota, a state known for its extreme prairie winters. The use of the word “Rez” by the Natives intrigues me. “Rez” sounds offensive to my white ears. So I justify the use of the word “Rez” by thinking Natives just shortened the word “Reservation” for convenience of conversation. In conversation with the People I discovered shortening words and sentences is the bones that set the cadence of the Pine Ridge parlance. Natives seem very purposeful about the number of syllables they utter. But now, as I think about it, maybe it is the word “Reservation” that is offensive.
Several dozen FEMA trailers built for the warm hurricane climates line the streets of the Ogallala Village on the frigid windblown prairie of Pine Ridge.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, designated U.S. Prisoner of War Camp #334 in 1899, nine years after the Wounded Knee Massacre is the home of the Ogallala Lakota Tribe. In July of 2018 a devastating storm pushed powerful straight-line winds and dropped baseball size hail throughout the Rez leaving dozens of shredded FEMA trailers in the Ogallala Village in its wake.
The Reservation’s Office of Emergency Management came in and slapped Band-Aids on the trailers; boarding up shattered windows and removing the destroyed vinyl siding. For five months the children living in these FEMA trailers were separated from natural light entering the windows of their homes by plywood window covers. A prisoner is a person deprived of liberty against their will either by confinement, captivity or physical restraint. Certainly one could argue the children on the Rez are not deprived of liberty nor held against their will but poverty offers profoundly limited options.
A child living in a trailer in the Ogallala Village has few opportunities for enrichment even fewer if the car isn’t running. The Gas station, the grocery store, Taco Johns, Pizza Hut and the lone coffee shop is 15 miles away in the Town of Pine Ridge. The more I set next to poverty and try to understand poverty, the more I come to understand that there is little that I understand about poverty.
The health benefits of sunlight are many; natural light provides many protective factors against depression, seasonal affective disorder and poor sleep quality. When the weather is warm and the days are long gathering sunlight into your wellbeing is a simple task.
Conversely, the short cold days of winter create a challenge to gathering sun. Cover the windows with plywood and home becomes a14x75 foot cell, a darkened dungeon crushing in like being buried alive, the air heavy and the damp smell of mildew stagnant and stale. Depression and despair find safe harbor in an environment like this; a place where mental wellbeing fades like a lit candle in a lidded jar.
Forty youth from Colorado and a few from the Wind River Reservation joined up with the Tipi Raisers, a non-profit organization that works alongside the Lakota people to ease the burden of life on the Rez. I joined in with this group because acts of service and moments of fellowship surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth is good for my soul. A caravan armed with drills, hammers, ladders, a generator and enthusiastic young people following a truck loaded with T1-11 plywood siding and a dozen reglazed windows pulled up to a row of Tyvek wrapped trailer homes that look like tissue wrapped shoe boxes. The siding is to replace the shredded vinyl siding stripped clean from the trailer homes 4 months ago and the dozen reglazed windows are the first of the hundreds of windows shattered that still sit in the Emergency Services warehouse waiting for repair. We circled up, received our marching orders and set to work.
I meander through life these days lookin' for pixie dust. Mostly because, a few years ago, it dawned on me I ain't immortal and every moment counts towards our last. There are so many more things to do with one's energy and time that is more practical than lookin' for pixie dust. But existentially... I'm not all the way sure that's true. I find Pixie dust in those surprising once in a lifetime magical moments. Moments like an off key chorus of children singing at Christmas pageant, kittens playing with dust illuminated by the sun coming through a window, the silence of a gentle prairie breeze directing the sparkling grass to dance or even the mesmerizing autumn flight of sandhill cranes. When I pulled the weather checked plywood slab that darkened that whatever room since that damaging July storm, and replaced it with the newly reglazed window and then have that space behind that new glass fill with giggling smiling children illuminated by natural sunlight...I found pixie dust.
Latter when I walked by that home one last time looking for my hammer I looked at that window and it was smeared opaque with dirty little hand prints. I knew it was smeared with pixie dust.
The legend of the first Thanksgiving tells the tale of the Plymouth colonist sharing the first bountiful harvest with the Wampanoag Indians in the autumn of 1621 after enduring the previous harsh winter sickened by exposure, scurvy, and disease on board the moored Mayflower. A bountiful feast made possible by the grace and goodwill of the Native People. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for experiencing the moment that four Native children finally got to be bathed by the natural light shining into their home through a repaired window releasing them from a dark depressing cell on the windswept prairie of Pine Ridge.
PAGE ONE TWELVE AND A WHITE BANQUET TABLE
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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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