by Nick Coleman
The Sacred Hoop was broken here.
“ The women ran down to that ravine.” A young Lakota Indian named Manuel Hatchett is saying. He points from a hilltop cemetery to a dry gulch leading to a creek. “They ran against the sides of the ravine, hiding their kids between them and the dirt so their kids wouldn’t get killed. But they still got killed anyway.”
The creek cuts through the gentle hills, etching a gash against the landscape as if a giant has drawn a knife point along the prairie. On a small knoll above the stream, a narrow fenced plot 90 feet long crowns the hill. It is a mass grave filled with the remains of Lakota Sioux people. For this is Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee.
One hundred years ago, on Dec. 29, 1890, the hills surrounding Wounded Knee echoed to the rattle of gunfire and the cries of nearly 300 Lakota, mostly women, children and old men, who died at the hands of the U.S. Army. Ever since, America has wanted to forget Wounded Knee. But the Lakota remember.
Standing by the grave, Manuel Hatchett asks if a visitor wants to see some historic photographs of Wounded Knee.
During the tourist season, Hatchett, 22, often parks his car below the cemetery and waits to ambush sightseers, offering them a photographic tour of the killing fields of a century ago and asking for contributions toward construction of a Wounded Knee visitors’ center.
The sepia images in his 100-year-old photos are grisly but riveting. Blood-stained bodies, twisted into grotesque shapes by death and the cold of a long-ago winter, lay scattered across the now-placid landscape below the hills. When Hatchett raises the large photos to the horizon, the hills in the pictures line up eerily with the hills in front of the visitor. It’s like looking through a magic viewer to witness the carnage of a century past.
“I think the soldiers were drunk,” Hatchett says cautiously, as if unsure how the visitor will react to an Indian assessment of frontier soldiers. “They were celebrating Chief Big Foot’s capture and then all hell broke loose. This was the last conflict between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux Indians. I like to tell people about it – I’ve seen license plates from every state in the U.S. and from Germany, Italy, France, England, Australia, every country you can think of.”
Not everyone appreciates his pictures.
“Sometimes, people don’t like to look at these old pictures and see everyone frozen on the ground,” says Hatchett, lowering both his voice and the pictures. “A lot of people from the States are embarrassed to be white when they see these. They say they wish their ancestors weren’t like that.”
The Army, itself embarrassed, called the slaughter a battle and passed out nearly two dozen medals to the soldiers, some of whom had chased fleeing Indian women two or three miles to shoot them in the back. For years, the Indian survivors and their descendants, many of whom still live near Wounded Knee, couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about what had happened to Big Foot and his band of Minneconjou Sioux.
“Ask an Indian and he’s gonna tell you it was the white man’s fault,” shrugs a Sioux named Dennis Hendricks who is setting up tables for the evening bingo game at the Billy Mills Hall in nearby Pine Ridge. “If you ask a white man, he’s gonna tell you it was the Indians’ fault. To me, it’s just history, something that happened. I don’t know whose fault it was.”
Just history, something that happened. And yet, Wounded Knee remains a bitter symbol of the defeat of Native American peoples who were systematically deprived of their land, their culture, their religion and their pride.
In the terms used by the Lakota, the Sacred Hoop – the symbol of the traditional camp circle that represents the health, prosperity and spiritual well-being of the Sioux tribe – was broken at Wounded Knee. “A people’s dream died at Wounded Knee,” said Black Elk, the famous Lakota medicine man who had witnessed the massacre. “ The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.”
“We call it the Killing of Our Relatives,” says Alex White Plume, an official of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “We lost our culture, our language, our whole way of life and we’ve had 100 years of poverty and pain. We could never put a horrible thing like this behind us. But we’ll be out of mourning soon and we’ll at least be able to talk about it.”
Black Elk and other spiritual interpreters of the Sioux prophesied that the Lakota nation would be healed with the passing of seven generations after Wounded Knee. The seventh generation is coming soon, says White Plume. Soon, the Cangleska Wakan, the Sacred Hoop, will be mended.
“ The mending of the hoop means we’re going to live our natural way again,” says White Plume. “I don’t mean that we’re going to give up our houses and our cars. We don’t have to live in tepees to be Indians; we are Indians. But we are going to be a nation of honor and integrity again and we are going to live successfully.”
Near the grave where the victims of the massacre are buried, yawns the open foundation of a Catholic church that burned down after militants of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee in 1973 to protest conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
One corner of the ruined church basement is filled with tumbleweeds that have blown across the hills and over the concrete walls pock-marked by bullets. On the battered brick arch that leads to the cemetery, someone has painted:“AIM Stinks.” A later visitor, drawing a line through “stinks,” has added two new words. The altered message reads: “AIM is Cool.”
Traditional Lakota prayer offerings – tobacco parcels tied up in colorful ribbons – flutter in the wind from the chain-link fence that surrounds the grave. A feather, the traditional symbol of courage and strength, also has been tied to the fence by someone who has made a pilgrimage to the cemetery.
The map says this is South Dakota in the American Midwest. But it seems like a country much more distant than that. In many ways, Pine Ridge is a country unto its own.
More than 4,000 square miles in size, Pine Ridge is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together and home to about 22,000 Lakota Sioux. Most are Oglalas, a band that boasts of such famous past warriors as Crazy Horse and Red Cloud.
Pine Ridge is a place of rolling prairies, high buttes, sandy bluffs dotted with ponderosa pine ( the famed ridge that gives the reservation its name) and the bizarre, weather-beaten formations of the Badlands. The reservation squats in a huge territory bordered by the Black Hills on the west, the Rosebud Reservation (home of the Brule Sioux) on the east, Badlands National Park on the north and Nebraska on the south.
Vast as it is, Pine Ridge is almost a blank spot in the American mind.
It is best known for its problems – the poverty, unemployment and alcoholism that seem more characteristic of a Third World nation than the American heartland.
Per capita income on the reservation is about $4,600 a year, the lowest in the country and only about a third of the South Dakota average. Unemployment tops 80 percent. Out of a work force of more than 11,000, only 2,000 people are employed and most of those hold tribal or government jobs.
Alcoholism affects more than 80 percent of reservation families; nearly every family includes a drinker or a recovering alcoholic. Fetal alcohol syndrome, the devastating cluster of birth defects caused by maternal drinking, affects many Oglala children. Child abuse and neglect, despite the strong family traditions of the Sioux, are serious problems.
School dropout rates soared in recent years when both the curriculum and the discipline of reservation schools broke down. At the Oglala Community High School in Pine Ridge, the dropout rate reached nearly 75 percent a few years ago. This year, school officials hope 45 percent of the students who entered as freshmen in 1987 will graduate next spring.
Housing is another problem. Many homes, especially in rural districts, lack plumbing and safe drinking water. Most Oglalas live in small, government-built homes in scattered housing projects. Many of the homes, however, are substandard and overcrowded. It isn’t uncommon for 20 or more people to share a single-family home. The overcrowding can lead to emotional as well as physical discomfort.
One recent night, a 40-year-old unemployed Vietnam veteran named Delmar Dreaming Bear chose to sleep in an abandoned car, 20 miles away from his home in the tiny settlement of Oglala. The temperature would dip to 28 degrees but Dreaming Bear, who had not been drinking, preferred the car to his home, which has 22 people living in it, all members of his extended family.
Dreaming Bear is married and has an infant son. He has an artificial knee as a result of stepping on a Viet Cong mine in 1968 and receives a monthly disability payment of $644. After paying for groceries and heating fuel, the money lasts about a week. After that, he says, his family relies on government food commodities and general assistance to survive. When the money runs out, near the end of the month, the pressure increases.
“I had to get away,” says Dreaming Bear. “There’s 22 people living in my house – five families. That’s too many people. Sometimes, I need to go away.”
But the Pine Ridge Reservation is not the grim Third World country that the poverty and statistics might suggest. There also is much here that is familiar in small-town America.
The village of Pine Ridge, the largest town on the reservation, has no bank, no theater, no bowling alley, no hotel and no restaurant other than a Taco John’s drive-through. But on any given night, Big Bat’s Conoco station and convenience store is crowded with people.
Indian kids play the video games that line one wall while others order pieces of fried chicken and “jo-jos” (fried potatoes) from a fast-food counter. Big Bat’s also features a good selection of rental video tapes; the nearest movie theaters, in Rapid City, are 125 miles away.
One night early this month, the talk on the reservation, like the talk in thousands of small towns, centers on basketball. At Little Wound High School in the reservation town of Kyle (Little Wound was the name of a famous Oglala chief), a standing-room-only crowd has gathered to see the Little Wound Mustangs play the Pine Ridge Thorpes.
The Thorpes, of course, are named after legendary Indian athlete and football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe. Basketball is a serious game on Pine Ridge, where last year the Lady Thorpes won the South Dakota girls high school championship.
Pine Ridge is considered a big city in tiny Kyle, and the Thorpes’ win this night, 76-71. It looks like a night in any basketball gym from Bloomington, Minn., to Bloomington, Ind. – until you check the program for players’ names:
Donavan Running Hawk. Edwin Kills in Water. Eli Feather Earring. Fabian Black Bull. Filmore He Crow. Brian Brings Him Back.
On the wall of the gym, above the Thorpes’ cheering section, a hand-lettered sign reads, “Hoop it up!” The message has several meanings. “Hoop” refers to basketball, the game of “hoops.” And it hearkens back to the Indian war “whoop” of old. But to the audience of 800 Sioux basketball fans crammed into a gymnasium in Kyle, S.D., “hoop” also stands for the Sacred Hoop of the Lakota Sioux.
For this is not Middle America. This is the Lakota Nation, a country of awesome physical beauty, imposing isolation and intractable social and economic problems. Incredibly, considering the difficulties that the Sioux have encountered, it also is a place where the soul of a people endures.
After 25 years away from the reservation, Cecilia Fire Thunder didn’t remember what she had missed the most about her childhood home. It didn’t hit her until after she had returned to Pine Ridge, on an evening when she was driving across the reservation.
Pine Ridge stretches 90 miles from east to west, and the villages are scattered 30 or more miles apart. Suddenly, Fire Thunder felt awed by the open sky and the endless swell of rolling prairie. She stopped on the highway.
“As far as my eyes could see, there was nothing but land and sky,” she said. “Out here, you can see the weather change 100 miles away. Until that day, I didn’t realize how much I missed the land.”
Fire Thunder was born at Pine Ridge but moved with her family to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, when she was 15. The move was part of an Indian “termination” program in which the government promised jobs for Indians who agreed to leave reservations. Fire Thunder’s father got a job in a produce plant; she got a chance to thrive in the multiethnic culture of California.
Fire Thunder is a nurse, but she also has been active in politics. She is a veteran of several California political campaigns, worked in the California Legislature and was an official in a nurse’s union in San Diego. Four years ago, at age 40, she returned to Pine Ridge to work as the health planner for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
“You have to leave the reservation to know what the real world is like and how to get along with people,” Fire Thunder says. “If you live in oppression and poverty, that’s all you’ll know. I learned skills out there I could never have learned here. But as Lakotas, we have a responsibility to our people, to come back and help them recognize the things that are wrong here.”
At Pine Ridge, Fire Thunder helped form the Oglala Lakota Women’s Society, an activist group that has crusaded against alcoholism on the reservation.
Fire Thunder hands a sheet of statistics to a visitor. The numbers are astonishing: Almost 12,000 crimes were committed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the year that ended Sept. 30. Only 94 were classified as major crimes (there were three murders), but there were 464 assaults, 123 cases of child abuse and 856 cases in which a child or spouse had to be placed in protective custody.
“Ninety percent of all these things are alcohol-related,” Fire Thunder says. “Families are being devastated, communities are falling apart … Our leaders should say they will be sober and alcohol-free.”
Last year, the women’s society pushed a mandatory arrest law through the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, ordering tribal police to arrest offenders when answering domestic abuse calls. The year before that, the women’s society succeeded in making alcoholism the central issue in tribal elections by focusing on the drinking habits of candidates for tribal office.
“We went to all the meetings and looked the candidates in the eye and asked, `Are you sober?”’ Fire Thunder recalls. “No one had ever done that before. We asked the people to only vote for sober candidates. We said that if you’re drinking and your people are being decimated by alcoholism – physically, emotionally and spiritually – it’s a sign of weakness. Pretty soon, candidates were coming up to the mike at meetings to say they weren’t drinking.”
Today, Fire Thunder says, nearly 100 percent of the tribe’s council members are sober, a claim that few non-Indian city councils can make. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held regularly on the reservation and many alcoholics have turned to traditional Lakota religious rites, such as the sun dance and the sweat lodge, for help in overcoming their drinking.
Like many Lakota, Fire Thunder talks of healing and recovery on the reservation in terms of “coming back into the circle,” by which she means returning to traditional ways and connections. Traditional values are helpful, Fire Thunder says, because the Lakota are still in mourning for the life that ended when the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.
“Indian people are still grieving,” she says. “We’re grieving a way of living, a way of thinking and a way of feeling that was taken from us. When you have a high rate of poverty and a high rate of everything else, you have a tremendous sense of helplessness.
“There are no clear-cut answers to our problems. The only thing that can change us is us. No one on the outside can come in and talk about our problems because part of our healing is for us to say what our problems are. We’re teaching people to fight back, to ask questions. We’re learning, as we say in Lakota, to get back our power.”
Many Lakota feel the tension of being trapped between two very different worlds.
Reginald Cedar Face, an administrator at the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge, says young people on the reservation often fall into “a third world” between the white and Lakota traditions. As a result, he says, many flounder, claiming to belong to both traditions but refusing to live by the discipline of either.
“A lot of kids jump back and forth,” Cedar Face says. “If they don’t like something about the Indian way, they say, `That’s not how to do it in the white world.’ If they don’t like something about the white world, they say, `That’s not how Indians do it.’ They’re a little bit in the white world and a little bit in the Indian world. But mostly, they’re in a world of their own making where anything goes because there’s no right or wrong.”
The mixture of the two traditions, white and Indian, Christian and Lakota, is evident in every function of life on the reservation. So is the deep spirituality of the Sioux.
At the monthly meeting of the Wakpamni District Council (there are nine districts on the reservation), 30 or 40 people are finishing a dinner of fry bread, soup and coffee in a semi-circular, high-ceilinged room that is an architect’s homage to the Indian tepee of a century ago.
Almost everyone is smoking a cigarette; many have a hacking cough. Tobacco, which Indians believe helps carry human prayers to the spirit world, is a blessing. Consumed at a rate of three or four packs a day, it also is a curse.
A gray-haired woman named Beatrice Weasel Bear steps through the cloud of smoke to offer a prayer to begin the meeting. Weasel Bear, wearing a quilted coat, folds her hands and closes her eyes as she begins to speak rapidly in Lakota. The words come in torrents as she invokes the blessings of Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, on the people of Wakpamni. This is no perfunctory prayer. It is long and heartfelt.
As the minutes pass, her prayer becomes more intense, a litany in Lakota of thanksgivings and requests. At intervals, the flow of Lakota is interrupted by English words dropped into the prayer like rocks into a stream – words such as “Oglala Sioux tribe,” “tribal officers” and “Vincent Tobacco Jr. family.” The mention of Tobacco, who has died at 41, leaving eight children, brings tears to Weasel Bear’s face.
Soon, everyone is crying and Weasel Bear’s voice breaks with emotion. Abruptly, she brings the prayer to a close with the English word, “Amen.” The people reply, “Hau,” the Lakota word that means yes, or we agree. Then the crowd settles on the benches along the curved wall beneath a mural of an elk standing by a mountain lake and, incongruously, a print of Winslow Homer’s painting, “ The Sea.”
The meeting begins with a complaint: A man says his aunt hasn’t received payment from the white rancher who rents her land to graze his cattle. His aunt needs the money before Christmas. He wants to know if the rancher will be penalized by the tribal government.
Michael Fairbanks, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent for Pine Ridge, offers assurance. The BIA is getting tough with ranchers, he says; if they don’t pay on time, their leases on Indian land will be canceled.
“Through the years, our battles have been fought with weapons and bullets,” says Fairbanks, an Ojibway from Minnesota. “Nowadays, the battles are fought with papers.”
Alex White Plume believes the battle will be won with prayers of healing.
White Plume came back to the circle eight years ago when he decided to follow the ways of the sacred pipe, the traditional religion of the Sioux. At 38, he’s the “Fifth Member” on the tribal executive board, the appointed tie-breaker at tribal meetings. He also acts as something of an ombudsman, dealing with complaints about houses with sagging floors or talking to tribal elders about their personal concerns.
White Plume’s father was a farm worker who baled hay for white landowners in Nebraska, just over the reservation line. When Alex was 11, his father was killed in a fight with drunken Indians in Gordon, Neb. White Plume’s mother died four years later, leaving Alex and 14 siblings without parents.
“I became the mom and dad,” says White Plume. “Welfare put my brothers and sisters in the orphanage but I was living with my grandpa. I would steal his car, go to the orphanage and sneak away with my brothers and sisters. For a year and a half, I didn’t go to school at all. Finally, the welfare made me and grandpa co-guardians for my brothers and sisters.”
White Plume’s paternal grandfather, Robert White Plume, was an Episcopal priest; his maternal grandfather practiced the Lakota religion. White Plume felt torn between the Christian and traditional ways until he decided to “pick up the pipe” in 1982. The pipe, he says, “makes me happy.”
Like most Lakota, White Plume, whose hair is long enough for a ponytail, doesn’t like to talk about the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. The occupation by armed members of the American Indian Movement split the reservation into factions. In the aftermath, killings were common; two FBI agents died in a 1975 shootout that also claimed the life of an AIM activist.
White Plume sums up the effects of the occupation this way: “Before ’73, we all had butch haircuts and cheered for John Wayne. We thought it was bad to be an Indian. Since then, we have a lot more pride in being Indian. Long hair is back.”
But he would rather talk about the original Wounded Knee tragedy, the 1890 massacre. To him, that is the event that has shaped life on Pine Ridge the most.
Four years ago, Curtis Kills Ree, a Lakota medicine man, told White Plume that the spirits wanted the people to commemorate the massacre. White Plume helped organize a Big Foot Memorial Ride, retracing on horseback the 150-mile route taken by Big Foot’s band before the bloodshed at Wounded Knee.
This year’s ride, the fifth, also was the last. It concluded at Wounded Knee on Saturday with a sacred pipe ritual called the releasing of the spirits, a traditional ceremony used to free the spirits of the dead from the cares of this world and to allow their loved ones to start a new life.
White Plume says that, 100 years after the massacre, the Lakota are approaching a mystical healing point. Seven generations, the old medicine men said. That’s how long it would take. By White Plume’s reckoning, with each generation counted as 15 years, the seventh generation arrives in 1995.
“Right now, we still live in a state of confusion,” he says. “We’re a nation of people but we were surrounded by a greater nation that took our land and exterminated our way of life until we were conquered and captured here. We don’t really know who we are or what we are in life. No one can respect the Sioux nation until we come together and declare our leadership.”
For White Plume and many Lakota, the future hinges on a return of the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, the place they believe is the spiritual center of the Sioux. Confiscated from the Sioux in 1877, the Black Hills remain in their hearts and in their plans.
“Everything revolves on getting the Black Hills back,” White Plume says. “ The Lakota people have a natural way of life and we are finding our roots again. If we get the Black Hills back, our dignity will be restored to us. It will give us pride to have our treaty honored at last.”
The Black Hills are tantalizingly close to Pine Ridge, brooding on the horizon, 70 miles to the west. From the buttes of Pine Ridge, it looks as if you could touch the Hills, a mecca for tourists and home to such famous attractions as Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park. Ever since the Oglalas were confined to Pine Ridge, the Black Hills have taunted them with memories of the wealth and freedom they once enjoyed.
The Sioux were promised in treaties signed in 1851 and 1868 that they could keep the Black Hills. But after gold was discovered there during an 1874 military survey by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the government wanted the Sioux to relinquish the Hills.
The St. Paul Pioneer, a forerunner of the Pioneer Press, was one of many newspapers that beat the drum for a white takeover of the Hills. The Pioneer commissioned a University of Minnesota English professor, A.B. Donaldson, to travel with Custer. Donaldson’s reports described the Hills as a paradise of wild game, clear water, timber and gold. The only problem, he concluded after two month’s of dispatches, was the Sioux.
Should this “grand and beautiful Eden” be left to the Sioux, Donaldson asked, calling the Indians “ the most obstinately depraved nomad that bears the `human form divine’?” Or should the Black Hills be appropriated for people “through whose veins thrills the noble Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and German blood” and who were now “demanding it for their homes?”
For the whites, the answer was easy.
After Custer and the 7th Cavalry were annihilated at the Little Bighorn by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in 1876 ( the army was trying to force the Indians onto reservations), Congress opened the Black Hills to white settlement. The Sioux have never acquiesced.
In 1980 – 103 years after the Hills were taken – the U.S. Supreme Court said the confiscation was illegal. Said the court: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” The court ruled the Indians should have been paid $17 million for the Hills; with simple interest, the Sioux were owed $106 million.
But the Sioux have refused the payment, which has been collecting interest since 1980 and now totals $230 million. The Sioux say fair compensation would be $2 billion or more, but they aren’t haggling over the price of their sacred land. The money is important – but not as important as the spiritual and emotional treasures they say are stored in the Hills.
In September, U.S. Rep. Matthew Martinez, a California Democrat, introduced a bill called the Sioux Nation Black Hills Restoration Act. The bill, similar to one that was defeated in 1987, is known as the Grey Eagle Bill because it is supported by an organization of tribal elders known as the Grey Eagle Society.
If adopted, the Grey Eagle bill would give the Sioux 1.3 million unoccupied, federally owned acres in the Black Hills – 18 percent of the total area of the Hills. Eighty percent of the Sioux land would be set aside for a Black Hills Sioux National Park open to all; the remaining 20 percent would be reserved for the exclusive use of the Sioux.
No white landowners would lose any property. Still, South Dakota ‘s political leaders continue to resist the Sioux claim on the Hills. The Indians, resigned to white opposition to their claim, jokingly call the white politicians “Indian fighters.”
South Dakota has a poor reputation in the area of Indian and white relations (Indians represent 75,000 of the state’s 700,000 people). Recently, an assistant state’s attorney in Lake Andes, S.D., made a statement labeling Indian culture as one of “hopelessness, godlessness and joblessness.”
Attitudes, however, may be slowly changing.
South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson declared 1990, the centennial of the Wounded Knee massacre, a “Year of Reconciliation” between the state’s whites and Indians.
“It’s taken us 100 years since Wounded Knee to get to the point of talking about reconciliation,” says Mickelson’s press secretary, Gretchen Lord Anderson. “But at least people are talking about it now.”
As proof that the Year of Reconciliation is having an effect, Anderson cites the state’s recent decision to celebrate “Native American Day” on Columbus Day. The event was marred somewhat when Mickelson ordered the cover of the official Native American Day program changed after he learned that the Indian artist who did the design was in prison for shooting a highway patrolman. And Mickelson does not support the Black Hills claim of the Sioux.
“ The governor believes we can’t change history,” says his press secretary. “We can learn from it but we can’t change it.”
In January, she said, Mickelson plans to declare a Century of Reconciliation. It may take that long.
If history has a burden, there are few places where it weighs more heavily than at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the other pieces of Indian country that fill the forgotten spaces of South Dakota .
Chief Red Cloud ( the Lakota name, Mahpiya Luta, means red sky or red cloud) was born at the time a fiery red meteor flashed across the Great Plains; the meteor was witnessed by soldiers at Fort Snelling in Minnesota in September 1822.
In 1866 and 1867, Red Cloud led the Sioux in a guerrilla campaign, known as “Red Cloud’s War,” that halted white settlement of the Powder River country in Wyoming. Later, reluctantly, he agreed to bring his free-roaming people to a reservation.
“ The Great Spirit raised me in this land and it belongs to me,” Red Cloud said. “I have but a small spot of land left. The Great Spirit told me to keep it.”
Today, Oliver Red Cloud lives in a tiny house on a hill west of Pine Ridge village. At night, from Red Cloud’s yard, you can see the lights of the town established in 1889 as a trading agency for the Oglalas and Red Cloud, their chief.
Oliver Red Cloud, 72, is Chief Red Cloud’s great -grandson and he is regarded by many Oglalas as their hereditary chief. Red Cloud recently retired after 32 years of maintaining reservation wells and water pumps for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now, he spends his days going to meetings and talking with other tribal elders at the tribal offices in Pine Ridge.
Sitting near the sizzling wood stove that heats his sparsely furnished home, Red Cloud chainsmokes Marlboros down to the filters and, like his great -grandfather once did, talks about Indian land and the future of the Lakota.
“Wounded Knee is not the future,” he says, waving his hand to dismiss a question about the significance of the anniversary of the 1890 massacre. “What happened that year has already happened. I’m not real interested in that. I’m interested in the Black Hills.”
As hereditary chief, he has no real political authority on the reservation but he wields a moral authority. Wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a vest, he looks like a retired rancher. But when he speaks about “ the generations,” the future heirs of the Lakota legacy, it is with the gravity of a man who feels responsible for the Oglalas.
“ The Black Hills is the future for the generations,” Red Cloud says, lighting another cigarette. “If we had the Black Hills, we would be the richest Indian people in the world – coal, oil, timber, gold. But the government sees that, so it holds us down. That’s why they won’t give them back to us.”
Without the Black Hills, Red Cloud worries that the Lakota are doomed to disappear. Taking up reservation life “civilized” the Lakota, he says. But after a century of civilization, the Lakota are in danger of losing their identity.
“Right now, we’re having a lot of trouble setting up for the future, for the generations,” he says. “I’m afraid all the Indians will be gone. Yes, it makes me sad. I’m afraid all this Indian blood will go away, in time.”
Red Cloud sighs and exhales a shroud of smoke. Then, as if seeking an example of the problem, he points to his 11-year-old granddaughter, Melissa, who is quietly watching TV in the corner under a photograph of old Chief Red Cloud.
“There’s my daughter’s daughter,” Red Cloud says. “She don’t even learn one Indian word!”
Melissa is watching “Cheers” on a fuzzy screen that barely catches the signal of a far-away TV station. But when her grandfather accuses her of not knowing any Lakota words, Melissa jumps up, laughing.
“I do, too, know an Indian word,” she tells her grandfather. “Mni!”
“Mni” means “water” in Lakota and Red Cloud laughs with appreciation and commends his granddaughter by replying with the Lakota word meaning, “Good!”
“Waste!,” he says, pronouncing it Wash-TAY. “Waste!”
A hundred years ago, the Sacred Hoop was broken. Today, there are a few, fragile signs that the old medicine men of the Lakota were right, that the hoop may some day be mended and the camp circle of the Sioux may once again be intact.
The medicine men said the coming of the seventh generation will signal an era of healing and restoration. A hundred years after the bodies of Big Foot and his people lay, scattered and frozen, along a creek called Wounded Knee, the Lakota await the mending of the Sacred Hoop.
“We know it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Alex White Plume, the tribal leader who helped organize the Wounded Knee commemoration. “But we don’t have to suffer for another 100 years. We are going to wipe the tears of the descendants of our relatives who were wiped out at Wounded Knee.
“Then, we are going to open our eyes to how good it is to be Lakota.”
Offering an eerie glimpse into a bloody past,
Caption: Photo: Nebraska State Historical Society Red Cloud 19 Photos: Photos By Miso and Lida Suchy 1) Manuel Hatchett shows a photo of frozen bodies at the Wounded Knee massacre battlefield as he stands on the exact spot nearly 100 years later. 2) Wayne Waters of Pine Ridge crosses a highway on the reservation. 3) Blindfolded contestants await the call to begin a pie-eating contest during a Halloween powwow at Wounded Knee District School at Manderson. 4) Timothy King, 7, finds comfort from the Rev. Joseph Sheehan during a wake at Manderson. The Jesuit priest is one of four assigned to minister to members of 17 Catholic churches on the reservation. 5) The Oglala tribe is sponsoring construction of new homes at Oglala. Placing forms for a foundation are, from left, Marty Goings, Bob Martin and Kevin Merrival. 6) Ty Ann Pourier, 2, rests at a Pine Ridge company’s day care center for employee children. 7) The flag-draped coffin of a former U.S. serviceman is carried by fellow war veterans after a three-day wake from a community hall in Pine Ridge. 8) Rev. Bill Pauly, above, baptizes an infant at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. 9) Duane Blindman comes often to pray and reflect at a place named Slim Buttes. “(We) have to have an understanding with one another and realize the fact that we have no place to go, so we have to get along.” 10) A cold autumn night finds Melissa Red Cloud, left, in her mnother’s wheelchair watching TV while her uncle Paul warms himself in front of a wood-burning stove. 11) Elsewhere in Oglala, gently rolling hills are the backdrop for a basketball game. 12) Two children in a home near Slim Buttes play with toy guns whilea third settles in to watch TV. 13) A Wounded Knee road is the playground for 4-year-old Numpa White Plume, who rides a stick for his horse as he practices lassoing a skateboarding friend, Ozuja Davis. 14) A buffalo that broke free from a fenced pasture was butchered after being shot. 15) Fence-mending brings together three generations of a family. Seventy-six-year-old Evelyn Garnier works with Leonard and Robin Her Many Horses as 4-year-old Robert plays in the pasture where the family’s horses are kept. 16) Though Oglala tribal law prohibits alcohol on the reservation, it is big business in White Clay, Neb., just a few yards from the Pine Ridge border. A drinking party, right, takes place around the corner from a packaged-beer sales store. 17) The session has ended, above, cut short by a fight. 18) A U.S. food commodities program provides some basics to those who qualify. Distribution is from trucks that make the rounds of reservation communities. 19) Breaking horses has been a lifelong interest of 63-year-old Morris Wounded, who can no longer ride because of an injured knee. The former hand on South Dakota and Nebraska ranches passes his experiences along to his 19-year-old son.