Pine Ridge

This piece integrates quotes from a recent NY Times article, “Next to Tribe With Alcohol Ban, a Hub of Beer,” which can be found in full online:

As we approach the western border of South Dakota, I know we’re going to be making a detour. The yellow afternoon seeps through the car windows and warms the folds across my lap. I measure with my fingers, spread open in an eyeball approximation of an inch. One inch = ten miles. Ten miles = ten minutes, or less if I’m driving. The whole thing should take less than two hours. And that’s being incredibly generous.

“Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is one of the poorest places in the country, according to 2010 census data.”

I know this place because I am paid to talk about it ; paid to describe the desolation, the poverty, the lasting impacts of domestic warfare and institutional racism. I am paid to tell you that your ancestors were wrong to go west. That Manifest Destiny was a totally fucked-up idea with no moral basis. I am paid to calmly and articulately deconstruct the myth of the American West. My brown skin and dark eyes will convince you that everything you learned in fourth grade social studies was false, and that you should give me a hug, or at least donate to the historical society. Not all embrace this revisionist history. Some are wary, watching me from the back of the room as I gesture at maps, point out borders and treaty agreements, show paintings and wave towards flags. I can do this for at least a few more hours before it starts to hurt, right below my breast bone, deep inside my ribs. Then I can’t stop my tone from rising like a preacher on the last word of scripture. Like a parent on the final word in a fierce scolding.

“Fetal alcohol syndrome, fatal drunken driving accidents and beer-fueled murders have cast a pall over Pine Ridge for decades.”

I trace the lines on the map with my index finger, trying to keep it from shaking across the page. Truth be told, I am afraid. Every reservation holds a memory of home, but I have not lived my life without warning. I can only rely on my features for so long before some misplaced word, some unconscious gesture, some screaming hint of my ignorance will announce my presence as an outsider. But the open road keeps twisting deeper and deeper into the depths of Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee lies on the far edge of the reservation, less than ten miles from Nebraska. The New York Times article I read last month neglected to mention this particular proximity. Let alone how they might be related.

“Dozens of people in various states of inebriation wandered along the road. Other men and women were passed out in front of abandoned buildings.”

The fields are empty. I’m not used to so much openness. Even back home, fields are seeded with wheat and potatoes. The mountains roll up from the valley floor. But we seem to be the only presence in the giant gap between the brown earth and the blue sky., my pale-skinned boyfriend and I, letting the odometer count up the miles as we drift farther and farther away from the Interstate.

“The tribal police department, which has 38 officers — down from 101 six years ago — lacks jurisdiction.”

I’ve grown up feeling the sting of injustice and discrimination. But my parents were outsiders. They came to the rez with this knowledge, and passed it on to me. You can’t be non-Indian on Indian land and expect your life to be the same. When you pass onto a reservation, your personal history will come to the surface. The color of your skin will matter. I know this. I know I am an outsider even when I am home. Here, I am twice the outsider, and way outside my comfort zone.

“Any sign of alcohol — the smell of beer, walking funny, slurred speech — can get a person arrested in Pine Ridge. ”

We’re running out of gas. I’m trying to keep the panic deep down in my belly, trying to suppress it because, after all, this little excursion was my idea. The sun is setting, and each dot on the map could signify a town or just a place where the highways bends to flow on another twenty-five miles without interruption. But we can’t turn back now, and we’re on one of three paved roads in a seventy-mile radius. We almost miss the gas station, our eyes are so intent on finding a giant Conoco or Exxon.

“There!” I practically shout, pointing over his lap to the four pumps lined up outside a wooden mini-mart. I open the car door. My heart is thudding in my chest. I walk across the pavement, my head down, my hair over my features. I am suddenly aware of my tight leggings and lace-up boots. Native girls don’t dress like I am dressed now. But no one looks at me until I stand in front of the register, keeping my face still and easy.

“Bathroom?” I ask. She points at a door in the back, but I can see the “Out of Order” sign from here. She shakes her head.

“Just go ahead and use it.”

When I’m done, I return to the car, and then pump the gas. My boyfriend stays in the car and watches me replace the pump. Upon re-entering the safe little world of our Honda Accord, I am exhilarated. “I did it,” I say, “I passed.”

“Rates of diabetes, teenage suicide, crime and unemployment are in some cases exponentially higher than national averages, according to federal and tribal data and officials.”

We get to Wounded Knee as the sun is slipping away. The air is hanging on to a momentary light – dusty pink illuminating the grass flats. There is nothing but a highway sign, front and back in hand-painted letters. Like the gas station, we almost missed it. We walk up the rutted track to the hilltop in the near-darkness. With an empty bladder and a full tank of gas, I feel less scared. In fact, as we enter the tiny cemetery perched on the cusp of the setting sun, I’m not scared at all. I feel a great peace settle over the great uneasiness in my chest. We survey the mass-grave with solemn acknowledgement.

“Daryl Walking, 46, a former Marine who said he has been drinking since he was a boy, said he spends three nights a week in jail for public intoxication and the other four in the cold.”

There’s no way to bottle this sensation and bring it back to the Interstate. No way to convince anyone that a four-hour drive on winding two-lane highways is worth every cent of gas. No way to explain that a non-Native has a responsibility to drive through the reservation with an open mind and an open heart. I guess that’s why we have the New York Times.


About mayafishsticks

Since I turned 20, it's all gone downhill.
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