“We have a saying,” Tiokasin Ghosthorse tells me. “We may be landless, but we’re not homeless.”
Whiteclay, Nebraska, is not a town like others on the map. It consists of some half dozen very large, red sheds facing each other across the muddy road that winds down from the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation a mile north. Pine Ridge, in the state of South Dakota, has been dry for over a century, but this town is just as wet as could be, and not just from the sickly clay that turns to sludge with each rainfall.
“This is where they come to drink,” Bennett “Tuffy” Sierra tells us. We reach the end of the row of beer stores in a few seconds flat so he pulls onto the broken pavement. Instantly a gaunt, ageless woman appears at his window, wearing nothing over her thin gray sweatshirt though it’s almost freezing outside and a cold rain flattens the thin strands of hair on top of her head. He mouths no, shaking his ponytail for emphasis, wrinkles deepening in his dark brown face.
“My father died from drink. My uncle was hit on the head right outside that store and made it to the side of that trailer there—see it?—where he went to sleep, only it snowed that night and he died of hypothermia.” A cousin sobered up for 20 years, then went back out. Police shot and killed him when they found him waving a gun outside a bar.
Went back out. Not fell off the wagon, not started drinking or using again, but went back out. It usually starts with drinking at Whiteclay. A few, like Tuffy Sierra, once a champion bull rider in rodeos up and down the state of California and throughout the West, finally stopped coming down here. But of those who’ve stopped, many still go back out.
Some are Tuffy’s relatives: The girl who went into recovery and became a counselor, only to go back out, drive her car into a ditch and die; the grandmother raising six grandchildren all on her own because her husband drank here in Whiteclay and disappeared one day, no one knew what happened to him, while her daughter tried to get sober but went back out and died in less than a year.
Years ago the Lakota went back out season after season to the ancient, game-rich Black Hills, so called on account of their dark canopy of pine trees. The Hills had been recognized as sacred for over 12,000 years by the local inhabitants even before the Lakota arrived, home to powerful spiritual forces. Granite outcroppings connected heaven and earth, the world of the spirits and the realm of humans. Dotted with archeological sites and sacred places that connect with cosmology and astronomy, the Hills are the center of the Lakota’s universe to this very day. Their origins lie in the cave white people call Wind Cave, the breathing cave, with its honeycomb calcite surface, just one of 7 hallowed sites used for vision quests, ceremony, medicine, and burial.
“We called the place for vision quests Matȟó Thípila, Bear Lodge,” we’ll hear later from Birgil Kills Straight, holy man of the Oglalas. “You know what you called them? Devil’s Tower. Another place is Hell Canyon. “ The Lakota don’t have words like devil and hell, he tells us; those concepts are not part of their tradition.
People were not supposed to live in the Black Hills; Indians only came there to connect with the spirit world. Recognizing this, in the Laramie Treaty of 1868 the US government agreed that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota. Six years later thousands of miners swarmed over these ancient mountains in search of gold. The government reneged on the treaty, even threatening to cut the Lakota’s food rations to coerce them to give them up. More recently, after the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were taken illegally, the government made a financial offer for restitution. But the Lakota don’t want the government’s money; they want the Black Hills. For no one can really own the Black Hills, like no one really can own land or earth.
Now, driving in mid-January between snow-capped, granite rocks, we see what white people have brought to the home of the great spirits. We’ve brought the cities of Deadwood and Lead, old mining towns that now, with their Western-motif hotels, museums and casinos, provide a mecca for hikers and bikers, not to mention tourists who come in search of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane. The town of Sturgis hosts a renowned motorcycle rally every year; this summer will see one million cyclists revving it up and pounding the roads. Color, history, fun-filled days, each a reminder of pure and simple theft.
I try to imagine people swarming over our house and back yard because they just heard there was gold underground. I try to imagine saloons opening up in the middle of the Vatican, brothels arising in Mecca or on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, mining operations under Bodhgaya in India. There are still gold mines in Lead, but they’re small stuff. Now the big offenders are corporations stripping the Hills for their wealth of metals, including uranium.
When we walk on the land, we are walking on soil and rock that contain the bones of our ancestors. When we pollute, strip mine, and damage the earth, we are doing this to our own dead. The earth is our family, our ancestors, our grandchildren. It’s us.
We leave the shadows of the Hills, turn east, and cross over to the flat Pine Ridge Reservation, a land of mixed grass prairie, with pine and cedar further south. Heavy winds scatter sand and dust. I look over my left shoulder to the north and see the buttes and spires of the Badlands, bleached in the sun, while Tuffy continues telling his stories: My grandfather didn’t know a word of English in the Catholic boarding school he had to go to so they shaved his head and didn’t give him food or water for two days; it was forbidden to give our families traditional funerals; there are unmarked graves around the boarding schools for Indian children who disappeared.
No matter where we go and whom we meet, Tuffy has a tale to tell, a connection to make: an aunt’s mother-in-law whose leg was just amputated on account of diabetes; a cousin’s grandfather whose wife died of alcohol long ago, leaving him alone, cared for by a granddaughter who walks long miles to his house because she has no car, the two grandsons in prison; a relative of his wife, dead because of driving under the influence. His family is large and extended. “We have a saying,” Tiokasin Ghosthorse tells me. “We may be landless, but we’re not homeless.”
But the relentless litany of names of relatives, far and close, reminds me eerily of the names we chant around the Selection Site at Auschwitz-Birkenau in our November retreats, names of those who died: Maurice Fischer, Piotr Marianski, Janusz Rylko, Samuel Faber, Erich Goldschmidt, Sara Goldschmidt, David Goldschmidt, Rahel Goldschmidt, Michael Goldschmidt, Sofia Goldschmidt.
It’s no accident that on the week marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army, I find myself, along with Bernie Glassman and Grover Genro Gauntt, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, for talks arranged by Genro with Oglala Lakota elders Tuffy Sierra and Birgil Kills Straight, and Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a member of the Miniconjou Lakota of the Cheyenne River Reservation north of Pine Ridge. His reservation is home to 25,000 people, Tiokasin tell us, with unemployment at 90% and no doctors on site, just a few physician’s assistants. The population of Pine Ridge is 30,000, with numbers that top the charts when it comes to rates of alcoholism and related illnesses, drug abuse, domestic abuse, incarceration, poverty and suicide. Until very recently men could expect to live till the average age of 48, women till 52.
Seventy years used to mark a lifetime. Today it’s still a milestone, a time to pause, take stock, look at your life as it intersects with history.
See what’s changed, and what hasn’t. In between meetings at the Pine Ridge casino we stand outdoors, taking in both the warm sun and the strong wind that blows across the prairie. Genro rolls a cigarette while Bernie puffs at his cigar. When we resume we talk schedule, though we already know that time will mean different things to different people. We talk about council, weather, ceremonies, vision and orientation, openings and closings. We talk about tribal affiliations and the formal ID cards that many Indians carry. We discuss who else to invite to the retreat: native peoples from South America, India, New Zealand, and Hawaii, as many first nations as will come. Will they wave accusing fingers at people like us, like me, a white American? My family didn’t arrive in this country till 1957, I want to tell them, and then only after they endured the European cataclysm of World War II. They know nothing of the Black Hills or the Reservation, their only knowledge of Indians is what they’ve seen in movies.
There is such a thing as historical trauma, sociologists and psychologists now say. If so, then there is history, and history’s not what happened in the past, it’s the stories we hear now and the stories we keep secret. So when we finally get to the cemetery at Wounded Knee and Genro and I walk in frozen mud and snow up the hill in the frigid twilight to pay tribute to those buried there, I know that I’m seeing not just a monument to the last big massacre of the American Indians, but the tip of a modern iceberg. For this massacre that we’ve finally acknowledged is only the miniscule, visible part of the unacknowledged—the institutional violence against First Nations and the earth they so fiercely love, time and time and time again. Whether through corruption, payouts, alliances of government with corporations and mining interests, and our own denial and oblivion, we constantly sacrifice the children of the earth—her mountains and hills, her trees and plants, animals and birds, her precious water aquifers, the humans who love her—for more metals, more uranium, more concrete, more development. Dams are built flooding centuries-old tribal homes. Burial grounds are desecrated and museums collect the bones of Indian dead for their exhibits. Wealthy philanthropists give money to build museums and memorials to these cultures as though they’ve already gone extinct, instead of safeguarding their spirit and aliveness now.
So when I think of what we, the non-Native society, has done to the first peoples of this land, I’m aware that the first peoples and the land are practically the same thing. Crazy Horse, enduring much grief and loss, was asked by a derisive white man, Where are the Indians’ lands now? To which he replied, pointing, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” When we walk on the land, we are walking on soil and rock that contain the bones of our ancestors. When we pollute, strip mine, and damage the earth, we are doing this to our own dead. The earth is our family, our ancestors, our grandchildren. It’s us.
“Our lives are not our own,” Tuffy reminds us. “God acts through us.” So what do I make of God’s actions as I trudge up to the snowbound cemetery, neglected and half-abandoned on top of the small hill? A young man wearing a cotton shirt over a thin red, hooded sweatshirt, in torn sneakers that turn wet and muddy in the snow, follows us as the sun sinks in the direction of the Black Hills 150 miles to the west. He lives in one of several trailers down below in Wounded Knee. There were lots of cabins down the hill in 1890, he tells us. A Catholic church abuts the cemetery; in the past other churches also clustered around the hill. How did this come about? In the Christmas holidays, the young man explains, priests and ministers would come bearing holiday gifts for the families that lived below. The grandfathers would give out the gifts and be asked to sign a paper acknowledging receipt, but what they were actually signing, unknown to them, was permission to build a church on the surrounding land. “They wanted to get rid of our own religion, our own way of life,” he exclaims.
What strikes me as we drive across the Reservation is the invisibility of it all. Whiteclay was visible, buildings as brown as the mud on the streets, people huddled outside in the rain, haunted, hopeless eyes. On the Reservation we hardly see anyone. Individual or clusters of trailers, a few cabins, cars junked and half-buried. We see more animals: cows and herds of horses, dogs in the tiny towns of Pine Ridge and Kyle. The prairie seems emphatically flat and endless, like a stage on which so much has once happened, and now so little.
Paolo Freire wrote that when you’ve been oppressed for a long time and you know that you’re not strong enough to fight your oppressor, you let the rage out on yourself and those closest to you. You drink, you do drugs, you beat your spouse and children, you selfdestruct. Next January will mark 125 years since Wounded Knee. Lots will be written, the evening news may even talk about it, but how much will they say about the day-to-day grinding poverty, the wounds and trauma inherited down through the generations? How much will we want to know?
In the west the Black Hills beckon. Don’t fix us, I’m hearing silently from those around me. Don’t come here with your treatments, social workers and medicines, your census takers and sociologists, your money. Yes, we need it, but first we need our religion and our ceremonies, we need the sacred caves and mountains, the rocks and snow-topped pines of the Hills. We need the land where our dead lie buried.
Genro’s been coming to the Reservation for 16 years, summer and winter, for anywhere from 2 weeks to a month or more at a time. For years people have asked him what he does there. Do you bring money, they wonder. Do you bring medicine, educational programs, trainings? Do you teach meditation? He doesn’t bring anything, he tells them. He doesn’t do anything, just hangs out with Tuffy Sierra, his extended family, and other tribal members and family. He watches, participates, listens, learns, and out of doing nothing a bearing witness retreat will emerge in August 2015.
On the day Tuffy drove over to meet us at Rapid City he saw a field of white-crested hawks, he told us. He also saw two eagles, one completely black, and they flew right over his car as he left the Reservation. Black Elk said that the healing here, in these Hills, in these Great Plains, would begin with the 7th generation. I count off the years and realize we’re not there yet; at 65, I may not be around for that. So what can I do? Go there and bear witness. Leave behind my preconceptions and come. Something will arise from that, it can’t help but. Life and death will come together and renewal will happen. It always has; what it will look like I have no idea.