After our visit to Crazy Horse Memorial last summer, thoughts were spilling out of my brain at lightning speed. It’s four months later, and now that I’m in Arizona for the winter, it’s almost as if my thoughts have congealed. Not congealed, exactly, but struggling and groping to express themselves in ways that aren’t stereotypical, humorless, or too weighty.
Indians in the Black Hills -- vying with presidential themes, their presence is all-pervasive commercially, in motifs, t-shirts, souvenirs, and the very names of both Dakota states. They’re at Korzak Zielkowski’s Crazy Horse memorial and Kevin Costner’s Tatanka tribute. They’re standing sculpted on street corners in downtown Rapid City, those sculptures (pictured below) in front of stores selling Native American arts, crafts, jewelry, drums. Undoubtedly, there’s some money being made here, but evidently not much of it is ending up in the nearby Pine Ridge or Rosebud Reservations, from what we could tell driving through them. Statistics from a Pine Ridge Reservation website are chilling. Pine Ridge Rez, predominantly Oglala Lakota, population about 40,000, straddles the two poorest counties in the United States, Shannon and Bennett Counties. The unemployment averages 86%; 63% live below federal poverty level. Average life expectancy is only age 48 for men and age 52 for women, and the rate of infant mortality is double that of the rest of the nation. That’s right, a third-world country only miles away from countless tourist attractions where well-fed, adequately-accommodated tourists such as ourselves are spending our tourist dollars, obliviously having a good time.
How things got to be this way, as well as solving the situation, are both achingly simple and frustratingly complex. Between 1850 and 1875, the bison herds, the spiritual heart and economic basis of the Lakota tribes, were almost exterminated by white men. Stolen land and repeatedly broken treaties (Fort Laramie, 1851 and 1868), frequent and ongoing misguided federal policies, and severe reduction of much-needed funds, worsening during the current federal administration, only exacerbate the multiple problems. Due to abysmal funding, health care is second-rate or worse; housing is woefully inadequate in the severe plains climate of hot summers and freezing winters, with too many elderly living off by themselves, dying every winter from hypothermia; and suicide, alcoholism, and diabetes take their toll across the age spectrum, as well. Social services from the outside remove countless children from Lakota homes, terminating extended family rights without reason, ignoring the Indian Child Welfare Act and causing even more disruption and anguish to the families. Lately, some efforts have been made to discuss and begin to understand these and other problems facing the Rez, but much of it comes far too late and much too slowly.
One obvious answer for us as tourists would be to spend at least some time and tourist dollars on the Reservations. Pine Ridge’s Red Cloud Heritage Center displays Indian-made paintings, graphics, and sculptures, as well as traditional beadwork and quillwork. A simple stone monument marks Wounded Knee Massacre Site, where hundreds of Lakota people peacefully traveling with Chief Big Foot were woken out of sleep by a Seventh Cavalry attack to be senselessly slaughtered. The day was December 29th, 1890, almost 114 years ago. Wounded Knee was also where the American Indian Movement (AIM), together with some traditional Lakota and elders, took a stand in 1973, seizing the hamlet to protest federal policies and injustices, resulting in an FBI siege that lasted 71 days. At Little Wound Living History Village and Museum in Kyle, 13 teepees comprise a village where traditional dances, songs, foods, and games are demonstrated by student guides. For casino buffs, Prairie Wind Casino, west of Oglala, and Rosebud Casino, south of Mission on the Rosebud Rez, have slots, tables, bingo, and food. Both casinos also feature live entertainment and special events.
A few weeks later, when we’d moved further along, the shiny Walmart Supercenter in Valentine, Nebraska, was virtually empty in mid-afternoon, with the ratio of employees to customers about 1:1. We asked an employee and learned that, at the beginning of each month, the store fills up with customers from the Rosebud Rez just across the South Dakota border. In fact, the employee confided to us, if it weren’t for its Rosebud customers, this store would probably fold. Even more ominously, a small Nebraska outpost, White Clay, a few miles off the reservation across the state line, exists solely to sell alcohol to people from the Rez, where alcohol can’t be legally sold.
Tourist attractions on the Rosebud include the Sicangu Heritage Center at Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University, in Antelope. The Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum in St. Francis contains many Lakota artifacts and a gift shop.
I have been so confused about what to call Lakota people. They used to be and often still are called Sioux, not their original name for themselves, but the name they were called by another tribe further eastward, meaning "the enemy".
When I asked our Indian-looking waitress if she was Lakota, she responded, "No, I’m Sioux."
"But I thought Lakota and Sioux were the same tribe," I ventured.
"Actually, it’s really complicated," she said, "and it depends on variants of the language too."
I may or may not have it quite right, but from what I was able to ascertain, Lakota, also sometimes called Teton Sioux, include seven bands: Oglala, Sicangu, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sihasapa, Itazipacola, and Oohenupa. The Oglala predominate on Pine Ridge Rez. The Sicangu live on the Rosebud Rez. Dakota, also sometimes called Santee Sioux, include four bands: Mdewakantonwon, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, and Sisseton. Dakota reservations include the Sisseton Wahpeton, in northeast South Dakota, and the Flandreau, on the Big Sioux River. Dakota also live in Minnesota and Nebraska. Nakota bands include Yankton, Upper Yanktonai, and Lower Yanktonai, with a small reservation along the Missouri River, in the southern part of South Dakota, and larger Standing Rock, on Lake Oahe, straddling the South Dakota - North Dakota border.