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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 1:12 AM
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giovanni sasso giovanni sasso is offline
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WOUNDED KNEE, SOUTH DAKOTA: a true sasso story


(HEADS UP: there are a lot of words in this post. Just scroll down for the photos if you wish to not read the associated story.)

Last summer, I went on a six week road trip across the United States, the end result of which saw my fast departure from my native Pennsylvania for Oregon. En route, I made it a point to pass through Nebraska and South Dakota, the last two of the lower 48 I had to cross off my list. I found Nebraska surprisingly pleasant and beautiful. I entered via i-80 into Omaha, then took US-75 north along the Missouri River, through the Omaha and Winnebago indian reservations. There was a powwow at Winnebago which I checked out for an afternoon. While there, I stopped in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices to understand a little better what it is they do, and to just generally feel out the American Indian scene. And -- in all honesty -- to see if the local lexicon favored "Indian" or "Native American" since, after all, the latter is nothing more than a politically correct contemporary euphemism for They Who We Tried To Eradicate, the very term invoking the name of the Italian explorer who arrived in the New World within a decade of Columbus. As I suspected, "indian" is most used in reservation parlance, although there is a certain, understandable pride in use of the word "native" (not so much "American", though the presence of American flags on reservations is often very noticeable).

In talking with Winnebago's BIA director about modern reservation life and population, I mentioned I was heading toward South Dakota's Black Hills. He kind of paused and took a solemn tone in advising me to not go to the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation. I think he sincerely was concerned for my well being, but I also suspected a bit of shame on the BIA's part, and general indian peoples' heritage, on the state of life at Pine Ridge. Having walked the streets of North Philly, South Bronx, Southeast DC and others (not to mention the hillbilly hinterlands of West Virginia where I have family), I figured how bad could it be.

The Pine Ridge indian reservation is, by many accounts, the poorest place in America, and the web of weirdness surrounding it is nearly impassable. Bad vibes hang on the air; its bad medicine was formed over a long line of bad history. As early as the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804, the Sioux (in particular the Lakotas) were considered hostile by American interests; that's because they put up the most resistance in defending their home lands. They defended the Powder River against construction of the Bozeman Trail (in Red Cloud's War), they defeated Custer's army at the Little Big Horn, and they were the last tribe to concede defeat and move onto the reservation, after the horrific massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Pine Ridge is the eighth largest indian reservation in the country, at around 3,500 sq mi, larger than Delaware. (Navajo in Arizona and the Four Corners is the largest.) Most of its 15,000 people live well below the poverty line. The median family income is around $20,000, the unemployment rate is around 85%. General health is poor; as many as 50% are inflicted with diabetes and the life expectancy is around 50, the infant mortality rate is 5x the national average, and suicide is 4x the average. Crime and litter are rampant, and gang presence -- classic Bloods & Crips -- is everywhere. Like many reservations, Pine Ridge is dry, but alcoholism is still a major problem. Pine Ridge, the eponymous seat of the reservation (pop. 3,100, the largest community on the reservation), is two miles from the Nebraska border, where a controversial liquor store serves those who make the trek to it, most on foot. The store is in the small community of Whiteclay, in Sheridan County, named for Philip Sheridan, the Civil War general who later fought in the Indian Wars and allegedly declared "the only good indian is a dead indian."

Crossing into South Dakota from Valentine, Nebraska (a small cowboy town with red hearts painted on the sidewalks), the first thing you see is the South Dakota state sign and Mount Rushmore graphic. That National Monument with the historic white faces on the sacred red ground is an hour away from the reservation, high in the Black Hills of spiritual importance to the Sioux -- and of commercial interest to US prospectors seeking its gold (led by George A Custer in an exploratory mission two years before Little Big Horn).

The second thing you see is the Rosebud Casino. The Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations are separated by only one county, but their well being are awful disparate. The Rosebud Sioux, like so many American Indians on reservations, have accepted gaming as a palatable source of revenue. Some, like the Pima in Arizona and the Mohegans in Connecticut, have maximized the profitability from the casinos to make life on the reservation better, if a little controversial.

The Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge have a dinky little double-wide I didn't stop in, the Prairie Wind Casino, but it apparently does little for the betterment of the reservation or its people. Driving west from Rosebud on US-18 toward Pine Ridge, with Bitches Brew blasting at 10, my senses began to tingle with no small portion of fear. This place was f'n weird, boy. Only thing to do was run the voodoo down.

In 25 years of taking photos, I've only felt threatened twice -- once in West Philly when I was pressing my luck, and once in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood when a drug dealer thought I was taking his picture when in fact I was taking a picture of a truck with balloons hanging from it. (I took his picture after the fact.) But as I got closer to the town of Pine Ridge in need of a tank of gas, I definitely felt a little unwelcome. I could hear the words of the Winnebago BIA agent.

The town of Pine Ridge was small and run down, with evidence of gangs everywhere -- even churches and homes were vandalized with gang colors. The main intersection of town, where US-18 swings north, has a Shell gas station, a church parking lot, a community center, and probably the nicest building on Pine Ridge, a red brick BIA building where in 1973 the FBI sent a garrison of 65 armed agents to help deal with the American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff just a few miles away on the reservation in a tiny community called Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee. The place is cemented in the shameful lore of American/Indian relational history -- twice. In December 1890, at the bitter end of what was known as the Indian Wars, the US Army 7th Cavalry -- the same regiment led by Custer into defeat at Little Big Horn 14 years prior -- marched into the village to head off a party of Minneconjou and Hunkpapa Siouxs led by Spotted Elk. They had left the Standing Rock Reservation after the Army slayed Sitting Bull, the legendary Hunkpapa who was instrumental at Little Big Horn -- and who had toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. They were heading out to join the other Lakota Sioux in solidarity against the United States, who reneged on the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which set aside what is now all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River as the Great Sioux Reservation, and now forced them into smaller reservations outside of the Black Hills.

At Wounded Knee, the cavalrymen forced the Minneconjous and Hunkpapas and the Oglalas they'd come to join to disarm, and the story goes that a deaf indian would not relinquish his rifle. From this, a scuffle broke out, which led to immediate heavy fire and chaos. In a very short period of time, 150 indians (including women and children) and 31 soldiers were dead. Spotted Elk was among the dead, and the photograph of his corpse lying in the snow is one of the more famous images from Wounded Knee. (Note: the filename there is DeadBigfoot. Big Foot was the derogatory nickname the 7th Cavalry had for Spotted Elk.)

The Wounded Knee Massacre effectively marked the end of the war between the native nations and American settlers/citizens that had been ongoing since the Pequot/Plymouth conflict or, one might argue, since Columbus. There were a small handful of later skirmishes (much like there was some Civil War fighting after Appomattox), but Wounded Knee was the last major clash of red and white.

In 1973, three years after the bestseller Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was originally published, Wounded Knee was the site of a clash of a different sort. The American Indian Movement, who the year before had taken over the BIA's headquarters in Washington DC for a week, came to the aid of the Oglala Sioux, who felt that their elected tribal leader Dick Wilson had become too dictatorial. The result was a 71 day, armed standoff between AIM and US Marshals (with the FBI), raising awareness during the Nixon era about the poor living conditions on indian reservations, which ended peacefully but after two deaths. This incident was the subject of the fifth and final episode of We Shall Remain, the 2009 PBS documentary by Ric Burns (Ken's brother), and was the cause for Marlon Brando's refusal to accept an Oscar for The Godfather, instead sending an activist woman in full Apache clothing to protest on his behalf about the poor treatment of American Indians by the film industry.

Living conditions in Wounded Knee aren't much better now than they were in 1973.

Wounded Knee had been a place I wanted to see for years, but I was surprised that I didn't see any signs marking the historic site, so I stopped at a roadside tent with trinkets. (Across most reservations, there are lots of roadside mini-markets with natives of the reservation selling souvenirs like tomahawks and books about indian leaders.) I asked a 16 year old named Carl where the 1890 site was and he told me I was on it. I said surely he must be wrong, since there was nothing noting it there but his table and the dirt parking lot we were in. Carl pointed out across a dry gully that in higher water carries the Wounded Knee Creek and identified places where gunmen fired and people died.

He then pointed across the road at the cemetery atop a hill there. An obelisk visible from across the road marked a mass grave where the indian dead from 1890 were buried. The cemetery was also the nerve center of the 1973 AIM incident. And, Carl told me, that very day a band of Lakota motorcyclists would be arriving there, the end of their annual freedom ride, the indian answer to the annual Sturgis rally an hour and a half away in South Dakota.

Carl, attempting to ratchet up a donation for his time (I gave him a five for his troubles), talked about how much he hated the alcoholism and gangs, and how he was motivated to get an education and off the reservation. While I was trying to process all this information, wrapped in the images across Pine Ridge and in Wounded Knee specifically, not to mention my feelings about it all, a newish pickup truck came racing across the parking lot, rap music booming from its speakers, dust and dirt kicking up everywhere. In the back were two dudes (one in blatant Crip colors) who knew Carl; while the driver got out and talked to one of the guys at the book/trinket table, the two harassed Carl and said nothing to me, beyond some menacing looks.

The driver returned and they peeled off again. Carl then headed on down the road, toward home a mile or more away.

Let's see, what's this story missing ... sex? So, as I'm returning to my car from the cemetery, an SUV with California plates and a Berkeley sticker pulls into the parking lot. An attractive 40ish woman with salt-n-pepper hair, a nose ring, big beautiful breasts in a red tank top with no bra, and a quizzical look on her face steps out. She sees me and asks the same questions I'd asked to Carl, and I explained to her what I'd learned just minutes before. Surprised as I was and incensed as any proper professor from Berkeley would be, her animated, bra-less reactions were seriously turning me on. (Mind you, I was married at the time, too.) She then asked me why I was there, and I explained that I was traveling across the country and it was somewhere I'd always wanted to see. She said "me too." She asked where else I'd been and what else I was planning, and I said I was going to go camping at Badlands National Park that night, and she said "ME TOO! We should totally camp together!" (I was definitely pitching a tent.) I fumbled my words to say something like "yeah, that's a great idea!"

She told me to hang tight, as she was going to walk across the road to check out the cemetery. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing, and as far as I know, only five minutes passed but it felt like an hour when I picked up on what sounded like a buffalo herd in the distance. As the noise drew nearer, I heard one of the men at the roadside table say "here they come!" It was the Lakota freedom ride.

The convoy grew from distant ants with headlights to a discernible team of leather clad warriors revving their engines and letting out war whoops as they approached their ride's final destination, the hilltop cemetery, the hilltop cemetery where the girl in the red tank top had just gone. I didn't owe this girl anything, but chivalrous courtesy would suggest I should have made sure she was safe.

(This is a good hundred yards away, so I don't think I captured her in this photo.)

Truth be told, I honestly didn't fear for her safety, and waiting for her to return could have only gone in salacious, ill suited directions that were just too much for my brain to handle this late in this day. The sounds of revving motorcycles and indian war whoops, combined with sheer lust and a sure thing, in the most fucked up place I've ever seen, on my way to one of America's most famous parks ... well, it was sensory overload. I couldn't take it any more, so I hopped in the car, put the pedal to the metal, cranked some Waylon, and got right on out of Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge indian reservation.

Saturday, July 25th, 2009: one hell of an introduction to my last of the contiguous states to visit. The following day would take me to Mount Rushmore, the ongoing and controversial Crazy Horse Memorial, and finally into Sturgis, where I was propositioned by a prostitute named Bubbles in a leopard skin dress, there a few days early for the 2009 rally. (She saw that I had a camera, told me to "come here and take a picture of this," and flashed her breasts. So I did.) But for now, I just wanted to get to the Badlands, set up camp, relieve my vasocongestion and have some dinner over a campfire.

Fortunately, homeboy here kept a-going through the plains, leaving campsites like mine well enough alone. I could definitely make out the snorts of buffalo and the barks of prairie dogs overnight.

Regardless your political allegiances or opinions on who's right and who's wrong in the course of American history and its relationship with the natives of the land, spending any amount of time at Wounded Knee or on the Pine Ridge indian reservation will without a doubt give you something to think about. It's a messed up place, but life nonetheless goes on. In spite of the conditions and reasons for them, there is still a great deal of pride among the Oglala Sioux, for people like Billy Mills (a Pine Ridge native who won a gold medal in the 10,000 meter at the 1964 Olympics) and Russell Means (the AIM activist who was the face of the 1973 incident to much of the media, and later actor in such movies as Last of the Mohicans and Natural Born Killers). And above all else, pride that their band fended off American conquest longer and harder than any other indian nation was able to, embodied by the spirit of Crazy Horse, who is buried at Pine Ridge.

Thanks for reading. Peace out from the Badlands.

a matter of life and death, just like a etch-a-sketch

Last edited by giovanni sasso; Oct 14, 2010 at 4:38 PM. Reason: "Big Horn" vs "Bighorn". Discuss.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 1:39 AM
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wow, thank you.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 1:51 AM
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professor sasso
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 2:01 AM
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Wild & Wonderful South Dakota.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 2:06 AM
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Holy fucking shit!


There be that milky way...I have a deep affection for the plains ...

Last edited by Centropolis; Oct 14, 2010 at 2:44 AM.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 3:45 AM
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Excellent story and photos.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 5:17 AM
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There might not be any skyscrapers, but, those are some beautiful skies! Great photos, thanks!
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 5:18 AM
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Great pictures and story! I've wondered what Pine Ridge is like. I believe that it's the only county with no county seat (count courts and services are apparently run through the neighboring county's seat; someone correct me if I'm wrong).

Your thread and that drive in Quebec are setting the bar pretty high as far as awesome threads go.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 5:35 AM
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Amazing work, never realized just how beautiful S. Dakota is, and I feel like I just read a chapter in a novel. I want more!
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 1:57 PM
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Great thread, Sasso. I always thought gang graffiti and rural landscapes were mutually exclusive. Apparently I'm very wrong!
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 2:18 PM
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Great thread, thank you very much for sharing. Looks like the plight of the Natives in America is about the same as the Natives here in Canada, very sad indeed.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 2:36 PM
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Great thread! I've always wanted to do an Indian Reserve tour, but I confess I've been a bit scared of the reprecusssions of showing the conditions in a truthful way.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 2:49 PM
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Well done Sasso.
That's what did it in the end. Not the money, not the music, not even the guns. That is my heroic flaw: my excess of civic pride.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 3:29 PM
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Thanks for the pictures, story and tour.

I've been wanting to visit the Badlands and Black Hills for a while. My plan has always been to check out Wounded Knee along the way.

I never figured that I'd have to use caution or that it would be so depressed. Still on my list though.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 4:19 PM
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Great photos. . . interesting stories. . . thanks for sharing. . .

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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 4:30 PM
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awesome work man. Reads like a book. The photos and your descriptions of the reservation look very similar to what I've experienced on visits to reservations in northern Arizona (though there's less green there). Sad to think of the conditions these people live under, and have lived under for hundreds of years.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 4:56 PM
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I knew a girl that lived on an Indian Reservation in Ok, not a good place to grow up.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 6:06 PM
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great story. wish you could have got a picture of this mysterious woman in red.
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 6:29 PM
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Old Posted Oct 14, 2010, 6:49 PM
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thanks all.

diskojoe, i went back and forth about whether i should include the only photo i took of her. i'm pretty sure i was trembling when i took this, so it's not as ... complete a picture as i'd have preferred. here she is with one of those to-protect-the-innocent black bars.

xzmattzx, i have to admit that the quebec road trip post inspired this one a bit. i'd been meaning to write about this for a while, and only now was able to put it together. dunno much about the county courts system out there though.

flar, yeah, it's a little tough to digest but sometimes it's good to see the ugly truth.

sekkle, i hear you man. it's as easy to get caught up in white man's burden as it is to write it off, but there's a palpable sense of ... malfeasance? wrongdoing? something about every indian reservation i've ever been on just doesn't feel right. more so on pine ridge than anywhere else, though. i spent a little time on the navajo rez later on the same trip and it was at least better off than pine ridge. in fact the four corners monument was one of the more incredible places i've been. i camped at the monument for $5 and had the campground (and the perfectly dark, starry skies above) entirely to myself.

LMJCobalt, yeah, i wouldn't say to not go to wounded knee (especially if you're interested in history), but do keep your wits and awareness.

somewhat related: a few pics from the next day.

mount rushmore:

black hills national forest:

crazy horse memorial:


sturgis, where with the prius, i felt like pee-wee herman:

SHHHHH. i'm TRYING to use the PHONE.
a matter of life and death, just like a etch-a-sketch
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