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Wounded Knee Between The Wars

May 2024
7min read

For two months in the summer of 1956 I lived in a tent among the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge Reservation, whose ancestors had tasted victory at the Little Bighorn and deep grief at Wounded Knee Creek, a few miles from where I was staying. The tent was United States Army surplus, property of my hosts, and present-day Indian militancy was then nowhere to be seen under the immense South Dakota skies. In those days the past seemed utterly dead to the Sioux. Once when I asked some tribal elders whether they planned to mark the occasion of their victory over Custer, they considered the idea a poor joke. On the other hand, the great summer holiday was the Fourth of July, when Indians from all over Pine Ridge camped together in army tents to drink and dance and hear patriotic speeches. It is one of the oddest and deepest facts about reservation life that the Sioux, descendants of nomads, like to go camping. In an aimless, bohemian sort of way they are still nomadic.

I had my first glimpse of this when my partner and I (we were anthropology students, pro tem , at Columbia University—he bent on getting his master’s degree, I on spending a pleasant summer) arrived bearing appropriate gifts —a few cases of beer and twenty pounds of meat—at the shack of a Sioux whom my partner knew from a previous visit. We burst in at four A.M. , but no matter. The entire household roused itself in a trice and began partying, as if four in the morning were indistinguishable from four in the afternoon. This was almost literally true on the reservation, for the Sioux, who have little work, attach little importance to sleeping eight hours at a stretch. Given anything to do, they will do it at any hour of the day or night. My Sioux cronies, for example, thought nothing of waking me at dawn to share a six-pack of warm beer with them. When the party finally expired, several miles from its starting point and twenty-four hours later, I remember wondering how the partygoers were going to get home, but the Sioux never felt tethered to home. They cheerfully slept anywhere, in parked cars or on floorboards, with no sense of inconvenience, so they never worried in the morning where they might end up that night. This could turn even a short trip to the store into a wayward voyage. By the time you started the motor, four or five people had piled into the car, and what with visits to relatives and other side jaunts you might not get back for a day or so. All this I found intensely exhilarating at the time. Dispensing with routine schedules is a liberating prospect when you are twenty-two years old. It took me a while to realize that the Indians’ careless, shapeless days, their eagerness to go anywhere at any time (that summer five young Sioux I knew made a two-thousand-mile round trip to an Apache reservation just for a weekend jaunt) was due to a restless boredom so intense it was eating them alive. The Sioux were well aware of this condition and had a word in the Dakota language meaning “stiff-tailed” to describe their inability to sit still.

What made this diurnal nomadism possible, however, was a strong and noble virtue: the hospitality the Sioux accord to everyone they recognize as a kinsman, which takes in, for any family, an enormous number of people. I had always heard about the laws of hospitality operating in olden times, but Pine Ridge was the only place I ever saw them in their ancient vigor and rigidity. My Sioux hosts and I would sit down to a meager dinner consisting, likely enough, of Silver Cup bread, boiled steer’s heart, and canned stewed tomatoes, but meager as it was, any relative that came by unfailingly received his share and a place to sleep if he wanted it. Sometimes when the kinsman was disliked—my hosts, the Fast Horse people, were plagued by a scoundrelly in-law—the chagrin of sharing was written on people’s faces, but share they nonetheless did, even food they urgently needed for their next meal. To suppress one’s strongest inclinations this way out of deference to a rule of honor is an act of great dignity and certainly dignified household life on the reservation.

The hospitality rules had their comic side, however. Once, growing tired of boiled heart, I decided to lay in a supply of steaks for the family. That evening, inevitably, several relatives came by to share our prosperity; you could not buy food anywhere in Pine Ridge without everybody knowing about it within two hours. Later a few more relatives arrived, and they too sat down with us. At last, just as we were about to eat, a madly clanging jalopy came careening over the hilltop —the scoundrelly in-law had arrived with his family just in the nick of time. The net result, by some inner law of reservation economics, was that every person’s share of the feast was exactly as meager as usual. This constant sharing of one’s prosperity, I think, kept the Indians at Pine Ridge on a more or less equal level of impoverishment, with the few who were lucky enough to have jobs supporting, in various degrees, the many who did not. There was a kind of safety net under every member of the reservation, woven by the ties of kinship.

Despite the branching family ties, however, the Sioux dwelt far apart from each other. My hosts, for example, lived in one-room log cabins isolated by their own hundred sixty acres of land (it was grazed over by the family’s horses, economically useless but splendid to see). One cabin belonged to the matriarch of the family, Mary Fast Horse, and the other to her only son and his family. Their unswerving kindness and generosity to me—a mere stranger—remains my strongest and fondest memory of Pine Ridge. The old lady—she must have been in her seventies—was wonderfully goodhearted and equally wonderful to behold. She wore four or five ankle-length dresses simultaneously, a pair of practical lace-up boys’ shoes, and baggy brown lisle stockings. She also laughed quite a lot though at no cost to her moral authority—the scoundrelly in-law, a one-eyed conniving character who looked like Popeye, always gave her a wide berth. Although I certainly didn’t merit it, the old lady was devoted to my wellbeing and, I think, even fond of me. I know I was fond of her, though I once abused her kindliness badly by asking for a cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon. What ensued was an eloquent commentary on the shortcomings of the simple life. The old lady got a heavy ax, dragged it behind her for about a hundred yards, made her way down the steep bank of a creek, chopped a branch off a cottonwood tree, dragged ax and branch back to the cabin, chopped the branch into kindling, filled a large pot with water from the pump, started a fire in her enormous iron stove (it took up about a quarter of her cabin), and one hour later, thoroughly shamefaced, I had a cup of lukewarm muck. By then Mary had asked me to call her ina , or mother, and I fear I had already begun to treat her with the carelessness of a favored son. A protected son, too: once I asked her how to say “I love you” in Dakota, but she refused to tell me, figuring I would use the phrase to pursue “bad girls.”

It would be hard to describe living on the reservation, for the days and weeks had no demarcations. Time was chiefly punctuated, sporadically and unpredictably, by someone or other acquiring money for beer. Around the eternal business of sixpacks life itself seemed to swirl: how we would get some, when we would get some, whom we would share them with, where we would sit and drink them. For the young men of the reservation the six-pack had become the one possible break in the monotony, a sort of unit of hope in a hopeless existence.

My one adventure of the anthropological sort was attending one night, in a pitch-black cabin, a medicine-man ceremony. The heart of the ritual was the medicine man lying in a trance on the floor trussed up like Houdini while blue, sparkling lights danced mysteriously—I have no idea how—over the walls and ceiling. At one point there was some angry muttering in the dark because the medicine man, according to my translator, had just announced that the spirits were irked by my presence. A minute or so later I got a resounding whack on the head from an invisible hand. That was startling enough, but what was far more startling was discovering a day later that my translator, a thoroughly amiable and superior young man, was widely known to have ax-murdered a kinswoman. That dark deeds of mayhem might erupt on the reservation and go utterly unpunished—the young man was unpopular but not conspicuously so—suggested that wilder passions than boredom lay under the surface of reservation life. If so, I had scant experience of them, though once on a black, starless night three young thugs—one of them white—came at me with beer bottles. In the dark I heard their Sioux girl friend plead with them to “leave the guy from New York alone,” and so I escaped unscathed. After a while I began spending most of my time galloping blissfully around on a horse, something I had never done before (or since), until the days melted into a blur and, like the Oglala Sioux, I too became restless.

My departure from Pine Ridge was not as lively as my arrival, but I remember it far more vividly. I was heading for the Mexican mountains, for ten weeks of reservation life had convinced me that I could go anywhere and thrive anywhere—a gallant feeling but, alas, short-lived. The day before leaving I had given away a heap of my clothing, and when a crowd gathered to see me off, there in plain sight were several of my shirts, on the backs of tall people, short people, fat people, thin people, elderly people, and little children. No thank-you could have been more eloquent than the sight of that ill-dressed multitude. I shook hands all around and then said good-by to Mary Fast Horse. We looked at each other, and then, too inhibited to embrace, we shook hands in the solemn Pine Ridge way. Just as the car began moving up the dirt path, however, the old lady gathered up her five skirts and her seventy-odd years and ran after the car. We stopped, I looked at her and she at me, and once again we shook hands. I have never seen her again, for though I was happy on the reservation, I have never returned to it. The reason for this I know quite well. It was not because a second visit could not possibly be as happy as the first one, nor because I knew, all too well, that the feckless, shapeless reservation life that gave me so much pleasure gave the Oglala Sioux so much pain. I have not returned for the same reason that the English writer George Orwell never returned to his old prep school: because on seeing Pine Ridge in after years I would think, I could not help but think, “How small everything has grown and how terrible is the deterioration in myself.”

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