Read an Excerpt
IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE
“The first solidly documented account of the U.S. government’s renewed assault upon American Indians that began in the 1970s.”
—Dee Brown, Chicago Sun-Times
“By the time I had turned the final page, I felt angry enough . . . to want to shout from the rooftops, ‘Wake up, America, before it’s too damned late!’ For Matthiessen, in this extraordinary, complex work, powerfully propounds several large and disturbing themes which the white majority in America will ignore at extreme peril.”
—Nick Kotz, The Washington Post
“A giant of a book . . . indescribably touching, extraordinarily intelligent.”
—Carolyn See, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The reappearance of Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse . . . is a major political and legal, as well as literary, event.”
—Bill Farrell, New York Newsday
“Meticulously researched . . . A courageous document.”
—Howard Norman, The Boston Globe
“A book of enormous importance . . . You have to believe that Crazy Horse would have loved its renegade spirit and unflinching reach for the truth.”
—The Milwaukee Journal
“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is really about contemporary America and the way American law is seen through the eyes of American Indians. . . . It is one of those rare books that permanently change one’s consciousness about important, yet neglected, facets of our history.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Raises painful, imperative questions for a nation that prides itself as a global champion of human rights.”
“For raising these crucial moral questions, and for doing so within the context of the American Indian struggle for self-determination, Peter Matthiessen deserves the greatest possible reading audience. He is also an excellent journalist, drawing heavily upon people personally involved on both sides.”
“Mr. Matthiessen’s sympathies are evident, but he is neither gullible nor uncritical. He realistically portrays individuals, landscapes, customs, and problems that, though wholly American, are unfamiliar to most American citizens.”
—The New Yorker
“One of the most dramatic demonstrations of endemic American racism that has yet been written—a powerful, unsettling book that will force even the most ethno-pious reader to inspect the limits of his understanding.”
—The New York Review of Books
“An important and angry book that belongs on the shelf containing A Century of Dishonor, Custer Died for Your Sins, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
—Wallace Stegner, The New Republic
Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014) is the only writer who has ever won the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. His travels as a naturalist and explorer have resulted in more than a dozen books on natural history and the environment, including The Snow Leopard, his first NBA winner. Matthiessen’s equally important career in fiction has produced a collection of stories and nine novels, among them At Play in the Fields of the Lord (an NBA finalist) and the Everglades trilogy (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone), which, rewritten and distilled, were published in one volume in 2008 under the title Shadow Country, winner of the NBA in fiction. Shadow Country was also the 2010 recipient of the William Dean Howells Medal, given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the most distinguished American novel published during the previous five years. Matthiessen was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His final novel, In Paradise, was published just after his death in 2014.
IN THE SPIRIT OF
WITH AN AFTERWORD BY MARTIN GARBUS
We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you. The Great Spirit gave us plenty of land to live on, and buffalo, deer, antelope and other game. But you have come here; you are taking my land from me; you are killing off our game, so it is hard for us to live. Now, you tell us to work for a living, but the Great Spirit did not make us to work, but to live by hunting. You white men can work if you want to. We do not interfere with you, and again you say, why do you not become civilized? We do not want your civilization! We would live as our fathers did, and their fathers before them.
Crazy Horse (Lakota)
Many people, past and present, Indian and white, have made important contributions to this book; I wish to thank the following for useful interviews and/or information, with apologies to anyone I may have forgotten.
Archie Fire Lame Deer
Chief Eagle Feather
Dr. Garry Peterson
Ellen Moves Camp
Evelyn Bordeaux (deceased)
Joe Eagle Elk
Joe Flying By
Leonard Crow Dog
Robert Hugh Wilson
Roque Duenas (deceased)
Roslynn Jumping Bull
Russell Loud Hawk
SA David Price
SA George O’Clock
Sam Moves Camp
Senator James Abourezk
Sheriff Don Correll
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Dennis Banks, Vine Deloria, Jr., Richard Erdoes, Bill Hazlett, John Lowe, Kevin McKiernan, and Kenneth Tilsen have been kind enough to review particular sections of the manuscript; Nilak Butler, Bruce Ellison, James Leach, Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau, and Al Trimble have inspected the entire book. All have contributed important corrections, comment, and advice and none is responsible for any errors of fact or emphasis that may remain.
Dennis Banks, Dino Butler, Nilak Butler, Russell Means, Kenneth Tilsen, and Robert Hugh Wilson “Standing Deer” contributed lengthy interviews and/or correspondence; an extensive interview was also provided by Special Agent David Price. Bill Hazlett and Kevin McKiernan have been generous with their own research material; Paulette d’Auteuil was kind enough to make available a series of letters from Leonard Peltier in prison. Steve Robideau and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee as well as the staff of the Black Hills Alliance have also been very helpful.
Particular thanks are due to Bruce Ellison, Leonard Peltier, and Bob Robideau, who provided extensive research material, information, and support from the very beginning of this project.
Finally, I wish to thank Elisabeth Sifton and Jennifer Snodgrass of The Viking Press for their cheerful and intelligent dedication in the face of a sometimes overwhelming project.
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.
The Oglala Lakota, 1835–1965
Hear ye, Dakotas! When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief soldier [Colonel William Harney] to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass through our country, not to tarry among us, but to seek for gold in the far west. Our old chiefs thought to show their friendship and good will, when they allowed this dangerous snake in our midst. . . .
Yet before the ashes of the council fire are cold the Great Father is building his forts among us. You have heard the sound of the white soldier’s axe upon the Little Piney. His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Dakotas, I am for war!
Red Cloud (Lakota)
Then another great cry went up out in the dust: “Crazy Horse is coming! Crazy Horse is coming!” Off toward the west and north, they were yelling “Hoka Hey!” like a big wind roaring, and making the tremolo; and you could hear eagle bone whistles screaming.
Black Elk (Lakota)
In 1835, five white prospectors who entered the old silences of the sacred mountains were attacked by Indians; their fate was scrawled in a last note, “All kilt but me.” Probably Ezra Kind’s small expedition was the first to pursue the sunny glint of gold in the earth and streams of the Black Hills, an isolated ridge of pine-dark peaks and high blue lakes that rises strangely from dry plains on what is now the Wyoming-South Dakota border. This outcropping of ancient limestones and granite, roughly 40 by 120 miles, is considerably older than Mount Everest; it is as old, perhaps, as any geological formation in North America. Like any isolated mountain in flat country, it has a mystery and power, as if placed there as a sacred place at the center of the circle of the world.
Or so it was perceived by the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, and later by the seven bands, or council fires, of the Lakota Oyate, or western Dakota nation, which was moving westward out of Minnesota, the Land-of-Many-Waters, in the course of a two-hundred-year dispute with the woodland Ojibwa and the Cree. When the Lakota crossed the Missouri River, they abandoned the woodlands for a great, free life on the open plains, hunting the buffalo with other Indian nations that had captured or stolen the horse.1 All of these people were drawn to the dark hills, a shelter and a hunting place for deer and birds and buffalo in winter, a source of stone implements and medicine plants and sparkling clear water. In the summer, in the time of the great tribal gatherings and renewal ceremonies such as the sun dance, the young men would go to sacred points in Paha Sapa on the four-day vision quest that would form and guide their lives—“the decision to meet one’s self,” a Lakota has said.
Of all our domain we loved, perhaps, the Black Hills the most. The Lakota had named these hills He Sapa, or Black Hills, on account of their color. The slopes and peaks were so heavily wooded with dark pines that from a distance the mountains actually looked black. In wooded recesses were numberless springs of pure water and numerous small lakes. There were wood and game in abundance and shelter from the storms of the plains. It was the favorite winter haunt of the buffalo and the Lakota as well. According to a tribal legend these hills were a reclining female figure from whose breasts flowed life-giving forces, and to them the Lakota went as a child to its mother’s arms.2
To westward, the Black Hills overlooked the great hunting grounds along the Powder River, stretching away across Wyoming to the Big Horn Mountains. The hunting grounds, shared with the Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, were disputed by the Crow, or Absaroka, and sometimes the Shoshone, or “Snake Indians”; these enemies were intermittently assisted by white mountain men, the prospectors and fur trappers, in running skirmishes with the fierce Lakota.
The first white men to appear from the north and east in the eighteenth century were tolerated, if not welcomed, by the strong and warlike buffalo people of the Plains. “All-the-Indians-See-the-Flag-Winter,” when a U.S. flag was seen near the Missouri, was 1791;3 in the winter of 1802, some horses stolen from the whites were found to be wearing shoes. By 1809, an English trapper had a cabin on the White River, and in 1819, many Indians died of measles or smallpox, strange awful plagues that were later explained to them as the work of God, clearing the way for His own people in the wilderness. In 1822, a trading post was established at the mouth of the Bad River by a white man known as “Big Leggins,” and the following year, some Lakota joined their Dakota kinsmen and a company of the Sixth U.S. Infantry in an attack on two Minnetaree villages, in an early example of War Department policy of setting one Indian against another. But bad feeling against the fur traders’ dishonesty, fired by their alcohol, had already worsened when in 1837 a smallpox epidemic destroyed the Mandan people, decimated the Hidatsa and Arikara, and killed thousands of Indians all over the Great Plains. The white man’s plagues intensified the Indians’ growing resentment and dread of the thousands of migrant “pioneers” who were forging muddy tracks across their hunting grounds on the way to Oregon and California, slaughtering buffalo and elk along the way; the stream of wagons on the Oregon Trail, marked out in 1842, thickened and widened with the discovery of gold in California six years later.
Having scarcely concluded unpopular and costly wars with the Creek and Seminole in the Southeast, the U.S. government was eager to adopt a friendship-treaty policy that would permit safe passage of pioneers and fur trappers, as well as the boats trading on the Missouri River. The first major treaty with these western “Sioux” (a French distortion of an Ojibwa word for “cutthroat,”* given to the Dakota† by their old enemies and adopted by the whites on their way west) was signed in 1851 at Fort Laramie, which had been made a military post two years before; the treaty permitted the pioneers to pass through Indian territory unharmed. Almost immediately this treaty was transgressed by the construction of fortified trading posts on the Platte River and along the Oregon Trail. In 1854, Colonel William Harney responded to a bloody skirmish over a Mormon cow by killing more than one hundred warriors and marching the rest into Fort Laramie in chains; four years later, a party of soldiers reconnoitered the Black Hills.
A council with Harney held at Fort Pierre in the winter of 1855–56 was conspicuously avoided by the westernmost, largest, and most powerful band of the Lakota, the Oglala, the heart of whose territory was the hunting grounds that lay between Paha Sapa and the Powder River. With the discovery of gold near Virginia City, Montana, in the early 1860s, public clamor increased for a safe trail from Cheyenne northwest across the Powder River. Most of the soldiers were withdrawn to the Civil War, but military forays into Indian country recommenced soon after the war ended. In 1866, an expedition sent to open up the Bozeman Trail into Montana—called by the Indians “Thieves Road”—was disputed at a council held at Fort Laramie, where Red Cloud, the Oglala war leader, refused to be presented to the officers, then stalked out in the midst of the discussions: “The Great Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road, but the White Chief comes with soldiers to steal it before the Indian says yes or no! I will talk with you no more! I will go—now!—and I will fight you! As long as I live, I will fight you for the last hunting grounds of my people!”4
The irascible ambitious Red Cloud had been repudiated by many of his people because he had killed the head chief of the Oglala, declaring that Bull Bear was too friendly with the whites, but no one questioned Red Cloud’s abilities as a war leader or as a statesman. His foremost ally was Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule band, who had led a great raid in 1864 on Julesburg, Colorado; this raid reflected the widespread outrage among Plains Indians caused by the slaughter at Sand Creek of an unsuspecting Cheyenne camp by an armed mob of Colorado irregulars, with subsequent gross sexual mutilation of men, women, and children. (“Cowards and dogs!” declared Kit Carson, whose own regular soldiers, known to the Navajo as “Long Knives,” had sometimes played catch with the severed breasts of young Navajo women.)
Crazy Horse, a young Oglala warrior who had ridden with Spotted Tail to Colorado, led the skillful ambush and destruction of a cavalry detachment in late 1866 at Big Piney Creek on the upper Powder River. The following year, when the Oglala were routed by the U.S. Army’s new breech-loading rifles near the Big Horn River,5 the government had already had enough of “Red Cloud’s War” and sued for peace with the Sioux nation. But not until the soldiers had abandoned the wagon roads and forts on the Bozeman Trail would Red Cloud come in to negotiate with a U.S. peace commission dominated by soldiers, including General William Tecumseh Sherman.6
According to the terms of the treaty signed by Red Cloud at Fort Laramie on November 6, 1868, the Indians were guaranteed “absolute and undisturbed use of the Great Sioux Reservation. . . . No persons . . . shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in territory described in this article, or without consent of the Indians pass through the same. . . . No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein described . . . shall be of any validity or force . . . unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians, occupying or interested in the same.” That clause in the Fort Laramie Treaty was still critical a century later. Clothes, goods, education, a sawmill and gristmill, a warehouse, a doctor, and instruction in the white man’s agriculture and technology from resident farmer, carpenter, blacksmith, and engineer would be provided for the Indians, who pledged:
That they will withdraw all opposition to the construction of the railroad now being built on the plains.
That they will permit the peaceful construction of any road not passing over their reservation as herein defined.
That they will not attack any persons at home . . . nor molest or disturb any wagon-trains, coaches, horses, or cattle. . . .
That they will never capture or carry off from the settlements white women or children.
That they will never kill or scalp white men, nor attempt to do them harm.
Seven years before the Fort Laramie Treaty, Congress had established the U.S. Territory of Dakota for the white man’s use, and this prior legislation was taken a lot more seriously than the 1868 Treaty, to judge from the continuing transgressions in Lakota country. For a brief period, Congress protested its honorable intentions toward the Sioux as well as its commitment to the treaty, which as ratified by Congress and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 was in effect the supreme law of the land, equal in stature to the Constitution. In 1871, a rider attached to an Indian Service appropriation bill provided that “hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty,” and although the Fort Laramie Treaty was not affected, it continued to rankle Congress not only as an impediment to Manifest Destiny but as the only recognition of unconditional defeat ever signed by the U.S. government.
In 1870, on the first of several trips to the East, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail became dismayed by the sheer numbers of the whites; the two leaders perceived that the defeat of their people was inevitable. Because both let themselves be photographed (which Crazy Horse, throughout his life, refused to do), it was said of these leaders that they had “let their spirit be captured in a box,” and despite all the angry rhetoric with which they would greet the betrayal of the great Treaty of Fort Laramie, neither man would counsel war ever again. “When we first had this land, we were strong, but now are melting like snow on a hillside, while you are grown like spring grass,” Red Cloud said at Washington. “I have two mountains in that country, the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains. I want the father to make no roads through them. . . . I do not want my reservation on the Missouri.”7 The following year, he agreed to move his people to the “Red Cloud Agency,” under the shadow of Fort Laramie.
The Congress, in its Christian duty, had set forth to “civilize” the Indian in the same way that the European nations, in this high colonial period, were “civilizing” the nonwhite natives of South America and Africa and Asia, using the same trusty mix of bibles and bullets. The government had long since perceived that the way west depended on the transcontinental railroad. In the southern Plains, the Union Pacific had forged its way westward on timber and coal seized or swindled from obliging chiefs in the Indian Territory; it was completed in 1869. As the Commissioner of Indian Affairs remarked in 1872, “The progress of two years more, if not of another summer, on the Northern Pacific Railroad will of itself completely solve the great Sioux problem, and leave the ninety thousand Indians ranging between the two transcontinental lines as incapable of resisting the Government as are the Indians of New York or Massachusetts.” (In the same year, Commissioner Francis Walker also commented, “There is no question of national dignity . . . involved in the treatment of savages by a civilized power.” He went on to say that the purpose of the reservation system was to reduce “the wild beasts to the condition of supplicants for charity.”8) Already, white mountain men and prospectors were passing through the Black Hills without the Indians’ consent, and the rumor of plentiful “gold in them thar hills,” reported by a military party in 1858, was confirmed in August 1874 by a huge reconnaissance expedition led by a jubilant George Custer. The politically ambitious Colonel Custer, who had been condemned by his superior officer on a railroad survey expedition along the Yellowstone in 1873 as “a coldblooded, untruthful and unprincipled man . . . universally despised by all the officers of his regiment,”9 was a champion of the view that the nature of the aborigine was far more “cruel and ferocious” than that of any “wild beast of the desert,” and that in no way did the red man deserve to be treated like a human being; and he was already notorious among the Indians for his attack on a peaceful Cheyenne camp on the Washita River in the same year that the Fort Laramie Treaty had been signed.
The tracks into the Black Hills left by the supply wagons of Custer’s expedition of one thousand pony soldiers were later used by the gangs of gold-crazed miners who shot their way into the Hills in defiance of the Indian war parties, burning the timber, muddying the streams, and killing off the game. The white man, as one Indian said, “was in the Black Hills just like maggots”;10 wasicu, or “the greedy one” (literally, “he-who-takes-the-fat”),11 was the term the Lakota used to describe the miners, and it later became their term for whites in general. “The love of possessions is a disease with them,” said Sitting Bull, who was never behindhand in his contempt.
President Grant sent word to Red Cloud that the Black Hills would be respected “so long as by law and treaty it is secured to the Indians,” and although a large party of white men (the Gordon party) was removed in November 1875, the Secretary of War predicted trouble in the Black Hills “unless something is done to gain possession of that section for the white miners.”
Cheyenne was then wild with excitement concerning the Indian war, which all the old frontiersmen felt was approaching, and the settlement of the Black Hills, in which gold in unheard of sums was alleged to be hidden. No story was too wild, too absurd, to be swallowed with eagerness and published as a fact in the papers of the town. Along the streets were camped long trains of wagons loading for the Black Hills; every store advertised a supply of goods suited to the Black Hills’ trade; the hotels were crowded with men on their way to the new El Dorado; and bell boys could talk nothing but Black Hills—Black Hills. So great was the demand for teams to haul goods to the Black Hills that it was difficult to obtain the necessary number to carry the rations and ammunition needed for [General] Crook’s column.
Much of our trouble with these tribes could have been averted had we shown what would appear to them as a spirit of justice and fair dealing in this negotiation. It is hard to make the average savage comprehend why it is that as soon as his reservation is found to amount to anything he must leave and give up to the white man. Why should not Indians be permitted to hold mining or any other kind of land? The policy of the American people has been to vagabondize the Indian, and throttle every ambition he may have for his own elevation.12
That year (1875), a commission was sent out from Washington to “treat with the Sioux Indians for the relinquishment of the Black Hills.” Use of the name “Sioux” (eventually adopted by the Indians themselves) was by now symbolic of U.S. relations with the Dakota nation,13 and clearly the white man had only the crudest concept of what Paha Sapa represented to the seven Lakota council fires of the Oglala, Brule, Minnecojou, Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, and Blackfeet.* Even Spotted Tail, the tamed Brule chief who was trying to accommodate the invaders, was appalled by the desecration implicit in the commissioners’ suggestion that the sacred earth of Paha Sapa might be looted and stripped of its minerals, then returned to the Indians to do with what they pleased. Red Cloud and Crazy Horse of the Oglala refused to attend the proposed meeting, and so did Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa, who had harassed the railroad survey expedition in the Yellowstone Valley two years before. “We want no white men here. The Black Hills belong to me. If the whites try to take them, I will fight,” said Sitting Bull, sending word that he would sell no land to the white man, “not even a pinch of dust.” Crazy Horse, who had had his great vision quest in the Black Hills, sent Little Big Man as a witness for the “wild” Oglala who refused to come: “One does not sell the land on which the people walk,” said Crazy Horse, who, unlike the loquacious Sitting Bull, spoke briefly when he spoke at all. Perhaps impressed by Little Big Man, who rode up and down between white men and red, threatening death to the first chief who spoke in favor of selling Paha Sapa, Spotted Tail (who, with Red Cloud, had once been willing to sell at a fair price) decided not to sign the document.14
Since the Sioux were being so unreasonable, President Grant withdrew the soldiers who were supposed to keep the whites out of Paha Sapa; by the winter of 1876, more than ten thousand whites were jostling for advantage in the raw mud streets of Custer City, the new frontier town in the southern Hills. It was now widely proposed that the Black Hills be purchased from the Indians whether they liked it or not; if they chose to refuse $5 million, that was their affair. Early in 1876, in open contravention of the Fort Laramie Treaty, in which the government had pledged its honor to keeping peace, troops were sent into the Great Sioux Reservation in pursuit of those “hostiles” most likely to resist the voice of reason, especially Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa and the “wild” Oglala under Crazy Horse, who was camped that winter not far from Custer’s trail to discourage trespassers in Paha Sapa. By spring, Crazy Horse had joined forces with Sitting Bull, who said that year, “Tell them at Washington, if they have one man who speaks the truth, to send him to me, and I will listen to what he has to say.” The one man who met this description was George Crook, the greatest Indian fighter in American history in the opinion of General Sherman, and also the only leader of the whites whom the Indians could trust to keep his word. But General Crook had been sent not to speak truth but to wage war. (Before leaving Apache country in March 1875, he was asked if it was not hard to go on another Indian campaign, to which he made the famous answer, “Yes, it is hard. But, sir, the hardest thing is to go and fight those whom you know are in the right.”)
By late spring, the “hostiles” had been joined by numerous Cheyenne and Arapaho, and also bands of Minnecojou led by Hump and Lame Deer, together with a number of Blackfeet and Sans Arc; though Indians question it, white historians declare that this was the greatest gathering of Indian people ever assembled.
In the second week of June, a great sun dance was held at Medicine Rocks, in what is now Montana. Here Sitting Bull sacrificed, then stood all day staring at the sun before he fell; in his vision, he saw the blue-jacketed soldiers falling backward into the Indian encampments. On June 16, inspired by this vision, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse made a successful raid upon Crook’s forces—the only defeat by Indians Crook ever suffered—and on June 25, 1876, on the windy ridge east of the Greasy Grass Creek, known to the Blue Coats as Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse and his men drove off an attack by Major Marcus Reno, then surrounded and exterminated another attacking column led by Colonel Custer, who had ensured this fate two years before by his transgressions on the sacred ground of Paha Sapa. More than two hundred pony soldiers, together with a number of Crow and Shoshone scouts, lost their lives on a hot early-summer morning because Custer had disobeyed his orders and ignored the good advice “Now, Custer, don’t be greedy. Wait for us.”15
Within ten years, the Oglala Lakota led by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse “had been responsible for two of the three greatest defeats ever inflicted on the United States Army by Indians,”16 and this last great Indian triumph in American history won the victors a cold retribution that has not relented to this day. Although forcible and illegal seizure of the Black Hills, already under way, had invited the disaster at Little Big Horn, the U.S. government now declared that the Fort Laramie Treaty was no longer valid, due to the Indians’ warlike behavior; two weeks after the defeat, The New York Times reported (July 7) that certain high officers in the War Department were advocating a “policy of extermination of the Indians” and “the speedier, the better.” Within two months, it was formally decreed that the Sioux must relinquish all claim to the Black Hills; they were rounded up and confined to the vicinity of the Blue Coats’ forts, where their ponies and rifles were confiscated by the soldiers. In August, yet another commission was sent out with documents designed to establish United States ownership of Paha Sapa in an orderly and legalistic manner; this time, even Spotted Tail protested. Accusing the government of lies and broken promises, he declared that hostilities had been caused by those “who came to take our land from us without price, and who, in our land, do a great many evil things. This war has come from robbery—from the stealing of our land.” The Indians protested that these documents were meaningless, since most of the adult males whose signatures were required before the Black Hills could be legally relinquished were off with the war parties of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. To this argument, the commission responded that the “hostiles”—those, that is, who wished to see their treaty honored—were no longer covered by the treaty; anybody who wished to sign this “agreement” would do nicely for the purpose that the commissioners had in mind. That purpose included the cession of much reservation land, including the Black Hills, together with three rights-of-way across the much-reduced Great Sioux Reservation, all of which led straight to Paha Sapa; from now on, all hunting rights outside the reservation were ended, and all food and other goods on which the increasingly restricted people had been made dependent would be distributed far to the east of the Black Hills, on the Missouri River. It was further suggested that failure to sign the official documents would lead to delay in the delivery of supplies and therefore to starvation, since the new “agreement” was part of a law that authorized funds for Indian rations.
Thus, in September 1876, eight years after the Indians had secured the Black Hills “in perpetuity,” and three months after their great victory at the Greasy Grass Creek, Red Cloud of the Oglala was forced to sign a document that abrogated the Treaty of Fort Laramie and awarded Paha Sapa to the white man. (“Which God is our pious brother praying to now?” asked Red Cloud after the invocation. “Is it the same God whom they twice deceived, when they made treaties with us which they afterward broke?”17) Spotted Tail signed, also; and the other chiefs of the southern bands shortly capitulated. The event was made “legal” in the Black Hills Act of February 28, 1877, when all of Paha Sapa, together with 22.8 million acres of surrounding territory, was appropriated by the U.S. government in exchange for subsistence rations for an indefinite period. The Oglala and Brule were sent to live on barren lands on the Missouri that the wasicu, building their railroads, had already stripped of trees as well as game, and although they were permitted to return the following year (Red Cloud settled on Pine Ridge, while Spotted Tail stopped farther east at Rosebud), the Lakota were forbidden to trespass on the 40 million acres of unceded land that supposedly was still a part of the Great Sioux Reservation.
Farther west, Sitting Bull’s hunting grounds on the Tongue River had been invaded by soldiers under General Nelson Miles, who had tracked down and killed Chief Lame Deer that same year. In the knowledge that he and Crazy Horse had been abandoned by the reservation chiefs, Sitting Bull, with the Oglala war chief Gall and several hundred people, retreated northward and crossed into Canada in February 1877.
The Northern Cheyenne and their Arapaho allies were defeated in the same period, after an attack on Dull Knife’s village near the head of Crazy Woman Creek. The great Cheyenne leader surrendered in the spring of 1877 and was sent south to Indian Territory, but preferring death to this barren place so far from home, he led his remnant people in a desperate trek northward in September of the following year, pursued all the way by soldiers, oncoming winter, and starvation. Dull Knife himself was one of the few survivors of this doomed, heroic journey;18 he eventually found shelter with Red Cloud’s people on Pine Ridge, where he died in 1883.
With Sitting Bull in Canada, Crazy Horse became the last great figure of resistance. In late 1876, Spotted Tail was sent to plead with him, carrying the promise of General Crook that Crazy Horse would be permitted to hunt buffalo and wander on the Powder River hunting grounds as in the old days. Crazy Horse ignored Spotted Tail, who returned instead with a Minnecojou band under Chief Big Foot.
In January 1877, the wild Oglala survived an attack by “Bearcoat” Miles, who pursued Crazy Horse all the way to the Big Horn Mountains. Crazy Horse understood quite well that the victory at Greasy Grass Creek had hastened the day of ultimate annihilation, and in May 1877, to spare his followers another winter of misery and privation, he rode into the Red Cloud Agency of his own accord. But the great war leader never received the Powder River reservation offered by Crook; once Crazy Horse had led his warriors into captivity, the U.S. government forgot its offer.
Crazy Horse was a man of his word and was furious at the duplicity of the white man. . . . Crazy Horse saw Red Cloud and Spotted Tail both betrayed by the white man as well as Sitting Bull. They had all signed treaties with the white man in solemn council and the words of the white man had been broken. . . .
Crazy Horse foresaw the consequence of his surrender. It meant submission to a people whom he did not consider his equal; it meant the doom of his race.19
Crazy Horse could never be prevailed upon to accompany Red Cloud and Spotted Tail to Washington to hear the Great White Father. “My father is with me, and there is no Great Father between me and the Great Spirit.” In September 1877, he was summoned to Fort Robinson (Nebraska), where he was fatally stabbed under disputed circumstances involving that Little Big Man who had once declared that he would kill the first Indian to speak of selling the Black Hills. In the months that followed, the Indians were lined up by the soldiers and marched eastward to the barren lands on the Missouri. That same year, George Hearst’s Homestake gold mine was established at Lead, in the northern Hills; within two years, Homestake appeared on the New York Stock Exchange, and within ten, an investment of $10,000 was worth $6 million—a million dollars more, that is, than had been offered by the commissioners for all of the Black Hills. “An idle and thriftless race of savages cannot be permitted to stand guard at the treasure vaults of the nation which hold our gold and silver. . . . The prospector and miner may enter and by enriching himself enrich the nation and bless the world by the results of his toil.”20
As General Sherman had noted, the most important factor in “making peace” with the Indians was the completion of the transcontinental railroads. The ambitions of miners, trappers, and traders, as well as of the cattlemen and settlers who would follow, all depended on the expanding railroad systems, as shipments of beaver pelts and buffalo hides gave way to timber and packed meat and minerals. And as among the eastern Indians, innocent or greedy “chiefs” appointed by the white man were soon selling or leasing ancestral lands that did not belong to them, in dishonest arrangements that were duly endorsed in the white man’s courts. Despite their records as great war leaders, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail are now included among such chiefs by their own people.
Four years after the murder of Crazy Horse, Spotted Tail was shot down by his cousin Crow Dog, a brave warrior who had ridden with his friend Spotted Tail in the old days but who now believed—as did many of the Brule—that this fierce old war leader had been paid off by the enemy. Although Spotted Tail protested against government policies as much as he thought he could get away with, the government had set him up as “paramount chief” over his people and presented him with a three-story house. To make matters worse, this white man’s chief wished tributes to his high position that traditional chiefs had never wanted, including possession of any woman who pleased his eye. One of his unwilling women was in the Crow Dog family. After his death, the agency officials belittled the whole episode as a quarrel over a woman, and the Brule band resolved the matter in the traditional way, but the white public, for whom the handsome Spotted Tail had become a hero, had taken an interest in justice for Indians and was clamoring for Crow Dog’s execution; eventually he was sentenced to death by a Dakota circuit court sitting in Deadwood, in the North Black Hills. In a tribute to Crow Dog’s reputation (and the good sense of the court), he was granted permission to return home to prepare his death song, and also the white buckskin suit that he wished to die in. On the appointed day, as promised, Crow Dog, accompanied by his wife, drove himself in his own buckboard back to prison.21 The episode excited a new interest in the case, and eventually the death sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court, which held that an Indian nation had full jurisdiction over its members. Congress was outraged by this decision, and also, perhaps, by its recognition of Indian sovereignty (“It is infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder”22), and the result was the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which authorized federal jurisdiction over any major offense on the reservations, whether the Indians considered it “major” or not.
The government had meanwhile set about the extermination of the sacred buffalo, which the Indian saw as the comrade of the sun and which was thought to have numbered between thirty and sixty million when the first horse Indians hunted the Plains. As early as 1859, the great Chief Lone Horn, father of Chief Big Foot, had made medicine to bring about the return of the vanishing buffalo, but the great shaggy animal on which the Plains peoples depended for food, shelter, clothing, and utensils had been much reduced by the rifles of the pioneers and later the buffalo hunters for the railroads, and after 1862 was never plentiful again. (A bill to protect the remnant bison had been passed by Congress, but President Grant, a military man, never got around to signing it.) In 1883, when the last herd of northern bison was wiped out by soldiers and mercenaries on the Cannonball River (with the assistance of the Lakotas’ old woodland enemies, the Cree),23 a century of utter dependence on the white man had begun.
“There is a time appointed to all things,” Spotted Tail had said, not long before his death. “Think for a moment how many multitudes of the animal tribes we ourselves have destroyed; look upon the snow that appears today—tomorrow it is water! Listen to the dirge of the dry leaves, that were green and vigorous but a few moons before! We are a part of that life and it seems that our time has come.”24
It was recognized that the loss of their life-way would weaken the warlike spirit of the Indians, as would conversion to the Christian Church, and the Indian agents worked closely with their black-frocked brethren at the missions, whose interests were very much the same. As early as 1878, an Episcopal church had been set up at the Pine Ridge Agency, and in 1881, the “savage rite” known as the sun dance was forbidden on all of the Sioux reservations; suppression of other religious ceremonies soon followed. The missionaries decried the “cruel” and “sadistic” nature of the sun dance, perhaps not wishing to understand that participation was an honored and joyful act. “The Sun Dance is the greatest ceremony that the Oglalas do. It is a sacred ceremony in which all the people have a part. . . . If one has scars on his breast or back that show he has danced the Sun Dance, no Oglala will doubt his word.”25
At the Indian agencies, the condition of the Lakota people declined rapidly. The proud horsemen who, less than twenty years before, had decreed their terms to the chastened white men at Fort Laramie were already sedentary, half-starved dependents of the U.S. government, despised by these wasicu for whom they had no respect. In A Century of Dishonor (1881), which deplored the mistreatment of the Indians, Helen Hunt Jackson also argued that the native peoples should be “civilized” by assimilation through land ownership and education into the nation’s economic life, a well-meant idea that was seized upon by those who wished to assimilate the reservation lands as well. As General Sherman, never an Indian lover, had long since noted, a reservation was “a parcel of land inhabited by Indians and surrounded by thieves,” and a few congressmen, at least, saw through the General Allotment Act, which was, one said, “in the interest of men who are clutching up this land, but not in the interest of the Indians at all.” Another said, “The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indian are but the pretext to get at his lands. . . . If this were done in the name of greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity, and under the cloak of an ardent desire to promote the Indian’s welfare by making him like ourselves, whether he will or not, is infinitely worse.” These voices were lost in the general clamor of a nation hell-bent on westward progress. “They must either change their mode of life or they must die!” one senator cried. “They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common,” sniffed another Indian well-wisher, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, in precocious disapproval of the Indians’ “communism” (observing also that, among Indians, “There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization”).26 And it was precisely that communal attitude toward land that had to be destroyed before the buffalo plains could be domesticated and the huge railroad, oil, and cattle empires could rule the West. In 1887, after years of fierce debate, Congress passed the General Allotment Act (the Dawes Act), yet another in the long series of “reform” laws designed to assist the Indian into the American mainstream by breaking down his traditional means of existence (the act was “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” cheered Teddy Roosevelt, who with the help of his friend J. Pierpont Morgan would later sponsor Edward Curtis’s theatrical photographic portraits of “The Vanishing Redman”). Each male Indian in those tribes coerced by the Indian Bureau into accepting allotment would be given 160 acres, with any “surplus” land to be purchased inexpensively by the government and turned over to white settlers at its own discretion, according to the rules set out by the Homestead Act of 1862. This “surplus,” as it turned out, comprised most of the remaining Indian land.
By destroying communal guardianship of land, the Dawes Act—first aimed at tribes in western Indian Territory but eventually affecting more than one hundred Indian groups—destroyed not only the unity of Indian nations but the people’s tradition of generosity and total sharing for the common good. Since according to their sacred instructions the Indians could never “own” a Mother Earth of which they felt themselves to be a part, and since even those willing to go against the Indian life-way—wouncage, “our way of doing,” as the Lakota say27—had no experience of the white economy, most of those who tried to adjust to the new system were sooner or later relieved of their land due to innocence, drink, inability to pay off mortgages and taxes, and, finally, the hard exigencies of starvation; for by this time the people had been reduced to irregular handouts of flour and lard, the ration of which depended largely on their willingness to cooperate with the agents sent out by the Indian Bureau and their accomplices in the reservation missions. In short, the Dawes Act legalized an arrangement in which, during the next half century, the native people all across the country would lose two thirds of their remaining lands by sale and swindle.28
Until World War I, the Lakota managed to resist allotment, but in 1889—the year of the great Oklahoma land rush inspired by the Dawes Act—General Crook was dispatched to his old foes with the proposal that 9 million acres of their remaining land should be turned over to white settlement. The aging Red Cloud refused to sign such an agreement, and so did Sitting Bull, who had returned from political asylum in Canada in 1881 (for a time he appeared in “Wild West” shows with the old railroad hunter Buffalo Bill Cody) and was living at Standing Rock on the Grand River, not far from the place where he was born:
Friends and Relatives: Our minds are again disturbed by the Great Father’s representatives, the Indian Agent, the squaw-men, the mixed-bloods, the interpreters, and the favorite-ration-chiefs. What is it they want of us at this time? They want us to give up another chunk of our tribal land. This is not the first time nor the last time. They will try to gain possession of the last piece of ground we possess. They are again telling us what they intend to do if we agree to their wishes. Have we ever set a price on our land and received such a value? No, we never did. What we got under the former treaties were promises of all sorts. They promised how we are going to live peaceably on the land we still own and how they are going to show us the new ways of living, even told us how we can go to heaven when we die. . . .
When the white people invaded our Black Hills country our treaty agreements were still in force but the Great Father ignored it. . . . Therefore I do not wish to consider any proposition to cede any portion of our tribal holdings to the Great Father. . . . My friends and relatives, let us stand as one family as we did before the white people led us astray.29
Due mostly to the stubborn resistance of Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, the signatures required for the cession of Indian land were not obtained, and as in the seizure of the Black Hills, it was recommended to the government that it simply ignore the 1868 Treaty, which it did. A few months later, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed an act that dismantled the Great Sioux Reservation established at Fort Laramie and created the seven reservations that exist today; the Oglala band, which had been the most hostile, was given the dry rolling hill country between the Dakota Badlands and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, now known as the Pine Ridge Reservation. All the rest of the Lakota land was turned over to the new states of North and South Dakota, which had been created just one month before.
In that same year, a “peace and prosperity” ritual known as the ghost dance—seen in a vision by a Paiute holy man, Wovoka—was transformed by the desperate Lakota into a purification ceremony that would restore the vanished buffalo and banish the wasicu from the Plains. “The world was shortly to come to an end . . . and the dead Indians would return with the buffalo. The white man would be destroyed, and the earth which he had corrupted would be renewed.”30 Besides Short Bull and Kicking Bear, who carried this version of Wovoka’s vision to the Lakota, the ghost dance was taken up by such chiefs as Crow Dog on Rosebud, Sitting Bull on Standing Rock, and Big Foot on Cheyenne River, as well as by Red Cloud’s son and others on Pine Ridge; Red Cloud himself, now an old man, maintained an ambiguous silence. A number of Indians, believing that wearing the ghost-dance shirt made them impervious to bullets, had acquired arms; then, on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, like Crazy Horse before him, was killed while “resisting arrest” for fomenting trouble. Big Foot, now the leading traditional chief, set out with his people on a long winter trek across the Badlands, seeking safety with Red Cloud’s people on Pine Ridge; two weeks later, on December 29, when Big Foot and two hundred or more Minnecojou men, women, and children, with a few fugitives from Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band, were slaughtered by the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee, Custer’s avenged regiment received twenty Congressional Medals of Honor from a grateful government, despite a bungled maneuver in which at least twenty-five Blue Coats perished in the cross fire from their own guns. General Crook, who had died earlier that year, would surely have had contempt for the whole business.
Dr. Charles Eastman (formerly Ohiyesa), the young Santee Sioux physician on Pine Ridge, went out in search of survivors:
Fully three miles from the scene of the massacre we found the body of a woman completely covered with a blanket of snow, and from this point on we found them scattered along as they had been relentlessly hunted down and slaughtered while fleeing for their lives. Some of our people discovered relatives or friends among the dead, and there was much wailing and mourning. When we reached the spot where the Indian camp had stood, among the fragments of burned tents and other belongings we saw the frozen bodies lying close together or piled one upon another. I counted eighty bodies of men who had been in council and who were almost as helpless as the women and babes when the deadly fire began, for nearly all their guns had been taken from them. A reckless and desperate young Indian fired the first shot when the search for weapons was well under way, and immediately the troops opened fire from all sides, killing not only unarmed men, women, and children, but their own comrades who stood opposite them, for the camp was entirely surrounded. . . .
All this was a severe ordeal for one who had so lately put his faith in the Christian love and lofty ideals of the white man. . . .
After some days of extreme tension, and weeks of anxiety, the “hostiles,” so called, were at last induced to come in and submit to a general disarmament. . . . The troops were all recalled and took part in a grand review before General Miles, no doubt intended to impress the Indians with their superior force. . . .31
Custer’s regiment was harshly chastised by old “Bearcoat” Miles, an Indian fighter since the Civil War, who had sent out that Seventh Cavalry detachment in response to the unwarranted panic of an Indian agent, caused by the ghost dances. As an old man in 1916, General Miles was still bitterly repudiating the massacre as “most reprehensible, most unjustifiable, and worthy of the severest condemnation.”32
After Wounded Knee, the soldiers were replaced by bureaucrats, including “educators” whose official task was to break down the cultural independence of the people. On pain of imprisonment, the Lakota were forbidden the spiritual renewal of traditional ceremonies; even the ritual purification of the sweat lodge was forbidden. They were not permitted to wear Indian dress or to sew beadwork, their children were seized and taken away to government boarding schools at the Pine Ridge Agency, and use of their own language was discouraged. They were, however, invited to celebrate American Independence Day on the Fourth of July, which they used at first as a secret memorial to Wounded Knee and later adapted to their own giveaway festivals and powwows. “We felt mocked in our misery,” old Red Cloud said. “We had no one to speak for us, we had no redress. Our rations were reduced again. You who eat three times a day and see your children well and happy around you cannot understand how starving Indians feel.”33 The despairing Red Cloud was converted in the 1890s by the Holy Rosary Catholic Mission, established on Pine Ridge in 1888 (and often called the Red Cloud Mission); later he asked to be buried in a priest’s black robe.
When first penned up on the reservations, a great many Indians had weakened and died of tuberculosis, for which their dispirited medicine men had no cure. The health care offered by the government (after 1878) was entirely inadequate until 1890, when young Dr. Eastman arrived on Pine Ridge and sharply criticized the shameful lack of medicines, surgical instruments, competence, and even concern. By the time Eastman was forced out of the Indian Service by hostile bureaucrats, in 1892, the Pine Ridge Hospital was already under construction, and in 1896 a remarkable doctor named James R. Walker was transferred to Pine Ridge from Leech Lake on the White Earth (Ojibwa) Agency in Minnesota. Recognizing that the medicine men achieved real results in a variety of ailments,34 Dr. Walker worked closely with them and won their trust; endorsed by many spiritual leaders, including Short Bull (who, with Kicking Bear, had brought home the word of Wovoka’s ghost-dance vision from Pyramid Lake, Nevada) and Little Wound (son of Bull Bear, the head chief killed by Red Cloud), Walker himself was eventually accepted as a medicine man and was also entrusted with the shamans’ secrets. His invaluable data on Lakota customs and religion, acquired in eighteen years of study with the last great medicine men of the nineteenth century, were to become the foundation of Lakota anthropology.
On Independence Day in 1903, Red Cloud offered his farewell address to the Lakota people:
My sun is set. My day is done. Darkness is stealing over me. Before I lie down to rise no more, I will speak to my people.
Hear me, my friends, for it is not the time for me to tell you a lie. The Great Spirit made us, the Indians, and gave us this land we live in. He gave us the buffalo, the antelope, and the deer for food and clothing. We moved on our hunting grounds from the Minnesota to the Platte and from the Mississippi to the great mountains. No one put bounds about us. We were free as the winds, and like the eagle, heard no man’s commands. . . .
I was born a Lakota and I shall die a Lakota. Before the white man came to our country, the Lakotas were a free people. They made their own laws and governed themselves as it seemed good to them. . . . The priests and the ministers tell us that we lived wickedly when we lived before the white man came among us. Whose fault was this? We lived right as we were taught it was right. Shall we be punished for this? I am not sure that what these people tell me is true. As a child I was taught the Supernatural Powers (Taku Wakan) were powerful and could do strange things. . . . This was taught me by the wise men and the shamans. They taught me that I could gain their favor by being kind to my people and brave before my enemies; by telling the truth and living straight; by fighting for my people and their hunting grounds. . . .
When the Lakotas believed these things they lived happy and they died satisfied. What more than this can that which the white man offers us give?
Taku Shanskan is familiar with my spirit and when I die I will go with him. Then I will be with my forefathers. If this is not in the heaven of the white man, I shall be satisfied. Wi is my father. The Wakan Tanka of the white man has overcome him. But I shall remain true to him.
Shadows are long and dark before me. I shall soon lie down to rise no more. While my spirit is with my body the smoke of my breath shall be towards the Sun for he knows all things and knows that I am still true to him.35
Frank Fools Crow, who was born about the time of Wounded Knee, recalls being told how a woman survivor of the massacre, her arm shot off, reached his community at Porcupine (named for his grandfather, Porcupine Tail), but already he perceived things differently from the old warriors who could still remember the long days on the Great Plains. The decade that followed Wounded Knee, he says, was a time of great melancholy and deprivation, but after the turn of the century, when the old wounds had been scarred over, if not healed, his people had made a great effort to adjust to the white man’s way, and probably more than half of them were baptized, including his uncle, the great medicine man Black Elk, who was dubbed “Nicholas” by the Red Cloud Mission. Black Elk told his nephew that “the Sioux religious way of life was pretty much the same as that of the Christian churches. . . . We could pick up some of the Christian ways and teachings, and just work them in with our own, so in the end both would be better.” According to Fools Crow, Black Elk prayed constantly that all peoples would live as one and would cooperate with one another. “We have both loved the non-Indian races, and we do not turn our backs on them to please even those of our own people who do not agree. . . .”36
Most people think that our early years on the reservation were our most difficult ones, but that is not actually the case. First there was a period of comparative happiness, and then later on the tragic times came. . . . It was especially hard to have the children sent away to school, and that was resisted, as was the order to cut our hair short. People were also unhappy about relatives being moved to reservations some distance away. And we were not pleased about the interference in our religious ceremonies.
But at the same time, the new life proved before long to be challenging and interesting. . . . We now had new things to talk about and to do, and we made progress, quickly. By 1909, we were already well into the farming life. . . . In some ways, conditions were even better than the old buffalo-hunting days. In the fall of each year we helped one another to gather the harvest, and to store it in root cellars. Winters in our country had always been difficult to live through, and being able to store food like this was a proud and comforting achievement. . . . I feel it was important that the men had work to do that occupied their minds and bodies. In former days the women did most of the work around the camp, while the men hunted, made their weapons, defended their territory, and went on horse raids and war parties. When this life-way ended, the men were restless, frustrated, and felt unproductive. Now everyone had something valuable to do. . . . Besides our farm produce and the agency supplies, fish were plentiful and so was wild meat. The year-round hunting was great, even though we had to do it with bows and arrows. The women could obtain permission from the agent to purchase the knives they needed for housework and tanning. But there was a federal law forbidding Indian men to have firearms, knives, or liquor. Usually, four or five of us young fellows would get together, obtain authorization from the agent, and go hunting anywhere we wanted to on the reservation. Sometimes we would be away from home as long as two weeks. We brought home deer, antelope, prairie dogs, and all of the wild animals you can name that Indians ever ate. . . . After 1915, we began to go over to Custer, to the buffalo park there. They had a small buffalo herd, and since a lot of townspeople and National Parks Service personnel wanted to see Indians on horseback killing buffalo, they let us shoot a few of them with our bows and arrows.37
Before the days of immense farm operations and irrigation, when the White River “still had lots of water in it,” the Oglala could earn most of their needs from their arable land. Also, Pine Ridge was benefited by an Indian agent who was both honest and intelligent (in the graft-ridden Indian Bureau, such agents were rare),38 and who fought hard to keep liquor off the reservation; a person caught drinking was fined $500, and since there was little or no cash in the Indians’ barter economy (the government supplied allotments or “rations” of tools, livestock, and clothing, as well as supplementary food), the usual result of drunkenness was a year and a day in jail. The Pine Ridge Reservation (which until this period had been able to resist allotment) had enough good cattle range to support a number of Oglala ranchers, who had built up large herds, but in 1916 a new Indian agent pressured them to sell off their cattle for the war effort and to lease their land to white ranchers in the region;39 many of these Indians, lacking employment, began to gather at the agency village of Pine Ridge. Later, Indian soldiers home from the European war, who had learned the purposes of money and liquor without learning how to handle either one, encouraged the leasing of the land and the sale of livestock to obtain money for liquor and possessions. The situation worsened when allotment was forced through, and again after 1920, when the ration system and barter economy were replaced by new government programs of financial handouts. Within a few years,
there were hardly any milk cows, chickens, ducks, or pigs left. The once beautiful gardens were nothing but dry brush, and the chicken coops were broken and falling down. Even the corrals had weeds in them, because the horses were gone. Gone also were many of the farm residents. Stores and schools were being built by the government, and the people were abandoning their farms and settling down around these. Towns were coming into being. But what pitiful towns they were. The government had taken advantage of us once more. At the same time, problems were coming from another direction. The white population around the borders of the reservation was growing and expanding. They decided we owned more land than we needed, and they figured out a way to get it. It was easy. They encouraged the destitute Oglalas to sell or to lease their allotments to them and then to move into towns, which they did, for the money, naturally!
So people left their once fine log homes and storage cellars and settled down in tents and shacks. They exchanged their freedom for money and liquor, and as it turned out there would be no end of this curse. The flood had begun, and the traditional life-way dam was so weakened it could not hold it.40
Because thousands of Indians had done their best to act as citizens (ten thousand died as American soldiers in World War I), American citizenship was bestowed upon the first Americans in 1924, with a great patriotic fanfare heralding the event as a “righting of the wrongs” done to the Indian; in fact, this hollow citizenship broke ground for subsequent legislation that further undermined the Indians’ hold on their last lands. Almost invariably, such legislation was endorsed by the Indian Bureau (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs) established in 1832 and transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior in 1849; from the beginning, this weak and ambivalent bureau was manipulated by special interests that coveted Indian grazing land, with its timber, water, and the minerals beneath. “The Indian today is not only unheard and unheeded, but robbed, pillaged, denied his heritage, and held in bondage. The greatest hoax ever perpetrated upon him was the supposed citizenship of 1924 [that] supposedly gave the Indian the same rights enjoyed by other men. The reservation still remains, the agent is still on the job . . . the Indian Bureau politicians still fatten on Indian money and the Indian is still being robbed. My people of South Dakota have been in dire straits . . . and have slowly become undermined in health by starvation while the public sleeps on the thought that ‘the Government takes care of the Indian.’” So the Oglala chief Luther Standing Bear told his niece in 1932, by which time a pantheon of great pale faces was being hacked out of the sacred rock of Paha Sapa, to “endure”—in the sculptor’s own reverent words—“until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.” According to the dedication of Mount Rushmore by President Coolidge, in 1927, “The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting hills of South Dakota will contribute a distinctly national monument. It will be decidedly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning, and altogether worthy of our country.” The Indians agree, in profound bitterness and disdain.
“The Lakotas are now a sad, silent, and unprogressive people suffering the fate of all oppressed,” Standing Bear said. “Today you see but a shattered specimen, a caricature . . . of the man that once was. Did a kind, wise, helpful and benevolent conqueror bring this about? Can a real, true, genuinely superior social order work such havoc?”41
In 1928, the Meriam Report (commissioned by the government) attributed the wretched state of the Indian people to such mistaken legislation as the Allotment Act of 1887, and blamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs for its role in suppressing Indian culture. The report opened the way for a former social worker and energetic new Indian Commissioner named John Collier, who pressed fiercely in Congress for reforms; it was Collier42 who put together the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which restored to Indians the right to live and worship in a traditional manner, as well as a certain measure of self-government. Under the IRA, the Allotment Act was abandoned and a small amount of land was reacquired; improvement loans were made to certain communities, and schools were established on certain reservations.
Collier and the IRA were well-intentioned, but as with all the earlier reform acts, the IRA cost the Indians more than they gained. The traditional forms of tribal government were replaced by “Indian chartered corporations,” complete with constitutions, set up for their benefit under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and an intensely democratic people was subjected to the undemocratic decisions of so-called tribal councils that mostly reflected the wishes of the white man’s church and state. According to widespread Indian custom, those who oppose a certain course of action register disapproval of it by staying away, and the councils promoted by the BIA in the Hopi nation and many other places were supported by hollow “majorities” of acculturated Indians, without any real approval from their people. These tribal-council governments could count on federal assistance so long as they deferred to the BIA; those who resisted tribal-council policies could count on nothing. While some tribal councils were (and are) strong and constructive in forwarding the best interests of their people, too many others become tame “puppet governments” for the BIA. Intended or not, the ultimate effect of the Indian Reorganization Act “was to use tribal culture and institutions as transitional devices for the complete assimilation of Indian life into the dominant white society.”43
The conflict between “the BIA progressives” and the traditionals became increasingly bitter with the creation in 1946 of the Indian Claims Commission, which like the IRA was considered a well-meaning measure by most of those congressmen who voted for it. Ostensibly designed to “right a continuing wrong to our Indian citizens for which no possible justification can be asserted,”44 the ICC in fact extinguished existing and potential Indian land claims by monetary settlement (the Claims Commission had no authority or wish to return land) before the tenuous or illegal nature of many of the white man’s land titles could be challenged; the chief beneficiaries of this commission were not the Indians but the Washington law firms that represented them before the U.S. Court of Claims.
Predictably, the arch-conservative reformers claimed great moral credit for such legislation. A leading advocate, Senator Arthur Watkins (R, Utah), later chairman of the Claims Commission, was pleased to refer to it as “freedom legislation”; as South Dakota’s Senator Karl Mundt remarked in regard to the Claims Commission Bill, “If any Indian tribe can prove that it has been unfairly and dishonorably dealt with by the United States, it is entitled to recover. This ought to be an example for all the world to follow in its treatment of minorities.”45
The Indian Claims Commission’s work was a necessary prelude to the so-called termination legislation, first passed in the 1930s but not enforced until the 1950s, a period which, by no coincidence, was noted for its organized attacks on civil liberties. (An early advocate of termination was Dillon Myer, Indian Affairs Commissioner under President Truman; Myer’s apparent qualification for his job was his previous experience as head of the War Relocation Authority, which ran the bleak internment camps for American Japanese.) Like the Claims Commission, the termination policies were designed “to get the government out of the Indian business” and thereby end the vast, wasteful, and unproductive public expenditure on the nation’s wards. With land claims extinguished and federal responsibility withdrawn, the Indians could be scattered in “relocation programs” into the cities, thereby conferring “independence” on a people trained to total dependency for almost a century. (Another important benefit, less often mentioned, was the transfer of the reservations into the hands of sensible Americans who would “do something with the land,” such as stripping off the last of its good timber and ripping out the minerals beneath.46) As independent citizens and taxpayers, without good education or experience, most “terminated” Indians were reduced within a very few years to widespread illness and utter poverty, whether or not they were relocated in the cities. Meanwhile, bitterness increased between those people who were trying to live like whites and those still committed to “our way of living.”
Among the Lakota, the grievous split between these factions (encouraged as part of the colonial strategy all over the world) dates back to the days when “loafer” Indians around the forts on the Bozeman Trail first got a taste of the white man’s liquor and molasses; when Spotted Tail and Red Cloud were flattered and manipulated by trips to Washington; when Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, “resisting arrest,” were killed with the help of their own Indians, who served the whites as Indian Agency police. (“These people on the reservations are fat from the white man’s food and foolish from his religion,” the acerbic Dr. Eastman observed at the turn of the century, in the first of his several valuable books about his people. “They are only a shadow of what it really means to be an Indian.”47) From the beginning, those Indians willing to obey the government agents and the missionaries fared much better than those who held to traditional Indian way.
Full-blood traditionals sometimes refer to the mixed-bloods as “breeds” and to themselves as “skins” (short for “half-breeds” and “redskins,” respectively), but since many mixed-bloods resist the BIA, while certain full-bloods have reason to endorse it, these terms refer less to actual blood ratios than to cultural attitudes. Older traditionals who speak Lakota call the mixed-bloods iyeska, or “those-who-speak-white,” the name given to the scout-interpreters of the nineteenth century, most of whom had a “squaw man” for a father. Many traditionals (who were already expressing fear of domination by the mixed-bloods at a meeting with John Collier on Pine Ridge on March 2, 193448) lived “out in the districts,” in small outlying communities far from the bureaucratic trough, which was all but empty for those people who did not wish to send their children to government or mission schools, where the Lakota language and customs were forbidden. Despised and exploited, the traditionals—many of them full-bloods who spoke little English—were the people who suffered most from despair and apathy, poverty and unemployment, alcoholism, and the random angry violence that besets depressed Indian communities to a degree almost unimaginable to most Americans, who still suppose that “the government takes care of the Indian.” In truth, the government takes care of the “progressive” Indian who does not resist the assimilating policies of the BIA. Among traditionals, it would be difficult to find a family without an alcoholic or a member in jail, a recent suicide or car-wreck victim, a woman sterilized by the Indian Health Service without her consent, or a child removed to a government boarding school or foster home against the family’s will. And almost everywhere, these people have been subjected to vicious racism that would not be tolerated by the public or the courts toward any other minority in the country.
On Pine Ridge, most of the Tribal Council families were mixed-blood Christians, well indoctrinated with the “European” values acquired originally from the traders, half-breed scout-interpreters, and trading-post Indians of the nineteenth century. Some of these people did their best to live like whites, and others wandered between two very different societies, in neither of which did they feel welcome or at home. Together, these groups formed a dependent and therefore dependable voting bloc which the tribal governments used to their own advantage. “Today the popular interpretation is that tribal councils are corrupt and have been the major oppressors [of the so-called traditionals]. That is true only in the vaguest terms and only when the whole context of how tribal government evolved is properly understood. The mixed-bloods do dominate things, but that has been true for the better part of two centuries. There has been a continuing tradition—maybe almost from the Pilgrims—that mixed blood peoples have acted as brokers between the two societies, and in this capacity they have not always thought about the best interest of the tribe as a whole.”49
On Pine Ridge, at least, Tribal Council administrations have been regularly accused of acting exclusively in their own best interests by carrying out the wishes of the BIA, which tends to ignore nepotism, incompetence, and corruption as long as its own policies are carried out. In recent years, Indian activists have dismissed the tribal-council system as “neocolonialism” in which a favored indigenous group implements the wishes of the colonial administration.
Although chartered to protect Indian people and Indian lands from exploitation, the BIA has accomplished just the opposite. On Pine Ridge and elsewhere, its land-tenure rules provided that each family’s allocated land be divided in equal interests among the heirs, with the result that after a few generations the holdings consisted of numerous small parcels, insufficient to support a family; at this point, the BIA, as “trustee” of Indian land, would take over its administration and lease it out at nominal cost to the white ranchers who today control most of the good land on the reservation.50 By 1942, nearly 1 million of the 2,722,000 acres assigned to Pine Ridge when the reservation was created in 1889 had passed into other hands, and by the 1970s, over 90 percent of reservation lands were owned or leased by white people or people with a low percentage of Indian blood, not because these people were more able but because the dispossessed traditionals had no money or means to work their land. Sadder still, these “red niggers,” as the ranchers sometimes called them, had all but accepted the poor opinion in which they were held by the wasicu and the iyeska. Nevertheless, there remained a wistful faith that under the U.S. Constitution their educators had described to them, under the great legal system of justice for all, regardless of race, creed, or color, the wrongs perpetrated on the Lakota peoples would one day be made right, and the benefits of “our Treaty” restored to them.
After 1904, additional tracts of Lakota land had been “alienated” for white use, mostly through proclamations issued by President Theodore Roosevelt, whose bespectacled face, completed in 1939, was the last vast adornment of Mount Rushmore. In 1909, during the years of widespread farming, a Lakota delegation had petitioned South Dakota congressmen for compensation for the pony herd that had been confiscated from the Indians in the aftermath of the Custer battle; when the Pony Claim was refused, the people determined to pursue their land claims under the Treaty of 1868. In 1918, an attorney was hired, and in 1923—although aware that his clients sought the return of Paha Sapa—this man filed a money claim to the Black Hills. In those bitter years, such a claim could have been no more than a symbolic protest, yet it served the traditional people as a spark of hope: the “Black Hills case,” as it was known, has dominated politics on the Lakota reservations ever since. Although the courts eventually got around to denying the claim in 1942, it reemerged in 1950, after the creation of the Indian Claims Commission. Most of the people, demoralized and desperate, were now interested in a monetary settlement, but a few traditionals, seeking a social and economic means of preserving traditional culture, held out for the return of the land itself.
In 1952, uranium was discovered near Edgemont in the southern Hills, and a new uranium “gold rush” now began; in the same period, vast deposits of surface coal accessible to strip-mining were located on reservation lands in Montana (Northern Cheyenne and Crow) and Wyoming (Wind River Shoshone and Arapaho) as well as in the Dakotas. Not surprisingly, the pressure for termination intensified, as what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” laid plans for a great energy empire in the western states. The Tribal Council claims for money compensation were ignored until the late 1960s, when the American Indian Movement, dramatizing the efforts of earlier Indian activist organizations, demanded the revalidation of Indian treaty claims around the country. Insisting upon land, not pay-off money, AIM drew particular attention to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the lawless seizure of the Black Hills nine years later, and in this way—unwittingly, at first—it placed itself directly in the path of the huge energy consortiums that were already moving quietly into the Hills.
THE UPSIDE-DOWN FLAG
The American Indian Movement, 1968–73
Tell the people it is no use to depend on me anymore now.
Crazy Horse, dying (to his father)
What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them? What white man can say I ever stole his land or a penny of his money? Yet, they say I am a thief. What white woman, however lonely, was ever captive or insulted by me? Yet they say I am a bad Indian. What white man has ever seen me drunk? Who has ever come to me hungry and unfed? Who has ever seen me beat my wives or abuse my children? What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Lakota, because I was born where my father died, because I would die for my people and my country?
Sitting Bull (Lakota)
In 1962, in Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison, two Ojibwa inmates, Clyde Bellecourt and Eddie Benton Banai, excited by the Indian protest that was being heard here and there around the country, concluded that government supervision was destroying the Indian people and that Indians had to deal with their own problems if they were to survive. While still in prison, they organized forty-six Indian prisoners, offering them, as Bellecourt says, “education about being Indians, instead of just rotting in prison making license plates. I guess we had the first real Indian Studies Program in the country.”
In Minnesota, less than 1 percent of the state population is Indian, as opposed to 8 percent of the prison population; in South Dakota (where the rate of Indian recidivism is three times that of whites), Indians make up 6.5 percent of the general population and somewhere between a quarter and a third of all prison inmates. These ratios, typical of many western states and Canadian provinces, are less a reflection of antisocial tendencies than of the racism and punitive attitude toward Indians, whose “crimes” mostly relate to alcohol, who are jailed regularly because they cannot afford bail, and who are often convicted because—until recently—they rarely attempted to defend themselves in court.
Out on parole in 1964, after three jail terms for burglary and armed robbery, Bellecourt tried to organize the large “red ghetto” population in Minneapolis. What Bellecourt and his friends had in mind was a typical civil-rights program of the 1960s, increasing the opportunities for the city Indian to “enjoy his full rights as a citizen of these United States.” Not until later was it realized that the Indians’ citizenship meant nothing and that therefore “civil rights” was the wrong approach. “I tried to work within the System for four years, demanding a fair share of it for my people,” says Bellecourt, a tall, thoughtful man in braids, who now wears spectacles and a mustache, “but all the money was controlled by the churches and bureaucracies, and they weren’t interested in any programs that might have led toward real economic independence for the Indians.” In July 1968, with Eddie Benton Banai, George Mitchell, and another ex-convict named Dennis Banks, Bellecourt founded the “Concerned Indian Americans”; this name, because of its acronym, was speedily changed to the American Indian Movement (AIM). “There has always been an American Indian Movement,” Bellecourt has said. “For hundreds of years there have been people like Crazy Horse who stood up and fought for us.”
Dennis Banks, who would soon become the best known of the AIM leaders, was an Anishinabi (“Chippewa”) from Leech Lake, Minnesota, where he was born in 1932. Taken from his family at the age of five, he lost his language during fourteen years in BIA boarding schools in North and South Dakota and Minnesota. In 1953, he joined the Air Force and for three years was stationed in Japan; for the next ten years, he “bummed around between the reservation and Minneapolis and St. Paul—there were no jobs, no nothing.” In 1966, he was sent to jail for five years on a charge of burglary; released, he was jailed again in 1967 for violation of parole. As soon as he got out of jail, he joined forces with Clyde Bellecourt, whom he had known slightly since the mid-1950s; “I organized a mass meeting to create a coalition of Indian people willing to fight for Indians,” Banks says. A handsome man with an intense, brooding expression, Banks was quickly established as the most thoughtful and articulate leader in the new Movement.
Although much of its inspiration derived from Indian fishing-rights battles* already under way in Washington and Oregon, from Six Nations (“Iroquois”) land protests in Ontario and New York, and from the “Red Power” activity that had evolved out of civil-rights activism on the West Coast, AIM came into existence as a direct result of the termination and relocation programs that dumped thousands of bewildered Indians into the cities. Even those who received job training found themselves faced with open racism and discrimination (from trade unions as well as from employers), “receiving the lowest wages for the dirtiest, most onerous work, and living in the worst conditions of urban blight and official neglect.”1 In its first year, AIM’s main concerns were jobs, housing, and education; in addition, Bellecourt set up a street patrol to protect Indians from police abuse and violence, filming arrests and advising those taken into custody that they did not have to plead guilty, that they were entitled to an attorney and a jury trial (“We just showed the people that somebody cared”). Very quickly the patrol reduced the number of Indians arrested, but Bellecourt was beaten at least thirty times by outraged law-enforcement officers and still has a broken mouth to show for it.
The termination policies carried out by the Eisenhower administration had not been pursued under President Kennedy and were finally repudiated by President Johnson (“We must affirm the right of the First Americans to remain Indians while exercising their rights as Americans. We must affirm their rights to freedom and self-determination”2), and as a result, AIM’s social-service and legal-rights programs attracted help from community-action groups funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity as well as from church groups and foundations; Bellecourt himself, endorsed by his parole officer, was given a full year’s salary by the Northern States Power Company in order to develop his ideas. With the support of Minnesota’s judiciary, AIM started a program to assist juvenile offenders as an alternative to reform school, and in 1970 it began its own “survival school,” the first three students of which were children of people in the workhouse: the survival-school concept, which spread to other states, was an attempt to help young Indians adjust to the white society without losing what was most valuable in their own culture, and to offset the distorted information about the Indian role in American history that has been disseminated by school textbooks since the nineteenth century. “We wanted to teach our kids the truth about Indian people,” Bellecourt says, “who our real leaders were and what they said and did, and also the contributions that they made, and that some old white man in lace shirt and powdered wig was not our ‘Great White Father.’” In this period, at a meeting at Cass Lake (to support Chippewa fishing rights against incursions by the state of Minnesota), the fundamental principle of tribal sovereignty was endorsed, arms were publicly brandished, and the American flag, flown upside-down, was formally adopted as AIM’s symbol. “Some ex-Navy guy suggested it,” Banks recalls. “White people protested, of course, and a lot of our Indian people protested, too; a lot of the guys there had been in the military, and in some way they were still Americans, and it made ’em uneasy to see that flag flown upside-down. We had to explain that this was the international distress signal for people in trouble, and no one could deny that Indians were in bad trouble and needed help.”
Inevitably, AIM was accused by disillusioned state and municipal authorities of teaching a “hate whitey” attitude in its school, and meanwhile the John Birch Society attacked the new Movement as a nest of ex-convicts, and Commie ex-convicts at that. But AIM had caught the imagination of young Indians in a way that the earlier activist groups had not, and soon AIM organizers and local partisans were turning up at demonstrations from coast to coast. One of these was the “Indians of All Tribes” occupation of the abandoned federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, led by a young Mohawk, Richard Oakes,3 Grace Thorpe (daughter of the great Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe), and the Tuscarora medicine man Mad Bear Anderson;4 this action by perhaps two hundred Indians, supported by white liberals in San Francisco, lasted from November 1969 until June 1971.
PROCLAMATION: TO THE GREAT WHITE FATHER AND ALL HIS PEOPLE
We, the native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. . . . We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standard. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:
• It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
• It has no fresh running water.
• It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
• There are no oil or mineral rights.
• There is no industry, and so unemployment is very great.
• There are no health care facilities.
• The soil is rocky and unproductive; and the land does not support game.
• There are no educational facilities.
• The population has always exceeded the land base.
• The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.
Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.5
The occupation “took place because we wanted to draw attention to the fact we had no education and we had no housing and so on,” says John Trudell, a young Santee Sioux (and Alcatraz leader) who joined AIM in the spring of 1970 and became a national spokesman soon thereafter. “Alcatraz was occupied for an educational and cultural center, but we never got it.”
Another AIM recruit that year was Russell Means, a young Oglala born at Porcupine, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but raised mostly in Oakland, California, where he was trained as an accountant. In the late 1960s, he found work in the tribal offices on the Rosebud Reservation, where the white owner of the Maverick Motel in Mission remembers the 6′1″ 185-pound Means as a “good-looking, hardworking boy” who went wrong due to overexposure to liberal thought. Means bitterly resented the loss of his culture and language, “stolen from me by the white man.” As head of Cleveland’s Indian Center in 1970, he went to Minneapolis for an Indian conference; upon his return, he established Cleveland AIM.
In the fall of 1970 and again in the spring of 1971, AIM (and a traditional group called “the Oglala Sioux Tribe”) established a symbolic camp at Mount Rushmore, in symbolic enactment of Lakota claims to the Black Hills. Means participated in the demonstrations at Mount Rushmore and also in the National Day of Mourning at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving Day. A former rodeo rider and Indian dancer, he wore traditional long braids and bone neck choker, red wind band, black shirt, and embroidered vest, together with a beaded belt and turquoise jewelry, jeans, and boots; in this outfit, he looked like a modern version of the tall and striking Lakota leaders of the nineteenth century, which made him all the more effective as a symbol. Like Dennis Banks, he was eloquent and charismatic, with an instinct for inflammatory statements, and “Banks and Means” were soon synonymous with the AIM cause all around the country. Banks, who was older, was more thoughtful and reserved; in the Plains states it was Russell Means who came to stand for almost everything that local white people and the authorities feared and resented about AIM. “Russ Means’s name was everywhere,” says a young Iowa white woman raised in a family ashamed of its Indian blood. “Back in Sioux City, used to be that drunken Indians were thrown in jail a couple of days and nobody said a thing; pretty soon they were all hollering for AIM. Before Russ Means showed up, we never saw any Indians, hardly, never knew they existed; they all lived over in some bad part of town. We just . . . well, we just overlooked ’em, I guess.”
John Trudell, a small catlike man with a big voice that was merry and harsh at the same time, was also an incendiary talker, and inevitably these AIM spokesmen were regarded with suspicion not only by BIA Indians and Christian converts but by other Indian activist organizations and by many traditionals as well. The loud aggressive “AIMers” were dismissed as “city Indians” with white-man manners who had lost touch with Indian way; the brandished weapons and warrior talk, the red wind bands and long hair and feathers, were more exciting to the white people than they were to the quiet people on the reservations. The Movement found no significant acceptance in the last strongholds of traditional culture, such as Hopi (which had asserted its rights as a sovereign nation in a letter to President Truman in 1949, and had sent a delegation to the United Nations ten years later). Similarly, the Six Nations (“Iroquois”) had reaffirmed the principle of sovereignty as early as 1924, when they formally declined American citizenship; they were experts on treaty law and had never abandoned their concept of themselves as an equal nation. In the Pacific Northwest, where AIM had endorsed the fishing-rights struggle, the Puyallup-Nisqually had been fighting state transgressions of their treaty rights for fifty years before AIM was born, and their recent confrontations with the authorities, supported by the National Indian Youth Council and by civil-rights celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Dick Gregory, had become the first well-publicized treaty defense of modern times; here as elsewhere, many of the local leaders remained suspicious of AIM’s “radical” element with its seeming tendency toward violence. Nevertheless, AIM warriors were approached for help by many Indians and Indian organizations in the region, and the Movement was eventually endorsed by spiritual leaders of many Indian nations who saw these young militants as the last desperate hope of their people.
. . . a different force began to assert itself in Indian affairs as the discussions of treaties grew. Each reservation had a number of traditional Indians, largely full-bloods, who had preserved the tribal customs and had generally boycotted the tribal governments. . . . These people represented the Indian traditions in the best sense, were generally leaders in the tribal religious ceremonies, and were eager to see something done about the treaties. . . .
The overtures made by the traditional Indians came at an opportune time for many of the new Indian leaders. Many had been taken from the reservations when they were children and had never lived in an Indian community. They had grown up in the slums of the cities of the West Coast and Midwest and were toughened in the ruthlessness in which urban America schools her poor and disadvantaged. As more and more urban Indians joined the three major protest organizations—the American Indian Movement, the United Native Americans, and the Indians of All Tribes—they came into contact with young people who had grown up on the reservations and spoke the tribal language . . . and many of the urban Indians began to show up on the reservations, seeking the tribal heritage which they had been denied. They became the most militant of the advocates of cultural renewal. . . . By mid-1972 the middle ground of progressive ideology in Indian affairs was fast eroding, and desperate confrontation was in the air.6
Among the first religious leaders to endorse AIM was a young Lakota medicine man named Leonard Crow Dog (the great-grandson of that Crow Dog who killed Spotted Tail on the Rosebud Reservation). Crow Dog was a leader in the Native American Church, which used peyote in its ceremonies and had a growing following among Indians throughout the West, including Christians disillusioned by the white man’s churches.
“We started here in the Twin Cities,” Bellecourt says, “but from the start, our Movement was based on the guarantees to Indians in all the treaties; we didn’t want to get caught up in the civil-rights struggle because that was between blacks and whites; it was within the System, and the System had nothing to do with Indians. And we always felt we had to have a spiritual foundation, a spiritual direction. In 1970, we heard about Crow Dog and went out to see him; he had had a vision, and he knew that we were coming, and he became our spiritual adviser. Today we have regular ceremonies, wherever we go. The drum had been silent for so many years; now, every day in our survival schools, the children hear it.”
Already, the AIM drum had been heard by many Indians around the country who were struggling to find some meaningful existence. Among them was a young Ojibwa-Sioux from Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, whose wandering life, from the bleak reservations and BIA boarding schools to the interstate highways and slum outskirts of the cities, was typical of many if not most of the dispossessed young Indians of his generation.
Leonard Peltier was born on September 12, 1944, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, “during harvest season, when my whole family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children—would migrate from Turtle Mountain to the Red River Valley to work in the potato fields. In those days, potatoes were picked by hand, and Indians would be hired to pick spuds at three to four cents a bushel, while Mexican Indians worked the sugar beets. When I was old enough to go into the fields, I would work ahead of the pickers, shaking the potatoes loose, which made it faster.”
Peltier’s maternal grandmother was “full-blood Sioux, my father was three-quarters Ojibwa, one-quarter French. My dad and my uncle Ernest Peltier were in the Army; Ernest got killed in Germany, and my dad was machine-gunned in the legs. My folks separated when I was four, and me and my younger sister Betty Ann lived with my grandparents, Alex and Mary Peltier; Grandma was originally from Canada. In those days a lot of Indian grandparents were still raising their grandchildren. It’s an old Indian tradition, still being practiced in some Indian nations. Our land on Turtle Mountain was about four miles northeast of Belcourt. With the help of my uncles, Grandpa built a small ranch with a few head of cattle, horses, pigs, and chickens, on forty acres of bush and hilly land. I remember running through them woods at night when I was late, because I was real frightened of them rugarus! The old people said we would see one if we were bad. My first real memory of this home was when us younger kids used to watch and wait for Grandpa returning from town with our monthly issue of government commodities. About a mile from our house there was a large hill and on the other side was the main road where they would get off to start walking home. Very few people on the res owned automobiles in those times; I can remember buckboards on my mother’s Sioux reservation at Fort Totten. Anyway, as soon as we spotted them, we would take off and go meet them and help carry the groceries home, usually in burlap sacks.
“Sometime around 1950, Grandpa decided to move the family to Montana to look for work in either the logging camps or the copper mines. I remember Gramps sold everything we owned—land, livestock, and all. One day he drove up into the yard with a large red-and-black Chevy truck, I think it was a 1940, ’41, and someone said the previous owners was some Mexican migrant workers because of the way it was hand painted, which was their style of decorating their vehicles. On our way to Montana our right front wheel come off and we were stranded on the road most all that day. Traveling together was two, three of my uncles and their wives and children, and I remember us older kids sitting alongside of the road in the ditch telling ghost stories and about all the wild animals that were waiting for darkness to come down from the hills and get us.
“We arrived at some logging camp; there was a lot of snow, and we were living in a log cabin. One day we ran over a moose, and my uncle and grandfather attempted to load it in the back of the truck, but the moose was so large and heavy, we rushed home to get the rest of the men to help. My main memory in this camp was receiving my first Christmas present. My mother sent me a toy cap gun (gold-plated) and white holster with multicolored spots. My sister Betty Ann received a doll. (Our other sister, Vivian, was not with us because she was being raised by our mother.)
“Because more money could be made from working in the copper mines than in a logging camp, we moved to Butte, Montana. There was a lot of Indian families living there. One day three white kids about my age started yelling, like, Hey, you dirty Indian, go home! and started throwing rocks at me. I was wondering what they were talking about and why, and attempting to pay no attention and avoid being hit, but then a larger and older kid came along, and the others told him, There’s a dirty Indian! This older kid was pretty accurate in his rock throwing—it was impossible to avoid being hit—but I did not start throwing rocks until I was hit hard and almost crying. I remember picking up a rock about the size of a marble, and I hit him on the temple. I seen blood, and with his screaming, I panicked and ran straight to our house. It must have been about one, two hours later this kid and his mother came over. She parked in the yard and was hollering for my parents to come outside. In those days, anyone who owned or drove a new automobile was considered someone of authority. When Grandma came out to see what all the commotion was about, this woman started screaming that I tried to kill her son with a rock and she was going to have me put in a reformatory. Since Grandma couldn’t speak but a few words of English, she was unable to answer, which made the woman very angry. She started screaming again, calling Grandma ‘you stupid Indian bitch’! My aunt heard this and went outside and told this woman if she continued cussing her mother she was going to beat the shit out of her. The woman then backed up into her car, but before she did, she said she was going to have us all put into jail.
“When Grandma asked me what was that all about, I refused to say anything, mainly because I did not understand what the hell was going on, I was still trying to figure out what ‘a dirty Indian’ was. Naturally, because of my silence, I was given a spanking. I was very seldom disciplined with a spanking of any kind, but Grandpa did have two lengths of horse bridle that were pointed to when the children were bad. When the men returned from work, there was a big discussion, there was a lot of hysteria because I would have to go to the reformatory. Grandpa took me aside and asked me what happened. I told him. He rubbed me on the head and said, All those white people are like that. So Grandpa made a decision to pack up everything and we would go home to North Dakota. Most of the family left that evening. The men stayed until the next day to pick up their paychecks and caught up to us on the road the following day.
“After we returned to Belcourt, Grandpa bought the thirty acres which is still our land, hilly and wooded with a lot of oak and poplar, supposed to be on the highest hill on the reservation. I became very close to my grandpa. He used to take me hunting with him and sit around and tell me stories about the old days, about the Indians, mainly about what life was all about in his youth.”
Leonard spoke Ojibwa as a child, since his paternal grandmother spoke no English at all; it was she who introduced him to traditional medicine. “When I was six or seven, I guess, my grandmother was suffering from a swollen jaw, so she took gifts to the mijin, and we had a ceremony with drums and praying, and next morning her jaw was still wrapped up, but you could see how the swelling had gone down.
“One winter I remember being allowed to go to town—Rolla, which is seven miles from Belcourt—and just before we went into the store, Grandma said, Now don’t touch anything or you can’t come to town again. So I thought, Okay, I’ll put my hands in my pockets, which I did. I went through the whole process of being fitted for shoes, and when Grandma was paying for them, and I was staring and checking out everything, big-eyed, the man said, What do you have in your pockets? Man, I panicked. Remember, I was warned if there was any trouble, I would never be allowed to come to town with them, it would be years before I would ever get to see any of the things in these stores. I froze. When Grandma understood what the man said about wanting to search me, she told me to empty my pockets. I would not move, so Grandma cuffed me once or twice. I emptied my pockets. Of course there wasn’t anything in them but personal kid junk—a ball of string I collected to use for the bows I used to make, and stuff like that. I never asked to go to town again, because my experiences with these white people were not so great.
“We used to go to the clothes sales the Catholic sisters had every week at the Belcourt Catholic Mission. Indians called it Bundles Day because they sold mostly rags for twenty-five cents a bundle. The rags were popular with the women, who made quilts. Many of us kids went to school at the mission, and we all hated them sisters—damn, but they were mean! I’m seven or eight by now and beginning to understand the meaning of hate and racism. It seemed as if all white people hated us, and I was beginning to hate just as much.
“In the winter of ’52, my grandfather got sick with pneumonia and went on to surely a better life than we had been leading. Although these were happy times for me and we seemed to feed regularly, life was rather hard. It seemed as if Grandpa was always working hauling wood to sell around the res; if he wasn’t cutting wood, he was out hunting, and he never seemed to come back without at least a rabbit. After Grandpa died, it seemed to get worse to try to feed ourselves. I remember Grandma telling us to go hunt for some ground squirrels or anything eatable for meat. We would first locate a squirrel stronghold, then load our kids’ wagons—all homemade, by the way—with all the water cans we could find, pull them downhill to a big lake, pull them back up, and flood the squirrels and stone them as they came out. We had meat on the table if we were successful; if not, and we were only able to get one or two, it was mainly used to flavor the soup.
“Many of us kids knew how to trap muskrats and when the berries were just ripe enough—things like that. Every day after I helped with the chores, hauling wood and water, we would all get together and plan a hike to some lake and swim; what we thought was a long hike was really only a mile or two from our houses, but we would sharpen our pocketknives, make certain we had a pocketful of the correct-size rocks for our slingshots, and off we would go. We always seemed lucky enough to bag us some kind of bird, which we would roast over a little fire while we were swimming, and we always stopped in a berry bush, or whatever was in season. To us kids the summer months were the greatest because of what Mother Nature provided for us to eat. The winter season was hardest. Rabbits were about the only animals that did not seem hunted out, but they were harder to hit with slingshots; you really needed a .22 or shotgun to have rabbit stew.