by Stephen Dau
The wind smells like time, high and sharp, like snow, rolling across the northern steppes. It scratches the dust from the sparse, low hills, sands the clapboards of hastily constructed shacks, snaps heavy canvas tent flaps, and everywhere makes gaps and spaces sing. The camp’s evidence drifts low, close to the ground and away: the wood smoke and mother’s call, the din of copper pots and horses’ whinny gradually fall away in a nervous silence, which is soon filled with fierce cries and indignant protests. A defiant hand reaches down into the dust, throws a fistful high into the turbulent air, where the wind carries it away like smoke.
And when, moments later, the shooting starts, the sharp reports, the shouted commands, the holler and yell, the screams of revenge and death and loss, the impartial wind carries those away, too.
The red man…is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence. In blaming our Indian agents for malfeasance in office, perhaps we do not sufficiently account for the demoralizing influence of merely beholding those false and pitiless savage faces; moldy flour and corrupt beef must seem altogether too good for them.
–William Dean Howells The Atlantic Monthly July 1876
The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota occupies an uncomfortable patch of ground on the landscape of American history. It was once a part of the sixty-million acre Great Sioux Reservation, which occupied large swaths of six modern states, and which was subdivided and sold off after Custer found gold in the Black Hills in 1874. The Pine Ridge Reservation is a remnant of greed and good intentions. It has, like most of the reservations, alternately been praised as the answer to the country’s “Indian Problem,” and vilified as the very embodiment of it. Its troubles, it has been said, are the nation’s. Or they are nobody’s save those few who choose to live there. They are symptomatic of unrestrained capitalism, or emblematic of a thriving free market. The Rez, as residents often call it, is the victim and it is the perpetrator, the sacred and the profane, the mystical and the pedantic, the wasteland and the promised land. It is us, and it is nothing like us at all.
So when I found myself stranded there, one blue-skyed summer day late in the twentieth century, I was apprehensive. I sat in the driver’s seat of a brand new Jeep Wrangler, a gift I had bought myself on fifteen thousand dollars worth of credit I barely had. My brother, his Swedish girlfriend and I had driven for two days from Pennsylvania to get to Pine Ridge, and now we were stuck in a convenience store parking lot watching Indians stream in ones and twos through the store’s glass doors carrying bags of potato chips, cups of Pepsi, cigarettes, or nothing at all save their conversation and their sideways glances at the white people in the Jeep.
A few hours earlier I had gone into the store to buy a tank of gas and a candy bar, then come out to find our road trip abruptly halted when, for no apparent reason, the Jeep’s engine wouldn’t start. The key slid easily enough into the ignition, but then it wouldn’t turn, not even a millimeter. I instantly thought about the little white stone in the breast pocket of my flannel shirt. Following a few perplexing minutes during which my brother, his girlfriend and I tried everything we could think of to get the Jeep started, we sought the aid of two reservation policemen who happened to be nearby.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked one of them, as I looked at myself in his mirrored sunglasses.
“It won’t start,” I said.
“What do you mean it won’t start?”
“Well, the key goes in alright, but it won’t turn, so the engine won’t start.”
He confidently took the key and inserted it into the ignition, twisting with enough force that it began to bend, and I gently asked him to stop. Out of obvious options, we decided to call for a tow. The cops helped us move the car away from the pump, four of us physically picking up the front end of its lifeless bulk to turn it at right angles and then push it into a parking space.
I used a phone at the Pine Ridge police station to call Jeep customer service, where a friendly man named Jim insisted from an office in Michigan that all I had to do was apply the brake and turn the steering wheel to unlock the ignition. When I told him that at least four people had tried to do just that, Jim was apparently convinced that I was neither incompetent nor delusional, and called for a tow truck to come from the closest dealership, in Nebraska, over a hundred miles away across the vast plain.
With hours to kill, my brother and his girlfriend went off to try to find the monthly pow-wow they had heard someone in the convenience store talking about, and I sat in the car, waiting for the tow and thinking.
The Jeep had less than two thousand miles on it, and there was no logical, physical reason for it not to work. Yet it didn’t. While I was perhaps uncertain about the mechanics of what was happening, I was reluctantly developing a hunch that the problem went beyond the physical. I’m not particularly superstitious, but I also know when invisible forces are at work. I was becoming increasingly certain our predicament had something to do with the little white stone in my pocket, which I had stolen from the mass grave at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.
Twenty-three years before my grandmother was born, in the winter of 1890, the remnants of several bands of Lakota, headed by an elderly chief named Big Foot, gathered along Wounded Knee Creek. For most of that year, a religious movement had been spreading through the Indian territories in response to the native peoples’ complete disenfranchisement. It was called the Ghost Dance, and it was adopted by the Lakota in the summer of 1890. By dancing the Ghost Dance, they believed they would hasten the coming reunion with their ancestors, bring plentiful game back to the empty prairie, and halt white encroachment. They wore white cotton “ghost shirts,” which were specially blessed and, it was believed, would make the wearer impervious to bullets.
The Ghost Dance was called the “Messiah Craze” by frightened whites, and it was one of the Lakota’s many misfortunes that the same Seventh Cavalry they and their compatriots had decimated nearly fifteen years earlier, at the battle of Little Big Horn, was among the U.S. Army companies sent to intercept them at Wounded Knee.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the reservation system, which had been in existence since a proclamation by King George established ethnic separation as a matter of policy in 1763, was under attack as being detrimental to both the United States and the Indians. In the system’s original form, independent tribes would cede lands under treaty while reserving a portion for their own use. But this system had gradually deteriorated into one in which reservations were used as arid corrals into which Indians could be moved to free up promising acreage for use by settlers. By the 1880s, reservations were viewed by progressive, Eastern whites and most Indians as de facto prisons, the inhabitants of which could never prosper.
Adopted by Congress in 1887, the Dawes Act aspired to give Indians a stake in the American way of life by breaking up the reservations and distributing to each head of family an allotment of 160 acres of land, fifty dollars in cash, farming implements and livestock, while also setting up a three-million-dollar trust fund for the “promotion of industrial and other suitable education among said Indians.” The cruelty of the Dawes Act lay in its execution rather than its design. Corrupt agents shortchanged Indians by giving them the worst land on ill-defined plots and cut-rate supplies while pocketing the overage. Within three years, 90 percent of most reservations’ sloppily surveyed, barely-arable allotments had been sold or mortgaged.
In February of 1890, the government used its authority under the Dawes Act to divide the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller ones, then distribute the land to families in farm-like plots. But like so much reservation land it proved impossible to farm, especially with a drought leading to a disastrous harvest that year. Ghost Dancing increased in both frequency and fervency. Homesteaders who were massed at the reservation’s borders in hopes of obtaining cheap land interpreted it (whether genuinely or cynically, with an eye toward encouraging a land-clearing army action) as a war dance.
On December 15th, Lakota chief Sitting Bull was killed on the Standing Rock Reservation as he was being arrested by Indian agents for fomenting the Ghost Dance. His half-brother, Big Foot, fled with the band toward Pine Ridge, but were intercepted by a detachment of the Seventh Cavalry and escorted to Wounded Knee Creek. Accounts of what happened next vary, but all agree on several points. On December 29th, soldiers attempted to disarm the encamped Lakota, a band of between three and four hundred people, mostly old men, women and children, but with at least enough men of fighting age to alarm the soldiers. A rumor spread throughout the band that once they were disarmed they would be killed. Hotchkiss artillery guns placed around the camp lent credence to this rumor, and seem to have prompted a medicine man to begin the Ghost Dance and remind the warriors that their shirts would make them invincible. In this pressurized environment, soldiers tried to disarm a deaf Indian who had not heard their order to disarm. The medicine man threw a handful of dirt into the air, which many cavalrymen interpreted as a battle signal. At nearly the same time, the deaf man’s gun went off—it’s unclear whether or not it was accidental—and the soldiers opened fire.
The next hour saw 160 Indians killed along with 25 cavalrymen, many of whom are thought to have been shot in fratricidal crossfire. It was widely reported that soldiers yelled, “Remember Custer” as they fired. Those Indians who were not killed or captured ran or crawled in all directions in an attempt to escape the slaughter. Women and children were found shot from behind up to two miles from the site.
That night it began to snow, and didn’t stop for days.
Some family history. My grandmother used to say that our family came from good stock, and if you look at it through the eyes of someone interested in those things, we do. My mother’s ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, and one of my father’s was Oliver Wolcott, governor of Connecticut and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Which is all merely to point out that when the founding fathers talked about securing the blessings of liberty for “our posterity,” it’s probably people like me they had in mind.
In addition to governing the state of Connecticut and signing the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott also negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. Under the treaty, the tribes of the Six Nations (which included the Tuscaroras, the Mohawks, the Onondagas, the Oneidas, the Senecas, and the Cayugas) gave up all claims to most of Western Pennsylvania and Ohio in return for promises of non-encroachment elsewhere. The problem was that none of these tribes actually lived on the land they were ceding. The land was in fact occupied mostly by the Lenni-Lenape (called the Delaware by the English), who rejected the Stanwix treaty outright, a fact that seems to have troubled the other signatories little. It was exactly as if a developer moved in and took over your house based on your neighbor’s permission. Much of the land was used to settle pension claims held against the federal government by veterans of the Revolutionary War, and other parcels were sold off to private firms. Along with the rest of the country, my ancestors began moving west.
Striking are the similarities between today and two hundred years ago. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, private venture companies, often working in tandem with the federal government, made what were essentially land grabs in Indian territory for the express purpose of subdividing and selling the land to turn a quick profit. That the land in, for example, Western Pennsylvania was actually occupied by a tribe that had not relinquished it was a nuance lost on the settlers and speculators, who felt they had a right to that land, having purchased it either from private companies or from the government. The Lenni-Lenape were mostly killed or driven off to make room for homesteaders.
Over time, the original massive tract ceded under the Stanwix treaty was divided and subdivided through sale and inheritance. Towns were established and grew, and the land was farmed and built. In the 1960s, a development company purchased a large tract of former farmland near Greensburg, Pennsylvania, forty miles outside of Pittsburgh, and built the Fort Allen subdivision, named for a local fort that had been occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War. This subdivision was not much different from the tens of thousands of other subdivisions that were, and still are, being built all over the country. The development company laid out roads, installed sewer, water and electrical systems, and built about five hundred houses on half-acre plots. Each of the roads was named for a different Indian tribe. My father bought one of the houses in 1973.
I grew up on Cherokee Drive.
The ostensible purpose of our trip west was to attend a family reunion in Colorado, but we decided on a northern route that would take us through the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove in a single, twenty-four-hour stretch from Pittsburgh, through Chicago, north around Lake Michigan, along interstate eighty-one, through Wisconsin, across the Mississippi river and Minnesota, and out onto the rolling South Dakota prairie, where we camped under a sky alive with stars.
After an uncharacteristically early start the next morning, we pulled into Wounded Knee’s gravel parking area the next afternoon. Two tarpaulin tents were set up on either side of a heavily grafittied historical marker. Under one tent a woman and young girl sold dreamcatchers, leather wallets, belts, and fringed holsters, and under the other a man and woman sold similar merchandise while two boys played with a bat and ball in the grass behind them. A stone archway and tiny church sat on a hill a few hundred yards away, and a heavy, gusting wind shoved over the low scrub from the north. Other than the telephone poles and the tents, the scene probably looked much as it had in 1890.
Things got strange. A woman in one of the souvenir tents turned out to be as Swedish as my brother’s girlfriend, though her dark hair and skin made her look like a local. She had moved with her Lakota husband from Sweden years earlier, and for an hour the conversation turned from Swedish to English and back again, their dollopy words carried away by the wind over the plain.
While they talked, I wandered up the hill, through the brick archway to a chain-link fence that enclosed a long rectangle of ground with a tall stone pillar near the middle. At the top of the hill, just outside the enclosure, a glint of something flashed up at me from the ground, and I looked down to see a stone of white quartz, about an inch round, with a tiny sliver of black rock piercing through it.
I was well aware of the Indian tradition of designating certain ground as sacred. I was probably also aware of the Plains tribes’ tradition of investing particular rocks with spiritual significance. So why did I want to take it? Because I wanted a souvenir; because there might be some mystical power attached to it; because I thought nobody would notice; because there were so many other stones around; because it was beautiful.
Because I could.
I reached down, picked up the stone, and slipped it into my shirt pocket. Then I looked up at the sandstone monument in front of me, and saw that it marked a mass grave, commemorating the hundreds of Indians buried there.
After wandering around for a few more minutes, I turned and headed back down the hill.
Judging from available photographs, the Dakotas of the late nineteenth century looked more like Siberia than anyplace else. The low hills are often snow-covered, or else there is short grass instead of snow, and the occasional grey, clapboard shack serves as a store or post office. The similarity with Russia is made almost palpable by the army officers’ habit of wearing Russian ushanka hats and fur long- coats.
There is a photograph of the interior of the Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Pine Ridge immediately after the events at Wounded Knee, and it looks like nothing so much as an illustration from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. In it, thin winter light illuminates a room in which two soldiers and an Indian look grimly at the camera as wounded Lakota lie on the straw-covered floor behind them, tended to by moving figures blurred into ghosts by the tripping shutter. Christmas garlands hang on the walls. The product of advances in imaging technology, the photo appears strikingly modern. But for occasional clues—a soldier’s long beard, a regimental riding cap—this could be a scene from any of the twentieth century’s many wars.
The parallels with Siberia don’t end with the landscape. Throughout its existence, Shannon County, which holds much of the Pine Ridge Reservation, has been among the poorest in the nation. Currently it is the second poorest county in the United States, just ahead of Buffalo County, which is also in South Dakota and home to the Crow Creek Reservation. Its unemployment rate ranges between 80 and 90 percent. Its per-capita income of around six thousand dollars per year places it firmly in third-world territory, somewhere between El Salvador and Azerbaijan. (Siberia’s per capita income is about three thousand dollars per year, which is roughly the same as that of the village of Wounded Knee itself.) But poverty in Indian country is not limited to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Of the ten poorest counties in the United States, eight either consist primarily of reservation lands or have predominantly Native American populations.
Maybe it’s their ability to document the human consequences of a single day in 1890 that make the Wounded Knee photographs so disturbing. Or maybe it’s the long historical shadow cast by the events they depict. Or perhaps it’s some quality of the photographs themselves: their resolution, clarity, impartiality or tone. Or maybe it’s because it all happened not so very long ago. Despite historians’ admonitions, it’s difficult not to apply today’s moral compass to that era’s bigoted references to “red devils” and “savages,” much less to the frequent calls for eradication so often voiced in respectable quarters of the nation’s press. Could L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, really have been simply voicing widespread sentiment when he wrote that “our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians”? Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that they were speaking of a threat, an enemy, their quotations come down to us like the un-portered baggage of a paranoid time, one frighteningly close to our own, in which it is easy to see the kernel of subsequent horrors.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Army Commander, General Nelson A. Miles, declared the event a massacre, eighteen cavalrymen were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions at Wounded Knee. In looking over the citations given, one can discern a certain vagueness, an absence of detail inherent in the use of phrases like “conspicuous bravery” and “gallantry under fire.” A number of medals were given to soldiers who were able to “dislodge enemy that were hidden in a ravine,” and several for “distinguished conduct.” Absent are the finely detailed and specific accounts of heroism that had become, even by this time, a standard part of Medal of Honor citations.
As I read over the citations, I am paradoxically reminded of a news story I once saw about a riot in East Timor, in which a pro-government crowd beat a suspected Fretilin supporter to death. Afterward, many from the crowd sat on the ground and wept, as though mourning the man they had just killed— this, then, the opposite reaction to witnessing one’s own barbarity.
The tow truck finally arrived. It was dark, about eleven o’clock, and it came lumbering up the potholed asphalt, turning loudly off the main road and into the parking lot before stopping next to the Jeep. The driver (whose name, as I recall, was Bo) was dressed in grey coveralls, chewed a large wad of tobacco, and left the engine running.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked Bo.
“It won’t start,” I said.
“What do you mean it won’t start?”
“The key goes in, but it won’t turn and the engine won’t start.”
“Lemme give a try,” he said. He tried the Jeep’s ignition once and, unable to budge it, set about hooking up the tow, affixing cables and releasing the brake. I felt again at the stone in my pocket. I didn’t really think it had anything to do with our getting stuck. I wasn’t so superstitious. I had the urge to keep it, right there in my pocket, and not say anything or even acknowledge its existence until we were safely off the reservation. Then I forgot about it again.
The tow rope was attached and the front wheels of the Jeep lightened under the pull of the lift arm, gradually rising off the ground. They were about an inch up in the air when Bo stopped the lift and asked me to look under the chassis. “Lemme know if the wheels turn as they lift up,” he said.
As I bent down to look underneath, the stone rolled out of my pocket and onto the ground, where it glinted in the convenience store lights. I made a move to pick it up, put it back in my pocket. A car drove past and its headlights lit the stone, white facets dancing. Nothing else seemed very important, suddenly. I reached for the stone again, and the headlights passed on, leaving me momentarily blind to its location. And then, in an instant, a flash went through my mind, a jolt of recognition as unexpected as it was instantaneous.
I stood up straight and kicked the stone off into the grass.
Then suddenly the Jeep was attached and we were on our way, four tight across the truck’s bench seat, exchanging small talk while the wheat fields blurred past in the headlights.
“Weird place to get stuck, isn’t it?” asked Bo.
“Yes, it is.”
“Brand new Jeep, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.”
“Any idea how it happened?”
At one point we saw a shape, low and sleek at the edge of the high beams, dart off into the darkness.
“Coyote,” said Bo.
“Do you see a lot of those here?” someone asked.
“That’s about all you see out here at night,” said Bo. “Coyotes and drunk Indians.”
It was long after midnight when we pulled into the Jeep dealership in Chadron, Nebraska. We dropped the key in the after- hours box and checked into a tiny motel down the street, waking the proprietor with a tinny front door buzzer. The next morning we called the dealership to find out what was going on with our ride.
“Now,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “could you just tell me why you brought this in?”
“It won’t start,” I said for what felt like the hundredth time.
“What do you mean it …”
“The key goes into the ignition,” I said, trying to conceal my frustration, “but it won’t turn and the engine won’t start.”
“Well,” said the voice, which had suddenly adopted a Midwest calm, “maybe that was the case when you dropped it off here last night, but it starts just fine now. You can come on down and get it.”
And when we went to the dealership to pick it up, the Jeep did start. It started just fine.
A few years after the trip to Pine Ridge, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian at its temporary home in lower Manhattan, next to Battery Park. It was housed in the U.S. Customs House, a great columned, marble-and-brick structure built on the site of a former Indian trading post. Its two floors of exhibits included clothing, paintings, weapons and photographs, and on the top floor was a special temporary exhibition on the massacre at Wounded Knee.
I climbed the white, marble steps of the foyer and turned a corner, approaching the entrance to the exhibit, which consisted of two walls, angled in slightly to act as a kind of funnel from the foyer into the gallery. Two huge, blown-up photographs were placed across from each other, one on each angled wall. I had seen the photograph on the left-hand wall several times before. It was a collotype landscape of Wounded Knee taken, as the printed caption stated, by Clarence G. Moreledge in early January 1891. This photograph’s effect is the same every time I see it. A blanket of snow covers the flat land, the result of the sudden storm that blew in on the evening of December 29th. The foreground is a low hollow running off to a hill that will later be crowned by a mass grave. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the burial party at work gathering the bodies. A soldier mills about in the middle distance, surveying the aftermath. Bare wooden poles form empty pyramids where tepees once stood, and dark, oblong shapes which could be rocks or piles of clothing litter the foreground and middle distance. It’s not until you look closely at the shape in the foreground and see an arm raised, fingers outstretched and frozen that you realize it is a field of bodies.
On the wall opposite this was a photograph that I had never seen before, and have never seen again since. When I first glimpsed it in my peripheral vision, I got the impression of a sports team’s group photo, posed in rows, with a row in the back standing, another row kneeling, a front row sitting on the ground. These, I read on the sign next to the photo, were cavalrymen who had taken part in the events at Wounded Knee. Like so many other photographs from this time it was clear and sharply focused, but when I turned to examine it closely, I froze.
On the ground in the front row of this picture sits a man, perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six years of age. He wears high boots; a pair of dusty riding gloves are folded over his belt; neat buttons stitch the front of his dark riding jacket. His Winchester rifle sits easily across his lap, and a sort of wary half-smile traces his face under a wide-brimmed Stetson. It’s the sort of expression you might make if you were having your picture taken at a funeral and you weren’t sure what would be appropriate. For a long time I could do nothing but stare at him, this man from across the years.
He looked just like me.
Stephen Dau is the author of The Book of Jonas (Blue Rider Press, 2012), which was a semi-finalist for the Cabell First Novelist Prize and was named one of the best books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and The Wall Street Journal. His work has been featured on NPR and appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and MSNBC, among other places. He lives in Belgium.
This essay was first published in CONSEQUENCE magazine.