Friday, March 30, 2012

Slow Down Sunday - Wounded Knee

Sunday morning I stepped outside to get the amazing sunrise...

My team one was in the kitchen helping get breakfast ready. I was in charge of toast, running bread through the conveyor belt toaster.  I must say that I took to it readily.  Everyone had toast who wanted it.

After breakfast was the first Wisdom of the Elders talk from Ted. My notes form that morning are a little sketchy and quickly written, but he talked about Ceremony being very important to the people, as that was how the instructions on how to live were passed down. The Wisdom Keepers, who encouraged their people to listen to the knowledge and follow the sacred ways. One of the elders, when confronted with those who wanted to change his religion said that all of nature was his church and that they were all a part of it. That they lived and slept in their church and walked on their sacred paths all day, every day.

Ted also introduced us to the old wisdom of Mitakuye Oyasin, which means 'we are all related'. That everything is related. Rocks, trees, animals, humans. We are all interconnected and can live easily if we take care of each other.

He reminded us again to slow down and listen. And today we would have ample time for that.

After a brief history lesson, we piled into the bus and a van to head for Wounded Knee. It was a short drive and soon we were climbing the hill to the cemetery.

Dakota Highhawk joined us just outside of the cemetery to tell us the history of Wounded Knee. He is a descendant of Big Foot, Red Cloud, and the Highhawk listed on the monument in the cemetery.  After his talk, he opened the cemetery to us, and I went to talk to him a little more. He spoke of some of the atrocities perpetrated by the 7th Cavalry that day and said that it was motivated by revenge for Custer's death.

I walked the cemetery first and noticed the plethora of people far too young to be in a graveyard. I walked around the mass grave site of the massacre victims and thought about the women and kids that were indiscriminately slaughtered, then piled in there, a few of them still alive but seriously wounded. I saw the grave of Lost Bird, a baby found on the "battlefield" in her dead mother's arms, and the raised by General Colby to be a trophy to be shown off. She would kill herself 28 years later. I wondered what happened to the three other babies found on the plains after that day.
 Just beyond the road was where the Sioux camp was. I took this picture from the cemetery hill, where the cannons were placed. The rise to my immediate right held another battery of the deadly artillery.
The building there was built where the 7th had their "council fire" to talk to the Indians. The flats to the left are where the troopers were camped and spent the night drinking and getting ready for the next day.

Then I walked the ravines where the women and children tried to escape while the men used their bodies as human shields to try to give them time to get away.  They were chased for two hours. Hunted down and executed.  Some children that were hiding were told to come out and that they would be safe. When they emerged, they were slaughtered.


I've been to battlefields before, where two sides fought each other for one reason or another.  But this was my first visit to a massacre site.  It was no battle. The 7th had Hotchkiss cannons. They had disarmed the Indians. Even with the few guns that the Sioux had hidden, there was no tactical reason whatsoever to fight here. 

I had read in many history books the accounts of soldiers who had been drinking through the night before that day. There was every evidence that most of the wounds and fatalities suffered by the 7th that day were the results of friendly fire.

As I climbed from the ravines, I met Curt, a local who was selling some beadwork and other things.  He and I got to talking and he told me that this was a revenge killing of unbelievable cruelty. The families of survivors had passed down the stories, and he told me now of soldiers tossing babies into the air to use for "skeet" shooting. Of genitals being cut off and used as trophies. Of people trying to surrender and being shot for their troubles. And the white soldiers had the gall to call the Indians "savages".

Later, twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were conferred on soldiers from that massacre. This is a disgrace to the Sioux and a disgrace to any current or prior service military that know what those medals are usually given for. There are petitions to be signed trying to revoke these medals. You can find them if you look.  But I would encourage you to visit Wounded Knee. Talk to the locals. The descendants of those killed there. Ask them what you can do. You may be surprised at the answers.
If you can't find a petition or don't want to visit the site. Then just write your government officials and ask them if they have gone there, and what can be done to restore honor to the CMOH, the Sioux and help the healing that still needs to happen there.

It was a very powerful place. Lots of sadness there, but lots of beauty as well. I'll return again.

More Later

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saturday Evening On the Rez

As I drove towards the people working, one woman came bounding over and asked if she could help me in a lovely Italian accent.  She was all smiles as she pointed me towards the big red building called 'Shelem' and even helped me with my gear. This was my introduction to Erika, one of the staff members at Re-Memeber. 

As I got out of my car, a tall man with a ponytail said "Welcome, John." I was so taken aback that he knew my name, I was actually speechless for a moment. "Or, not John." He said.
"No, I'm John." I replied. "But how did you know that?"
"You look like a John." He said, and introduced himself as Ted, the director of the program. 

Entering the building, I took note of the organization name in tile on the floor, and entered the gathering room...

An eclectic mix of colors and pictures and Native inspired hanging things.  A bookshelf (in the right of the above picture) held just as eclectic a mix of reading material and other things.  A smudge pot with sage and sweetgrass bundles, a miniature bunk bed. And books on Lakota topics, other religious topics and random novels.  I stowed my stuff on a bunk in the men's dorm side of the building...

and went back outside to see what I could do to help.  Everyone was down at the old barracks building, so I walked down that way and discovered that the barracks had been converted into a shop. Ted, Erika and another young woman were loading folding picnic tables into a flat trailer, and were just finishing up when I arrived.  I walked back with Erika and the other woman, and was thus introduced to Jen, the program director for the summer. They were very welcoming and friendly, and suggested I relax and take it easy, and go up on the big hill behind the buildings.  We found Ted in the kitchen, and he suggested the same thing.  So I headed up to see what all the fuss was about.

It was spectacular.  A panoramic view that stretched for miles.  If you look south, you can see Nebraska just a couple of miles away. And it was so quiet.  All I heard was wind blowing through the long grass and a couple of pine trees. Occasionally a cow would moo. And a little yellow breasted bird was singing it's song.  It was very peaceful.  I sat down on a little patch of rock to soak it in.

Looking at the ground to my immediate left I saw this...

And to the right were these...

So I decided to go put some real shoes on instead of my sandals, and at the very least find a place to sit with less pain potential.

As I walked back down the hill, other groups began to arrive.  A group from the University of Maryland, another from Hope College, then Hendrix College and a bunch of high schoolers from Denver Academy.  I suddenly felt rather old and out of place.

I met a very nice gal named Kate who was heading up the hill at the same time I was after I had changed my shoes, so I talked with her a little as we climbed up. My plans to remain anonymous were deteriorating quickly.

At the top, the Hope group had gathered and were playing 'knot' which I thought looked a lot like a strange Michigan bonding ritual, so I had to get a shot of that.

It was significantly louder on the hill than it had been when I was alone, so Kate and I hiked back down and parted ways. I went off to explore and take some pictures...

horses in the field next to the hill...

some sort of prairie wildflower, now dried into this pretty shell...

and as I walked back to the camp, this dog...

That shadowed me along his property line, and crouched into the play stance anytime I looked at him. But would not come up and say hello.

Soon it was supper time. Buffalo Stew. And since it was St. Patrick's Day, Jen decided to have some fun with the group, and soon had a guy speaking with an Irish accent, and a huge group up to do an Irish Jig. 

After supper we had our first history lesson with Ted.  It was a bit depressing. He told us some of the stats. 90% unemployment, only 60% of homes with electricity. 10 times the rate of diabetes and up to 80% rate of alcoholism. Over ten times the rate of suicides as the national average. Life was hard out here.  No doubt about it. This was the poorest county in the US, and second poorest to Haiti in the entire Northern Hemisphere. 

I had heard these statistics before. They seemed no more real to me on this night as they had reading about them back in Minnesota.  But that would change over the next week.

Ted gave us our marching orders, too.  Relax.  Shut off the cell phones and computers. Disconnect from our usual way of life.  And most importantly, listen.

Listen to what the speakers would be telling us.  Listen to what the locals had to say.  Listen to the wind in the grass and the trees.  Just slow down and listen.  It was a tall order for many of us.  Me for certain. But the last line I wrote in my journal that night was "I am open to what may come." If it took slowing down and listening to do that, then I was all for it.

During free time, I grabbed my camera and headed out into the dark to get some shots of the sky.  It is much darker there than anywhere I had been before.

I got Jupiter and the moons...

and a pretty OK timed shot before it was time for bed.

 I sat in the darkness and listened to the wind blow. I heard laughter and talking from the groups going up and down the hill. I saw about a billion more stars than I was used to seeing, and already was planning another night or three out taking pictures.  But the long day of driving and the excitement of settling in and meeting people soon had me yawning something fierce. So I packed it in and headed for bed.  I wanted to try and get some sleep, as Sunday was a day of acclimatization and slowing down.  I wanted to be ready for it.

More Later

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Heading to South Dakota

I left on a Friday evening, even though check in at Re-Member was scheduled for somewhere between 2 and 5 pm Mountain Time on Saturday.  Since I am part of a group from my church going in June, I wanted to see what the drive would be like for us then.  But mostly I wanted to be home for the Boyo when he came back from school so we could say our goodbye's for the week.  Anyway, it was a short three hour drive across Minnesota on I-90 to Sioux Falls. That's where we'll be stopping in June, but I was feeling pretty good and as the sun set I decided to continue on to Mitchell, SD and find lodging there for the night.

On the way I was listening to a Classic Queen CD that I had purchased shortly after Boot Camp.  In infantry school I had a cassette tape of that album, the only cassette I had, so it was listened to during long marches and such, and as I listened to the CD it really took me back to those memories.  It was twenty years ago next month that I graduated from USMC Boot Camp.

Somewhere along the road I passed a sign, big blue letters on a white background. ENJOY LIFE! it said. Nothing else on it. A good motto to adopt for this week. And maybe beyond.

I did not sleep well that night for the anxiety I was having about the upcoming week.  What was I heading in to?  I knew there would be other groups there, and I was flying in solo.  I knew from past camp experiences that groups were usually pretty tight knit, and so I geared myself for a week of self reflection, learning about the Lakota, and getting sweaty with the construction of things.

Saturday morning I checked out early, as I was awake anyway.  Since I had some extra time, I decided to swing by the World Famous Corn Palace! That always needs to have an exclamation point after it, because it is just that awesome.

I got there as the sun was rising, painting the World Famous Corn Palace! in early morning pastel hues, bathing the palace (!) in all of its glory...

I was going to go in for awhile and poke around, but there was a show choir invitational just getting underway, and an $8 admission was not something I felt like splurging on given the glittery and sequined crowds that were gathering.  So I walked to the end of the block and crossed the street to the local Casey's for a soda and a map of South Dakota. It was while waiting to cross back that I noticed that every streetlight base has this...

Just in case you forgot what the palace (!) was all about.  I was laughing out loud as I walked down the street, noticing the glances of wary confusion cast my way.

I checked the map and saw that around Rosebud somewhere was the Sioux Indian Museum. I made that my goal for later in the day. 

South Dakota, at least the Eastern side, is pretty flat. Long straight roads of flat.  It was an excellent day for a cruise across the endless expanse of prairie.

After what seemed a short time I crossed onto the Rosebud Reservation. I passed through Okreek and the first thing I saw was a White Shoba standing beside the road, wagging her tail and smiling a greeting to me.  I almost stopped to adopt her on the spot.  But the very next thing I saw was a dead puppy along the road. Great joy and great sadness, all at once. A fitting metaphor for life on the Rez.

As I drove into Antelope/Mission I noticed a great many of these signs on both sides of the road...

Alcohol related death. Drinking and driving. Made me sad, and brought back some memories of accident scenes I've been on as a medic.

Anyway. I headed for the museum and passed through the town of Rosebud. I saw much evidence of poverty, run down houses and such. But I also saw a lot of nice places, well kept. I have studied the Lakota history for many years, and know of the broken treaties and broken promises from the past. What I did not know was what life was like today, and how it tied into the past.  In my journal I wrote that I was "here to break apart or confirm the stereotypes, and I am leaving myself wide open to whatever happens."

I got to the museum, only to find it was closed on Saturday.  Though I did get a picture of this statue...

with the idea of getting home and figuring out who she was and what she had done to earn the title of "Glory of the Indian Race".  So I continued my journey. As I drove between Rosebud and Pine Ridge, I saw two Golden Eagles.  I've never seen them in the wild before, only in raptor centers and such.  Now I saw one dining on a road killed deer, who was not happy when I turned back to try to get her picture. And another high in a tree, looking majestic and regal.  It was a real treat for a raptor lover like me!

I had lunch at Subway in Martin, fully aware that I was going to get to Re-Member very early, especially since I lost an hour crossing into Mountain Time.  So I ate leisurely, called my folks, and eavesdropped on the locals having conversations.  It being St. Patrick's Day, most of the talk centered on wearing green and what everybody was doing that night to celebrate.  After awhile the novelty of the conversations wore off and I decided to spend some time exploring the town. 

That took up about ten minutes, and I drove pretty slow. So I headed to Batesland, a little village on the border of the Rez, and parked at the post office to clean up the car, repack my gear and get ready for the final push to Re-Member.

After all was ready, I still had fifteen minutes to spare, so I sat in the car with the engine off and the doors open and was still.  There was a pow wow circle across the street...

and the wind was not moving much at all.  The silence was deafening. I soaked it in, and it seemed to me that my soul had been missing silence forever.  I got out and stood there and just listened.  It was amazing.  I watched and heard a breeze move the grasses across the road. Straight into the pow wow circle and beyond.  Amazing.

My watch told me I could leave for Re-Member any time and not get there too early.  So with a farewell to the silence, I got back in my car and drove onto the Pine Ridge Reservation.  The miles went by quickly, and the anticipation built in my gut as I approached mile marker 112, the turnoff for the camp.

Then I was there. Turning onto the dirt road leading up to the camp.  Tan building, Red building, trailer, tipi, some vans and an old Bluebird bus. And a little farther down the road, what looked like an old military barracks like I slept in at Ft. McCoy, and a little startlingly, a cemetery.  I pulled into the first driveway and saw people working.  I had arrived.

More Later

Pine Ridge... Processing

Last week I was in Pine Ridge, SD, on the Oglala Lakota reservation. I went to work with an organization called Re-Member. They do things like fix roofs, make beds for people who don't have them, skirt trailers, build outhouses, and generally work to make the lives of the people of Pine Ridge better.

They also mix the work with an immersion program into Lakota and Native American culture.  In the mornings we would hear from Ted, the director of the program, about the Wisdom of the Elders. Quotes and thoughts from Native Americans from many tribes. Words about their thoughts on life, the earth, the conflict with the American Government, and so forth. In the evenings we had Lakota speakers come and talk to us about modern politics, social issues, Lakota spirituality, and even a language lesson. Any and all questions are welcomed by these speakers, even naive questions.

When I went, I had every intention of staying in the background, being a wall flower, and learning as much as I could in the short time I had.  But the other volunteers there sort of overrode my plans.  Groups from Hope College in Michigan, Hendrix College in Arkansas, University of Maryland, and high schoolers from Denver Academy were all very open and friendly, and it was hard not to respond in kind.

Over the next few, or many, posts, I'll be writing about each day I spent out there, drawing from the journal I kept, the pictures I took, and the memories I have. I am still processing a lot of what I learned, as there was so much fantastic information and experience packed into the week.  But I think I've reached a place where I can start putting it down into words, both in blog form and in song.  The biggest thing is to get it down, because I don't want to forget a thing from last week.  I want to Re-Member.

More Later