Pine Ridge, South Dakota, August 2018
At 11 o’clock in the morning I land at Denver airport, pick up my rental car and drive north through Colorado and Nebraska. To my left, in the distance, are the Rocky Mountains, but once in Nebraska the country is empty, flat and boring, with straight roads. I am on my way to Pine Ridge, the Indian reservation of the Oglala Lakota, just across the South Dakota border, a six-hour drive. My contact person repeatedly advised me to arrive at least one hour before dark and I take that seriously. My GPS will not work in Pine Ridge and the last miles will be on a dirt road.
I’m on an adventure, that’s how it feels, and I’ve missed that kick for a while. As an anthropologist, I’m used to traveling alone to remote places. I was warned from all sides of the dangers in Brazil when I first went there in the early 90s, but after ten minutes in Rio that paranoia faded away, never to return. So I put the warnings of people who had been in Pine Ridge into perspective, although it was remarkable how they kept nagging in the back of my mind: do not go there alone, beware of gangs and cars with blinded windows, and realize that, as a white man, you’re not welcome everywhere.
It might not be the best idea in that case to enter Pine Ridge through the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, formerly the alcohol supplier of the reservation. Almost every resident of Pine Ridge is somehow affected by alcoholism. It has been an endemic problem for too long. Alcohol, however, is banned from the reservation, so people used to go to Whiteclay, until the government closed all stores in 2017. Now it’s a ghost town. Left and right of the main street are old, neglected buildings. The street scene of drunken Indians hanging around is history, but alcoholism is not. The problem has only moved to different places.
Whiteclay merges into the town of Pine Ridge. There is no border. I am now in the reservation, which is clear from the way people look. On both sides of the road there is activity, there are stores, a gas station, even a Pizza Hut. I don’t know where to look or what I’m looking for. It is all too sudden. In five minutes I am through it; the endless prairie stretches out in front of me and I relax. I see rolling hills with patches of green here and there.
The reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut, but only has about 30,000 inhabitants. I’m on my way to Manderson, my final destination. At a junction after half an hour’s drive I stumble upon the Wounded Knee Massacre Monument, which I previously only knew from photographs. It’s right in front of me on a hill, in the emptiness of the land. I’ll return there tomorrow, when I’m rested. Now I turn left. The two-lane road meanders through the hills until I reach Manderson. Just before the town is the exit to the dirt road. It all fits with the satellite photo I have on a printout. There are few roads so the chance of taking a wrong turn is small. After a couple of miles, I slow down when I see a white tepee in the landscape, near a few houses and wrecked cars.
Two barking dogs run around my car as I pull up on the driveway towards an open field. My arrival has now been announced, I think, but when I get out at the biggest house, no one comes out to greet me. The dogs are harmless and like to be petted. I knock on the door and wait until I finally hear footsteps. Fortunately, they know why I’m here. After a friendly greeting by two men, one of them hands me a key for the smaller house. I will sleep in the tepee, a few hundred feet away, but I can make coffee or cook a meal in that cottage. Its resident, who happens to be my contact person, has apparently left for a couple of days. I may park my car next to the tepee. When I ask if it’s safe to leave my stuff in there, the youngest of the two men laughs, showing me his missing teeth. I don’t have to worry about that. Nobody ever comes here, but perhaps a coyote. “Who wants to be here anyway?” he says and shrugs his shoulders.
The tepee is big, tall and sturdy, and I realize I’m probably the only guy in all of Pine Ridge to spend the night in one. My car parked next to it looks very odd. There is a rug on the ground. There are three beds to choose from. One of the dogs comes in with me through the entrance, but wriggles outside again under the canvas. That tells me that shutting the tent makes little sense. I leave my food in the car. In the cottage, I heat water and return with a full thermos of tea.
I have witnessed poverty in Brazil and in Africa. Here, in the heart of the United States, it is certainly no better. But there’s a gas stove and a refrigerator in the cottage. Running water and electricity are not self-evident in Pine Ridge, but this shelter has it. The toilet is a hole in the ground in an outhouse, a dilapidated wooden hut outside in the field, without a front door, overlooking the hills. The shaky shower next to it, made of plastic piping, has only cold water but doesn’t work.
The silence is a blessing when I sit outside my tepee and it’s slowly getting dark. It’s cooling down but the tea keeps me warm. The dogs play around me. I give them some goodies in the hope that they will stay. A group of wild horses grazes in the distance where there are trees. I now see light burning in the house where the two men live. After our greeting, I haven’t seen anyone outside. I realize once again where I am and feel gratitude for the experience. This is not an ordinary campsite. The starry sky that appears is breathtaking. With the dogs next to me, I finally get into my sleeping bag and fall asleep like a log.
Wounded Knee is actually smaller than I thought. I park my car at the bottom of the hill and take the path upwards. It’s not steep. I’m followed by an SUV with Security on it in large letters. The two guards remain in their car. The reason they’re here is that it’s obviously necessary. I try to ignore them and solemnly walk around the grave, read the names on the monument, take pictures and nod openly to two other visitors. I know exactly what happened here—I wrote about it—and it makes me feel more involved. While I look at the landscape, I try to imagine the massacre caused by the US army.
But only when I’m back down, where a young Lakota with long black hair sells his art, do I get into a discussion that brings history to life. Justin tells me how, long ago, the Cheyenne came to Pine Ridge to warn the Lakota of General Custer’s advancing army. The boy even points out where it was, right there, in the nearby northern hills. The panic was great. The tribes decided to cooperate, and lured Custer into an ambush in Little Bighorn, Montana. They defeated the army, but years later the Wounded Knee massacre could be seen as retaliation.
The distances boggle me. Montana is far away on horseback over these hills. Justin likes to read, he says, and I leave a copy of my book with him. What he told me was not new to me, but the way he did it was impressive, showed his pride, his culture. I buy a necklace with a dragonfly that I will wear my entire stay. When I thank him in the Lakota language, he looks at me in amazement and then laughs. He corrects me: men say thank you differently from women and I had said it the feminine way.
It makes no sense at all, but the landscape of Pine Ridge reminds me somehow of the dunes of an island in the north of The Netherlands, a place I used to visit on summer holidays. The ocean couldn’t be farther away here, but it still comes to mind. It must be the light, the vastness, the emptiness and the feeling of freedom that comes with it. But as wonderful as life on that island is, is how miserable it is here. The islanders live off tourism; in Pine Ridge, tourism does not start until you leave the reservation at National Park The Badlands to the north or The Black Hills to the west. On the reservation, eighty percent of people are unemployed, diabetes is prevalent because good food is too expensive, and the suicide rate among the youth is shockingly high.
The Oglala Lakota College
It’s hard to imagine that misery can be so extreme, but it’s confirmed once again when I get into a conversation with an employee from the Oglala Lakota College, just outside the town of Kyle. I ask whether alcoholism is really such a big problem, because it’s not always visible, and because I hope that things are improving by now. That hope evaporates when I see her face cloud over. “Unfortunately,” she says. “It’s terrible. That and crystal meth. ”
Nevertheless, the college is a major positive force, not just thanks to its fine modern architecture, but above all, because it symbolizes a better future. People can take courses here in many disciplines. There’s also a large bookstore and a Heritage Center. Everything is spacious. The employee tells me that the age of the students varies between 16 and 75 years. On average, it takes them twice as long to graduate because they have to maintain a family or simply lack the money, but the most important thing is that the college acts as a way out and as an awareness towards a better future through education. There is support from the government, but the college is also dependent on donations.
When I’m back at my tepee with the dogs at the end of a long day, I realize that I should not let myself be bewildered by the beauty of nature. It is so tempting to imagine herds of buffaloes grazing here, settlements with tepees and nomadic Indians, but all of that is a thing of the distant past. That loss is not the problem, but what has come in its place is. The Oglala Lakota have deteriorated badly since the reservation. I need only look at the neglected, condemned trailers scattered around the country where people actually live, always surrounded by a few wrecked cars; or trapped people hanging around in places like Manderson, Porcupine or Kyle, that simply have no opportunities to make something of their lives, and are left to their fate. On paper, they have the same opportunities as every American; in reality, they remain the Indian from Pine Ridge, who has no place to go. That is what becomes painfully clear when you look beyond the beautiful hills.
Badlands & Black Hills
The next day I leave Pine Ridge on the north side, where the reservation borders on National Park The Badlands. The scenery changes immediately and there are only white people. Large RV’s, groups of motorcyclists and a huge ‘Visitor Center’. Here, the Lakota used to come for their ceremonies; this was where they liked to retreat, ride their horses or dance. The mountains are capricious and colorful. I’m back in America.
That feeling grows stronger as I drive through the Badlands to The Black Hills, and billboards appear on the side of the road screaming cheap entertainment. This mountain range, which borders Pine Ridge on the east side, is the birthplace of the Lakota. It is where they come from, according to their culture. It was also their property, signed by an official treaty that was broken by the government when gold was found. Now the area is best known for Mount Rushmore, the carved faces of four presidents. I see how impressive it is, but can’t neglect the fact that I’m biased. I also make a stop in the town of Deadwood, famous for its history of gold digging. Walking through the historic center, full of white tourists—mostly cowboys and rednecks—I find myself checking: I don’t see one Native American, Afro-American or Latino.
The contrast with Pine Ridge cannot be bigger. When I realize how close I am to the reservation here, and how shockingly different these worlds are, it overwhelms me. My involvement with the Oglala Lakota has grown, and I hope this won’t be my last visit to Pine Ridge. Perhaps I can do something for them in the future other than donate money. Perhaps writing about it helps a little. Fortunately, I end my journey at the huge Crazy Horse Memorial—a kind of counterpart to Mount Rushmore—that has been under construction for the last 70 years. There’s no government support for it and it’s dependent solely on donations. From a distance, it’s quite impressive, but so far only the face is carved out. It’s somewhat controversial because the builders never asked permission from the descendants of Crazy Horse to create it. The mountains are sacred to the Lakota. You can’t just carve into them.
Author Jaap Cové’s latest novel The Girl in the Web deals with Oglala Lakota history, culture and spirituality. www.jaapcove.com.
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