We stop by the college in Crow Agency. There is no one here because it’s Saturday and summer, and the tribal college looks small and humble, but it also looks colorful and good. There are horses running free and a big tree that towers over the central, circular meeting place made of wooden beams and rusted steel that looks perfect for a powwow. We lie in the grass and feel the sun and let it soak into our skin.
Like all of the others, this reservation is also poor. The streets are lined with wooden shacks peeling blue paint, and there are little brown children playing in one of them. Two boys beat the hell out of each other in good fun like young brothers and laugh about it afterward. This place feels like home.
We stop at the gas station on the way out and it’s just like the gas stations back in Zuni. My Navajo sisters (my relatives in Zuni must never hear of this!) squeal in delight at some nostalgic sight and Holy Sweet Mother of — they have big pickles and ziplock bags and red Icees and shredded jerky and . . .
Zuni is where I grew up part-time, home away from home during summers and about every other spring and winter break as a little, spoiled, know-nothing brat from the suburbs of Indianapolis. We always stayed with my aunt, but now we always stay with my brother. The greatest thing in the world was and is the smell of the desert after it rains there. The sand and the sage and all the plants mix together and fill the air with sweet incense and all the dust falls away. We have rez dogs there, too, and so much dust. And satellite dishes. And gas stations like these. I remember the briny smell of great barrel pickle jars being uncorked by another aunt and eating the juicy goodness all wrapped up in plastic sandwich bags. And I remember my brother always getting Icees when we were driving. And all the perfect, bone-dry jerky of all kinds imaginable . . .
But Zuni is another story.
Because then we depart the little heart-tug gas station (only to return when Hailey realizes she’s forgot her phone again and we have to set out all over again, of course) and head up, up, and up into the Bighorn Mountains.
We climb and climb and pull over at an unpromising site for unpromising photos only to realize this place is amazing. There is no grand vista, but tiny blue mountain flowers sprout from every inhospitable crevice and crack. Purple blossoms spot the ground.Rocks in the distance call our name and we answer, running and bounding, and lo! snow just over the rocks, and more rocks and more rocks to climb.
The air is thin and fresh and tastes like ambrosia. I scale rocks. I walk in the snow. I inhale and exhale. I grow five years younger. Close your eyes. Breathe deep and feel the mountain air in every porous inch of skin and lungs. Cool and clean. I throw a snowball at Hailey. She tries to make a snow angel. Snow gets in her pants. I take a picture of Patrick taking a picture. There are antelope and elk and bighorn sheep in the distance. There are — there are — there are . . .
A perfect wind blows. Let’s never leave.
But instead we roll on down the Bighorns to the hot springs of Thermopolis and sleep among a million high schoolers.
We’re up in the AM and moving out of Lakota land up toward Yellowstone again, but first we have a few more stops to make.
First we find ourselves mock-hitchhiking to that Great Gray Tooth jutting from the desert. It looks like a molar rising from the gums of the land in the distance from where we take out first pictures and stick our thumbs out like idiots. It wasn’t my idea. Someone thought it would make a good picture. No one stops, just like they wouldn’t have if and when we’d have been serious in this in those days long ago when we would have been without cell phones — that blessed, hellish, blissful existence I can’t imagine.
We get there and all of a sudden it’s massive and looming and we’re in its never-endingshadow. It’s a castle. A keep. A fortress. . . A tower! Devil’s Tower, they call it. Bear Den. This whole big intrusion of igneous rock that’s fought through sediment and erosion and still stands so tall and imposing. Terrifying crevices creep down its side. They’re scars on its bony flesh clawed out by a great, ancient, and horrifying bear as tall as clouds with a roar like thunderstorms. It has an awesome power that trembles you to your soul, like that intense prayer wind that permeated Bear Butte, but there are more people here, and it’s almost like they don’t quite realize it. What’s before them. What’s above them. They sense it, sense something. They see it, but they don’t see it, like so many of these places. We walk around it, and it eyes us the whole way, and we’re always in its shadow.
Then we set out for the throbbing center of the scar tissue of this land: the rolling hills called Little Bighorn, where it all went down, and dreams flickered like fire on ice.
There is a visitors’ center and little gravel paths with gravestones all marked along their ways and a sprawling cemetery that takes up so much of the land. We don’t go to the cemetery with all its whale-white markers. Instead, we walk up the hill.
I walk up the hill.
The hill is split down its heart by a black paved road.
On one side, there is a bleached monument of pale gray stone and names of US soldiers. It stands in the center of a small square of bright green grass roped off from the rest of the world. The whole thing is foreign and barbaric and looks nothing like these hills.
On the other side, there is a mound of earth. This earth. Brush and grass live on it. Through the mound are circular walls of rock inset with great metallic plaques of the indigenous peoples who fought and hoped and died here for the lives and the ways of the lives of their peoples. In a window in the earth are sculpted outlines in metal and wire of the warriors on their horses, and behind them the great plains and the green-brown hills go on and on. The air is heavy with them — with the breath of the Cheyenne and Arapaho and Crow and Sioux and Arikara who bled here.The Indian memorial gives me hope.
And my heart goes out to the white mothers of the uniformed sons who died here under the command of that black-souled man named Custard, but though their names are written here, I feel none of their presence in this place. Because this is not their home. And I can only hope they have found their way back, and are forever freed.
But of the Indians who fell here . . . they are more than just sculptures and metal outlines. More than just a memorial. They are here. They are here in every fiber of the earth and sky. If you look closely in the dust and the brush, you can see them riding. If you listen closely in the whisper of the wind, you can hear them singing. Put your ear to the ground and the heartbeat is earth and mother and horses’ hooves and drums and prayer. Their breath is strong and good in the air.
I watch the families file past the stones marking the places where soldiers fell. I can only wonder how they feel and what they think. Are they sad? Do they feel guilty? Proud? What is in their hearts in this violent, pacific, Pyrrhic place? Do they feel what their country lost here? Do they feel what we failed to win?
I remember what was said at a little coffee shop on the Pine Ridge reservation. They took our children. Kill the Indian and save the man, they said.
There are little children here. Do they know I’m Indian? Do they know what it means to kill an Indian? Do they know what this place means? What really happened?
And here am I. Am I an Indian? Am I a man?
I turn back and close my eyes and try to listen to the whispers in the wind of the people who were here long before I. I can only imagine that in that spirit world where they must reside, they are riding now, and the buffalo are back, and they number greater than ever.
I’m covered in sweat and my heart has given out. This is a holy place. You can hear it in the whispers of the rocks. Signs of prayer line the path to the top. Bear butte speaks for itself.
We head to the Black Hills.
We head to the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee where Indian blood was spilled for no reason at all. We flash past it without seeing anything, because there is nothing here. We turn around and find ourselves confronted with a sign, red as blood, with bone-white lettering, informing us we stand where 146 men, women, and children died. For no reason at all (though it doesn’t say that). And there is nothing here. It describes to us Chief Big Foot lying sick with pneumonia in his tent, with a white flag hoisted up top. It tells us how the Indians were told to surrender their weapons. The blood-red sign informs us of how a medicine man proceeded through the camp, inciting “the braves” to fight. It educates us of how “a shot was fired” and a battle ensued. It lectures us on how the surviving Indians “stampeded” into the valley and “persuit” by the cavalry “resulted” in the deaths of women and children. We have become very learned by reading it. Because there is nothing else here.
We proceed to the tribal college here, past Pine Ridge, to Oglala Lakota College. They have a little museum and an audio tour. We listen to it. This oral history tells us a different story from the blood-red sign. There is a picture of buffalo skulls as high as ten houses. “Every dead buffalo is one less Indian” said General Sherman, so they had to be exterminated. Ways of life change, but sometimes they are shattered. We learn that more than just people were killed at Wounded Knee. Like the blood-red sign said, the Lakota were told to surrender their weapons. A single rifle was found in the hands of Black Coyote, a deaf-mute, and the warnings that he did not understand went unheeded. “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaps and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with my eyes young,” says Black Elk. “And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
We learn in this way how history is made.
And so we tumble onward to the heart of the badlands. The national park starts with a bang and we see why the badlands are called the badlands. Rock rises from the ground in great pillars and slabs and buttes. Stone white whales have beached themselves in this prairie land, sucked up all the water, and turned it into a desert. This is a maze of sunken earth. You can see erosion at work here. The land has fallen away leaving these bulwarks of granite behind. We stop here and get out.
I amble on a path that’s all walkway and no desert and looks like it doesn’t go anywhere, so I turn around and enter the Castle trail. The Castle trail isn’t really a trail. It’s more like just a window into the stomach of this tremendous callous of half-carved land that opens up into a no-man’s-land of fractured clay and rock and cracks. Look up into the sky and see where the land used to be before the wind and rain stomped it down over the course of a hundred million years. Close your eyes and commune with the rocks.
Walking forward, something leaps and lands. Kneel down and examine it. A tiny channel of river and mud in this all this riven dryness. In it, a tiny toad, brown and spotted. There is life here. There is always life.
The sun sets and we drive out through these painted gorges of granite and grass. Back at the hotel, the night twists into colors of flesh and stars and hazy dreams of what we saw and everything we imagined. Sleeps comes like a semi-truck and hits us.
I was told to blog about this journey of ours into the Heart of the Land, out West, in search of the Native American dream, and quickly realized my humble haikus would not suffice for a proper historical account of the trek. The man, Dr. Kenneth Ridgeway, a professor of geology of the Lenape people rounded us up. A rag-tag amount of Purdue and Ft. Louis students with native blood, eager minds, and highway-bound hearts. This coverage of our story will be of the utmost professionalism, of the utmost Indigenous perspective, of the utmost rawness, of the utmost truth, and the utmost utmostness. Such is the duty. The plot of the story is to read the land and understand its body — her body — and flesh and bone and how she has suckled our peoples in the forgotten years that textbooks don’t remember or record and only exist in elder memory. How our Mother Earth’s body has suffered and born the assault on her by industry and the efforts of economy and energy and that horrible, savage, comfortable thing called civilization. We aim to see how the energy and lifeblood pulled from her in coal mines and coal fields and oil wells and clotted in her veins in the form of dams and man-made lakes and unnatural rivers’ widths have changed and stunted the growth of her children, and how these things matter, and how they tug at the strings of our peoples’ and our brothers’ and sisters’ peoples’ hearts. This is the setting, in the American west, on the road up to the Rockies, where continental plates kiss and collide, and the dreams of America’s natives shimmer and fade and sometimes disappear and then burn brighter.
We tumbled out of Indianapolis on a Sunday dawn and near noon found ourselves in an airport in Bismarck, ND that could only be described as “cozy.” We rented four great metal gasoline-fueled beasts that could carry us on our journey and headed into the road-hewn prairie. Grass and grass for miles. Flatlands that stretched toward the horizon. An endless wind that can knock you down rocks our wheeled beasts and tries to throw us off the road.
And then we’re at Knife River and come to the plains where three villages once stood in a metropolis of earth lodges that’s now just mounds of soil and grass. By a temperature-controlled visitors’ center with pieces of history and vestiges of day-to-day life from a life three hundred years ago alllocked behind glass and display cases, a reconstructed home of earth rises from the ground outside, beside a dirt footpath. We slouch inside and the dirt walls break the wind and in place of its terrible howl a deep quiet falls. Inside the upside-down half-sphere of dried mud and twigs, supported by great beams of wood, everything is roped off. We listen to brief history lesson from a uniformed ranger and retire outside again and walk to where the villages once stood, and what is left is bumps and gooseflesh on the body of the prairie, like pox scars, which is really what they are
And we’re off again to pick up a misplaced companion in Minot, ND, whose flights were shuffled and rearranged in the great bureaucracy of the airline empire. Eat at a diner full of aliens and spaceships. Sleep tonight in a hotel with a roof over our heads.
In the morning we’re on the reservation. These places are truly the badlands. No cell signal penetrates and we are cut off. But this is a busy remote place, rumbling with the promise of oil beneath our feet, and beasts greater than ours hauling frack water lumber down dirt roads, blowing up dust and dirt in their wake, like terrible, mobile storms. We find a comrade, an old friend, a little Hidatsa woman with a big soul and a motherly face with lines of worry and wisdom, who offers her house and grounds and we set up camp in a front yard that flows into forest, and behind us a backyard that ends at the horizon. We listen to her. We amble up the dirt road and talk to a man we have never met who is immediately old family and has lived through several endings of the world across the globe and has the knowledge of experience. We inhale their wisdom and learn of the aches of this place at the edges of the badlands.
The Hidatsa, the Mandan, and the Arikara lived here. Live here. Hold on here. Farmers, hunters, engineers. They farmed the land by the river. They hunted the buffalo. They thrived. We see their remnants. We breathe in the the remains of their culture and hold it in our lungs in the belly of a great community earth lodge as a young Mandan man speaks over the lump in his throat of the blankets they were traded that hid smallpox in the threads of their weaves. He doesn’t need to cry. We see the pain. Of the tens of thousands that inhabited this land, 137 were left alive. In all the world, in all the universe, there is one fluent Mandan speaker who still breathes. This is the meaning of genocide. This is what it means to pierce the heart of a people.
And everywhere we go in this land, people tell us about the dam. A disease can ravage a people, but it cannot kill them. Not strong ones, anyway. The machinery of destruction is more subtle. In this replicate womb of soil and timber, there looms a photo of a Mandan tribal chairman in tears after signing away a quarter of the reservation to the construction of the dam. The illusion of choice without a choice is an insidious tool. The heaviness in his heart weighs heavily in the soil-scented room. The old lands are flooded. The geography is changed. The tribes are “relocated.” The good people in Bismarck don’t have to worry. If the white people don’t like this land, they just change it. This is surgery of the worst kind, and there is no anesthesia. There is alcohol and sex and drugs. But self-medication cannot heal these wounds.
And everywhere we go in this land, people talk about the oil. We hear it from the tribal government mouthpieces and from the lips of the everyday, unconnected Indians. We hear different stories. After so many plagues, a hope comes from the very land that has always sustained these people. Black gold lies beneath their feet. And so it begins again. The oldest kind of white man’s magic: making land disappear with the empty paper promises. There are dollar signs in the eyes of many Indians. The eldest ones already know. We have been tricked too many times, and this gift must be used wisely. Will it? Will it? Will it?
Look at the earth. Her bones are being broken where no one can see. The marrow is dumped out beside the road. She bears this pain for us. It’s a second chance. What shall we do now? What will come of it? Only our children will know.
We visit the tribal college at Fort Berthold. The walls are painted with beautiful scenes of unsmiling Indians. Sunlight covers the classrooms. The students here are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. Many leave and then come back. The struggle is ongoing, but the fight is a good one. We like this place. The facilities are nice. The bathrooms are clean. But will the minds here save this place? This reservation?
We don’t know. So we fall back to our camp and minds drift into the night.