As we moved up the hill towards the monument, Desiree Rowland, a ten-year old Sioux Indian, pointed towards the west, to her home a half a mile away. Rowland was playful and giggled as she led us towards the monument.
As we climbed the small knoll hundreds of grasshoppers exploded from the dry brown grass and into the fading twilight of the warm summer evening. My eight-year-old daughter, Chelsea, and I, had traveled west from Waterbury in search of adventure and intrigue. We had set out to explore the West during an 18 day, 7000 mile jaunt in our 1984 Mazda pick-up truck. And now here we were on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, at Wounded Knee, learning about a tragedy I had heard about, but never fully comprehended.
Wounded Knee has become ingrained in the collective consciousness of mainstream society, but really, how many of us know what happened at Wounded Knee? The history of the west and the struggle with the great Indian nations has been written almost exclusively from the winners point of view - white invaders from the east
I set out to explore the modern west this summer and examine our fascination with "Cowboys and Indians''. In addition I wanted to drench myself in the wide open spaces that make the west such a vast and fascinating destination. It was to become a journey into the past, into my childhood. I had grown up idolizing General George Armstrong Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, Davy Crockett and the mountain men who helped settle the west. I had read dozens of books glorifying the white man's attempt to civilize and tame the west. Now it was time for me to head back west and see if I could find the rest of the story.
When we reached the crest of the hill Desiree Rowland leaned on a white picket fence around the monument and smiled. She had led us to this understated monument after trying to sell us Indian trinkets she and her Auntie had made. They set up a small table at the base of the hill and sold dream catchers and earrings to tourists coming to see Wounded Knee. When Desiree came running over to our truck to snag us, we instead snagged her. We started asking her questions and she sat on the back of our truck and talked for 30 minutes.
She tried her best to explain the significance of Wounded Knee, but she and Chelsea weren't interested in history. They wanted to play. They started teasing each other, pushing and laughing, and continued to goof around while we hiked up the hill towards the monument. The sun was setting as we reached the top and hundreds of purple clouds floated across a sky so grand it bordered on ludicrous. As I soaked in the astounding beauty of the moment I asked Desiree if any of her family was buried on the hill.
She said yes, and then walked past the monument, past the picket fence and into a small graveyard on the other side of the hill. This spot hadn't been visible from the road and Desiree opened a little gate and brought us into her family's burial plot. She pointed to a small marker with stones and trinkets surrounding it. "That's where my little cousin is buried,'' she said. "She died just a few months ago. And over here is where my nephew is buried. He died a few weeks ago. He was just a baby.''
She showed us an aunt who died in her twenties when she was run over by a car. The tragedies seemed endless. And modern. I later found out the mortality rate for children on the reservation was high and that diabetes and alcoholism were killing the adults. Poverty was rampant and most Indians on the reservation subsisted on welfare.
Desiree continued talking about her deceased family members when Chelsea, who is becoming a rock hound, spotted a shiny stone and bent down and scooped it up. But the rock had been placed on a gravesite next to a plastic doll and some trinkets. Desiree gently told Chelsea she had to leave the rock on the grave, that it was bad luck to take anything away from the cemetery. Just then a grasshopper landed on Desiree's arm and she softly picked it off and examined it.
The grasshopper sat in the palm of Desiree's hand and she brought it close to her face and said "Hello Mr. Grasshopper, you better be on your way.'' And with that she extended her arm and a stiff prairie wind carried the grasshopper away. Just then a car horn blared and Desiree sprinted off to her Auntie, who had packed the table and was headed home.
Chelsea and I stood for a minute on top of the hill at Wounded Knee and watched Auntie's headlights carve a path through the onrushing night. We watched as the car made its way around a big bend and come to a halt half a mile away at Desiree Rowland's house.
I stood for a moment completely engulfed in the night, swallowed by the history of Wounded Knee. A tug on my shirt brought me back to the present and Chelsea and I walked down the hill and back to our truck. Merel Temple, a self-described cowboy, makes his living in South Dakota on a horse.
He brands cattle and states ``part of a Cowboy's pride is his horse.'' Temple lives on a ranch just inside the Pine Ridge Reservation.
We had ended up on the Pine Ridge Reservation due to happenstance and the strange coincidences that make life wonderful. Just a few days before we headed west I was at the post office in downtown Waterbury and bumped into Diane Lombard. I'd met her a few times during the past year and we casually talked about the Observer. I mentioned I was headed out west in a few days and her eyes lit up. She wanted to know where.
When I told her South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado she said she'd just come back from there a few weeks before. She had driven her daughter, Bridgete, out to South Dakota, where she had volunteered for a year to work at an Indian school on the Pine Ridge Reservation. >Waterbury native Bridget Lombard is spending the next year as a volunteer teacher at an Indian School in Porcupine, South Dakota. A recent graduate at Fairfield University, Lombard has been at Pine Ridge Reservation since early August.>
Now my eyes lit up. I got Bridget's address and several days later we arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Porcupine, South Dakota. Bridget is 22 years old and a recent graduate from Fairfield University. She lives next to the school in a house with five young ladies who have all volunteered to teach at the school for a year. They are young, energetic and infused with idealism hard to find in today's society. They have come to help.
"I've always had an interest in the Indian culture,'' Bridget said. "I used to take out books from the library in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, but it was hard to imagine what it would be like here.''
After the 2000 mile drive from Waterbury she said she was surprised how open the reservation was. She had imagined boundaries, perhaps a gate, but there was just a small sign on a desolate stretch of highway just south of the Badland's National Park. Bridget works in the school library and was just settling into to her new environment when we visited. She had attended her first Pow-Wow, eaten an Indian taco and was looking forward to a year of discovery.
One of Bridget's housemates, Alicia Howard, recently graduated from college in NYC with an anthropology degree. Her focus of study had been North American Indians so she was well versed on the history of the Plains Indians. It didn't take much prodding to get her going.
"There was a war for the west,'' she said. "but the Americans didn't fight fair. We won the war with complete dishonor. We had no values or morals and can't admit to our own greediness.''
Most of what we have learned about the western struggle has been sugarcoated propaganda from the United States Government, the media, Hollywood and book publishers. We grew up watching westerns on TV that portrayed the Indians as sneaks, lurking behind every tree and ridge, waiting to ambush the unsuspecting and angelic settler. The truth of the Indian wars is far different than the one most of us were reared with.
Part of the lure of the west is wide open space and desolate stretches of highway. We spent dozens of hours driving across empty expanses of grassland and prairies, our windows down and the stereo turned up full blast. Our favorite tape on the trip was a compilation of songs produced by Waterbury musician Eddie Seville and the Steel Rodeo Band. They sang of endless open roads and the yearning to be somewhere else. With nothing but the wind in our hair, and Steel Rodeo in our ears, we drove for hours, totally relaxed, away from telephones, enjoying a vast sea of grassland.
During my two weeks out west I managed to read one intense book that gave a vastly different version of history than the one I had been taught in school. I had a solid notion that the Indians had been screwed by expansion, but I didn't really know the details. While staying on the reservation for two days I read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' by Dee Brown. On the cover it states it is an Indian History of the American West, covering the turbulent period from 1860-1890.
I also purchased an audio book called 500 Nations, which was based on a CBS Documentary film series. The tapes gave a three hour, wide sweeping look at Indian history in North America. An overview of thousands of years of rich cultural history and Indian expansion. The notion that Christopher Columbus discovered America is as silly and far fetched as saying Bill Clinton is the first president of the United States.
Columbus may have been the first white European in America, but he most assuredly didn't discover it. In 1492 there were millions of Indians settled in Central and North America. They'd been here for thousands of years. However, during the next 400 years white invaders shattered the Indian culture, murdered millions of Indians and laid waste to 500 separate Indian nations. The massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee was the final blow to the Indians and destroyed their last tattered hope for freedom. The massacre at Wounded Knee ended 400 years of conquest.
And it was at Wounded Knee, 100 years later, that I began to question my childhood notion of heroes. I began my search by interviewing several Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I sat down with Everett Lone Hill, a 53-year-old teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School, and had a wide sweeping conversation. Lone Hill's job is to teach the young Indian students Lakota, the traditional language and culture of the Sioux.
"Much of what happened 100 years ago was because of the cultural differences in the two ways of life,'' Lone Hill said. "We didn't understand each others culture. The white man came and watched ceremonies, didn't understand them, and said the Indians were savages. What the white men did back then we now call prejudice and racism.''
To Lone Hill and millions of Indians it was the white men who were the invaders. "When Columbus landed the Indians should have kicked the shit out of him,'' Lone Hill said. "He was the intruder, but the Indians shared things. That was our way.''
Lone Hill is discouraged by life on the reservation and says "It stinks. We have no leaders because they have all been bought off. There is no spirituality here anymore. It's been shattered. The government took away our way of life and took away our integrity. The one good thing the U.S. government did was provide us with an education. Give the kids the right tools and they might be able to leave the reservation and have a better way of life.''
One evening while Chelsea and I were staying in Porcupine with our six lovely hostesses, Johnny Cross Dog and Dennis Locke came over for dinner, and conversation. Cross Dog, in his late twenties or early thirties, has lived in NYC and California, but said he prefers the quiet and solitude of the reservation to the "rat race.'' He lives outside of town and believes the old way of life was a good way to live. At one point he stopped using the English language to immerse himself in Lakota. After several years of English inactivity he says his English is rusty and he sometimes struggles for the right word when describing his emotions and feelings.
Cross Dog said he has been saddened by some of the capitalistic urges he sees on the reservation. "Some of our own people are cashing in on Indian spirituality,'' he said. "People will let tourists buy into closed ceremonies ( a sun dance or a sweat lodge) for $2500. But spirituality is not a religion, it is a way of life.''
Sitting Bull and General George Armstrong Custer were two leaders that met on a fateful day in June of 1876. The U.S. government had broken several treaties with the Sioux Indians, badgered them off their reservation after discovering gold in the Black Hills, and hunted them down at the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana. When Custer disobeyed orders and attacked a massive gathering of Sioux, his entire squad was killed. It was a tremendous victory for the Sioux and the worst defeat the army suffered at the hands of the Indians. The event is shrouded in hype and myth.
Many of the Lakota still go by traditional Indian names. In the school at Porcupine there is Charlie Thunder Hawk, and first names like Whisper, Sunshine, Destiny, Feather, Ginger and Golden. In a 1979 yearbook some of the students names were Viola He Crow, Lawrence Lone Elk, Florence Plenty Holes, John Attack Him, Roland Bear Killer and Doris Respects Nothing. One of the teacher's favorite names now at the school is Tangerine Dream.
The Black Hills
Less than 20 miles to the west of the Pine Ridge Reservation is the Black Hills, a sacred and hallowed spot to the Lakota Sioux. The Indians had lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin for hundreds of years before moving onto the great plains in the 1700's. Despite many attempts now to paint the Sioux in a sympathetic light, they were an aggressive people who were often at war with other Indian tribes. The Sioux were renowned for their fearlessness and in the height of their glory dominated a great swath of land which is now North and South Dakota, northern Nebraska, eastern Wyoming and portions of Montana.
As restless easterners began to press westward violent encounters between whites and Indians led the federal government to negotiate with the Indians and sign peace treaties. But before the ink dried on a treaty the government perpetually changed positions. Once worthless land was now of considerable value and the government forced Indians to re negotiate treaties and move on to new and smaller land. Over and over the government signed and broke treaties with the Sioux.
Finally, in a historic treaty signed in 1868 at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, the United States government said the Sioux could live in the Black Hills forever. It was to be Indian territory and whites could not travel to it, or through it, without Indian permission. Several years later the Indians complained to the government that prospectors were coming into the Black Hills and if the government couldn't keep whites out the Indians would kill them.
Greg Hanneman and his dog, Spock, spent a month cruising the west on a motorcycle. They are from La Grange, Texas, but we met up with them in a campground in Cody, Wyoming.
The government issued a warning for whites to stay out of the Black Hills but made only half-hearted attempts to enforce the treaty. Then in 1873 George Custer led an army expedition into the Black Hills and a member of the party discovered gold. Suddenly the sacred Indian land had much more than spiritual value, there were fortunes to be made there. As thousands of prospectors flocked into the Black Hills the Sioux again sought help from the government to keep the whites out. Instead of helping, the government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux.
But the Indians said this was their sacred land and it was not for sale. The government persisted and when the Indians refused to sell the government decided to seize the Black Hills by force. The Sioux were now killing invaders onto their lands and war was eminent. Angered at the repeated lies from the government, several Indian tribes banded together along the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana. It was one of the largest gathering of Plains Indians in history. Into that hornets nest rode a soldier bound for glory - General George Armstrong Custer.
Mardell Moore and Richard Dale Lund, of Seattle, Washington, were traveling across the
west collecting butterflies when we met them in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
Now, more than a century later, the Black Hills have become one of the biggest tourist attractions in North America. The images of five presidents is chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore, hundreds of thousands of visitors stream into Deadwood to gamble in dozens of casinos, and everywhere billboards scream out "Pan for Gold!'', "Enjoy an authentic Stage Coach dinner'' or "Come see Live Bears''.
The Black Hills have transformed into a carnival for tourists clamoring for an authentic western experience. In Custer State Park there are thousands of free roaming buffalo. The town of Sturgis in the northern section of the hills hosts one of the largest bike rallies in North America. The town of less than 10,000 residents is overrun annually by more than 200,000 motorcyclists. The modern cowboy on horseback.
Alicia Howard, one of the teachers at the Indian School back in Porcupine said the Black Hills "have become another Coney Island.'' She said the west has transformed into a big myth in America's psyche. "It's the last vestibule of a dream and America doesn't want to let go of it. We hold onto the west like we try to hold onto our youth. America loves youth.''
Mythology of the western experience is also played out in modern culture, Howard said. You see it when children play cowboys and Indians, but you can also see it with adults, too. The west has become a deep esoteric notion that says we are young and carefree. We have no borders, no boundaries, we can keep on pushing westward.
"We hold on so tight to this dream because we don't want to be confined,'' Howard said. "We don't want to sacrifice the idealism of self. We are young and nothing is ever going to stop us.''
Minutes after a fruitless attempt at gold panning in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, we encountered two moose in one of the trip's magic moments. We were alone on top of a mountain pass for more than an hour watching the mother and calf eat brush.
But like Coney Island the Black Hills have become ghostly, reminiscent of an ideal gone by. To the Indians the Black Hills have become a tragedy. It was the place they had gone to for hundreds of years in search of spirituality. Men went into the Black Hills on vision quests, to seek spiritual advice. After the treaty in 1868 the Sioux were promised the Black Hills forever. But after gold was discovered the promise was broken. Now, to many Indians, the Black Hills are tarnished with the heads of five dead presidents.
Little Big Horn
In the Spring of 1876 the United States Government, at the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant, was determined to bring the Indians under control. Grant's mission was to "Christianize and civilize the Indian and train him in the arts of peace.''
Thousands of Sioux fled the Black Hills to rendezvous with several other tribes just north of the Big Horn Mountains in southern Montana. They were equally determined to remain free. Sitting Bull spoke of the white man's culture and said "You are fools to make yourself slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard tack and a little sugar and coffee.''
The Lakota word for the white man was Wasicu, which translates into "He Who Takes the Fat''.
It was a complete clash of cultures.
The government waited until the winter's snow melted before sending more than 2000 soldiers to engage the Indians and force them onto reservations. The army split into three groups, one of them led by General George Armstrong Custer, the dashing hero of the Civil War. Custer was only 35 years old but his name had become synonymous with courage and he was eyeing a potential presidential run.
One of the largest herd of buffalo in North America is in Custer State park in South Dakota.
One early morning drive our truck was surrounded by a passing herd of 500 buffalo.
The three armies were to rendezvous on June 28th and engage the Indians with the might of 2000 cavalry soldiers. Custer arrived at the meeting spot early and decided to press onward and engage the Sioux with his 700 men. He split his 7th Cavalry into three groups and set out to attack. Ignoring orders to refrain from attacking and ignoring warnings from his scouts that 4000 Indians lay ahead, Custer led his men into a direct frontal assault June 25.
Within hours every man under his command lay dead. The Indians under the direction of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse overwhelmed the soldiers. The news that Custer and 250 men had been wiped out reached Washington D.C. during a gala ceremony marking the country's first 100 years. Americans were shocked and angry and demanded revenge on the Indians. An outraged nation read newspaper accounts of bloodthirsty Indians massacring hundreds of brave American soldiers.
But the reality of the situation was quite the opposite. The United States Government lied to the Indians, harassed them, drove them from their sacred lands and then tried to exterminate them. Who was bloodthirsty?
Steve Ashton plays the part of Wild Bill Hickok at Salon #10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. He reenacts the murder of Hickok several times a day for tourists and we caught up with him while he was drinking a cup of java on a bench outside the bar.
"People make a big deal about Hitler trying to kill millions of Jews,'' Ashton said. "But the United States Government killed millions of Indians. We did the same thing as Hitler. People make a big deal about Custer saying how brave he was to attack the Indians. Well he was just plain stupid. He rode into the largest encampment of Sioux Indians ever gathered together and was killed. Is that brave or stupid?''
Ashon's theory about the Custer legend revolves around the press. "Reporters out here documenting the battle with the Indians wrote exclusively for the eastern audience. Stories were slanted and glorified and the audience had no clue what really went on. It was an absolute tragedy. Millions of Indians were murdered.''
But the Custer myth lives on. There have been dozens of movies and books about Custer and in most of them he is portrayed as a courageous hero. In one movie Erroll Flynn played the role of Custer and is the last soldier standing. Surrounded by thousands of Indians, Custer, with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, seems ready to tackle the entire Sioux nation.
At the close of every performance of Buffalo Bill's Traveling Wild West Show, the Battle of the Little Big Horn was staged for the audience. Custer was the last to die and he went down bravely. The show was performed thousands of times and staged the world over, all of which helped the Custer legend.
Some of the Indians I talked to out west respected Custer's courage, stating how brave he was to go against such a large army. Most, however, saw him as a butcher of women and children who got what was coming to him.
Everett Lone Hill, the teacher of Lakota, in Porcupine, South Dakota told a different version. "Custer tried to be president and wanted to round up all the Indians by himself so he could be a hero. Much has been written about the battle but it's all been from the white man's point of view. Our history is an oral history and has been passed down through the generations.''
The account Lone Hill was told painted a different version of Custer. He said Custer wasn't killed that day and was brought back to the village to see if he were the messiah. The Indians respected and feared "Long Hair'' , but when it was determined he wasn't the messiah he was handed over to the old ladies who beat him to death.
"There was no brave stand on the hill,'' he said. "Custer was beaten to death by old ladies.''
The Battle Field
By the time we made it to the actual site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chelsea and I had been bombarded with images of Custer and the skirmish. Tourist brochures welcomed us to Custer Country, we camped out at Custer State Park and most people referred to the battle site as The Custer Battle Field.
After we left Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok we headed straight into Montana to visit the battlefield. In route we drove through Lame Deer, Montana, an impoverished town on a Cheyenne Reservation. The squalor and dirt was reminiscent of rural Mexico. Hundreds of kids were shoeless and half naked. Paint peeled off most of the houses and mounds of garbage lay heaped along side the road on the outskirts of town. Lame Deer had popped up in the middle of nowhere. We had driven through hundreds of miles of mountains and ranches without seeing a town. Then suddenly, we were in Lame Deer.
We camped often, and spent the last night in Colorado sleeping on a family owned tract of land in the San Luis Valley. We planted two trees on the property and began a 2000 mile drive home.
The only building in the entire town that looked modern and swank was a massive brick structure that housed the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A few hours later, after dark, we arrived at the battle ground and pulled into a decrepit placed called the Little Big Horn Camp. It was a run down campground operated by Crow Indians. It ran along the Little Big Horn River and was less than half a mile from the battlefield. We pulled our truck in and no sooner had I stepped out of the cab when a middle aged woman came rushing up and asked our assistance.
It seemed the lady had locked her keys in the car and had no means to get them out. Having been in that situation myself more times than I care to admit, I agreed to help. As I wrestled with her windows and locks we started to talk. She was traveling with Jessie Chipps, a 12-year-old Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation. They were coming back from a Sun Dance.
Twenty minutes later the car door was opened and we all sat down to visit. The woman, Mia Harris, was a songwriter from Stevenville, Montana. She was white, but had so completely fallen in love with Indian traditions that her life revolved around it now. As we sat on a blanket under a brilliant star laden sky, Harris talked of the battle.
"We are lying on a piece of history,'' she said. "This is where the Indians camped out the night before the battle.''
I sat up and looked around a little closer. I listened to water in the Little Big Horn River rush past. I listened to the rustling Aspen leaves scrape against one another. I took a deep breath and filled my nostrils with the sweet smell of dried grass. I couldn't believe I was here, at the site of Custer's Last Stand. I had written a term paper about Custer in high school. I had dreamed about the battle throughout my childhood and now I was here, in the Indian camp, and it felt right.
Mia Harris continued talking about the site and I asked if it was strange for her to be here. "No, she said. "I like it here. I can feel the people here. Something important happened here. It was the last great stand for the Lakota Nation.''
It was here that the beleaguered Indians handed the United States Army it's worst defeat of the Plains War. It was a moment of triumph just before the Sioux succumbed to the stronger force of the United States government.
After talking about the spirit of the land and the Indian people, Mia took out a guitar and sang us a song. A bright moon provided a spotlight for the performer and the whirring of a thousand grasshoppers sang back-up. We were on hallowed ground, surrounded by the sounds of nature, and Mia Harris sang of the buffalo, the Great Plains and a time when the Lakota Sioux lived a fierce and free life.