Among the Lakota tribe, there is an old story of a holy woman named PtesanWi, or “The White Buffalo Woman.” She was said have appeared out of nowhere, floating wherever she went, and taught the people four chief virtues: generosity, wisdom, courage and fortitude. Upon her departure, she said she would return one day to usher in a time of peace in an age of turmoil.
The sign of her coming, she said, would be a white buffalo born on their own land. The “Great White Buffalo” you may have heard about.
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When I was young, my father took me to what’s called the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just north of the Nebraska border and about a six hour drive from home. He went there about once a year with a team of his medical students to provide healthcare to a smattering of the 30,000 members of the Ogala Sioux tribe who call Pine Ridge home.
Well, “home” is a broad term here. At their height, the Great Sioux Nation was vast, encompassing South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. Today, they are spread out all over North America, and the Lakota Sioux live in a reservation about the size of Rhode Island. The healthcare is scant and what government assistance there is has been hopelessly squandered. Visits from my father and people like him help keep the tribe from dying out.
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On the southeastern corner of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a tributary known as Wounded Knee, a place so marked by murder and injustice, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been torched and salted. It was here that soldiers detained a band of Sioux families led by Chief Spotted Elk, who were on their way to a council of Sioux leaders to discuss a stance of pacifism against government injustice. The soldiers asked Chief Spotted Elk and his warriors to surrender their weapons. He had been flagged as a “trouble Indian” by the government.
By all accounts, Chief Spotted Elk’s skill as a warrior was matched only by his shrewdness as a negotiator. Although he had been a firebrand in his youth, he had recently become what was known as a Ghost Dancer—an advocate for peace. He surrendered to the U.S. soldiers without a word but another young brave—named Black Coyote and deaf in both ears—was confused and did not relinquish his firearm.
There was a struggle. In the skirmish, a gun was accidentally fired, and there is little accounting for what happened next. Within minutes, some twenty-five soldiers had been killed, most by friendly fire.
The surviving soldiers said that one hundred and fifty-three Sioux had been killed. The Sioux themselves give the number closer to three hundred and fifty. All accounts agree that Sioux women and children made up most of the dead. As Chief American Horse would later recount,
There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce … A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing … The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through … and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys … came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.
Near the end of his life, a medicine man named Black Elk would recall that “A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Chief Spotted Elk died in the massacre. The U.S. Medal of Honor was awarded to twenty-three of the U.S. soldiers.
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There are thirty-three recorded white buffalo births in America, about one for every ten million. It’s extraordinarily rare, and for one to be born on Lakota grounds would be rarer still. They have so few.
But then, in 1996, Medicine Wheel was born. His hide was so milky white, tests had to be done to prove that he was pure bison, but pure bison he was.
“For us, this would be something like coming to see Jesus lying in the manger,” said a man named Floyd Hand Looks For Buffalo, upon seeing Medicine Wheel.
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We arrived at Pine Ridge very late, and I barely remember falling asleep in a hard bed in a small cabin. When I woke the next morning, it was to the plain, bald desert of the north, the sun blasting over barren mesas and crumbling red rock.
Many people do not care for South Dakota, but I’ve always found it beautiful. There is something striking to its loneliness. Most of this country is so young. The Sioux culture predates the United States of America by untold centuries. Their culture is tied to the land, and the land is wild.
I walk over the ridge and survey what civilization I can see, which isn’t much. The buildings are small and squat. I see bison (a small herd is maintained by the tribe.) I’ve always found it amazing that bison are real. They seem like great beasts out of some fairy tale. Small wonder the first people who ever saw them ascribed them with so much spiritual importance. I understand the temptation.
I see my dad and his students, setting up a makeshift health clinic to provide whatever care one man and his team of physician’s assistant-in-training can provide to what is believed by many to be the single poorest county in the United States—somewhere around half the population is below the federal poverty level, and unemployment rests at a solid 85%—with conditions that boggle the imagination.
The life expectancy for a woman living on Pine Ridge is 53 years. For men, it’s 47—among the shortest in the Western Hemisphere. The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the national average. The teen suicide rate is four times higher. My dad calls me to help set up. He gives me a sheet of white poster board and a sign, and asks me to do the one thing I might be useful for: make a sign, letting people know where to get healthcare for the day.
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During a solar eclipse on New Year’s Day in 1889, a Paiute by the name of Wovoka claimed to receive a vision from God. Wovoka had already developed a following among Native Americans as a powerful medicine man. He levitated. There are numerous reports of him surviving blasts from a shotgun. He was said to control of the weather, and once made a block of ice fall from the sky.
Wovoka had been raised by a devout Christian rancher and claimed to have heard from God many times before he finally understood what God was saying. In the New Year’s Day vision, he saw America the way it had been for his forefathers: unspoiled, replete with wild game and tribes living in harmony. Wovoka said God told him the path to such a paradise would only come if his people gave up war and revenge, and instead pledged to live at peace with one another and with the white man. He encouraged hard work and honesty and—curiously—a regular dance that corresponded to the passing of the sun. He called it the Circle Dance. The Sioux took to the idea quickly, but renamed it the Ghost Dance.
As the idea of dancing played so prominently into Sioux culture, Wovoka’s movement spread rapidly. While many tribes had often made the removal of the white man a chief element in their vision of paradise, Wovoka’s vision of harmony became popular. Many tribal representatives went to listen to Wovoka out of patronizing cordiality, only to leave wide-eyed believers. Ghost dances were arranged and attended by thousands, around bonfires and under desert nights pockmarked by stars. They would dance for days. They would dance until exhaustion, when they would drop in the dirt. They would dance for peace.
The U.S. Government was positively dumbfounded by Ghost Dancing. The general consensus was that it was getting in the way of the Sioux doing what they’d been sent to the reservation to do: farm. That there was no suitable farmland on the reservations was not a great concern and, seeing as the Government now perceived them to be wasting their time dancing, they cut Sioux rations in half.
Now the Sioux had no crops, no meat (white hunters had driven the bison to the brink of extinction) and, to boot, no assistance coming in from a government that had signed a treaty promising it to them. Open talk of war began to stir, but a Sioux delegation of those who held to Wovoka’s teachings on peace was convened to discuss how peace might be forged. A delegation was to meet at Stronghold Table—a mesa on the modern day Pine Ridge Reservation. Among those scheduled to attend was Chief Spotted Elk. It’s where he was headed when he was detained at Wounded Knee, as a matter of fact.
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If I were to describe the residents of Pine Ridge today, I would do so with one word: bored. Women came to my dad’s temporary clinic in relative droves, shuffling around in white tennis shoes and acid washed jeans, their hair tied back into long braids. There were only a few men present in the clinic, although more hung around just outside the door. We’d been told that many would be drunk, and many were.
Alcoholism is the cancer of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Although beer and liquor sales had been forbidden on Pine Ridge until last year, it has always been available just across the border in Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Whiteclay is a town with a population of twelve. There are four liquor stores. In 2012, the town sold five million cans of beer, almost entirely to members of the Lakota Sioux tribe.
On Pine Ridge, one in four children is born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, which no one, least of all a team of medical students from Lincoln, can cure. Of primary concern to my father was the people’s feet, riddled with callouses.
There was a little buzz late in the day, when several members of the tribe informed my father that they had a group of young people interested in applying to the medical program he ran. He and a friend drove across the reservation to meet with this team, which led to the embarrassing discovery that it was a group of girls, the oldest of whom was 12.
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The Native American culture has become so mutated and filtered, it’s a little difficult to separate reality from the stereotype that’s been placed over it. What used to pass for holy items can be purchased in any gas station on I-80 for the price of a Snicker’s bar. Ancient patterns and sacred decorations and jewelry are on clearance at your local Urban Outfitters. Native Americans are football mascots, emblems of environmentalism and Hollywood stand-ins anytime there’s a need for someone to recite an ancient prophecy. The line between tribute, cultural re-appropriation and out-and-out racism grows blurry. The story of the White Buffalo Woman falls on deaf ears to us, because so much of the culture has been swallowed up by chincy, dimestore Americana. Instead of preserving the culture, we’ve repurposed it for our own.
And so this is the plight of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The land that used to be theirs is ours. The culture that used to be theirs is ours.
But they do have their stories.
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In May of 2000, a thunderstorm rolled across Pine Ridge and, in that cacophony, Medicine Wheel the white buffalo escaped his pasture and went careening down the rainswept plains. According to reports, a local police officer narrowly missed hitting him with his cruiser, and ordered a nearby motorist with a rifle to shoot Medicine Wheel dead. The motorist complied and the two of them left Medicine Wheel’s carcass in the road.
Medicine Wheel was found the next day. His neck had been slit, and he bore long streaks across his hide as if someone had attempted to drag his body down the gravel road in the night and the wild.
Note: I have been directed to this fine short documentary about a young artist who has spent the past seven years taking pictures of the people of Pine Ridge. His photos do what words can’t (and he captures the culture of violence that has settled over the area – something I did not witness, but have heard some horrid stories about.) I urge you to watch it.