I've wanted to take a northern route across the country for a number of years, through parts of the upper midwest, fly-over country. The thought of miles and miles of corn and wheat, deserted two-lane roads, and harsh, unyielding, angular light appealed. It wasn't total isolation I wanted, but rather, a certain removal from my world - a world I sometimes think I know too well.
I head south from Sioux Falls and then west on Highway 18. It's what I want. I drive ten miles an hour below the speed limit. Just looking. Barely stopping to make any photographs. No music. Just looking. Breathing. For a brief moment, surrounded by corn and nothing else as far as I can see, I think ah, corn syrup. The Missouri River and onto the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. I stop at the Crossroads Inn in Martin for the night. There's still light left in the day, but the Crossroads is the only place within an hour in any direction and I don't want to be driving after dark. I check in, and go out, to Merrimon, Nebraska, on a mission to find the Sand Bar. Cedric is concerned it has closed since we can find no mention of it online. But it's there where he said it should be. I go in and order a Coke, which garners looks from the two guys at the bar watching a football game on the tv. The bar is dark and decorated with all things western - rodeo stuff, animal heads, posters. No one is talking, certainly not to me, so I finish my Coke and leave. There is nothing subtle about the light as I drive back to the motel. The unbroken horizon offers no respite. Welder's goggles, maybe. The next morning I have breakfast at the local VFW hall in Martin. They welcome everyone and $7 bought a good meal of eggs, sausage, biscuits, potatoes and coffee.
As I drive to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation, I'm reminded of a time forty-five years ago. I had been granted Conscientious Objector status to the draft and needed to do two years of alternative service. I was working as a counselor in a halfway house for boys in Maryland at the time and through work I met a Pastor in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, who operated a similar facility on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He thought it might be a good fit for my service requirment. I drove out in February of 1971. I didn't take the job or stay long. It was desolate and bitter cold, the wind strong and unrelenting. One of the poorest communities in the country. I knew I wouldn't have lasted very long in that environment.
That was also a time of growing unrest among many Native American tribes that saw the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The unrest culminated in the takeover of the township of Wounded Knee on the Lakota Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge by AIM leaders and traditionalists among the Lakota. It lasted seventy-one days and finally ended when government officials shut off power to the town in February, as well as, phone and all traffic in and out of the town. They starved them out.
Wounded Knee was chosen by AIM leaders as the site for their protest because of its symbolic value as the site of one darkest spots on our altogether murderous collective history with Native peoples. OnDecember 29, 1890, fourteen years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the US Seventh Calvary massacred over 250 Lakota men, women, and children who were being moved to the reservation. It is widely considered to represent the end of the centuries-old Indian Wars.
To visit Wounded Knee today is to understand that our mistreatment and disregard of Native Americans continues unabated. It remains a very poor place with few opportunities for work. Trailers are spread out on the valley floor, just next to the massacre site. In the two hours I was there, I was approached by a dozen different people selling dreamcatchers and sweetgrass, all of them approaching me with the same handwritten note explaining their need. My dreamcatcher still hangs in my car.
It's important to be here. Why? Do I even know? Penance. Guilt. Honor. Recognition. Understanding. At the cemetery you feel the power of this sacred place. Walking among the graves is a walk through history and personal tragedy, one most Americans choose to forget, if they know of it at all. It's a clear, warm day, the wind is picking up, blowing dust and sagebrush over the prairie - no sign of an impending blizzard like the one that hit Wounded Knee the day after the 1890 massacre, freezing all the bodies hard in place.
The mural speaks to a desire for unity and peace. And Native Americans have long been among the most patriotic of Americans, serving courageously, and in great numbers, in all of our nation's conflicts. I struggle to understand these hopes and heroic acts in the context of my own refusal to serve in the military for reasons of conscience. How could you have faith in, and fight for, the government that stripped you of your way of life, stole your land, and continues to oppress you? I don't know how one does that, but I think the answer may lie somewhere in Cedric's word, surrender. Not the "giving up" kind of surrender, but rather, surrender as acceptance or resignation.