~This essay was previously published in New Plains Review (2015), as “Higher Ground: Old Men Don’t Need Much Sleep.”
Old Men Don’t Need Much Sleep
I set out from Broken Bow, Nebraska, on the last day of spring 2011 to visit Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was the third day of my annual trip west from North Carolina. I grew up in Oregon but had moved east nearly 50 years before. Most of my family remained in the Portland area, and I flew out every Christmas. But when Mom died in 2002, Christmas lost its cohesion, and I started driving out in summer. In addition to visiting family, I wanted to revisit places from my past and explore the unknown. Time had also become a factor. My bucket list had gotten more crowded without having to add new entries.
Wounded Knee is the site of an 1890 massacre of more than 150 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children. It is regarded by many historians as the final conflict for the West. The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark, but is not promoted for public visitation by U.S. or tribal authorities. There used to be a small village there with a trading post and museum, but these were destroyed in 1973 during an occupation by members of the American Indian Movement and consequent facedown with federal authorities.
In recent years I have been reading more about the removal of Native Americans from their homelands, the forced settlement onto reservations, and the causes of conditions that persist on those reservations today. Books are dangerous. They awaken curiosity. They prompt journeys.
Since I regarded my visit as something close to trespass, I decided to bypass the reservation town of Pine Ridge, pay my respects quietly at the Wounded Knee cemetery, and leave unnoticed. As usual, things did not go as I imagined they would.
It was raining when I woke up in Broken Bow, and it rained all morning as I followed Route 2 through the green sandhills of northwestern Nebraska, the largest region of dunes in the Western Hemisphere. The unrelenting drizzle was becoming a threat to the outdoor lunch I had packed. On the road I look for a natural setting for lunch, but if raining, I look for a restaurant. Skipping lunch was not an option. A life without lunch is a life without meaning.
By late morning, an indoor lunch appeared likely, and Pine Ridge was the only town around, about a dozen miles from the cemetery. It was still raining as I approached the reservation from Nebraska a little after eleven. I had been up since 5:30 and decided to have lunch before going to the cemetery. I was getting hungry, and it would give the rain another chance to realize it had made its point.