Dian Greenwood was a young girl in the 1950s when her family took up residence in a South Dakota courthouse, her bedroom just opposite the county’s jail.
When I was seven or eight years old, my family took up residence in the daylight basement of the county courthouse, a sandstone building reaching up three stories. The castle-like structure sat high on a hill, directly across the street from the Catholic church, school, and convent. My mom was now the new jailer and dietitian. Dad had become the deputy sheriff in a small South Dakota community of roughly 5,000 people. I was in second grade; my two sisters like stairsteps behind me, and my brother, a little guy, a year to eighteen months.
My sisters and I shared a bedroom with my brother, four Army cots lined up on two sides of the large bedroom. In the center wall, opposite the only entrance, hung a steel plate about sixteen inches square. The plate fastened with a simple lock and separated our bedroom from the large, open jail cell on the other side. Through the opening, my mother routinely shoved plates of scrambled eggs, sandwiches, pork chops with mashed potatoes and white gravy, canned corn, the same food we ate, to the men whose voices rumbled on the other side of the wall.
Since my bedroom was adjacent to the jail, and though the wall was cinderblock thick, I could hear the laughter and insults on the other side. While my sisters slept, I laid awake and mesmerized, attending to every sound. Despite Mom’s protests, I often stood behind her when she placed the plates in the opening. I wanted to see those white tee-shirted men, the ones who laughed late into the night, who argued over a card game, and sometimes played a guitar.
“What are they doing in there, Mom?” I would ask.
“Nothing,” she would say. “They’re in jail. There isn’t much they can do.”
My dad rarely confronted the men if they were too loud or too rowdy. He was busy drinking Four Roses whiskey when off duty, his short fuse and resulting rages often demanding that me and my sisters stand at emotional attention while he reprimanded or accused us of one thing or another. During those times, I shrank into a “dead” zone where I didn’t see, I didn’t feel, and I didn’t move.
Late one night, Mom scrambled to dress and follow Dad out the apartment door. I snuck to the front door that led into a long concrete hallway where the jail’s steel door stood opposite our own. I watched through the crack in our main door as Dad and a local policeman led a woman dressed in black heels and a short skirt with long red hair trailing her back in curls. They marched her through the heavy iron door, then the cage door behind it. Mom followed in slacks and the sweater she must have put on in a hurry. It was her job to search the women, women assigned to one small cell as part of the larger, open jail. Even then, I knew those lone women couldn’t escape the men who lived in the bigger cell.
A woman being arrested and taken to jail elicited terrible shame, even for me as a child. This woman was either drunk and disorderly or a prostitute, a word that was whispered in our living quarters across the hall. This was the early-1950s, what did I know about prostitutes? Our county was occupied by conservative ranchers who could “do a deal.” They controlled not just the boundaries of their property but the boundaries of human behavior as well.
As I recall the intake process, Mom’s searching a woman took little time. Mom was a modest woman and timid in her responses. I scurried off to bed as soon as I saw my parents head back to the cage door knowing they’d return to our living quarters. I didn’t understand what was happening or exactly why that woman had been arrested. But I did understand shame, and the consequences of stepping outside of acceptable behavior. After all, I had my dad for a father. When he blew his top, his tongue slid to the side of his mouth where he bit down hard. He narrowed his dark brown eyes until I thought he could actually kill me with that look.
Part of Dad’s job required him to set up roadblocks on the road leading into the Rosebud or Pine Ridge Indian reservations. The old blue law forbade Indians to drink alcohol. That law was strictly enforced. If a Native man smelled of alcohol or was found drunk, he was hauled to jail.
That’s what happened to the old chief.
The old chief’s singing didn’t start the first night he was arrested. It began the next day, a high-pitched almost falsetto dirge from the far side of the jail. It didn’t take long to figure out they’d put him in the women’s cell to keep him separate from the other men and their prejudice against Native people.
When I returned home from school the next day, the song was still there as though the old man had never stopped to eat or sleep. I laid on the bed in my bedroom with the door closed so I could listen. There were no words, just the high pitch of that forlorn falsetto and the deep bass of others telling him to shut up. I didn’t understand the song, but I did understand.
The song went on all afternoon and evening.
The song. The roadblock. Alcohol. The Indian kids on the shady side of the grade school. Bunched up at recess. At lunch. Never on the swings or slide, the monkey bars. Never in a game of softball or eating their peanut butter or baloney sandwiches with the rest of us in the school gymnasium that smelled of sweaty socks and gym clothes. Never in the group I called friends. Bussed in from the reservation, bussed back home. They were as separate as I felt. As other as I knew I was.
I could tell Dad was conflicted. He’d tried to make friends with the elders at Pine Ridge. He’d fought alongside Native Americans during the war while he was in Europe. He may have even mentioned a buddy from Oklahoma. The pressure of the inmates yelling at the old chief intensified. When I asked, Dad told me that the old chief sang a grieving song. I doubt Dad’s boss, a sheriff named Swede, was sympathetic.
Dad told me that the old chief sang a grieving song. I doubt Dad’s boss, a sheriff named Swede, was sympathetic.
Mom served dinner as usual that night. The steel plate clanged when it opened in my bedroom. I stood behind her where she didn’t see me, smelling the chicken fried steak while I observed the man with the heavy black mustache when he reached for his plate, curling his lip when he told Mom, “You need to get that bastard out of here. Nobody’s sleeping.”
Whether Mom said something to Dad or not, I’ll never know. She didn’t like Dad’s temper any more than the rest of us. The high-pitched and almost unearthly song continued into the evening and was still there after I put on my flannel nightgown and went to bed, undoing my pigtails and hoping I didn’t have too many snarls in the morning. I went to sleep hearing the song and wondering how long he could keep it up. His throat, his voice hoarse.
In the middle of the night, the lights suddenly went on in my bedroom. Dad flipped open the steel plate and talked to the guy with the mustache. I sat up in my bed even though Dad said to go back to sleep. There was the opening and shutting of doors, the clang of the giant steel door, then the cage. I heard Swede’s booming voice in the hallway, the scurry of boots on cement. When I went to the closed bedroom door to go out, Mom sat very still on the sofa.
“Go back to bed,” she said. Not harshly, not with anger, but softly.
That’s when I noticed that the song no longer filled the basement. If it had leaked upward into the courthouse business floors, the courtrooms and judge’s chambers on the third floor, no one had said. Now, except for the near-panicked voices and boots shuffling on cement, the iron door clanging open and shut, an extraordinary silence crept beneath ordinary sound.
“What happened?” I asked Mom.
Mom knew from long experience that I wouldn’t go back to bed until I had an answer. In a voice that was nearly dead, she said, “The old Indian hung himself with the wash machine hose.”
My breath stopped. My mouth open. Song. Hose. Dead.
Twenty years later in San Francisco, I enrolled in a class on Native American Religion and Philosophy with a Hunkpapa man named Barney. It was 1974 and San Francisco State had a large Ethnics Studies Department in response to the Farm Workers Movement, the Black Panthers, Russell Means and Pine Ridge.
I told Barney, “I think maybe I’m part-Indian.”
In his usual droll way, he said, “How so?”
“My dad. Black hair and eyes. Very little facial hair, none on his arms and legs. Extraordinarily dark skin. His people are from Ontario, Canada. Indian country.”
Barney tipped his cowboy hat. “Okay,” he said.
For two years, I traveled with his class to the Sierra Foothills, camped at Bass Lake, and listened to the Pomo women talk about their baskets and beadwork, how they made pemmican. Sat around the campfire and listened to Barney’s stories, memorized the pantheon of Lakota gods. How Wakinyan reveals himself through flapping his giant wings. That’s where thunder comes from. When his beak snaps, we see lightning. Iktomi, the trickster. The bad gods who live in the Badlands and can steal your soul. I learned that “going home” means finding the people who are true to you and where you come from. It’s not about being Indian.
I’m sure I told Barney about the old Indian chief hanging himself. The jail. The kids hiding on the shadow side of the school. I can see him nodding each time. He understood what it’s like to grow up in a jail. On a reservation. In shame. The need to take a giant step in a different direction. To claim what is yours and let go of the rest.