~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.
Barely two miles south of Pine Ridge, Nebraskans had a surprise waiting, the little border town of Whiteclay. It was unreal, like a movie set, exuding poverty, dilapidation, and lawlessness. Paint on some exterior walls – if there ever had been any – was gone. A few rough-hewn men entered and left small wooden buildings that otherwise would have appeared abandoned for decades. I wanted to stop and take a photo, but was too scared. The road was narrow, the buildings and pedestrians close by. A balding and bearded man looked at me as if expecting a fight as he walked around the rubble of a disintegrating store front.
I later learned the little town was even worse than it looked. According to the 2008 documentary, The Battle for Whiteclay, this border town provides the vast majority of alcohol to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where sales and consumption are banned. According to the documentary’s website, “Since the early 1970s the State of Nebraska has licensed four off-sale beer retailers in Whiteclay. These retailers routinely violate Nebraska liquor law by selling beer to minors and intoxicated persons, knowingly selling to bootleggers who resell the beer on the reservation, permitting on-premise consumption of beer in violation of restrictions placed on off-sale-only licenses, and exchanging beer for sexual favors.”
Three years later, it appeared nothing had changed. The Whiteclay population of 14 is quite possibly the exact number it takes to run four beer stores and send contributions to those bureaucrats and politicians whose silence is crucial. Obviously, no public official is asking why a town of 14 people needs four beer retailers. The persistence of state-level corruption and abetted drug abuse – surely known by the Bureau of Indian Affairs – is strong evidence that at least one reprehensible 19th century practice remains unadmittable policy.
Getting to Pine Ridge was a relief, though there are few businesses in the small town, and it can’t afford to hide its poverty. More than 80 percent of adult reservation residents are unemployed.
The only restaurants I saw as I drove the partially paved streets were Taco John’s and a Subway. Then unexpectedly I saw a coffeehouse. It was tucked among trees on the main street, and looked wildly out of place. Until then, I had associated coffeehouses with vibrant city life and trendy tourist destinations, not poverty-stricken towns on Indian reservations. I had been hanging out in coffeehouses since high school, and it was impossible for me to pass by what might be the beginning of a new world order.
I pulled into the small and informal parking area, walked among cared-for plants on the patio, and entered a small coffeehouse that would have been at home in any U.S. city. Its name was Higher Ground. Available coffees and pastries were neatly written on blackboards with chalk in the hippie tradition. Two women were working behind the counter, an older woman who appeared to be white, and a young Lakotan. When my turn came, I ordered a coffee and asked if they served lunch.
“Yes we do,” the older woman replied, “but it won’t be ready for another hour or so. It’s only 10:30.”
I looked at my watch, which read 11:30, and realized I had entered the Mountain Time Zone.
“But I’m hungry,” I mock-whined. “I woke up 4:30 your time in the Central Time Zone.”
At that moment, a man’s voice called out from the back of the seating area.
“Old men don’t need much sleep.”
I turned to see the source of this impertinence. He was a Lakotan, maybe in his mid-40s, with short hair, and wearing glasses. He was sitting at one of the small tables with a coffee and a laptop. There were only two other customers in the place, and our conversation continued across the room as I waited for my coffee.
“It’s true I no longer need as much sleep,” I said, taking him up on his invitation to a banter. “But I do need to eat. Even when I’m not hungry. On principle.”
“Where are you from?”
“Why are you here?”
It was an astonishing interview. With nine words he had exposed our racial and ethnic divide. His tone was polite, and I was exhilarated as well as unsettled by his directness. The place and its history hold strangers to account, and his last question implied strangers never show up in Pine Ridge without an agenda. Mine was awfully small, but the time had come to declare it.
“To pay my respects at Wounded Knee.” I had gotten about as far from “quietly … leave unnoticed” as is possible.
Then, in a casual tone suggesting we had ended the “stranger” phase, he said, “When you get to the hill, walk up, don’t drive. It will be a better experience.”
Crossing the bridge he had built, I carried my coffee over to his table and remained standing.
“You’re a writer,” I guessed from familiarity with the habitat and its fauna.
“Well, I write. I wouldn’t say I’m a writer.”
“What are you working on?”
“I have a column in the local newspaper. It’s due this afternoon but I’ve only just started working on it. I always wait until the last moment.”
“I know the problem,” I said. I used to write a newspaper column, and often waited until the day it was due. Some people are naturally inspired. Others must have it beaten out of them.
He introduced himself as Leon, and said he had returned to the reservation after a successful business career in Minnesota. He told me he was drafting a book from his columns and blog site, was a part-time minister, and the cook at the coffeehouse. Leon was about to make my lunch.
His wife, not there at the time, was the coffeehouse boss, and the young Lakota woman behind the counter their daughter. The two lunch specials that day were chicken with rice, and Mongolian beef with Thai peppers. After Leon had finished cooking the two main courses, he brought his lunch as well as mine to my table. We had entered one of those lovely moments in life, when two just-met people fit like old friends.
As we ate and talked, there was an older Lakota man, maybe my age, sitting at a nearby table. Occasionally Leon would ask for his opinion or confirmation. The older man had long gray hair, well-worn clothes, few front teeth, and a quick smile. He looked like one of those chiefs in the old photographs. It was surreal, his sipping a designer coffee in a shop that could have been in Paris. I took it as a sign of hope, that he had come to Paris, and Paris to him.
The Grass of the Mass Grave
After lunch I headed east from Pine Ridge for Wounded Knee. In spite of the rain and historical weight of my destination, I was still upbeat from my encounter with Leon at Higher Ground. Nine miles down the road was a “Wounded Knee” sign directing travelers left onto Big Foot Trail. But it didn’t say how far to go, and it was the last “Wounded Knee” sign I would see. I eventually discovered that nothing marked the historical site beyond its physical presence as a small cemetery on a small hill in a sea of hills. Well, almost nothing.
Big Foot Trail followed a low ridge, passing through rolling grasslands dissected by a few wooded creeks. There were several scattered homes reflecting more than one rural income level. At one point I saw a small dark brown building at the end of a short muddy road with a single word, “Museum,” painted on the wall. I continued on for a few more miles until it seemed I had gone too far, and went back to see if there was anyone at the little museum. It wasn’t much bigger than a car garage, and about as plain.
As I drove up its road, I noticed a small cemetery on the hillock to the left. And suddenly there it was, the stone and ironwork arch I had remembered from the movies and documentaries, the entrance to the Wounded Knee cemetery. The lack of forewarning intensified the rush of recognition.
I pulled into the museum’s muddy parking area. One other vehicle was in the lot, to my left, and as soon as I stopped a young Lakota woman got out of it. Simultaneously, two young men stepped out from the darkness under the eave of the museum on my right. All three approached as I got out of the pickup, and didn’t stop until they were within arm’s reach. The woman was smiling, the two men looked dour, and I was apprehensive.
They reached into their pockets, and each pulled out a small and simple dreamcatcher, held flat in their outstretched palms. One of the men asked if I wanted to buy one, his tone bordering on sullen.
“Only $20. My wife is making them in the car.” That seemed to eliminate them as museum employees, if there even was a museum. The little building was closed, and I later learned it had been closed for some time.
“No thanks,” I said, feeling the annoyance that is my automatic response when I think I am being huckstered. “I bought all I’m going to buy today at the Heritage Museum in Pine Ridge,” though what I spent there earned me precious little entitlement.
“You can make a donation,” he said.
“I’ll think about it,” I said in my own sullen tone. Pulling away from them, I headed for the close-by cemetery and began my climb up the hill on foot, as Leon had recommended. But rather than the ascent being “a better experience,” I had to deal with my negative response to what had happened in the parking lot. I could only be a stranger here, but I felt I held a stake in its terrible history, that its lessons were for all of us. So I was critical of what seemed an inappropriate use in a place of great meaning and significance. I would have paid a fee to the tribe for maintenance, protection, and interpretation of the site. But I had trouble accepting huckstering as a respectful use, and maybe the only protection – if you could call it that – the site was getting.
As I neared the top of the hill, I saw a younger Lakota man, maybe in his early twenties, standing next to the cemetery entrance. He was small, and had a striking face with sharp features, the face of a warrior, I thought. He introduced himself as Daniel, and I assumed correctly he was part of the team I had encountered in the parking lot. Conceding their superior number, I followed him through the entrance.
Daniel began recounting the history of the cemetery with a soft-spoken and dignified enthusiasm. He was so immediately likable that my mood began to brighten. I resolved to make a donation if he asked for it.
In the central portion of the cemetery, near the entrance, is a fenced-in area that is mostly mowed grass. Etched in the grass with a narrow cement line is a rectangle about 40 feet long and eight feet across. Daniel tells me this is the outline of the mass grave for the more than 150 Lakota victims of the 1890 massacre.
Surrounding the fenced-in area are gravestones of people Daniel said had chosen to be buried there. He walked me to a stone monument located next to the mass grave about halfway down its length. The monument lists the names of some of the dead, with a few details about what happened that snowy December day. It includes this statement: “Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.”
I had never been at a mass grave before. Just the thought of one is discomforting, and in its presence I found myself enduring a suppression of emotion I hadn’t experienced since pall-bearing my mother.
It has been proposed that Wounded Knee become a national monument. There is strong opposition to that notion by some on the reservation, as paved parking lots and trails, entrance booths, gift shops, guided tours, and throngs of visitors would work against the solemnity of the site. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for rubbing Euro-American noses in the West’s ethnic cleansings and genocides.
Daniel and I returned to the entrance arch. I asked him if the site of the massacre could be seen from where we stood. It was in open view directly below us. He explained in detail how the events had played out, where Big Foot’s band of Lakotans had camped, how the Army had set up to contain them, and to where the Lakotans tried to flee when the shooting began.
Daniel tells the story with a disarming calmness. The lack of any stridency or emotional subjectivity keeps the listener close, attentive, and sympathetic. He lets the truth of this place tell itself.
I thanked him for the narrative. As I expected, he asked for a donation.
“I want to buy a new mower for the cemetery,” he said.
I doubted his sincerity, but made a small donation anyway.
It was only on reflection, after I had returned home, that I realized someone had been mowing the grass of the mass grave. Doubtless it was Daniel. And the three young Lakotans in the parking lot – how long had they been waiting in the rain for the few wayfarers like myself? It was a miserable way to spend a day, and no one was going to make much money at a site that was almost invisible. After encountering them in the parking lot, I had viewed with disdain the probability that they and Daniel alone were providing the site its day-to-day care. I had not considered the commitment required, nor that they had an interest in the well-being of Wounded Knee during their tenure. And I’m certain at least one of them had a deeply-felt spiritual interest as well.
Now I wish I had bought one of the trinkets, as much for my mental health as for their profit. I could have hung it from the rearview mirror, where it might have caught a daydream.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
This essay is a good example of John Steinbeck’s observation that “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us” (Travels with Charlie). I had intended an inconspicuous visit to the Wounded Knee cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Instead, I ended up with two extraordinary and contrasting encounters with reservation residents.
I moved to the East Coast from the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s. In 2004, I began annual month-long explorations of the West. When I first set out from my home in North Carolina, there was no clear destination or purpose. I had a vague notion of reacquainting myself with the Old West – or more accurately, the Old White West – that was such a symbolic part of my growing up in Oregon in the 1940s and 50s.
At first I was after natural beauty in lonely places ignored by those who only have time for national parks – places not kept behind gates, places that still had an aura of frontier. But it was the people I met in those lonely places who became the better part of the adventure.
After my experience at the paradoxical Pine Ridge coffeehouse, and later at the Wounded Knee cemetery, I continued that afternoon on my planned visit to the nearby Badlands. But I could hardly wait for day’s end, and a chance to start writing down the events of one of the most remarkable days of my life.
ABOUT RICHARD LeBLOND
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, High Country News, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Concis, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.