The snow finally let up today . Since all we've seen of Pine Ridge so far is the inside of Peter's cabin, we decided to hold of for one more day and try to see a bit of the reservation now that the snow has cleared enough to drive.Our first stop for the day was Wounded Knee, the site of the last major conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota.
The story is well-known and grim: U.S. regulars, mostly Custer's old regiment, slaughtered several hundred Lakota men women and children, all of whom had already surrendered. Normally it's a busy tourist spot, but when we arrived we were greeted only by deep snow drifts. As we wandered from the innocuous appearing massacre site to the hilltop graveyard, we were approached by a man who invited us down to the visitor's lodge. There we saw reproductions of photographs and artifacts, as well as material on the American Indian Movement's protracted siege against U.S. Marshals in 1973. It seems the history of relations between the U.S. goverment and Native Americans has a depressing way of repeating itself.
Next we met with Nick Tilsen, who works with the Lakota Fund. The Fund is essentially a micro-lending bank designed to help Lakotas build their own local economy.The obstacles include a general lack of financial literacy and the fact that Lakotas cannot use land for loan collateral since most of the land is actually held in trust by the government. The policies seem outdated and ridiculous, but still manage to depress the local economy.
We saw two examples of businesses that had received loans— Angie's (where we had a delicious Lakota-Mexican lunch) and Lakota Express, a call and mailing center where we discussed the difficulties of starting a business on the reservation with Kim, one of Nick's sisters.
We also stopped briefly at Oglala Lakota College, one of the first tribal colleges in the nation. Rather than a single campus, its central campus is purely administrative, and its classrooms are spread across satellite campuses in each of the reservation districts. It's an arrangement that makes a lot of sense for people with busy lives whose reservation is spread across a region the size of Connecticut. While we were on the campus, we watched an informative and well-done general history of the Lakota that briefly reviewed all of recorded Lakota history.
Our final stop was KILI radio, one of the great successes of the American Indian Movement on Pine Ridge. As Nick explained, KILI was intended as an agent for transparency in the tribal government, which has often been corrupt and subservient to the federal government.
KILI broadcasts all major political meetings, as well as an eclectic range of hip-hop, traditional music and dance, country, etc. All of us had been listening to KILI non-stop since we arrived on the reservation, depending on it for weather, news, updates on road conditions and entertainment. As Peter said, it's hard to imagine life on the reservation without KILI—it really is the central nervous system.
The studio reminded me greatly of KRLX on the Carleton campus. It's all pretty informal, with Melanie and Mary yakking away over their favorite country music, telling everybody which roads are still icy and whom to call for firewood. Nick explained his plans for a small-scale wind turbine at KILI through another organization of his, the Lakota Action Network. It's a really exciting project for the reservation, especially considering its placement at KILI's office.
We stayed that night with Claire Newman '05, who is currently teaching eighth grade at the Catholic school in Porcupine, South Dakota. We watched "The Spirit of Crazy Horse," a documentary about the ongoing conflict between the Lakota with "traditional values" and those who have accepted the ways of the dominant U.S. society.
It's our fifth straight day of clouds out here in South Dakota. They tell us the weather is 80 percent sunny here, but I'm not sure I believe it.
We visited Claire's eighth grade classroom just before lunch. The students were a bit more bashful than your average American eighth grader, but I was surprised by how similar the classroom was to my own eighth grade class, especially considering what we had learned about life on the reservation.
The students were researching alternative energy, and each group had envisioned ways in which solar, wind or biofuel power could be used on the reservation. I was amazed by the amount of work the students had done (each group gave a 5- to 10-minute presentation) and by the ways in which some of the students seemed to truly care about the initiatives they were researching.
After a brief and entertaining visit with the first-grade class, we hit the road again, driving through the Badlands and the Wild West town of Scenic, where the old "No Indians Allowed" sign still hangs above the saloon (although the word "no" was painted over 30+ years ago).
We followed Dan O'Brien's directions down dirt roads in increasingly bad condition, and finally found Dan standing at the entrance to his ranch as our mud-encrusted Ford Focus came wallowing in.
Dan gave us a brief overview of his operation and showed us around the ranch. His buffalo herd, which averages around 200, is free to graze in the winter months throughout 20,000 acres of badlands and buttes leased from the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. In the summer, he keeps the herd closer to the ranch on private land. Aside from the occasional roundup to keep tabs on the herd, the animals are never confined. Two-year-old bulls are killed in their natural environment and hauled away for processing. Out in this land of drought and wide open spaces, ranching is just about the only way to make a profit from the land, and Dan's model offers a natural alternative to the paradigm of factory meat farms packed full of weak, diseased, and drugged animals.
Buffalo ranching aside, Dan is better known for his numerous books of historical fiction and nonfiction. Carleton students who have taken American Environmental History from Bob Bonner are familiar with Dan's autobiographical "Buffalo for the Broken Heart," the story of how a writer/professor from Ohio came to run a buffalo ranch in the shadow of the Black Hills. Dan teaches in the winter months; some Carleton students will remember his Creative Writing and Practical Conservation classes from Winter 2005.
Dan has two assistants on the ranch—Ernie, who has worked with Dan for 30 years, takes care of the dogs and hunting falcons and serves as the ranch handiman, and Gervais, a retired literature professor, who helps with ranch work, edits the manuscripts of Dan's books, and keeps the horses beautifully groomed.
The snow is melting, replenishing the moisture of this parched land. A total of 25 inches fell here on Sunday and Monday, which Dan says is the largest precipitation event in three years and an answer to the prayers of many a Western rancher.