We began our Native American retreat yesterday, driving west into Wyoming and north into Montana. Long, long miles of fenced-in pasture land and cattle, cloudy big skies, horses.
What stays with me is our dinner on Sunday evening with Manny Iron Horse, his wife, Renee, and Violet Catches in Rapid City. We agreed to get together for a review and planning of the retreat, all done in good and even happy spirit. We ate in Perkins, a chain restaurant serving the motels on the other side of the major thoroughfare, lots of cars in the parking lot and lots whizzing by on the road. And as we emerge from the restaurant, Manny, an elder from Cheyenne River Reservation, big in body and even bigger in heart, comes to a stop and says, This is our land.
Logically, I know what he’s talking about. All this land, including South Dakota, parts of Wyoming and Montana, not to mention other areas to the north, east, and south, was given to the Lakota as part of the Laramie Treaty some 150 years ago, a treaty in full legal force today and violated by the government—and all of us. Everything—the Perkins restaurant where we ate, the Ramada where I stayed prior to the retreat, the big Walmart 2 blocks down, have all been built without permission. I’m there without permission, without saying, as I would to any person on whose land I’m standing, May I come in? And at the end: Thank you for having me.
He recounted what I already knew, that the Lakota have gone to the courts to get back their land, and specifically the Black Hills which is sacred to them, and that the Supreme Court finally agreed with their suit, granting them financial remuneration but not ownership. That remuneration is now over $1 billion with accrued interest, and still no tribe collects the money, they want the land. Manny said, One day we’ll get back the Black Hills. Probably not in my generation, maybe in my daughters’.
My mind feels overwhelmed here, it can’t work anything out: the holocaust against the American Indians, the mass destruction of the buffalo, the pipes of black snake oil that criss-cross the land. So much violation, so much despair, so much dignity and beauty. Here, or in places like Auschwitz or Rwanda, my mind reaches its limits, it can’t figure anything out.
What’s left is to walk this land, stay quiet, let strangeness come in. Sometimes it’s a white cloud in the shape of buffalo, sometimes an eagle flying overhead, one black cow against the horizon. The sound of Violet’s soft voice recounting stories she heard from her grandmother, that she recounts to her granddaughters, the rest of us standing in respectful circle, and I wonder: Who else is here? Who else is listening?