The buffalos I, the buffalos I . . .
I am related to the buffalos, the buffalos.
Clear the way in a sacred manner!
The earth is mine.
The earth is weeping, weeping.
On June 26, 1975, in the late morning, two FBI agents drove onto Indian land near Oglala, South Dakota, a small village on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here a shoot-out occurred in which both agents and an Indian man were killed. Although large numbers of FBI agents, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and vigilantes surrounded the property within an hour of the first shots, the numerous Indians involved in the shoot-out escaped into the hills.
The death of the agents inspired the biggest manhunt in FBI history. Of the four men eventually indicted for the killings, one was later released because the evidence was “weak,” and two others were acquitted in July 1976 when a jury concluded that although they had fired at the agents, they had done so in self-defense. The fourth man, Leonard Peltier, indicted on the same charges as his companions but not tried until the following year, after extradition from Canada, was convicted on two counts of murder in the first degree, and was sentenced to consecutive life terms in prison, although even his prosecutors would dismiss as worthless the testimony of the only person ever to claim to have witnessed his participation in the killings. This testimony was also repudiated by the witness, who claimed to have signed her damning affidavits under duress, as part of what one court of appeals judge would refer to as a “clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI.”
Whatever the nature and degree of his participation at Oglala, the ruthless persecution of Leonard Peltier had less to do with his own actions than with underlying issues of history, racism, and economics, in particular Indian sovereignty claims and growing opposition to massive energy development on treaty lands and the dwindling reservations. In the northern Plains, the opposition was based on a treaty, signed in 1868 between the United States and the Lakota nation at Fort Laramie, in Dakota Territory, which recognized Lakota sovereignty in their Dakota-Wyoming homelands and hunting grounds, including the sacred Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills a few years later, this treaty was illegally repudiated by the U.S. government; not until the 1970s was the justice of the Lakota treaty claim recognized in court.
In the year of the 1868 Treaty, a former Governor of New York State named Horatio Seymour was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States; and the history of the Lakota people might possibly have been less tragic had the Democrats won, since Governor Seymour held strong convictions that Ulysses S. Grant did not share about the offense to its own Constitution in the young nation’s shameful treatment of the native peoples.
Every human being born upon our continent, or who comes here from any quarter of the world, whether savage or civilized, can go to our courts for protection—except those who belong to the tribes who once owned this country. . . . The worst criminals from Europe, Asia, or Africa can appeal to the law and courts for their rights of person and property—all save our native Indians, who, above all, should be protected from wrong.
Seymour’s unpopular opinion appeared on the title page of Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1881), one of the first books to deplore the wrongs inflicted on “the tribes who once owned this country”:
There is but one hope of righting this wrong. It lies in appeal to the heart and the conscience of the American people. What the people demand, Congress will do. It has been—to our shame be it spoken—at the demand of part of the people that all these wrongs have been committed, these treaties broken, these robberies done, by the Government. . . .
The only thing that can stay this is a mighty outspoken sentiment and purpose of the great body of the people. Right sentiment and right purpose in a Senator here and there, and a Representative here and there, are little more than straws which make momentary eddies, but do not obstruct the tide. . . .
What an opportunity for the Congress of 1880 to cover itself with a lustre of glory, as the first to cut short our nation’s record of cruelties and perjuries! the first to attempt to redeem the name of the United States from the stain of a century of dishonor!1*
The Congress of 1880 did not redeem the name of the United States, and that “century of dishonor” was followed by another—less violent, perhaps, but more insidious and sly—as the “frontiersman” gave way to the railroadman and miner, the developer and the industrialist, with their attendant bureaucrats and politicians. And the Congress of the 1980s will do no better, to judge from the enrichment of the powerful and the betrayal of the poor to which it has reduced itself under President Reagan.
The poorest of the poor—by far—are the Indian people. It is true that in our courts today the Indian has legal status as a citizen, but anyone familiar with Indian life, in cities or on reservations, can testify that justice for Indians is random and arbitrary where it exists at all. For all our talk about suppression of human rights in other countries, and despite a nostalgic sentimentality about the noble Red Man, the prejudice and persecution still continue. American hearts respond with emotion to Indian portraits by George Catlin and Edward Curtis, to such eloquent books as Black Elk Speaks and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, to modern films and television dramas in which the nineteenth-century Indian is portrayed as the tragic victim of Manifest Destiny; we honor his sun dances and thunderbirds in the names of our automobiles and our motels. Our nostalgia comes easily, since those stirring peoples are safely in the past, and the abuse of their proud character, generosity, and fierce honesty—remarked upon by almost all the first Europeans to observe them—can be blamed upon our roughshod frontier forebears. “The tribes who once owned this country” were simply in the way of the white man’s progress, and so most of the eastern tribes were removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and the western tribes mostly banished or confined to arid wastes that no decent white man would want. By a great historical irony, many of these lands were situated on the dry crust of the Grants Mineral Belt, which extends from the lands of the Dene people in Saskatchewan to those of their close relatives, the Dine, or “Navajo,” in New Mexico and Arizona, and contains North America’s greatest energy resources. More than half of the continent’s uranium and much of its petroleum and coal lie beneath Indian land, and so the Indians are in the way again.
After four hundred years of betrayals and excuses, Indians recognize the new fashion in racism, which is to pretend that the real Indians are all gone.2 We have no wish to be confronted by these “half-breeds” of today, gone slack after a century of enforced dependence, poverty, bad food, alcohol, and despair, because to the degree that these people can be ignored, the shame of our nation can be ignored as well. Leonard Peltier’s experience reflects more than most of us wish to know about the realities of Indian existence in America; our magazines turn away from articles about the Indians of today, and most studies of Indian history and culture avoid mention of the twentieth century. But the Indians are still among us—“We are your shadows,” one man says—and the qualities they were known for in their days of glory still persist among many of these quiet people, of mixed ancestry as well as full-blood, who still abide in the echo of the Old Way.
My travels with Indians began some years ago with the discovery that most traditional communities in North America know of a messenger who appears in evil times as a warning from the Creator that man’s disrespect for His sacred instructions has upset the harmony and balance of existence; some say that the messenger comes in sign of a great destroying fire that will purify the world of the disruption and pollution of earth, air, water, and all living things. He has strong spirit powers and sometimes takes the form of a huge hairy man; in recent years this primordial being has appeared near Indian communities from the northern Plains states to far northern Alberta and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
In 1976, an Indian in spiritual training took me to Hopi, where traditional leaders told us more about this being. Over several years, we visited the elders in many remote canyons of the West, and eventually I traveled on my own, from the Everglades and the Blue Ridge Mountains north to Hudson Bay and from the St. Lawrence westward to Vancouver Island. Along the way I learned a little of the Indians’ identity with land and life (very different from our “environmental” understanding) and shared a little of their long sadness about the theft and ruin of ancestral lands—one reason, they felt, why That-One-You-Are-Speaking-About had reappeared. From these journeys came a series of essays attacking the continuing transgressions against these lands by corporate interests and their willing allies in state and federal government.3
Like most people with more appreciation than understanding of the Indian vision, I clung to a romantic concept of “traditional Indians,” aloof from activism and politics and somehow spiritually untouched by western progress. This concept had a certain validity in the old Hopi nation, which was never at war with the United States and never displaced from its stone villages on the desert rimrock north of the sacred San Francisco Peaks, in Arizona; the Hopi traditionals are looked to by other Indians all over the continent for guidance in the quest to rediscover and maintain those roots of the Old Way that might still nourish the Indian people. In most Indian communities, however, romantic concepts were difficult to sustain. While it was true that, here and there, a few “old ones” still existed, it was clear that most reservation traditionals had resumed their traditions only very recently, and that many, as one Indian writer has observed, were “conservative Indians whose cultural tenacity somehow got confused with a sadly-compromised grasp of their own heritage. . . . A decline in their firsthand experience in Native American customs has resulted in a reactionary mentality that poses as traditionalism . . . and . . . a degraded and stereotypical ‘pow-wow’ view of themselves.”4 Such people were especially wary of the new activist organizations, in particular the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its young “warriors” from the cities with their red wind bands, guns, and episodes of violence, who were sure to bring down further grief on a desperate people. I had absorbed some of this attitude, having failed to perceive that whatever AIM’s origins, excesses, and mistakes, that warrior spirit had restored identity and pride to thousands of defeated people and inspired attempts to resurrect the dying languages and culture.
Then, in the spring of 1979, while investigating the proposed construction of a vast fuel terminal on Indian sacred grounds at Point Conception, California, I took part in a sweat-lodge ceremony* led by Archie Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota of the Minnecojou band who had married among the coastal Chumash and was a leader in the Point Conception struggle. During a walk into the hills to the vision-quest pits that he maintains in the mountains of the Coast Ranges above Point Conception, Lame Deer spoke of the sweat lodge he had established at Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, on the far side of these Santa Ynez Mountains; just recently, he said, the AIM leader Leonard Peltier had been transferred to Lompoc, to the great relief of Indians all over the country, who had feared that he would be assassinated in the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. At first, I resisted the police-state implications in this idea, discounting it as Movement rhetoric and paranoia. But a few weeks later, when Peltier made a desperate escape from Lompoc in which a young Indian named Dallas Thundershield was killed, I had to take what Lame Deer had said more seriously. I began to make inquiries about Peltier’s case, and I have been making inquiries ever since.
Lame Deer made a firm distinction between a true leader such as Peltier and the self-appointed AIM spokesmen who turned up at every political confrontation and split the local Indians by demanding leadership and encouraging divisive factions, or brought discredit on the Movement through drink and violence. Many Indians had now concluded that AIM had been infiltrated from the start by the FBI, and the Chumash people were wondering if one of the AIM men involved in a Point Conception shooting had been sent in to damage the Indian cause with bad publicity. Lame Deer doubts this. “Guys like these, every time they mess up, they start hollering about the FBI—well, that is bullshit. The FBI has no time to fool with every loose Indian who comes along. But Leonard is different, he is a real leader; they are afraid of him, and they’re out to get him.”
A very big man with a bearish walk, Archie Fire is a descendant of that Lame Deer who in the winter of 1835–36 (according to the “winter count” marked on buffalo hide by an Indian called the Swan) “shot a Crow three times with the same arrow,” and also of the Minnecojou chief of the same name who joined forces with Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa and the Oglala of Crazy Horse in the great battle of June 25, 1876, in which Colonel George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry company was destroyed. At the death of his father, John Fire Lame Deer, in 1976, Archie Fire became head of his family, and one day he will return to the Dakotas. Lame Deer himself was raised on the Rosebud Reservation, but most of his Minnecojou people—the most traditional of the seven Lakota bands—live farther north on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and also on Standing Rock, on the North Dakota border.* “There’s a lot going on up in that country now,” said Archie Fire, referring not only to the threat to the Great Plains from widespread mining but to recent appearances of the big hairy man at Little Eagle, on the Standing Rock Reservation, who came in sign, some people said, of those days at the world’s end “when the moon will turn red and the sun will turn blue” and the Lakota people will resume their place at the center of existence.5
Opening his tobacco bundle, he purified the vision pit with smoke from a braided hank of sweetgrass, after which he assembled the stone pipe.* We smoked the pipe together, facing successively in the four directions, giving thanks in our own ways to the Creator, to Wakan Tanka (literally, the Unknowable Great; loosely, the Great Mystery).6 Lame Deer stood for a long time against the California sky, chanting in the Siouan tongue, his big voice rolling down the mountains to the grasslands that today reminded him of spring on the Great Plains: Mitakuye Iyasin! (All Our Relations!), which signifies not merely our own kin but our identity with all things on this splendid Earth.
A few weeks later, on my way to the Black Hills, I passed through the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, in the wooded lake country just south of the Canadian border. Indian friends had given me names of people on Turtle Mountain, and a lively evening was spent with the family of Mary Cornelius, the traditional spokesman for the Pembina Ojibwa band since the death in 1976 of Chief Keyon Little Shell. In 1864, an ancestral Chief Little Shell signed a treaty with the United States that assigned to the Pembina band 8 million acres of this wooded lakeland; in the next thirty years, the reservation was drastically reduced, as white settlers pushed out the Indians, and today perhaps 72 square miles are left of the 1,150 or more to which the Pembina had held aboriginal title. (They also held territories farther east and south, from which they were pushed out by the Dakota people who were spreading westward; some of that land is now the Fort Totten Reservation, where Leonard Peltier’s Ojibwa-Sioux mother was born.) Most of the treaty land was seized from the Pembina without payment, and only recently, with the discovery of oil, has the band been offered a government “recompense” of $52 million. Mary Cornelius was trying to persuade her people to refuse, since if they accepted this money, they would waive all future claims to the lost land and permit its exploitation by the oil companies. “I’m getting kind of tired of politics,” Mary Cornelius said. “The only reason I was chosen for spokesman was because I can still speak my own language: I guess I’m the first woman chosen as spokesman in the history of the band.”
Like many traditional families, the Corneliuses have been harassed by the federal agencies that administer all Indian reservations. In 1969, Mary Cornelius’s daughter lost her unborn child after a beating by Bureau of Indian Affairs police; the FBI covered up the episode and Mrs. Cornelius has been an energetic AIM supporter ever since. She is a second cousin of Leo Peltier, and is proud to have Leo’s son Leonard in the family. “I’ve known him since he was a little boy. He was kind of an excitable child, he was not the kind who would sit around and wait; when Leonard saw something that he thought should be done, he did it. Even at powwows, that boy was never sitting still. Indian children are not really children after the age of ten: they take care of the house and take care of the smaller kids, and they all know how to cook, and Leonard was the same. I can’t honestly say that I ever remember him in trouble, and he was never a bully. He was like a big brother to the other boys, breaking up fights instead of encouraging them, the way some kids do. And if you had started something you couldn’t finish, or if you were an elder person, that boy was always there, ready to help.”
Turtle Mountain was among the many Indian communities that had been visited in recent years by the “rugaru,”7 as the Ojibwa call the hairy man who appears in symptom of danger or psychic disruption in the community. Mary’s son Richard talked a little about the appearance of these beings in recent years to Lakota people at Little Eagle, South Dakota. “There were just too many sightings down there to ignore. I mean, a lot of people saw it. Around here, we didn’t have very many reports; most of them were right here where we live now.” He waved his hand to indicate the woods outside, where I camped that night along the lake edge.
From Turtle Mountain, south and west, the Ojibwa woodlands open out onto the buffalo grasslands that roll south all the way to Comanche and Kiowa country in northern Texas. Ohiyesa, a Santee Sioux boy whose band was hunting in this country in the late 1860s, refers repeatedly to the ancient enmity between Dakota and Ojibwa that made travel in this country dangerous for both. “Hush,” says his grandmother, alarmed by a bird’s song. “It may be an Ojibwa scout.” And her lullaby begins, “Sleep, sleep, my boy, the Chippewas are far away.”* Ohiyesa, who as “Charles A. Eastman” was to become a Dartmouth graduate, a doctor, a Christian, a friend of presidents, and the author of several notable books on Indian life, describes the wonderful bounty of this country at the edge of the Great Plains:
Our party appeared on the northwestern side of Turtle mountain; for we had been hunting buffaloes all summer, in the region of the Mouse [Souris] River, between that mountain and the upper Missouri. As our cone-shaped tepees rose in clusters along the outskirts of the heavy forest that clothes the sloping side of the mountain, the scene below was gratifying to the savage eye. The rolling yellow plains were checkered with herds of buffaloes. Along the banks of the streams that ran down the mountains were also many elk, which usually appear at morning and evening, and disappear into the forest during the warmer part of the day. Deer, too, were plenty, and the brooks were alive with trout. Here and there the streams were dammed by the industrious beaver. In the interior of the forest there were lakes with many islands, where moose, elk, deer, and bears were abundant. The water-fowl were wont to gather here in great numbers, among them the crane, the swan, the loon, and many of the smaller kinds. . . . This wilderness was a paradise, a land of plenty . . . and . . . we lived in blessed ignorance of any life that was better than our own.8
I headed south on long straight roads of the Great Plains, past glittering reed ponds of the prairie sloughs and over the soft rolling hills and flowing grasslands of the buffalo peoples. Widgeon and teal rose from the reeds, and to the west, a cloud-colored flight of pelicans turned bone-white, catching the sun, as the wings banked in widening far circles; the huge birds sailed westward into infinities of summer blue. At Mandan, the road crossed the wide Missouri and, in early afternoon, the Cannonball River. Here, in 1883, Cree mercenaries and the U.S. Army slaughtered the last great herd of northern bison, to help in the final subjugation of the Lakota (or western Dakota), known to their many enemies as Sioux.
The Little Eagle settlement on the Standing Rock Reservation, not far south of the South Dakota line, sits between low buttes of the Grand River, just west of its confluence with the Missouri. According to Joe Flying By, a small, mild-mannered man whom I found standing outside his house, enjoying the late-afternoon light of early summer, the Grand River had once been called the Mandan, for in the old days, before the coming of the Lakota, these grassy hills of the buffalo country had been the territory of the Mandan and Arikara, or “Rees,” who were driven northward by the seven bands of the Lakota. The people here at Little Eagle are mostly descendants of the Hunkpapa band once led by Sitting Bull, who was killed just west of here, up the Grand River. The trail to his grave dies out in a graveyard of wrecked autos without tires, wind-shields shattered; beyond this place it disappears into the undergrowth, and the grave is lost. The once mighty Hunkpapa, who had held the place of honor in the Indian camp on the Greasy Grass Creek before the great fight with Longhair, fell on bitter times after the death of Sitting Bull, and are considerably reduced in number.
Joe Flying By pointed to the highest hill, a flat-topped eminence off to the north. “That is Elkhorn Butte,” he said. “That is where we go to make medicine, that is our medicine place. All I do myself are the pipe ceremonies, but other medicine men who go out into the hills, maybe they don’t talk Lakota anymore, so they use me.”
Joe’s father had been a preacher, he said, and his older brother was an ordained minister. He shrugged. “I talk both ways, Indian way and Bible way; if you really know about them, they are the same. But people today don’t know about either, and these are the ones causing trouble. Drinking so much, and using that weed—that used to be only for the medicine men. They don’t know how to handle it, and they go crazy with it, and kill each other!” he exclaimed suddenly, with real pain.
A few weeks before, the big, hairy man had appeared in Little Eagle for the third straight year, and more than forty people had seen him. “I think that the Big Man is kind of the husband of Unk-ksa, the Earth, who is wise in the way of anything with its own natural wisdom. Sometimes we say that this One is a kind of big reptile from the ancient times, who can take a big, hairy form; I also think he can change into a coyote. He is very powerful. Some of the people who saw him did not respect what they were seeing, they did not honor him, and they are already gone.”
Not long before my arrival, the community had received an open letter from one of its young men, Dallas Thundershield, who was much impressed by his meeting with Leonard Peltier in prison:
I like to express my inner feelings to all my people on Standing Rock. . . . We realize the importance of our culture, and the keeping of our ancestors’ teaching, but we are so much into the white man’s way of thinking that we too are beginning to think as them. What means more to your children and all the unborn, “land or money”? Myself, I believe that this land is not to be sold, but to live upon by all people. If this land is sold, where would all your children live when the money is gone? People have died for these lands, so we too must at least show respect and keep the land or die.
“In the spirit of Leonard Peltier,”
Thundershield D. (Dog Soldier)
Joe Flying By was very pleased that the first sun dance in thirty-five years had been held at Little Eagle just the week before. “Four people dragged the buffalo skulls,” he said, suggesting that I go up to the sun-dance grounds and look it over.
On a flat grassy mesa high above the south bank of the river stood the sacred tree—a young cottonwood, forty or fifty feet high, with a bundle of cherry branches at the fork—which had been taken to this treeless place and placed in the consecrated ground with ancient ceremonies. White, yellow, red, and black cloths flew like pennants from the pole; strings of tobacco packets dedicated to the spirits, and broken thongs that had tugged and torn the breast and back skin of those sun dancers who had been pierced, ta-tacketed softly on the early-summer wind that stirred the grass beneath the skeletons of tipis and sweat lodges. In the quiet of the evening mesa, acknowledging the sacred ceremony and the courage and pain of those who had circled under the sun, I stood at a distance in the twilight.
“. . . It is not possible to know and understand our traditional way of life without knowing and understanding the Sun Dance . . . [which] . . . is, among other things, a ceremony of renewal and restoration,” says Chief Frank Fools Crow, the Lakota medicine man who restored the sun dance to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1950s. “The sun knows everything. To us it is like the Sacred Pipe. They are both instruments used by Wakan-Tanka, and they are the greatest instruments of service he has, next to the directions. But the sun is not God. The sun is something he created for the rest of creation. We respect it and pray to it because it watches over the world and sees everything that is going on. It also serves God by bestowing special gifts that it has upon the world. . . .
“We do face the sun and pray to God through the sun, asking for strength to complete the Sun Dance, and that all our prayers will be heard. As [we] continue to do this, we are able to see the sun with our eyes completely open. It doesn’t blind us, and in it we see visions. No one should be surprised about this. Wonderful and mysterious things happen at the Sun Dances to prove that Wakan-Tanka’s . . . powers are active in our midst. . . . What makes the real difference is that the pledgers are dancing, praying very hard, concentrating, and calling for God’s pity. People forget that, but what we do brings us great power.”9
Soon a pickup truck appeared, driving right up to the tree, and an Indian family in Sunday dress emerged, talking loudly and laughing; the man of the family wore his hair short like a white man’s, and his four children ran around the sun-dance grounds, uncomprehending. Finally they drew near the tree itself, with its pennants and broken thongs lifting and falling on the evening breeze over the prairies. They fiddled and joked, then tugged the pennants and hide strings, until finally the mother, who had kept her distance, called out, alarmed, “You’re not supposed to touch those things!” But the grinning father, ignoring the woman’s warning, encouraged his children to poke fun, and said nothing at all when the oldest girl and loudest giggler grabbed the broken thongs that had fastened the circling dancers to the tree.10
Again the mother cried, more urgently, “You’re not supposed to touch those strings that are broke off—that’s where they pierced themselves!” Her family paid her no attention. “They’re all Christians up there now,” Lame Deer had told me. And Joe Flying By, asked how the old people of Little Eagle accounted for the Big Man, had said shortly, “There are no more old people.”
That night I slept on a high hill above the sun-dance grounds, where a prairie-dog town sloped down toward the river; not far to the west, in the dark bend of cottonwoods, was the site of the old Indian Agency where Sitting Bull was killed. At daylight, upland sandpipers flew overhead, their melodious dawn voices mixing with the sharp squeaks of the prairie dogs, which have mostly been poisoned on white man’s lands but are still found on the Indian reservations.
From Standing Rock, the road led south and west to the Cheyenne River Reservation, coming down into Eagle Butte out of the high, open hills. From the top of a rise, a pickup could be seen in the far distance, perhaps five miles away, a bright metal glint at a T-fork where the road turned west toward the town. It was still there when I reached the top of the next rise, and again when I came over the last hill and rolled down to the crossing. Coming up behind, I stared into the back of the truck in disbelief. The old shoe soles and soiled clothes of a dozen bodies, tossed in like logs, filled the wooden truck bed; there was no visible twitch of life. Then the pickup door creaked open, and an Indian sagged out, as drunk as any man I ever saw who was still moving. He could not focus and he could not speak, just clung to the door window with both hands; behind him, three more bodies, as motionless as all the others, had been wedged between the front seat and the windshield.
After a moment, at a loss, I kept on going. Possibly the truck was broken down or out of gas or stalled, but it seemed more likely that the driver, ordered to halt by the stop sign at the crossroads, had simply run out of momentum, losing all track of where he was headed or why.
Eagle Butte is a dusty and decrepit settlement on a windswept plateau of old fields, abandoned farms, and defunct autos; the people here mostly belong to the smallest of the Lakota bands—the Two Kettle, Sans Arc, and Blackfoot. Sidney Keith, a spiritual leader, accepted a small offering of rough tobacco, saying, “Good! Now we can talk!” He told me that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had been sanctified and sanctioned by Wakan Tanka because of the sacred tobacco smoked in the pipe; the white man had also smoked the sacred pipe, and therefore “our Treaty” (as it is known throughout the Lakota world) was inviolable and still valid, despite the white man’s transgressions ever since. Of course, he said, there would always be Indians who wanted money for the land, who wanted to live like white men, and who would be favored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “But the old traditional people who want to be Indians, they get nothing. You go south of here to those last real traditional full-blood communities like Cherry Creek, like Bridger, you can still find people living in old cars. They keep quiet, so they get nothing. North of here—well, you saw all that good range when you came through, all those breeds in their pickups; they get that good land for next to nothing because they cooperate with the BIA. When they get together, they don’t even have powwows, they have rodeos; those people aren’t Indians anymore, they’re cowboys.”
Sidney Keith shook his head, disgusted. “Now the BIA is trying to eliminate our rural day schools; all the kids would have to come in here to Eagle Butte and sleep in dormitories, just like we had to do in the old days, when they were breaking up Indian families.” He gazed at me, tired. “Wouldn’t let you speak your own language—they would soap your mouth.”
Sidney Keith said that the Big Man seen at Little Eagle might be Unk-cegi, which means literally “Earth Brown” or “Brown Shit”—the filth of Creation. Unk-cegi lived long, long ago, in the time of the great animals, but he had been covered up in the Great Flood, with all the other giants. “He was down there too deep to be saved by Noah,” Sidney Keith observed dryly. But all the mining, all these underground explosions of the white man’s bombs, had made fissures in the earth and released not Unk-cegi but his spirit. “His bones are still down there. That’s why Indians get so upset when burial grounds are disturbed, when the whole burying ceremony is interfered with; it isn’t just a matter of disrespect. Disturbing the burial grounds the way the white man does releases those spirits.
“Unk-cegi was here when Indian man first came here. He seeks out Indian communities because he knew Indians in the Old Days, and he sought out Little Eagle because that is the worst place for drinking in Standing Rock, and maybe Cheyenne River, too. We drink too much in Eagle Butte, but not like that: even their old people are all drunk over there. Unk-cegi appeared to kids who smoke grass, and drunks and hotheads”—his shrug suggested that what he meant were people not taken seriously in the community—“nice people, some of ’em, but they do bad things. He won’t appear to the good people; that’s why Joe Flying By didn’t see him. And he won’t appear at the sun dance—that’s a good circle.”
Cherry Creek, perhaps fifteen miles off the main road, is so broken and scattered by poverty and neglect that it seems to have fallen from the high bluff on the north side of the Cheyenne River. The remnant full-blood Minnecojou here are descended from the people of Chief Big Foot, who was in Cherry Creek in December 1890 when fugitive Hunkpapa warriors arrived with the news of Sitting Bull’s murder; from this place, Big Foot set out with his people on the winter trek of more than 150 miles across the Badlands toward the safety of the Oglala stronghold on Pine Ridge.
East of Cherry Creek, I swam in the Cheyenne River, not yet aware of its contamination from uranium-mine-tailings piles at Edgemont, in the southern Black Hills; from there I went south to the Rosebud Reservation to see Joe Eagle Elk, a yuwipi* healer whom I had met the year before at a sweat-lodge purification and healing ceremony near Salt Lake City. At Rosebud, a broad highway much too large for the village was under construction, and Joe Eagle Elk commented sadly on the BIA’s foolish use of federal money. “Blacktop would have been good enough. We don’t need all that heavy concrete; we need jobs around here, something to do. That money could have been so much better spent.” He shrugged his shoulders. “The people here, they’ve grown used to saying nothing; they just accept what is done for them—or to them, maybe—and they don’t complain no more.”
It had been raining off and on all day, and at his house in the Grass Mountain community, Joe Eagle Elk spoke of the unseasonable summer floods that were expected to rise again that evening; the river road was now impassable, and the road I had taken from St. Francis was already half washed away. Up on the mesa to the southwest, lightning appeared as fiery cracks in a heavy blackness, and soon an Indian policeman came to warn the community that torrential rains were expected in the next few hours. To avoid being trapped, I considered leaving the car on the far side of the low place in the road, but Joe Eagle Elk advised against it; not long before, a local Indian whose car had broken down returned to it only half an hour later to find its headlights and windows all smashed in. “It is not a good place here now, I tell you that,” Joe Eagle Elk said mildly; he is a very gentle and soft-spoken man, with burn scars on his neck and face and nervous hands. “I don’t blame the young people; it’s not their fault. They want a lot of things that they see on TV, but there are no jobs for them anywhere, nothing for them to do, and meanwhile everything is so expensive. All they have is their anger. It’s not their fault. I don’t know whose fault it is,” he concluded, in that gentle, shy, remorseless voice of Indians. “Maybe the government.”
Uneasy, he lifted his cap to scratch his head. “This has been a bad summer. These bad floods—I never seen anything like that before. And they change everything along the river. Before, every tree looked familiar, everything I saw. I used to say to myself as I passed along here, That’s where so-and-so is buried; and I’d know everything was in its place. But since the floods, everything here looks different, it’s like I was in a new country.” Joe shrugged again, trying to laugh. “Maybe that’s okay. All these old places that my eye remembered had sad memories of the people who were gone. Maybe it’s a good thing that Nature would come along and change everything, clear all that away, and start again.” Of the Big Man, Joe Eagle Elk said, “It seems maybe he has got a good heart. He has never hurt nobody. A lot of people over there at Little Eagle, they been shooting at him instead of trying to exchange words and ask why he is coming around. Maybe he is trying to tell us what he wants and where he comes from; maybe he is bringing news for us, a warning.”
With the thunder and forked lightning ranging all over the night horizon, I made my way through rain squalls to the town of Mission, where I spent the night in an Indian motel. At Mission the streets were full of puddles, but the big rains had already rushed through and the night was clearing, and the next morning early, the sun rose on empty streets; the few human figures were lone Indians. One young woman in tight black sateen and heavy makeup was yowling angrily and pounding at the door of a ramshackle big building, and as I walked past, a man seated peacefully on a curb at the street corner looked up at me, shrugging his shoulders. “She lost her key,” he explained to me gently, concerned and embarrassed for the girl at the same time.
A sun dance was being held that day in a hidden valley between hills, west of Rosebud village. The sky was fresh and blue after the black rainstorms of the night before, and a clear breeze dispelled the heat from the pine-bough shade built around the sun-dance circle. In the center of the circle stood the sacred tree, a sapling cottonwood ceremonially decorated with the red, black, yellow, and white colors that represent the four directions and also the four races of man, each placed on the continent where it belonged by the Creator. An old man in a blue shirt stood with his back to the tree, addressing the twelve dancers in Lakota; the line of painted dancers included two or three young children and two old women. In the shade, four men were beating on the big Plains drum, as the sun dancers stamped forward and back, blowing eagle-bone whistles; the women wore buckskin, the men, bare to the waist, were in colored skirts, and all wore thong anklets and sage crowns in their hair.
In midmorning on this first day of the four-day ceremony, less than fifty people had turned up. There were no white people among them, and because strangers might not be welcome, I stood back a little from the gallery where the Indians were sitting in the shade. Soon a big old man with a big-nosed Lakota face and a long braid of gray hair waved me in closer, and after a moment, asked bluntly what had brought me. When I told him why I was traveling on the reservations, the old man nodded, then politely explained certain details of the sun dance, which was being led by a portly, powerful young Indian in red neckerchief, blue singlet, and faded jeans, pulled together by a beaded belt and bracelet.
After a little while, the old man said, “My name is Chief Eagle Feather, Bill Schweigman. I’m the last living traditional chief.” Between dances, we were approached by the sun-dance leader, and Bill Schweigman introduced Chief Leonard Crow Dog, whom he said he had ordained as a medicine man. Crow Dog’s shy grin and self-effacing manner did not go with the hard squint that looked me over. He is admired by most supporters of AIM, which he was the first medicine man to endorse, but he is criticized by other spiritual leaders for using his healing power the wrong way. However, the atmosphere felt good, and besides, I had learned that these days, at least (Fools Crow says it was not always so), Indians often bad-mouth one another with such brutal gossip that two groups rarely work together very long. Praise of one medicine man by another is almost unheard of, especially if the man becomes well known; even Black Elk, the revered Oglala prophet, was dismissed as a “catechism teacher” and “cigar-store Indian” by the late John Fire Lame Deer, and John Fire himself was widely criticized for his dedication to hard drink and stray women, which he pursued to the very end of his long life. “They respect me not because I’m good but because I have power,” he once said.11
In the pine-bough shadows, Crow Dog and Eagle Feather sat surrounded by young disciples of both sexes. Speaking in English with scraps of Lakota, they cracked sexual jokes, jeered at “bobtailed” Indians who wore their hair short, and laughed about a white friend of Crow Dog who tended to faint in the sun dance at the sight of blood. “What’s the matter, I told her,” Eagle Feather said. “You see your own blood every month, don’t you?” Everyone laughed. Such joking is expected at a sun dance, which has aspects of fertility and renewal, and there was a lot more talk about blood, together with rough teasing of the young acolytes, most of whom, despite long hair, wind bands, and beads, appeared to be whites.
Now Crow Dog turned to give me a bad smile; his shy manner had disappeared entirely. I met Crow Dog’s gaze without expression, at a loss to deal with his hostility, with which I was sympathetic in the first place: for all he knew, I might be an agent of the FBI. After years of harassment as an AIM spokesman, he was naturally suspicious of white strangers, having spent twenty-seven months in prison for actions that would not have been “crimes” had a white man committed them. For Leonard Crow Dog, as for so many Indians, a white stranger would be regarded as an enemy until he had proven himself to be a friend. Soon the dancing resumed, and Crow Dog returned into the circle. This first day of the sun dance, Eagle Feather said, would be dedicated to one of the most sincere of his young sun dancers, who had returned here a few months ago on leave from the Navy, only to be murdered by three drunks in St. Francis. “They bashed his head in,” Eagle Feather said disgustedly. “White men?” I asked before I thought, and he stared at me, surprised. “No, no,” he said. “Injuns.” We fell silent awhile, watching the dancing. Despite the small crowd and the small, uneven line of dancers, the ardor of the participants was stirring. In these sunny hills, under the blue sky of the prairies, the chanting dancers moved back and forth in pounding step, raising fingers to the sun on extended arms, the drums and wistful voices pierced by the shrill eagle-bone whistles. One of the young men had scars over his nipples, the marks of flesh offerings made to Wakan Tanka in other years. “They’ll be pierced on Sunday,” Chief Eagle Feather told me.
From Rosebud, I headed west into the Pine Ridge Reservation, a tract of dry country just north of the Nebraska border that is one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States. Petaga, or Pete Catches, a respected holy man who has strongly supported the fight of the traditional Lakota people to regain their treaty land in the Black Hills, lives in a small cabin on an open hillside north of Pine Ridge village. A gaunt man in a lavender shirt with an intelligent, sensitive face, he regarded me peacefully for a time before inviting me into the disheveled room with the dartboard on the wall and the monastic iron cot that stood out away from the wall over toward one corner. Next to the cot sat a small traveling bag, not so much packed as not-unpacked, as if Pete Catches were ready to depart Pine Ridge with the first person who made the suggestion. “This nation,” he said, and stopped to glare at me. “This nation—I can’t say my nation, because they stole it away from me.” He waved his arm in sudden anger. “They cheated and lied, and broke every treaty, even the sacred treaty that protected the Black Hills.” The medicine man subsided suddenly and became silent, composing himself.
“We’ve come to an age when we should know better what we are doing,” Pete Catches resumed softly, in a silence that followed some meditations on the Big Man, who was trying to save mankind, he said, from the great cataclysm the Indian people knew was coming. “We must now try to understand what is wrong with us, why we have to tamper with and change the forests and the land. We have done this too long—not us, but the white man. Let’s not walk on the moon, then fail to understand what this Creation is all about. This is life, this is beautiful, everything is the way it should be.”
That night I camped on a mesa north of the Badlands, where at daylight a flock of sharp-tailed grouse scratched the dew-softened dirt that with a dry sun would turn to the color of sand; in the western distance, sharp in the early sun, the Black Hills rose in a dark wall from the golden rises of the Plains.
This beautiful region, of which the Lakota thought more than any other spot on earth, caused him the most pain and misery. These hills were to become prized by the white people for reasons far different from those of the Lakota. To the Lakota the magnificent forests and splendid herds were incomparable in value. To the white man everything was valueless except the gold in the hills. Toward the Indian the white people were absolutely devoid of sentiment, and when a people lack sentiment they are without compassion. So down went the Black Forest and to death went the last buffalo, noble animal and immemorial friend of the Lakota. As for the people who were as native to the soil as the forest and the buffalo—well, the gold seekers did not understand them and never have. The white man will never know the horror and the utter bewilderment of the Lakota at the wanton destruction of the buffalo. What cruelty has not been glossed over with the white man’s word—enterprise!12
I headed westward to the original homeland of the Minnecojou, that valley of the Rapid River on the eastern slope of the Black Hills where the concrete and neon conglomerate called Rapid City squats today. From Rapid City, a road climbs into Nemo Canyon, a beautiful steep-sided valley where the recent discovery of uranium-bearing rock had set off a whole new wave of mining claims on national forest land that by the terms of the 1868 Treaty belonged to the Lakota nation. From the upper canyon, in the heart of the Black Hills, a ridge route winds southward around high blue lakes that freshen the dry piney forests; on the higher ridges, a few mountain goats persist, and the rare cougar. It was now July, and the highways were churning with tourists, drawn from near and far to such scenic wonders as Sitting Bull Crystal Cave, Wonderful Wonderland Cave, Black Hills Holy Land, Inc. (“Approved Attraction”), and “Crazy Horse: A Mighty Monument in the Making” (where a man for whom no likeness exists—he never let himself be photographed or painted13—is being “portrayed” on a huge and vulgar scale above the rubble of a sacred mountain). Keystone, a honky-tonk town with loudspeaker tin music and billboard facades, is tacked together by fast-food emporiums and Golden West “trading posts” stuffed with Indian-type art made mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and New Jersey. Beyond Keystone, the road climbs through the ancient forest to a vast parking lot and shopping and tourist center, from which the pilgrim may elevate his gaze to the mountain home of the great thunder beings, now “Mount Rushmore,” home of the most enormous novelties in the whole world. What does this Mount Rushmore mean to us Indians? asked John Fire Lame Deer.
It means that these big white faces are telling us, “First we gave you Indians a treaty that you could keep these Black Hills forever, as long as the sun would shine, in exchange for all of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. Then we found the gold and took this last piece of land, because we were stronger, and there were more of us than there were of you, and because we had cannons and Gatling guns, while you hadn’t even progressed far enough to make a steel knife. And when you didn’t want to leave, we wiped you out, and those of you who survived we put on reservations. And then we took the gold out, a billion bucks, and we aren’t through yet. And because we like the tourist dollars, too, we have made your sacred Black Hills into one vast Disneyland. And after we did all this we carved up this mountain, the dwelling place of your spirits, and put our four gleaming white faces here. We are the conquerors.” . . .
One man’s shrine is another man’s cemetery, except that now a few white folks are also getting tired of having to look at this big paperweight curio. We can’t get away from it. You could make a lovely mountain into a great paperweight, but can you make it into a wild, natural mountain again? I don’t think you have the know-how for that. . . . Maybe it’s not too late to put an elevator under this whole shrine of democracy—press a button and the whole monument disappears. And once a week—say, every Sunday from nine to eleven—you press the button again and those four heads come up again with the music going full blast. The guys who got an astronaut on the moon should be able to do this much for us Indians, artists and nature lovers.14
At the visitors’ center, postcards of “Black Elk at Mount Rushmore” are available to historically inclined tourists; the postcards suggest Indian approval of this desecration of Indian sacred grounds and neglect to say that the sad-faced man in movie-Indian regalia with the four huge faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt looming behind him is not the renowned spiritual leader, but his son Ben. The alert visitor may notice that Mount Rushmore is unusually well guarded, due to the recurrent fear that redskin terrorists or other unpatriotic types might try to obliterate this monument to the westward course of empire.
I found a soft pine-needle bed in a ponderosa pine grove under Harney Peak, the highest in the Hills, named in honor of Lieutenant General William S. Harney, who fought against the Seminoles in Florida, then traveled west to war on the Lakota; General Harney was among the U.S. commissioners who signed the treaty that reserved these Hills for the Indians forever.
As an old man, in 1931, Black Elk had climbed to Harney Peak to offer prayer: “Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. . . . Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O make my people live!”15
To Harney Peak came a wild wind and rain, and hollow reverberations of heat lightning, with mountain spirits roaring through the pine tops, but in the morning, two deer waited, expectant, on the woods road down the far side of the mountain. Where the foothills leveled gently westward into the sage plains of Wyoming, pronghorn antelope drifted like cloud shadows on the grass, and a young golden eagle—the sacred “spotted eagle” of the Lakota—sailed on straight strong wings down the warm wind, toward the old Powder River hunting grounds and the Big Horn Mountains.
1. THIEVES ROAD: The Oglala Lakota, 1835–1965
2. THE UPSIDE-DOWN FLAG: The American Indian Movement, 1968–73
3. TO WOUNDED KNEE: February–May 1973
4. THE WOUNDED KNEE TRIALS: January–September 1974
5. THE NEW INDIAN WARS: AIM Versus the FBI, 1972–75
6. THE U.S. PUPPET GOVERNMENT: Pine Ridge and Dick Wilson, 1975
7. THE SHOOT-OUT I: June 26, 1975
8. THE SHOOT-OUT II: June 26, 1975
9. THE "RESERVATION MURDERS" INVESTIGATION: June–September 1975
10. THE FUGITIVES I: July–November 1975
11. THE FUGITIVES II: November 1975–May 1976
12. THE TRIAL AT CEDAR RAPIDS: June–July 1976
13. THE TRIAL AT FARGO: March–April 1977
14. THE ESCAPE: Lompoc Prison and the Los Angeles Trial
15. THE REAL ENEMY
16. ANOTHER IMPORTANT MATTER: Myrtle Poor Bear and David Price, 1976–81
17. FORKED TONGUES: The Freedom of Information Act and the New Evidence, 1980–81
18. IN MARION PENITENTIARY
19. PAHA SAPA: The Treaty, the Supreme Court, and the Return to the Black Hills
20. RED AND BLUE DAYS
AFTERWORD BY MARTIN GARBUS