South Dakota Journal, Part III

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


There’s a small village called Oglala. (I guess “small village” is a redundancy.) The post office is a forlorn little place, with a beaten-up American flag flying next to it. A photojournalist would want to snap it.

You may have heard of the stereotype of the “Indian car,” even seen it. The stereotype exists for a reason. There’s even a bumper sticker here: “Official Indian Car.” Pine Ridge offers an amazing collection of beaters. Not a few cars have half a windshield; not a few are crunched up in the back.

These autos can stay on the road? They’re allowed to do so?

Along the highways, there are billboards pleading against drunk driving. One shows a cute little girl, now dead.

I have called Big Bat’s the main hangout in Pine Ridge (village of). It can be thought of as Sioux Central. It’s a combination store, restaurant, and gas station. And social club. Inside, there’s a big, big buffalo head.

Nearby, there’s a church that has gone to seed. It is the very picture of a rundown church in the West. Again, a photojournalist would leap to snap it.

On a corner, there’s a sign honoring “Our Lakota Men and Women of Operation Iraqi Freedom.” There are many names on the sign. In fact, they continue on the back.

The reservation, of course, has an obesity problem. (And a diabetes problem. The statistics on this are miserable, as on most things.) But do the people here look much different from other segments of America? I don’t think so. There are thin ones, medium ones, fat ones. Beautiful people, ones “not favored by nature,” as my friend David Pryce-Jones would say.

Like everywhere, I think.

Naturally, I go to an infamous and sad place — Whiteclay, Neb., just over the line from the village of Pine Ridge. Here is where many Sioux get their booze. You can walk from Pine Ridge.

There are four liquor stores in Whiteclay, one of them called “State Line.” There are only three times as many people — yes, about twelve. The stores sell an astounding 4.5 million cans of beer a year. (Something like that.) That comes out to more than 12,000 a day.

Last year, the Oglala Nation sued the stores, and beer distributors, and beer makers, such as Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. Their claim: Alcohol was being stocked and sold in Whiteclay “far in excess” of what Nebraska law allows. The federal judge dismissed the case, saying that a federal court was not the place for it.

Whiteclay is basically a little strip — a little strip of road. On the South Dakota end of it, you see a mural: “Legalize alcohol on the rez.” On the other end of it, you see another mural. On one side of the building it says, “United we stand . . .” On the other side, it says, “. . . divided we fall.” What a person is supposed to make of it, I’m not sure.

The strip is, in essence, an Indian Bowery, a Sioux skid row. Men sit or lie on the sidewalks, drunk. Zombie-like, lost. It is a picture of brokenness, a picture not so much of suffering as of oblivion: the thirst for oblivion.

Let me lay something on you: As I see the Indians, lying on the sidewalks, I think, “What’s the difference between them and the business executives who get sloshed in their offices or at home in their dens? What’s the difference between them and alcohol-fueled writers, some of whom become immortal, such as Faulkner?”

The answer, I guess, is that some can cope and some can’t. I’ve known a lot of drunk people in my life. Some can get up from the sidewalk and some can’t.

I should knock off for the day, but let me give you a comment on the weather — yes, the weather, the most banal of topics. As if to add insult to Pine Ridge’s injury, the weather here is just about the worst imaginable. Punishing cold in the winter. Punishing heat in the summer. Punishing winds a lot of the time.

Yes, this is “a weather of extremes,” as one man tells me. Anyway, I’ll close this journal tomorrow, with more items from Pine Ridge, Rapid City, and maybe spots in between.