Pubdate: Wed, 01 Aug 2012
Source: National Geographic (US)
Copyright: 2012 National Geogrpraphic Society
Author: Alexandra Fuller


After 150 years of broken promises, the Oglala Lakota people of the
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are nurturing their tribal
customs, language, and beliefs.

A rare, intimate portrait shows their resilience in the face of

Almost every historical atrocity has a geographically symbolic core, a
place whose name conjures up the trauma of a whole people: Auschwitz,
Robben Island, Nanjing. For the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation that place is a site near Wounded Knee Creek, 16 miles
northeast of the town of Pine Ridge. From a distance the hill is
unremarkable, another picturesque tree-spotted mound in the creased

But here at the mass grave of all those who were killed on a winter
morning more than a century ago, it's easy to believe that certain
energies-acts of tremendous violence and of transcendent love-hang in
the air forever and possess a forever half-life.

Alex White Plume, a 60-year-old Oglala Lakota activist, lives with his
family and extended family on a 2,000-acre ranch near Wounded Knee
Creek. White Plume's land is lovely beyond any singing, rolling out
from sage-covered knolls to creeks bruised with late summer lushness.
 From certain aspects, you can see the Badlands, all sun-bleached
spires and scoured pinnacles.

And looking another way, you can see the horizon-crowning darkness of
the Black Hills of South Dakota.

One hot and humid day in early August, I drove out to interview White
Plume in a screened outdoor kitchen he had just built for his wife.
Hemp plants sprouted thickly all over their garden. "Go ahead and
smoke as much as you like," White Plume offered. "I always tell people
that: Smoke as much as you want, but you won't get very high." The
plants are remnants from a plantation of industrial
hemp-low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Cannabis sativa-cultivated by the
White Plume family in 2000.

During World War II cultivation of hemp was encouraged in the United
States, its fiber used for rope, canvas, and uniforms.

But in 1970 low-THC industrial hemp was outlawed under the Controlled
Substances Act. In 1998 the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance
allowing the cultivation of low-THC hemp, a crop well suited to
places, like the "rez," with a short growing season, arid soil, and
weather fluctuations.

"The people of Pine Ridge have sovereign status as an independent
nation," White Plume said. "I take that to mean I am free to make a
living from this land." So in spite of reportedly stern warnings from
Robert Ecoffey, the superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs
(BIA) on Pine Ridge, who pointed out that Oglala Sioux sovereignty is
limited and does not include the right to violate federal laws, the
White Plumes planted an acre and a half of industrial hemp using seeds
collected from plants growing wild on the rez. A few days before the
crop was due to be harvested, in late August 2000, agents from the
Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the BIA, and the U.S.
Marshals Service swarmed the place in helicopters and SUV s and shut
down the hemp operation.

The crop went feral. "It was an experiment in capitalism and a test of
our sovereignty, but it seems the U.S. government doesn't want to
admit that we should have either," White Plume said. Then he laughed
in the way of a man who knows that he cannot be defeated by ordinary

After that we spoke of the treaties made and broken between the U.S.
and the Sioux, and that led naturally to a conversation about the
Black Hills, which the Oglala consider their axis mundi, the center of
their spiritual world.

The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux possession of the
hills, but after gold was discovered there in 1874, prospectors
swarmed in, and the U.S. government quickly seized the land. The Sioux
refused to accept the legitimacy of the seizure and fought the
takeover for more than a century.

On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the
U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of
the land in 1877, along with 103 years' worth of interest, together
totaling $106 million. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting
that the Black Hills would never be for sale.

And then White Plume asked me to consider the seemingly calculated
insult of Mount Rushmore. "The leaders of the people who have broken
every treaty with my people have their faces carved into our most holy

What is the equivalent? Do you have an equivalent?" I could offer
none. Then White Plume, who punctuates his oddly unexcited view of
history's injustices not only with laughter but also with pauses long
enough to roll a cigarette, looked up and asked if I had extra time on
my hands and extra fuel in my car.

I said I had both, and we drove out onto his cathedral land. Sitting
by a cottonwood-lined creek, in a dark pool of shade, we spoke of the
ways in which lives are lost on the rez and about the suicide, earlier
that summer, of a 15-year-old Oglala Lakota girl. Partly because time
is not linear for the Oglala Lakota but rather is expressed in
circular endlessness and beginnings, and partly because many can
recite the members of their family trees, branch after branch, twig
after twig, vines and incidental outgrowths included, it does not seem
to me too big a historical step to go from the bodies piled in the
snow at Wounded Knee in 1890 to the body of Dusti Rose Jumping Eagle
lying in shiny mannequin perfection in an open coffin in a tepee in
Billy Mills Hall in the town of Pine Ridge in early July 2011, a scarf
draped over her neck to conceal the manner of her suicide.

"The whole Sioux Nation was wounded at that last terrible massacre,
and we've been suffering ever since.

It's true we have our own ways of healing ourselves from the genocidal
wound, but there is just so much historical trauma, so much pain, so
much death," White Plume said, and he would know. There is a flat
plateau in the center of his ranch, he told me, where some of the
historic Ghost Dances that precipitated the Wounded Knee massacre are
supposed to have taken place. Participants in these ritualized
spiritual ceremonies danced themselves into an altered state and
claimed to have communed easily with their dead, become mentally
untethered from the Earth, and touched the morning star. Then there is
the unavoidable fact that three of his relatives were killed on that
winter day.

In 1890 a bad drought brought more than the usual deprivation to the
reduced reservations of the Great Plains. (The Great Sioux Reservation
had been chopped up into six smaller reservations.) At the same time,
agents of the BIA got jumpy about an upswing in the number of Ghost
Dances being performed by the Sioux, who were gathering with
increasing desperation and frequency on the open prairie, petitioning
for advice and guidance from their ancestors and spirits.

On December 15, 1890, U.S. Indian policemen arrested Sitting Bull in
an effort to quell the "messiah craze" of the native ceremonies. The
arrest turned unintentionally violent in ways that retrospectively
seem inevitable. Sitting Bull was killed, along with seven of his
supporters and six of the policemen.

Fearing a backlash, another leader, Big Foot, fled south with his band
under cover of night to seek asylum with Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge

Nearly two weeks later, on the morning of December 28, 1890, a nervy
U.S. Seventh Cavalry unit found Big Foot's band at Porcupine Creek and
escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek. The following morning the cavalry
attempted to disarm the Indians. What happened next on that
frozen-prairie morning isn't entirely clear.

It is said that a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform a dance,
throwing handfuls of dirt in the air. A scuffle ensued, a gun was
discharged, the Army opened fire, and by the time the smoke cleared,
Big Foot and at least 145 members of his band had been killed (the
Oglala argue many more), including 84 men and boys, 44 women, and 18

A reported 25 U.S. soldiers also died, some possibly as a result of
friendly fire.

Testifying to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in February 1891, the
Oglala leader American Horse said of that day, "There was a woman with
an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of
truce ... Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her
infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still
nursing, and that was especially a very sad sight ... Of course it
would have been all right if only the men were killed; we would feel
almost grateful for it. But the fact of the killing of the women, and
more especially the killing of the young boys and girls who are to go
to make up the future strength of the Indian people, is the saddest
part of the whole affair and we feel it very sorely."

"They tried extermination, they tried assimilation, they broke every
single treaty they ever made with us," White Plume said. "They took
away our horses.

They outlawed our language.

Our ceremonies were forbidden." White Plume is insistent about the
depth and breadth of the policies and laws by which the U.S.
government sought to quash Native Americans, but his delivery is
uncomplainingly matter-of-fact. "Our holy leaders had to go
underground for nearly a century." It wasn't until Congress passed the
American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in 1978, that any interference
in native spiritual practices was made a crime. "And yet our
ceremonies survived, our language survived," White Plume said.

Buried deep within the pages of the 2010 Defense appropriations bill,
signed by President Barack Obama in December 2009, is an official
apology "to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence,
maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of
the United States." The resolution commends those states "that have
begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes," but there
is no mention of reparations, nor of honoring long-broken treaties.

White Plume lit one of his rolled-up cigarettes and squinted at me
through a ribbon of smoke. "Do you know what saved me from becoming a
cold-blooded murderer?

My language saved me. There is no way for me to be hateful in my

It's such a beautiful, gentle language. It's so peaceful." Then White
Plume started to speak in Lakota, and there was no denying the words
came softly.

Above us, in an otherwise empty sky, two small clouds touched each
other and melted into nothing.

White Plume got up and walked toward the creek, and then I heard him
exclaim in surprise-"Aha!"-as if greeting someone revered, and deeply

He had found the cottonwood tree for his Sun Dance

Although most Pine Ridge traditions are off-limits to outsiders, I
gathered that the following would occur: The tree would be brought
down by White Plume and some of the men in his family and carried to
the Sun Dance grounds with the kind of reverence due a holy being.

There it would be fixed with prayer ties-bundles of tobacco and other
offerings wrapped with cloth of various colors-and set in a hole in
the ground, where it would remain until the following year.

In 1974 White Plume joined the Army and was deployed to Germany.
(Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the armed
forces.) "The year I left to join the Army, there were only three Sun
Dances on the whole reservation," he said. "Now there are scores."
White Plume still holds his own family and extended family's Sun
Dances in the traditional way. "It's just us," he said, in a way that
sounded less exclusive than it looks in print. "It's so beautiful, so

The vigorous resurgence of Sun Dance ceremonies owes much to the
passage of the 1978 act but also to the widespread Indian activism
that began earnestly in the early 1970s. Now every year during the
summer there are more than 50 separate Sun Dances across Pine Ridge,
up from the few held in secret decades ago. At each ceremony scores of
invited participants dance, meditate, pray, are purified in sweat
lodges, and fast for days at a time. Men who are deemed spiritually
equipped to withstand this symbolic act of communal self-sacrifice are
pierced with bone pegs at the end of ropes tied to the branches of
ritually harvested cottonwood trees.

They then jerk themselves free, tearing their skin in the

A mantle of ancient-feeling, sacred humidity settles over the

It says a lot of what you need to know about Alex White Plume that an
imperfect yet contagiously optimistic 38-year-old woman named Olowan
Thunder Hawk Martinez considers him a mentor.

At one time or another, Martinez has been almost everything you might
despair of in a person, but she is also an irrepressible spirit and a
courageously outspoken, self-appointed youth leader. "You want me to
be that drunk Indian woman in the corner?" Like her mentor, Martinez
has an unsettling habit of laughing when she is most serious.

She laughed now. "I've been there, done that. I snapped out of

On the night she heard of Jumping Eagle's suicide, Martinez said, she
could feel the victim's pain-as if the body of the dying girl had
briefly broken its bounds and inhabited her own. "I know why a lot of
young girls try to kill themselves on the rez," Martinez said. "We're
all in constant danger of losing ourselves, losing our identities.
It's a daily struggle for each and every one of us to be fully Lakota.
And sometimes we lose the struggle, and then the men take out their
feeling of worthlessness on the women, the women take out their
feelings of worthlessness on themselves, and everyone takes out their
feelings of worthlessness on the children."

In Martinez's case, an uncle had molested her when she was six and
again when she was ten. "Afterward he used words-he told me I was
useless. I remember feeling such a deep pain that nothing and nobody
could reach inside to take it away." Soon after the second defilement
Martinez found herself standing alone in the kitchen of her mother's
house. "Just like today, it was hot outside and building up for rain,"
Martinez said. "I remember looking down at the kitchen counter and
seeing a knife.

And suddenly that knife seemed like the only way to cut out every pain
inside me. So I picked it up and started to saw through the skin on my

As Martinez was telling this story at her kitchen table, there was a
rumble out of the sky, as thunderclouds massed-Wakinyan, the Oglala
Lakota call them, Thunder Beings. "The sixth time I was trying to cut,
the floor beneath me rumbled," Martinez said. "Wakinyan were speaking
to me. They were telling me I had to live. I dropped the knife."

For a moment we sat in the sultry, fly-buzzing silence.

She lit a twist of sage, and we took turns wafting the cleansing smoke
around our hair. A small commotion erupted outside.

Although money is always tight, and Martinez has three children of her
own (who are 19, 11, and 5), there is often a posse of unrelated or
half-related youngsters hanging around, participants in Martinez's
somewhat haphazard youth-leadership endeavor.

Today was no exception.

Several boys, ranging in age from 14 on up, were running in circles
around her humid, overgrown garden, shooting at each other
good-naturedly with pellet guns. One of them had been shot in the rear
and was wailing. Martinez laughed and got to her feet. "Oh my warrior
youth," she said. "Let's find out who did what to who."

It is perhaps only natural that Martinez, who grew up on the rez in
the 1970s and early '80s, has radical tendencies. "Those were crazy
times," Martinez told me. Unseen people walked at night, heavily
armed; houses in the more remote towns were frequently shot at after
dark; there were scores of killings. "You can dance words around it,
but what was happening back then felt a lot like a war to the people
who were in it," she said. In February 1973, 200 members of the
American Indian Movement (AIM), a pro-native group that included
Martinez's young parents, occupied the site of the Wounded Knee
massacre to protest broken treaties and corrupt tribal governance. In
response the tribal government formed its own private
militia-Guardians of the Oglala Nation, they called themselves (GOONs
for short)-and along with dozens of National Guard troops and FBI
agents, faced down the activists.

By the time the siege was over, 71 days later, 130,000 rounds had been
fired, and authorities had made more than 1,200 arrests.

Martinez and I were talking about this one late afternoon at the
Wounded Knee Cemetery, not far from her house. "I am a direct result
of that revolution," she said. We had spread out in the shade of a
tree that also sheltered her father's grave.

Angelo "Angel" Martinez had died in a car crash in 1974, when Martinez
was a baby. It is a measure of the esteem he was held in by AIM
members that his funeral included an elaborate procession from the
village of Porcupine and burial in this highly significant cemetery.
"Right here at Wounded Knee," Martinez said, digging her finger into
the ground. "This is where the idea of me happened."

Looking at it head-on, the 1973 siege did not achieve its goals.
Broken treaties between the U.S. and the Oglala Sioux remained broken,
the tribal government remained as corrupt as ever, and those
rebellious days had a long and violent afterlife.

Between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Pine
Ridge Reservation was more than 17 times the national average.

But the AIM activists had made two things abidingly and indelibly

The U.S. government could never again dismiss Indian people as a
bothersome obstacle to an otherwise perfectly executed manifest
destiny, and being native, resisting colonization and assimilation was
something to which people could proudly dedicate their lives.

One afternoon a few weeks later Martinez and I drove two hours
northwest to deliver a birthday cake to a niece by marriage, who had
recently been raped on the rez and had fled to a women's shelter in
Rapid City, South Dakota. On the way Martinez pointed out several
unmarked state police cars. When I asked her how she could tell,
Martinez said, "I can spot a pig a mile off. It's the way I was raised
by my mother."

It's true that Victoria Thunder Hawk had presciently prepared her
child for jail, because whatever else was up for grabs in Martinez's
future, incarceration was inevitable. "I grew up on marijuana money,"
Martinez said. "It's how my mother took care of us and funded her work
in the resistance. So she always used to tell us, 'Just remember, when
they come for you, keep your head up and mouth shut.'" Martinez said
the whole rez community seemed to come through their doors to buy
marijuana when she was a kid, "teachers, cops, neighbors. I thought
everyone smoked." But Thunder Hawk never got rich on the trade,
sharing her profits liberally with the community. Also, she viewed
marijuana as a medicine that would allow her people to heal from
oppression and to tap into a creative, contemplative frame of mind. By
the time Martinez was 30, she had been involved in selling drugs for
most of her living memory. "It was just a matter of time," Martinez
said. "You know? You get selfish, you get careless, you get caught."

By now we had delivered the birthday cake and were driving through
Rapid City's downtown, with its once-we-were-cowboys-and-Indians
public art. But as Martinez kept insisting, the past wasn't neatly
done and dusted, as the bronze statues of cowboys would suggest.

It was here and now. A day earlier, on August 2, a 22-year-old Indian
man originally from the reservation, Daniel Tiger, had shot and killed
a police officer in an altercation at a bus stop in the city. Tiger
too had been shot and died of his wounds, another officer had died,
and another was recovering in a hospital. "White people always say
there's nothing racist about it," Martinez said. "But that's because
they're not native.

Maybe it's time we made the boundaries around the rez impenetrable.
Keep the Indians in, keep the crackers out. Then we can just get on
with it. No more cowboys and Indians."

Martinez pointed to a stark, square building to her right. "Pennington
County Jail," she said. "That's where I spent my 11 and a half months
in hell." She looked over at me. "They got me for conspiring to
distribute. But I didn't snitch on anyone.

I did my time. Head up, mouth shut, just like my mother told

Martinez said the worst part of her died in that jail. "The greedy,
selfish Martinez died in those walls.

She's buried there." She reached over, patted my arm, and laughed.
"Don't you think that's a good place to bury a colonized Indian ass?
In a white man's jail." Encouraged to participate in sobriety classes,
Martinez was unequivocally clearheaded for the first time in decades.
"Then when I was having revelations, when I was feeling the spirits, I
knew I wasn't hallucinating. I started to trust my visions." Sitting
in a windowless cell, Martinez said, she saw her future. "I could see
dozens of tepees set up in a meadow and young warriors everywhere,
flags and braids and camouflage flying.

I was in the middle of them, and my children were with me." Martinez
shut her eyes, and for a moment all the hurt and the fight went out of
her face.

In the early spring of 2011 Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez briefly
caught the edge of the vision she had had in jail. For a few weeks in
that unkind South Dakota season, she borrowed a tepee and set it up on
land she had inherited from her mother, who had died while Martinez
was incarcerated. Martinez was not permitted to attend her mother's
funeral. "She died with an outstanding warrant for her arrest hanging
over her head, for the same thing that landed my ass in jail,"
Martinez said.

By conventional Western mores, Martinez's vision would seem
unambitious to the point of meaninglessness. Still, her mother would
have approved of Martinez's setup on her land. And it's something Alex
White Plume would respect too. "Everything in the U.S. is designed
around money," he had said to me. "So how do we live in that mode-with
the white man's houses, the white man's pickup, the white man's
currency-and still keep our traditional Lakota culture?"

In the tepee Martinez heated baked beans over an open fire surrounded
by her two young daughters, her son, and half a dozen coming and going
Oglala Lakota youth.

As in her vision, the youngsters were dressed in camouflage, many of
them wore their hair in long braids, ribbons were flying.

For a few sacred weeks Martinez wasn't in mold-infested,
government-issued housing.

She was off the grid. (She can rarely afford her electricity and water
bills when she isn't.) She woke up early and walked out of her tepee
and directly into the grace of the morning star, to which she gave her
Lakota thanks.

And outside the tepee, against the restless Great Plains sky, bleak
with heavy spring snow clouds, Martinez raised an American flag, union
down. According to the Flag Code of the United States of America, the
flag should never be displayed union down, except as a signal of dire
distress or in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
"That's almost right," Martinez said. "We're in dire distress, but we
don't need anyone to come and save the Indian. When we honor our
customs, and when we perform ceremonies, and when we listen to our
ancestors, then we have everything we need to heal ourselves within
ourselves." Martinez thought for a moment, and then she added, "Write
this: When the lights go out for good, my people will still be here.
We have our ancient ways. We will remain." 
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