Archive | June, 2012

Sewing the story

25 Jun

Maude White Bull stitching to Gunsmoke.

The week I returned from Pine Ridge Reservation, still re-acclimating from a week away from mass media, I contemplated which big-screen movie would best ease my entry back into pop culture.

The least jarring, I decided, would be Crooked Arrows.

The coincidence, after all, almost amounted to a sign from the Great Spirit. Coming back from my time among the Lakota Sioux Nation, I find an actual film about Native Americans, consisting almost entirely of Native Americans, playing across town from my apartment. Then there was the sport the kids were playing: I mean, if you see just one lacrosse movie this year …

So on a Thursday afternoon, just five days removed from the South Dakota plains, I joined the crowd – if three can constitute a crowd – at a late-afternoon matinee of Crooked Arrows. To be fair, I have to admit that I found some obvious similarities between Pine Ridge and the film – most notably the message of self-empowerment that can come through rediscovering and recommitting to your true cultural and spiritual identity, while rejecting the racist stereotypes projected upon you by outsiders.

One of the Crooked Arrows.

But for the most part, Crooked Arrows seemed about as far removed from my Pine Ridge experience as, say, Men In Black. When it came to setting, lush New York woods replaced Western plains, modest but decent homes replaced FEMA trailers, and roofs withstood wind without the aid of truck tires to keep them from bowing. The kids were well-fed. While alcoholism, suicide, diabetes, and unemployment are rampant at Pine Ridge, those things didn’t exist in this film’s universe.

Those are just the differences in content – the most striking contrast came in the shape of story itself.

Crooked Arrows, after all, is a typical clichéd youth sports movie: Crooked Arrows, like The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks, features a rogue adult who is dragged into coaching a team of misfits. Despite many a comic debacle, coach and players somehow save each other. Demons are defeated and lessons are learned, and all this new wisdom and character is rewarded, as it usually is, both on and off the field. Hope grows, and that hope is well-founded.

Which is, in a way, fine.

Obviously, it would be as ludicrous to hold Crooked Arrows to the standards of sober-minded, socially relevant realism. These movies, geared toward the young, should offer laughter and hope. It would be nice if plot holes weren’t big enough to build a casino in – but what of it? Not every sports underdog story can be Hoosiers, and Hoosiers itself is no Hoop Dreams.

Everyone needs some catharsis now and then.

Assumption’s Justine and Kristen unload the lumber.

Just the same, experiencing the reassurance of typical Hollywood story got me contemplating the more disquieting stories I experienced in Pine Ridge. What comes to mind is our last day of construction, for Maude White Bull up in Wanblee, about a two-hour drive from Re-Member’s base of operations.

We came there to rip out the front and back steps, replacing them with new ones that were much safer. While the Disney version of this story would culminate in a sprawling quaint porch painted in bright colors, our mission was to make do with what we had – mixing mostly new lumber with old pieces that still seemed sound; the roof mounted over the front steps would have to remain for another visit by another crew. While some pieces of lumber were treated to protect from water damage, other pieces were not. Would our new work be stained with some kind of protective water seal? Perhaps. But money was tight for both the home-owner and for Re-Member, hustling all over to help folks with the most basic needs. As we worked, one staffer shrugged at the limitations with a resigned look. “Today the priority is just giving her and her family a safe way to get in and out of her house,” he said. “Hopefully we can come back and do more later.”

But our host had one thing about half the people on the rez lack – and that thing was indoor plumbing. Since the old steps disappeared after I entered, I had to wait patiently in the living room for the carpenters to create my exit. Which was fine. It gave me time to watch the construction of something as artistically dazzling as our porch was not – a Lakota star quilt, one of cheerful sky blue and rich yellow.

The surface, stretched taut, contained the traditional Lakota morning star pattern – symbolizing new beginnings – as well as scissors, needles, and the remote for the TV, currently showing Gunsmoke. (“I like any Western,” Maude said, although I guessed there were a lot of Westerns she didn’t.)

Outline for dragonfly to come.

One of the blank spaces toward the corners bore a tracing to be filled by the end of the day – a dragonfly, a symbol of mature, lasting change. According to Jessica Palmer’s Animal Wisdom, the Lakota believed the dragonfly could dodge hailstones, which was why dragonfly images were on their shields.

As she worked, I scanned the wall above her head, filled with family photos, including many of a young man in uniform.

“Is this your son?”

“Yes.” Then she volunteered the rest. That he served in Afghanistan, that he sustained wounds there, that he was in a military hospital with a spinal injury.              “We’re making this quilt for him,” she said.

The rest of the day we came and went, the colorful artistry taking form in the living room a sharp contrast to our own handiwork. During one idle moment, I tell our supervisor, Jerry, what I’d learned. But he, of course, knew more of her story – and the stories of so many others along the way.

Quilter and carpenter.

Once, he told me, his crew called to tell a woman they were building her porch that day; she told him to come on, but that she would be away, as she had something to do away from home.

She arrived just as they were finishing, and burst into tears as she thanked the workers, telling them it was the kindest thing anyone had done for her.

The thing she had to do that day?

Burying her son.

“Things like that,” he said, “make you glad you can do anything at all to help.”

It’s never enough, of course. Not the porches. Not the steps. Not even, in all its hard-earned glory, the star quilt – itself a tradition the Lakota adopted only after the white man ended their access to buffalo hides, as well as the hunt itself. This is Pine Ridge, not Crooked Arrows. If I struggle with how to end this particular story – and I do – it’s because there are no tidy resolutions.

But it would also be unrealistic to end in despair. For woven into this account are the stories of well-meaning college volunteers who began their week even worse at carpentry than the film’s young people were at lacrosse. The steps – like the roofs, the outhouses, the holes for the outhouses – are their own kind of triumph. Yet the stories of volunteers on the outside seemed almost Disney-esque compared to the narrative unfolding within: The story of the mother who couldn’t give her son the mythical power to dodge the projectiles of war – but could fuse her love for her son and her art into a quilt that would outlast our porches by decades. The story of the Lakota women who keep on keeping on – creating a place in a world of seemingly limited possibilities for both charity and artistry.

Our host only took a break near the end of her day, when she came out to test her steps. Unlike the movies, there was no ceremony, no applause, no speech – she seemed like a woman who lets her needle do the talking. I didn’t even get to see the completion of the dragonfly.

But I saw Maude White Bull descend our handiwork with a smile, seemingly finding her footing in this world a little surer. And I saw her climb back – back to the morning star, back to the dragonfly, back to weaving the story that never quite ends.

Morningstar, symbol of new possibilities.


11 Jun

Sunday reservation sunrise seen from Re-Member.

When the pre-dawn light filters into the bunk room, I fumble my way into my clothes, through my stealthiest ever bathroom routine – only 20 feet and some thin curtains separate bathroom sinks from the bunks where the other volunteers still slumber – and out the door into a cacophony of bird song.

My watch says 5:10 in the morning – a good four hours before I’d be out the door back in Massachusetts. But the spectacle of sunrise on the reservation renders the rituals of coffee and yoga unnecessary.

Ted, the executive director of Re-Member, had told me last night that dawns here are joyfully noisy – and he turns out to be right. Along with the distinctive song of the western meadowlarks – those yellow-breasted musicians I will hear almost every hour of every day this week – a pack of coyotes howling and bark. Below the higher notes of the coyotes and birds comes the bass of the mooing cattle – while they never acquire a rhythm, there are at least a hundred head in the rolling pasture. It’s over them that the sun emerges – a naked ball of fiery orange that then covers itself in some flimsy strips of cloud.

I shuffle down the drive to the gravel road, along the fence separating me from the angus, thickly built even for cows. When I look the other way, a couple of Appaloosa horses come intently galloping over, along with a gray mare and another couple of friends. While they study me as a potential bearer of oats, one starts to slide behind the mare – only to get a quick pop from her rear right hoof.

Not this morning, dear.

Cows look down as I walk the gravel road.

It beats the hell out of the yard waste facility, which is my morning view back home – at least, until the spring foliage crowds it out. Don’t get me wrong: I love the dense woods that crowd my third story balcony, the limbs that have crept to within ten feet of the rail, the festival of songbirds that flit to and from my feeder every day back in New England. But I can’t help but marvel at how Pine Ridge Reservation is so wide open, both visually and sonically – lack of human structures and noise seems to amplify the revels of nature.

I chance a path that cuts diagonally from the gravel road to the bench near the hilltop, despite the dampness of the prairie grass and – as someone will point out later – the chance of encountering a rattlesnake. A Northern harrier hawk – my first ever sighting of one – pops out of the grass ahead, swooping low and elegantly as it scans for prey.

A couple of hours later, when Ted enters the common area to address the masses, I want to share my nature-inspired joy, but his earnest demeanor as he settles behind the podium holds me back. He is about the deliver the Wisdom of the Elders. Within five minutes, his talk shifts my mood from big country bliss to anger and sorrow at what has transpired here.

As I listen, my mood shifts in the same way it had last night.  Between last night and this morning, we absorb the following: the 370 broken treaties and the slaughter of Native Americans to the low life expectancy (he lists 47 for men, 54 for women) and the roughly 50 percent who don’t have electricity. Because Lakota hospitality dictates taking in family and friends regardless of resources, “there are no homeless,” he said. “But you might find 15-20 people in one house.” (Two days later, Jerry, one of our drivers will point out a modest blue house Re-Member had renovated for a family; it had the miracle of heat, so soon 24 people were sleeping there, four in the bathroom.)

This morning’s Wisdom of the Elders goes back in time to the 1800s, reciting the sad history of Wounded Knee Creek, where cavalry had rounded up Lakota men, women, and children – and slaughtered them. Sioux such as Big Foot – on his way to confer with Sitting Bull about escalating tensions – were intercepted by cavalry and led to Wounded Knee.

Ted, right, and friend look out from hilltop cemetery.

In Ted’s story, on the morning of December 29th, 1890, instead of food, the Lakota were given last rites; soon afterward, the shooting began, going on for two hours. (I will read different versions of how the shooting started.) Then, as Ted describes it, cavalry were sent on horseback for five miles in every direction, rounding up the women and children sent fleeing through the tree line; the women were raped and killed, the children shot in the head. A blizzard delayed burial for days; finally the frozen bodies were tossed into a mass grave; one estimate I read places the death toll at 146 Lakota and about 25 soldiers. Cavalry might have seen this as vengeance for the defeat at Little Big Horn – itself spurred by a white attack –the incident also came out of white attempts to prevent the Lakota from practicing ghost-dancing, a religious ritual that while restoring pride in their culture, posed a threat to the status quo white authorities wished to reinforce.

So it was that a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom was willing to kill others who practiced it.

Some would say it’s more complicated than that, but as Native American history indicates time and again, the most absolute principles suddenly become relativistic when they get in the way of greed. Worse, the injustice remains after the gold is gone. The Lakota wouldn’t regain the right to practice their rituals remained in place until the late 1970s.

I have come into Wisdom of the Elders knowing much of this, and how I feel about it, which is, of course, both angry and sympathetic.

That’s why I’m here.

Yet being here deepens the feelings – and will keep deepening them for days to come. The earnest request to “unplug” from cell phones and computers intensifies that experience – taking away the distractions we use to distance ourselves from unpleasant realities. Instead, as the bus takes us north to Wounded Knee, people either talk with each other or just stare at the countryside. Finally, we slide over onto a widened road shoulder and disembark.

We share the shoulder with the Lakota, with their dogs and their children, wares spread on the hoods of their cars and trucks. We wave as we walk across the highway and up the curved path to the cross-bedecked arch – the entrance to the mass grave at Wounded Knee. At the gate, a local whose name I never catch gives a talk about the fateful day – “they called it a battle, but it was a massacre” – before letting us into the cemetery.

In the middle, a long rectangular fence marks the mass grave itself, but as others circle inside, I stay outside, lingering at tombstones erected for Lakota who have passed in the years since Wounded Knee. I find the 1919 marker for Lost Bird – a girl who, as an infant, was found crying amid the bodies piled in the mass grave. She was rescued by a white soldier and raised in that world, only to commit suicide at the age of 29.

Normally I would revel more in the love of language, as well as a slight case of name-envy: There is something provocative about being named Spotted Bear, Respects Nothing, Little Moon, Her Many Horses – or Thunder Horse. But Frankee Thunder Horse died before the age of eight; a picture  is included in the polished, elegant tombstone. Meanwhile, Zitkala Zi, who died as an infant, was only afforded a crude white cross. I don’t know the story of either child, but their presence calls to mind those lowered life expectancies, especially the heightened rates of infant mortality and suicide by the young on the rez, numbers fed by the high rates of sexual abuse and alcoholism, the crowded living conditions which make protecting children harder. Not to mention the simple lack of hope, of a vision of better future.

Which is one reason that when we descend the hill, we spend way too much on dream catchers and medicine bags. (After what we’ve heard and seen, can white Americans really pay too much?) Our drivers let us mingle with the locals; we talk about how they craft their souvenirs, we banter with their children, we pet their dogs, wandering free as any good rez dog does. When I line up students for a photo in front of the Wounded Knee Massacre plaque, I suggest they not smile – but a few can’t help it.

From Wounded Knee we go to Porcupine, where we eat sandwiches in the back yard of a teacher’s apartment; she actually lives in Wisconsin, but has spent a year here teaching primary school. Her apartment includes a bird’s-eye view photo of students and staff standing in the Porcupine School Parking Lot, in the shape of an eagle. “It’s a different animal each year,” she tells me.

“Did they ever do a Porcupine?”

“I don’t know,” she says.

Lakota man sells his wares across from Wounded Knee.

We agree that a porcupine would be a particularly difficult animal to shape into clearly recognizable form. I suspect the same will prove true of summing up our experience this week. On one hand, Bill, a particularly funny and amiable member of the Re-Member staff, is earnest long enough to point out that the hand sanitizer we were using was actually drunk here for its alcohol content – possibly a symptom of the intersection of rampant alcoholism and poverty, as well as Pine Ridge, larger than Connecticut, prohibiting alcohol.

On the other hand, it’s a sunny and pleasant day; a few hundred feet away,  Lakota of various ages are enjoying a friendly batting practice on a nice softball diamond. Still father away, someone’s cranking up the Eagles, the same two songs over and over again – “Take It Easy” and “Already Gone.”

Soon we’re gone ourselves – to the Badlands. We turn off at the park visiting center, but don’t stop, just drive by butte after butte, crater after crater, until the bus lets us out into the heat of the day. We hike across a valley and scamper up a hill of cracked dry earth, from which a tableau of volcanic ash and diatomaceous earth sprawl away under a cloudless sky.

Justin seeks his meditative spot.

Then we work our way back down again, and hike even deeper into the hills, finally ascending a slight rise where David, one of our leaders, calls us to a stop. He explains that this is what they call the Cathedral, a bowl created by arid hills rising up in every direction. He explains that this is a time for us to spread out and settle down in our own separate spots, where we should meditate quietly, bearing in mind that this Cathedral, like others, amplifies every noise. “When you see me rise and go,” he says, “it will be time for you to. Just keep me in sight.”

I climb part way up a hill to my left, lie down amid dry earth and grass, prop one foot on a knob of earth that protrudes like a saddle horn. I meditate every day, even if I skipped this day, so I feel that I know how to do this. How to let go. How to be in the here and now.

But not this here. Not this now.

Sure, I take the prescribed long breaths, try shutting my eyes, listening for wind or scrapes or rustles. Over my eyes I slide down the bill of my cap – the one featuring the white whale who, in Melville’s novel, sunk the Pequod, a ship named after yet another doomed tribe. I reflect on the contrast of the reservation so far – the joyous splendor of dawn, the sobering history of the morning, the joy of the people we’ve met by the road shoulder who, like the hardy grasses that break up these barren badlands, keep on keeping on.

But no matter how long I lie, what I cannot do, at least for more than a few seconds, is keep my eyes closed.

Rapid City, Slow Ride

2 Jun

The trip down: One of many Badlands buttes.

We stand in the small baggage claim area of the Rapid City airport, awaiting the few bags that were checked. We’re not exactly the pioneers rolling westward in their Conestogas, but the night flight has taken its toll; it’s after midnight Eastern as we approach the rental van desk.

Having started the day negotiating enormous crowds and endless ticket counters at Boston’s Logan Airport, here in Rapid City I’m naturally expecting to stand in the rain outside on some concrete island, breathing in the fumes of a dozen vans before boarding out own, getting soaked until our flesh falls apart like so much soggy tissue paper.

Instead, the guy standing behind the counter – a young man with long blond hair and beard – simply says, “OK, follow me”, walks outside the door, and points to the van, sitting right at the curb.

Even more hospitably, the guy then asks me what kind of music we’d like to hear on the way to the hotel.

“Shock us,” I say, feeling adventurous.

“Really?” He looks until I nod.

And he does. What he pops in is, of all things, Paul Anka. Surprising enough in and of itself, but it’s not even Anka’s hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s, or a compilation of his commercial jingles. Instead, it’s the considerably older Anka – who decided the new millennium was crying for an album called Rock Swings, consisting of big band jazz covers of rock ‘n’ roll anthems.

Anka’s a pop genius, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Van Halen’s “Jump” sort of works as a big band arrangement, once you suppress the image of David Lee Roth jumping around in sequins. Then our driver ups the ante – the next selection he picks is Anka crooning Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – which proves that grunge rock was indeed  the appropriate genre in which to perform the song. When Anka croons “on and on and on,” the existential alienation is for some reason lost in translation.

We’re swinging onto I-90 – the same interstate that, more than 1900 miles away, took us to the airport in Boston eight hours ago – when the driver asks why we’ve come to Rapid City.

“We’re going to Pine Ridge Reservation to do some volunteer work.”

“Got your passports?”


“You’ve going to another country.”

This warning of strangeness, from the man who just had me listen to Paul Anka cover Kurt Cobain. I don’t get to ask him why – maybe I don’t want to know – but the statistics I’ve read bear him out. According to one source, the average male on Pine Ridge Reservation dies at age 48, the typical woman at 52. The infant mortality rate is five times the national average, amputation rates due to diabetes is three to four times higher, death rate due to diabetes is three times. Unemployment is at 80 percent. The per capita income in Shannon County is $6,286.

Our van for the trip down.

Numbers aside, when it comes to our direct experience over this next week, will the rez really seem like another country?

After all, like a lot of people, my journey through adulthood has been one of encountering and overcoming alienation when encountering people different from myself – and feel it’s my moral obligation to do so. I like to think that by age 54 I’m pretty good at checking my assumptions at the door – and at believing that when you engage people without imposing preconceptions, you generally find far more commonalities than differences. (Although, for all I know, the people I encounter might secretly think I suck at it.)

Besides, the Oglala Lakota we’re bound to meet will be those friendly to Re-Member volunteers, individuals who either share the vision or at least see the upside of being friendly to us. But this last reassuring aspect introduces a contradiction in my ambitions for our week among the Lakota.

On one hand, I want come out affirming that the rez isn’t so different that one should think twice about volunteering there himself or herself: I want to say that we should all go there, repay them in some small way, no matter how inadequate, for the horrific violence and injustice we have heaped on them.

On the other hand, given the depth of poverty and the segregation of the rez, if it doesn’t feel like another country, did we just fail to look hard enough?

All I can say for now is that as the next day, as the Re-Member caravan takes us by van from our Rapid City hotel down into the reservation, there were no sentry gates or immigration booths – just a continuous gentle rolling series of mostly tree-less ridges from which it seems you can see forever. (I’ll learn later that in spots you can see thirty miles each way.)

There are signs of where we are, of course, from the humble and scattered homes to the names rooted in place – porcupines not only provide the quills for use in native crafts, but also the name of a town so tiny, you can’t even call it a crossroads: It pleases me to see that instead of calling its sports teams such stereotypical names as Braves or Warriors, Porcupine High’s sign declares:  “Home of the Quills!”

The only alien moment is when we roll through the Badlands – a national park within the ridge of near-arid, white volcanic ash ridges and buttes, spectacular in its starkness, as close as I’ll come to driving across the surface of the moon. Although I also get a start when I glimpse, across a field in the corner of a pasture, a seemingly life-size green statue of a brontosaurus.

Dinosaur lurking off the highway.

“I have no idea why that’s there,” said our driver, despite being a fount of information on any other geographical feature I’ve asked about.

Eventually we pass KILI, the reservation radio station we are listening to – but the music is familiar pop and rock songs, and the Lakota disc jockey actually feels familiar to me, the way radio should be – reflecting the voices of locals, not some national syndicated format. Unlike our Rapid City airport driver last night, today’s driver, David, is not from around here. A Michigan native who majors in sociology at Western Michigan when he’s not on staff out  here, is used to a wider diversity of choices on the dial. “Out here the radio is country, country, country … classic rock … and country,” he tells me.

“So you’ve learned to like country?”


His only alternative to the radio is the CD player, which he tries for part of the journey south.

Thankfully, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“Bloodsugarsexmagik?” I guess on the album title.

“No, a hits CD,” David said. “It’s been stuck in the player for four years now. No one can get it out.”

Oh well. It beats four years of Paul Anka covering “Black Hole Sun.”

Besides, isn’t the rez supposed to move to a slower rhythm? With a tone of stark alienation, the Peppers plaintively invoke the familiar chorus “with birds I share this lonely view”; a few miles later, I spy a buzzard riding a ridge, going nowhere fast.

Medicine bag protects van in the Badlands.

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