Travels 6: Catching a Dream at Wounded Knee

Yesterday, I told a woman she had very pretty blue eyes.

We stopped for gas in Laurel, Nebraska, and within thirty minutes, half the town knew we were there.  I was stopped at a light and a guy in a black pick-up Ford asked if I was on the way to the classic car auction.  I said no.  Mariam went into a bar to order our lunch.  I wanted a “real cheeseburger” this time and not another McDonald’s salad.  I triple parked with the R-Pod and headed for the little Post Office across the street.  I lucked out.  They had an international stamp that would allow me to mail a post card to a friend in Australia.  On the way out of the P.O. door, a woman–a complete stranger–asked if that cute little trailer was mine.  I said yes.  She said she had seen it at the gas station a few minutes ago and wanted to know if I was going to the classic car auction.  I said no.  We talked.  I asked her what it was like to grow up in the Nebraska prairie.  She said it didn’t snow as much as it used to do when she was a little girl.  In those few minutes, she described a life that could have been lived in many places.

As she headed for her car, I told her she had very pretty blue eyes.  She blushed and said thank you for the compliment.

Mariam emerged from the bar with the sandwiches.  We headed west on Route 20, again, but this time I bit into a 4-star burger that had it all.  It was a long way to Valentine, Nebraska, but I was a contented driver now.

Today, however, didn’t play out the way yesterday did.  In fact, when I turn this iMac off in a little while, I will probably have trouble sleeping.  My heart is sad tonight, and my sleep may deliver dark dreams.

I hope this isn’t true, because I bought a dream-catcher.  They’re supposed to deny bad dreams from disturbing one’s sleep.

The day began to slide south when we entered Pine Ridge, South Dakota.  You may know that this is arguably the most distressed Indian Reservation in the “system.”  The unemployment rate is said to be around 92%!  When we pulled into a Shell station, I was being stared at by most of the Lakota Sioux townsfolk that were sitting on curbs and doorways.  Small bottles poked out of small brown paper bags.  I, who was wearing expensive sunglasses, could stare back without it being noticed.  I felt awkward.  I felt like some preppy kid on a “slumming” field trip to see how the other half lives.  The junction of Pine Ridge was in the center of a vast failed experiment on the part of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to offer the Native Americans a slice of the pie–their pie–that we (white Americans) had taken from them.

We not only took the land, we stole their spirit, their nobility, their honor, their history and their lives.

I was on my way to visit Wounded Knee, the site of a savage massacre that effectively ended the Native American resistance to our greed.

The backstory is long and complicated so I won’t go into it here.  I recommend Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart in Wounded Knee, if you want a complete history of what Manifest Destiny meant to the original owners of this land.

I read the book over thirty years ago and now it was time for me to make a pilgrimage to this awful site and pay my respects.  What I found was not what I expected.

There were no U. S. Government historical markers (at least none that I could find). There was some signage but it looked hand painted and homemade.  I took the left turn and drove the nine miles or so to where this massacre took place.  But I was having trouble finding the exact site.  Now, I realize, that armed with a proper history book and maps, I could probably have found it, but like so much else on this trip, I simply didn’t have the time to spend.  Because of that fact, I felt callous and rushed about the visit.

So, after a few wrong turns (I’ve made a few) I found the general location of the killing.  I say “general” because it wasn’t in just one spot where the bodies of over 150 Lakota men, women and children were found.  Indeed, they were found along the Wounded Knee Creek–for miles!

The reason for the tragedy?  Accounts differ, but it boils down to a major portion of the 7th U. S. Cavalry were on hand to keep an eye on the Sioux.  A string of events unfolded quickly.  Chaos abounded.  Soldiers fell, some it is said, was by friendly fire during the ensuing riot of guns and blood.

This took place on December 29, 1890.  The Sioux were gathered for a Ghost Dance.  It was to be their final Ghost Dance.  It was the end of hostilities.  The various tribes were rounded up.  Some of their descendants still live in and around Pine Ridge.

I stopped at a small and shaded souvenir stand near the Wounded Knee Creek.  The items for sale numbered only a few.  There were three families using the stalls to sell their things.  I bought a dream catcher from a woman.  She looked at me and thanked me for buying from her.

She didn’t have bright blue eyes.  She had sad brown eyes that told me of a hard life spent in that God-forsaken town.

She didn’t have to say a word to me.  I could see her soul through her eyes.  These moist dark brown orbs were her portal to the times when her people rode with pride and grace and without fear across the endless prairie.

So, now I sit in my R-Pod, one hundred miles to the north and think of things that are and of things that once were.

I’m looking at the dark-skinned woman’s dream catcher and I pray that it catches the dreams I don’t want to have this night…or any night.

Tomorrow, I’ll stand and stare at four white Presidents carved like gods into the rock edifice of a mountain.  Later, I will stare at a mythic figure of Crazy Horse carved into a nearby mountain.

Who really belongs here?

The landscape around Wounded Knee:


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