Dian Greenwood visits the Badlands in South Dakota with her son, capturing their experiences there and her feelings of alienation.
When I think of alienation, I’m reminded of the family flag-bearer. The individual who is most curious, at least a little daring, and open to surprises. To understand the flag-bearer, imagine the family as a fortress, a kind of old-fashioned western fort made of logs. Inside the fort, one family member stands high in the lookout and gazes toward the far horizon. One day, that person willingly steps outside of the safety and comfort of the family compound and leaves the fort to explore what’s simply unknown outside of the family purview. They go off for however long it takes. When they eventually return and tell the other members the wonders they’ve seen and experienced in the far country, the adventurer is often scorned and derided, their observations and stories denied. Sometimes, that individual is disowned, even tossed out of the fort for daring to bring the outside in.
I wasn’t thinking of this story the day my son Brian and I drove through the Badlands in southwestern South Dakota. His once blond hair had turned darker since the last time I saw him. His blue eyes, so like his father’s, rested on the road ahead, his hands self-assured on the steering wheel. We’d spent the day photographing the cliffs and shale formations that seem to shape-shift in the Badlands’ changing light. The moon’s shadow hovered at the edge of the horizon even in daylight.
“Remember the moon flower from the time we were here?” Brian asked.
Yes, the moonflower. Brian once pointed out the small flower rising out of the dirt along the gravel path at the Badlands tourist stops. Close to sunset, we waited like others for a particular moon-rise over the shale cliffs that would set off the oranges and golds inside the layered hills. I nearly stepped on the small white petals opening their face, ever-wider as the light began to fade. Those tender and unexpected blossoms, hardly noticeable along the path, could be easily mistaken for weeds. They reminded me of a knowing smile or the warm touch of a hand on the shoulder. Alive with the moon and the night, then gone with the sun’s arrival.
The moon-like landscape of striated hills that comprise the Badlands belong to the myths and beliefs of the Lakota people. This is home to Iktomi, the trickster, and those bad gods who, like Uncegila, the monster, can steal your soul. The day we drove toward Pine Ridge, the layered moonscape filled the rear-view mirror when we left the rock formations behind us. It’s always hard to leave. Just being there brings to mind my old teacher, Barney, the Hunkpapa man from Standing Rock who, years earlier, helped me turn some corner in myself and land in my own skin. I’d lost touch with him over the years and the Badlands brought him close again, a comfort that day Brian and I walked the trails and talked about Iktomi.
The spur-of-the moment decision to go to the Pine Ridge Reservation grew out of curiosity and a sense of history. More likely, I recalled the ghosts of those Native kids I knew in grade school. Their downcast eyes and black hair, faces that didn’t or couldn’t smile … kids crowded together on the shadow side of the two-story sandstone elementary school still haunted me. Kids who were like me but not like me. Who lived on this rolling land with nothing but gullies and prairie grass, land they called home, the place where they boarded the school bus and came to the town where I lived.
Reservations, as I know them, are remote stand-alones. Nations set off and apart inside a larger landscape. The built-in isolation is imposed by a government that so often gets it wrong, so often operates from greed while demanding that the individual remain faceless because, if they’re faceless, they don’t count.
Clouds began to crowd the sun and the whole sky seemed to move off toward late afternoon, evening not far behind. As we drove the two-lane road that July day in 2008, I told Brian the story of the family flag-bearer that I often share in my work as a therapist. I was thinking how Brian is a flag-bearer, following a gay lifestyle, living a significant distance from the family compound. I’ve always thought of myself as a flag-bearer for simply stepping outside of the traditional blueprint for marriage and relationship. Not to be confused, flag-bearing is different from avoidance which lacks the element of curiosity or any kind of bravery.
When I think of alienation, I’m reminded of the family flag-bearer. The individual who is most curious, at least a little daring, and open to surprises.
Brian was the one with his hands on the wheel as we drove west from the Badlands along the two-lane road that traversed the rolling hills and naked view. Along with images of those kids huddled together at recess, I was reminded that I’d never quite exorcised the old chief’s grieving song or separated it from my own. The same old chief who was found with a wash machine hose wrapped around his neck when my family lived in the county courthouse basement and my parents safeguarded the jail. There was something about his all-night, all-day falsetto that still lived in a dark corner of my mind as though I was his invisible soul keeper, a little girl who had been carrying his song inside me all these years.
“We’ve never been to Wounded Knee, have we?” Brian asked.
I shook my head, no. My eyes focused on the tall grass, the sun falling closer to the world’s rim. “Didn’t seem important until now,” I said.
“Why now?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Just does.”
By the time we stopped at the Wounded Knee Cemetery, the late afternoon sun had moved even closer to the western horizon and the day anticipated the hour of the moon flower. We parked outside of the wrought iron gate, a chapel behind the fence. So, this was Wounded Knee with its sad history of war and defeat, Indian against Cavalry and U.S. marshals, the outcome always in favor of the military’s guns. Home to the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance with hope for spiritual renewal. The fence was uneven and had missing pieces, the chapel modest and picture perfect in an old-fashioned, Rockwell way. The chapel needed a coat of white paint, probably not a necessity when families are just trying to eat, raise their kids, and deal with the many life ills that assault those who are impoverished and forgotten. The worship services could have been listed in the Lakota or Dakota languages. I don’t recall. The chapel was in the Episcopal diocese. We walked through the iron gate and I stopped.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
Brian smiled at me. “This is history. Partly our history.”
His response, not blaming or judging. He’s lived with my affinity to this land and these people all his life. Besides, he was born in this state; he too has a personal connection.
I was suddenly tentative. Not wanting to be there. My feet dug in by the gate. We were outsiders who had come, for what? To plod through the famous grounds like tourists? Was this about my long-ago teacher Barney who made my past come alive? Did I need to redeem a part of my own history that lived in the shadows here? My dad who set up roadblocks at the entrance to Pine Ridge in order to catch Natives who’d been drinking? I was suddenly an intruder. Alienated. From my history. From Barney. From the old chief who hung himself. Like none of that had happened.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines alienation in part as “a state of estrangement between self and the objective world, or between different parts of the personality.” That state of estrangement had dogged my steps from earliest memory. I’d always felt “other than” and I didn’t seem to fit into my family, the neighborhood, with friends, and especially at school. Over the years, I’ve heard the same words spoken by others. Perhaps that’s “why” my impulse to write can feel like a compulsion and comes partly from that sense of estrangement. From growing up in an alcoholic family where the “no talk” rule was strictly enforced with the curl of a lip or a hard stare.
When we followed the path around the chapel, I was suddenly standing in the presence of invisible people, a family I didn’t belong to. The folks buried here were those kids’ people. The kids I went to school with, I observed, felt kin to. They were Barney’s people, yet they weren’t. He’d left the reservation to join the Marines as a young man, then studied veterinary medicine before moving to the Bay Area with his non-Native wife. The second year I studied with him, he took on the responsibility for keeping his dead elder brother’s soul. A brother who died on the Dakota highways in a car accident. The way Barney explained his obligation made me think of Alcoholics Anonymous and the business of making amends. Something I understood, was part of. Except these amends were for someone else. An amends that had to be lived by someone who loved you enough to make the necessary sacrifices.
After his brother died, Barney sat quietly during our after-class gatherings at a local bar and he listened to the rest of us laugh and talk, occasionally asking him a question. He remained silent, almost shy. He had retreated into what I call “one-within-himself.” He gave up alcohol altogether.
This wasn’t the Barney we’d known, his voice low after a drink, almost whispery as he told stories of his childhood on Standing Rock Reservation, his Native mother and German cowboy father. He’d been the center of all our attention, his stories feeding us with what we could never learn in a classroom. Now, the intimacy that had come with deep sharing evaporated like so much smoke from an open fire. Because I was an older student, and he and I came from the same country, our friendship sank deep roots. But, he withdrew from me too. I began to feel lonely in his presence. I couldn’t bridge the gap between who he’d been and who he’d become. I felt alienated from him and the quiet aliveness I now sensed in him.
My son is a soulful man who happens to love history. That’s why he was here. So many of our interests streamed a parallel path whether it was found on Mount Parnassus or discussing Egyptian burial rites. He is not only a curious person, he is game for adventure. Now, we were standing on land that was famous for all the wrong reasons. Like we’d stood together years earlier with his brother at the Little Big Horn, long before it was fenced off. And, though we may have believed we were at Wounded Knee out of a reverence for history, there was something else. I’m sure we both felt it. A kind of sacredness.
The cemetery lay in disrepair. The wooden crosses and few headstones seemed strangely abandoned. We walked carefully between the graves, always that odd feeling that I might be walking on someone’s precious bones. The ground was rocky and weed-ridden as are many remote cemeteries with a long history. When we could read the few inscriptions, it appeared that disease had taken some, maybe not entire families as I’d seen in other pioneer cemeteries, but enough disease to leave its mark. I couldn’t help but wonder if the old chief might be buried here. How would I know? I never knew his name. Never knew if he was from Pine Ridge or the Rosebud.
What strikes me now was my hesitation in walking too deeply into the cemetery. Some feeling that I was trespassing, that I didn’t belong there. These weren’t my people, not by blood, and, therefore, not my relations. I’d entered sacred territory that belonged to someone else, someone not me. I was aware that a certain shame lives inside the feeling of trespass. The image of Barney in his cowboy boots and hat. The fact that a certain people can be so wise and insightful that even having or being a soul keeper is an option. Who would be mine, I wanted to ask. My soul keeper. How would it change my life-view if I knew that was a possibility? If we now have “planned death,” why not have a soul keeper?
Barney explained that the requirements for being a soul keeper have to do with keeping oneself healthy and free of all mind-altering substances, like alcohol. As soul keeper, his task was to make reparations for the sins and shortcomings of the deceased. Instead of meeting with students after class, he traveled across the Bay Bridge toward home in order to devote himself to the wood carving and beading, the quilting that would make up the giveaway gifts to be distributed at the completion of the yearlong grieving.
This isn’t a Christian ritual, though Christian missionaries inserted themselves at Pine Ridge, at Standing Rock, the Rosebud, and most other plains states reservations. This obeisance derived its origins from the pantheon of gods that live in the Badlands, in the sky, in the mountains, and the earth. Gods who inspire integrity. Honesty. Community. Gods that commend us to be our brother’s keeper.
What strikes me now was my hesitation in walking too deeply into the cemetery. Some feeling that I was trespassing, that I didn’t belong there.
“So many are just wooden crosses,” Brian said. “Others are crudely marked.”
Though he remained curious as we walked between the graves, I sensed in him the same hesitation I felt.
“Maybe it’s time to leave,” I suggested.
He looked toward the horizon. “You’re right. We need to get back,” he said. “Auntie’s expecting us.”
The trespass feeling lingered. As we returned to the car and proceeded west along the road toward the town, we encountered the now-familiar sight of box-like homes painted in faded pastels on weed-ridden dirt. Yards crowded with cars absent their wheels and fenders, seasons of rust gathered on the paint, windows broken. Real folks and their kids walked in and out of the houses wearing T-shirts to camouflage oversized bellies that come from eating “poor food” like my mother resorted to more often than not. Kids played in the street like all kids do.
Our car slowed down on the main street. We drove past men who sat in front of stores and talked or didn’t talk. We passed cars and pickups pulled close so people could have an exchange through rolled-down windows. There were few women in sight. It was dinner time. The only so-called store was a dilapidated building in need of repair and, like the chapel, a good coat of paint.
“Do you want to stop?” Brian asked.
“No,” I said. “No need to stop.”
Brian raised his eyebrows, but he said nothing. We drove on.
The hesitation that forced the no was that sense of trespass, of voyeurism, really. We had come here impelled by some impulse that I’ll be charitable and say was curiosity. The best of intentions, but what were they? Some longing lived inside me, but what was it? Was it a soul’s longing? For us to step into a history that didn’t belong to us, to act the tourist in a town that didn’t invite tourists, in fact disdained them, felt like the worst kind of insult. We had no business being here. Whatever I thought I’d find, maybe a romantic fantasy that my old teacher’s spirituality would hang like a billboard on the side of the road, or a needed answer to some long ago, unasked question, I don’t know. That old shame that I’d trespassed still lived behind my eyes. These people weren’t interested that, like them, we’d grown up in the same state. That we were split in two by the same government. Yes, we were raised to say hello to our neighbors when we met them on the street but, otherwise, we kept our eyes down when passing strangers.
Brian and I followed the highway until the road joined up with the east- and west-bound freeway. I was silent. This day was a long way from the time years earlier when I attended a corn maiden’s ritual with a group of Jungian psychologists in Berkeley. Or stood on the hillside at the Little Big Horn. I recalled the same feeling of trespass when I drove across the Black Feet and Northern Cheyenne reservations in Montana, coming or going to wherever my spirit called me on one or another trip to/from the Dakotas.
I’m sure Brian wondered why I was silent. I didn’t know myself. I have to confess I’d indulged my fantasies of “Indianness”—some notion that I was “part of”—while we drove through the Badlands, stopping for photo ops. We’d spent the day romancing Iktomi by stepping away from our own lives and experience and trying to incorporate something that didn’t belong to us.
Nothing and so much happened that day. Pine Ridge sobered and made real the hands-on reality of being a Native at this moment in time. Any romantic illusions I’d had died on the road out of town. Died as they needed to die. “For shame.” Those are the words that my grade school Native classmates lived with, that I lived with in a different way and for different reasons.
What didn’t change that day was the heavy sense of “otherness.” An alienation that gets mirrored back by history and personal encounters, the land itself. That “set-apartness,” that “reject” stamp, and the well of grief that those pastel boxes and yard cars represent, an agony that isn’t often apparent in city projects and tenements where acted violence draws our attention. Though Standing Rock was Barney’s place, he chose to live in Walnut Creek. When he returned to the reservation for his annual “vacation,” he was a visitor, albeit a successful visitor. Like others who left the reservation. Bea Medicine and N. Scott Momaday. I suspect they too suffered a sense of alienation because they chose to travel outside the family compound.
I was again reminded of the flag-bearer. I needed to remember that I’m a flag-bearer. Barney was a flag-bearer. Bea Medicine and N. Scott Momaday. Any family, even our own people, are capable of turning away or rolling their eyes at our ventures. There can be a certain loneliness both inside and outside the fort. Alienation, inside and outside the reservation. The shame. The longing. The question: Who will keep our soul? Will make it right? How will we heal what’s been broken?