Soon after the dissolution of my first marriage and my subsequent return to my home in Minneapolis, I ended up working as a manager and a barista for a cafe, trading my cosmetologist shears for an intimate relationship with an espresso machine, teaching folks how to set the grind on a full-city roast espresso (instead of dark roast), pack it into a group handle and steam milk so that it resembled velvet instead of some disastrous burnt mess. As a manager, I found myself often working sixty hours a week just to make ends meet (even on manager wages, I was barely eking by), Monday through Friday. Because we were in a medical building that was only open on a limited basis, my weekends were always free. I rarely had plans outside of knocking back some Guinness Stout or Summit Pale Ale (depending on my mood) at the Irish pub while listening to drunk guys play Irish music for an even drunker audience.
One Friday, midsummer, I was driving home and was hit with the sudden urge to road trip instead of hitting the pub. My parents were helping me get my feet back under me, so I went into their house, grabbed some music, a change of clothes and told them I would be home either late that night (normal) or sometime over the weekend.
“That’s kind of vague. What are you gonna do?”
“I need to drive for a bit.”
“Not sure. I”l head down towards Pipestone and see what happens after that.”
Mom was less than pleased with the lack of specificity, but knew better than to demand anything more. This was before cell phones were a thing and loaded up on some quarters and showed her my stash so she’d know I had change to call if I had issues.
Blurb about the park:
Stone pipes were long known among the prehistoric peoples of North America; specimens from 2,000 years ago have been found at Mound City in present-day Ohio. Digging at this Minnesota quarry likely began in the 17th century, a time which coincided with the acquisition of metal tools from European traders. Carvers prized this durable yet relatively soft stone, which ranged from mottled pink to brick red. By all accounts this location came to be the preferred source of pipestone among the Plains tribes. By about 1700, though, the Dakota Sioux controlled the quarries and distributed the stone only through trade.source: https://www.nationalparks.org/
I’d been steeping myself in books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Elks Speaks, and the James Walker series of books on the Lakota, to name a few, and I had gone to a sweat or two by that point. Pipestone was on my mind and was a day-trip, eminently doable, but I don’t know if it was more than just a place to pick to get Mom out of my hair about where I was heading. By Mankato, a city about 90 minutes outside of Minneapolis, I’d already decided that wasn’t where I was going. It was too close. Instead, I decided just to follow Interstate 90 towards Montana for no other reason than I am intimately familiar with Eastern Montana — having spent my summers there growing up because we have family all over that part of the state. I didn’t think I’d get to Montana, it was just another way to point my compass and satisfy my need to road trip and clear my head.
I rolled into Mitchell, South Dakota around 10pm, deciding to call it a night after being up since 4.30am to work at the espresso bar. Home of the Corn Palace, which is just a brick building they trade corn futures at and disappointingly not made of corn. I ate at one of the 24hr restaurants that line the interstate freeways, Perkins or Embers and crashed in my hotel room with plans to turn around from Mitchell and drive home the following morning.
Except, that following morning found me at a stop light at around 5am and, on a lark, I decided Wounded Knee was just too close to not go to. So I went west instead of east.
Now, lemme tell you from experience, those two places are not nearly as close as they appear on the map. While I’ve heard there have been road improvements since then, I ran into more gravel than asphalt on that trip — some of that due to the neglect by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), some of it just coming from the fact that South Dakota in general is a state without many financial resources. But it is a long trip. I didn’t know it at the time however.
Though I was advised against continuing my journey at the ranger station for the Badlands National Park, (“The roads are not very good. Besides, what’s a white boy gonna do in Wounded Knee?” “Go see the burial site.” “I wouldn’t, there isn’t anything there and those injuns don’t like you hippie types coming ’round.”) I decided it was my problem if I wasn’t welcome, not his and drove on anyway. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. And yes, I wore my hair long still in spite of my “immigration” troubles in the UK.
Now, if that conversation sounded a tinged racist, however mildly so, you might be surprised to find out that it was indeed VERY mild compared to the other “white” towns I passed through to get to the reservation (the rez). I stopped in a “blink and you might miss it” town of Scenic to stretch my legs. It is a town with notoriety for the sole fact that it had a saloon at the borders of the rez that used to have a sign that read “No Dogs. No Lakota,” which later was changed to “No Lakota” and finally “Lakota Welcome” before the town turned ghost-town and could be bought for the sum of $750,000, which might still be too much. I couldn’t find pictures of the original sign online, but here’s one of the intermediate ones:
In a town, which in no way reflected it’s name, Scenic, I stepped out of my car, got dirty glares while I picked up a Coke from the vending machine outside another saloon (two saloons for about ten buildings? okay…) and then realized that I was still wearing my biker leathers, which was painted on the back with a mashup of The Cult’s liner notes from Ceremony, which read “Earth Soul Rock N’ Roll”, a medicine wheel with feathers and the Lakota phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, or “All Are Related”. While those dirty looks seemed to collect more dirty looks than I could have imagined in such a shit-hole town without cell phones, I scurried into my car and tossed gravel with my tires burning rubber as I left. I think I saw a shotgun.
And, if you think I’m joking or making light of the situation, this is one of those times that I promise I am not bullshitting you. I am fairly certain I saw a gun and I saw a cluster of folks who did not mean me well materialize out of nowhere. Scenic is less than five miles outside the rez and they DID NOT like folks from the rez. Or hippie faggot injun-loving freak commies, even if they wuzn’t injuns.
I’m used to squalor, growing up near and going to school in one of those misguided “housing projects” meant to segregate black folks from the rest of the people in North Minneapolis. Hell, there were a few times mom waited in line for government cheese and generic food-shelf handouts during the Reagan years when the economy went tits up in the early 80s — we weren’t rolling in the dough back then ourselves. But it was decidedly much worse south of Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis growing up and, if you went to school in the area (I would have anyway because of where we lived, but there were desegregation rules in place and unhappy white folks were being shipped in as well), we were generally accepted as being part of the neighborhood, even if you lived just outside of it (as I did). On FB, there’s a group called “Northsiders For Life” and everyone forgave any old disagreements we might have had in the past when someone signed me up for the group. I was a Northsider. That means something, even 40 years later.
That tangent aside, I grew up in a poor neighborhood, lived with poor people all around me and I thought I knew what poor was until I crossed that invisible line demarcating the rez from white rancher and farmer lands. Homes missing walls, ruins places with people living in them, rusted trailer homes, car dinosaurs scattered in fields. I damn near cried. The Native people of this country got screwed in a royal way, and I won’t listen to anyone who tells me otherwise. Their lives, livelihood, traditions, religion, children… all stolen from them. If you need more information, then you need to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria, Jr. There are countless documentaries out there. Educate yourself, especially if you’re one of those idiots ranting against wild rice rules, hunting rights and fishing rights. Tell me they don’t at the bare minimum deserve to retain those rights after you’ve done some educating of yourself.
But I don’t want to focus on that.
When I got to Wounded Knee, my car was largely ignored. I parked at the bottom of the hill where a church once stood next to the mass grave of those who had died in the massacre that occurred December 29, 1890. Keep in mind, the bulk of the Lakota in this group were starving, exhausted and near frozen women and children. In less than an hour, at least 150 Lakota had been killed and 50 wounded. Historian Dee Brown, in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, mentions an estimate of 300 of the original 350 having been killed or wounded and that the soldiers loaded 51 survivors (4 men and 47 women and children) onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Army casualties numbered 25 dead and 39 wounded.
The church was largely destroyed in a fire (I believe) in subsequent protests. I parked my car in the area with a similar view as below:
I started treading my way to the top of the hill when some kid shouted at me. I looked at him, then noticed an elderly man behind him. He ran up, and I thought I’d be told to leave.
“Hey!” he said when he caught up to me. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Just looking around.”
“Where you from? You ain’t from here.”
“Cool! I have relatives in Minneapolis.”
“Yeah, that’s really cool.”
“So you heading up to the Hill?”
“If that’s okay.”
The boy looked to the elderly man and nodded. The old man nodded back and waved at me.
“Grandpa says it’s okay. Take all the time you want up there.”
“Will you give him my thanks?”
“Don’t need to. He knows. Bye!”
“Bye!” And I waved at them both, but the boy’s back was to me. I watched as they started to walk away, the old man getting help from the kid.
So I turned and climbed the hill, which is much steeper than it looks even when you are there. I went to the monument placed there that has everyone’s name known to have died in the massacre carved into it and I read each and every name. Tobacco ties were laced all over the graveyard, but I hadn’t planned my trip to leave offerings. Instead I opened up a fresh pack of cigarettes, tore off filters off each smoke and rolled the paper between my fingers until it dropped out onto the ground in each of the four winds, saying some prayers I had learned while attending sweat lodges (partially in Lakota, but like every language I’ve tried to pick up, not much of it stuck). I took my time, like the boy’s grandfather had told me to. A few hours passed in the process, but eventually I turned towards my car and started walking down the hill. I saw grandfather near where I’d seen him the first time and he nodded, smiling and waved at me. I returned the wave, got into my car and drove back home.
This impromptu road-trip was probably one of the most impactful trips I ever made and, basically, in my own backyard. Of all the places I’ve visited in my life, this is one that will always be in the forefront of my mind, a simple graveyard that marked one of the worst atrocities every committed by the US government.
I will not forget.