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Authors: Roland Merullo

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Nine

South and east of Deadwood the land was dry as dust, vast rolling stretches of it, good for almost nothing but looking at. Too parched for farming. Too sparsely vegetated for successful ranching. After an hour or so of driving we saw a sign,
ENTERING OGLALA SIOUX RESERVATION,
which, in a sad way, made perfect sense: Of all the corners of this earth into which they might have been herded, the Indians had been “given” this land, the worst and most useless in the continent, land that—once the bison were gone—nobody wanted. It was like taking over a family's house after the family had been living there for millennia and telling them they could camp out in one corner of the basement but you were keeping the kitchen and living room and all the upstairs, destroying the garden in the back yard from which they'd fed themselves for generations. You'd let them buy alcohol and camp in the basement, and then you'd criticize them for not being as disciplined and “productive” as you were.

Within two-tenths of a mile we passed the Prairie Wind Casino (yes, we let them have slot machines down there in our basement). If Rinpoche noticed it, he said nothing. Another few seconds and I heard him chanting, as quietly as if his daughter were asleep in back and he didn't want to wake her. It was an eerie sound, one low note held and vibrating, then held again, like a tugboat churning along the Hudson, signaling. I knew what it meant: a prayer for these people.

To either side we saw well-spaced trailers. With a few exceptions, they were rusted and broken-down, sometimes accompanied by an old car out front, sometimes with rubber tires on the roof to prevent the metal sheets from being carried away on the Dakotas' notorious winds. There were clothes drying on the lines but no people, no kids in the yards, none of the little signals of prosperity you'd see in suburbia: adults pruning trees, raking leaves, painting trim, building sheds for their lawn mowers. The structures we saw reeked of hopelessness. They were rusted, old, flimsy, sitting back from the road on their patches of useless land, in a part of the country where a winter night could reach 40 below zero, where it was regularly 110 in summer, where the nearest jobs were thirty or sixty or eighty miles away. Here and there fir trees pocked the landscape and you could see odd-shaped white sand outcroppings like miniature strip mines long since abandoned. There were two or three horses in the fields, and patches of sunflowers, and a small herd of black cattle, and then, like one last symbol standing for everything else we'd seen, a doll—naked plastic baby—sprawled on the hot tar road.

We passed two handmade signs saying
WHY DIE?
and
THINK.
And after a moment we saw another one and I realized they marked places where people had been killed in auto accidents, and they were meant to discourage drunk driving. There were other signs, handmade and stuck into the dirt—
VOTE NO TO ALCOHOL!
For a hundred years it had been illegal, but a newspaper headline in Deadwood had said that, just a few days earlier, the tribe had voted on whether or not to allow alcohol to be sold on the reservation. The yes votes had prevailed by a narrow margin.

Another minute and we were approaching the Oglala Ridge General Store. Rinpoche asked me to pull in to the gravel parking lot and I did so. We were the only non-native people there. The front door, open at that hour, could be locked with barred metal grates not unlike those you saw on the first floors of townhouses in parts of Manhattan and the boroughs. Inside, it was the usual array of packaged foodstuffs, the counter area presided over by an American Indian woman who reminded me of some of the African American women I'd encountered in my tutoring days. These were people who lived in the harshest of circumstances—in a sea of violence and sorrow that would have drowned lesser souls—and yet they were unfailingly upbeat, positive, fierce spirited. I'd seen it in some of the men, too, of course, and in some of the adolescents I tutored. But it took a different form in the women. It was almost as if the life force I mentioned earlier, that enormous drive to preserve and extend the species, was visible in their eyes and the muscles around the mouth, in their shoulders and hands. You could see it working its stubborn magic. There was no surrender in them, no despair. Somehow, in a swamp of desolation, they held to the long view.

The other people we encountered in and around the store had no such energy to them. A stooped, haggard woman of thirty years came up to me and asked for “one dollar,” and when I handed over a five she thanked me with a remarkable dignity. Not proud, exactly. And not fawning. Simply as if we were brother and sister, and the gift was expected but not required, and she was grateful but not diminished. I bought a bag of pistachios. In the parking lot, while I popped open a nut and waited for my companion to finish his conversation with the store owner and emerge into the light, a man approached me. He had fresh blood on his lips, as if he'd been vomiting through a ruptured esophagus, or was tubercular. He was holding out a ring of colorful, tightly woven plastic strands that he kept assuring me he'd made himself. He seemed high or drunk or alcohol-saturated or maybe just deathly ill, and he wanted twenty dollars for the rather unremarkable piece of handiwork. I gave him ten, and he accepted it with the same quiet dignity as the woman.

We drove away, east on Route 18, the interior of the car filled with a terrible silence, as if we were in the presence of some unforgiveable travesty, as if the air above the reservation were suffused with the blood of bad history, the ghosts of slaughter and teenage suicides. We passed the Felix Cohen Home for the Elderly, then a hospital that seemed defunct, then a crossroads town—Oglala—which was composed of a gas station, a market, a Pizza Hut, a Boys and Girls Club, and a string of empty storefronts. We saw a young Indian boy sitting in a forlorn posture, with his back against the market wall, holding up a packet of what appeared to be sage wrapped in newspaper. We turned left, east, out of town, then turned north toward Wounded Knee. This detour was my idea. Why I wanted to see Wounded Knee I don't know. I remembered, vaguely, that something had happened there, some type of insurrection or revolt. We drove deeper into the reservation, past miles of low, dry, empty hills, a lonely ranch house, then pulled into a rest area where there was a billboard explaining the place's history. In what would turn out to be the final battle of the Indian Wars, in late December 1890, a group of several hundred Lakota Sioux—more women and children than men—were killed by American soldiers. I stood next to Rinpoche as we read this. For a little while I believed I could feel the weight of the injustice, the actual weight of it—the stolen land, the slaughtered buffalo, the broken promises, the massacre of human beings. The people we'd seen at the general store and the broken-down houses and trailers we'd passed felt to me like repositories of history, a hundred times more powerful than a billboard with words on it. For that little while I felt sure that all the achievements of my own tribe rested on a foundation of treachery. We'd made a shimmering world—roads and hospitals, universities and libraries. Through sweat, sacrifice, and ingenuity we'd constructed a golden universe where children owned telephones, where livers, lungs, and kidneys could be harvested and replaced. But there was a lie at the heart of it—not just the stolen land and murdered squaws, but something beyond that, an ice-hearted belief in the god of competition. Our success, always, depended on someone else's failure.

The moment passed. Not far from the information board several people had set up tables under shade awnings and were selling jewelry and bundles of freshly harvested sage. I could smell it from where I stood. Rinpoche and I walked down the grassy slope to one of the tables, and the woman there—Elvis T-shirt, tattoo across the top of her chest, no upper teeth at all—showed us a display of earrings and bracelets she herself had fashioned. She spoke almost without moving her lips, saying something about the start of the school year, and clothes for her son, and there was, about her, this same . . .
dignity
is the only word I can find. Using the word
dignity
with American Indians is the same as using the word
soul
with African Americans. There's something about it that feels both accurate and not right. As far as I knew, my ancestors hadn't killed any Indians and had arrived too late to be among those who'd taken their land. None of them ever owned slaves. So it wasn't as if I harbored any personal guilt about the plight of either group. It wasn't as if I believed that every black person and every Indian was a wonderful human being. And it wasn't as if I looked upon all of them with pity. But—and here we come to one of those places in the American national conversation where we walk semantic tightropes, where we tiptoe between a stubborn heartlessness on the one side, a refusal to admit the long legacy of injustice, and a sloppy excess of compassion on the other—there
was,
in some of the people we met at Pine Ridge, a grace one does not typically encounter. There
was,
among certain inhabitants of the Bronx's poorer blocks, an obvious generosity of heart, a spiritual courage, a depth of humanity in the midst of a level of deprivation and violence that would crush most people. But saying so, perhaps especially for a person of my standing and color, was a both a 911 call to the political correctness police and an invitation to bigots. We did that now, shoved each other into this or that cage, snapped the lock, and used the label to advance our own position. One comment and into the box you went. You were conservative, liberal, racist, entitled, professional victim or heartless bigot, too cynical, too sentimental, not sophisticated enough. Standing there opposite the toothless woman, I felt in my own mouth the bitter taste of all this categorization. For that bit of time I set aside all that and hoped my sister's visions might be accurate, that some new world awaited us, that a different way was possible, that some brave beast—Shelsa, her mysterious and as yet undiscovered partner—was, at that very moment, slouching toward some new Bethlehem to be born.

I bought cloth bracelets for Natasha, Shelsa, Anthony, and Seese and let the woman tie one onto my own wrist, as did Rinpoche.

We walked up a hill to a cemetery and there found graves of people who'd died in the more recent uprising, a 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee that began with internal Indian politics and soon grew violent. This was the Wounded Knee story I'd remembered, however vaguely. I had been in junior high, seen something on the nightly news, been struck by my parents' indifference. Trouble on the reservation; what else was new?

As we stood there a woman came uphill from a cluster of trailers below. She held out a pretty necklace and asked if I'd buy it, and I will regret for a long while not doing so. I don't know why I so quickly shook my head and said, “No, thank you.” I felt I'd spent enough, God forgive me, done enough, given enough. I didn't want or need the necklace. I've never liked being approached by people who want to sell me things. May God forgive me. At least I looked into the woman's eyes and greeted her, spoke with her. We talked for a while. She said, with that same dignity, that she was hoping to move from a tepee to a house, that the nearest work was twenty miles away, the bus was expensive, other residents of the reservation charged twenty dollars for a round-trip ride. I gave her five dollars. Five dollars! She thanked me.

I turned away, then turned back and said, “What's your name?”

“Natasha,” the woman answered, and I very nearly fell over backward in the dust.

I have, I should say again here, made a promise to myself to set down the events of our road trip exactly as they occurred. For spiritual posterity perhaps. Perhaps just for my own training in honesty, in not making myself out to be someone I am not. I have sworn to include the frolic and the difficulties, the fear and the laughter, even the small details that might end up having some meaning I am blind to at present. So I have to say that I drove away from Wounded Knee, out of the reservation, south toward the state line, in a cloud of shame. I didn't understand myself. Not filthy rich, I nevertheless have more money than I know what to do with. A severance package, a 401(k), my wife's inheritance, investment income, a house worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars. What was wrong with me? I should have taken out a hundred dollar bill and handed it to Natasha, I know that. Taken her necklace and mailed it to my daughter and told her about the coincidence. But I didn't. I couldn't keep from staring through the windshield at the broken-down trailers, the
NO TO ALCOHOL!
and
WHY DIE?
signs, the bleak landscape, the hopelessness. Neither of us spoke for a long time and then Rinpoche—riding shotgun but not wearing his cowboy hat—said, “Maybe now another time you come back to this place, Otto my friend. I feel like maybe you come back. Or you write something on it in a book. Rinpoche feels this.”

BOOK: Dinner with Buddha
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