Impromptus

South Dakota Journal, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger has traveled to South Dakota to do a story from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That will appear in an October issue of National Review. This South Dakota Journal is a kind of supplement, or accompaniment. For the first three parts, go here, here, and here. The journal concludes today.

As I drive through the reservation, I’m listening to some Viennese waltzes. What they’re doing on the radio, I don’t know. But they’re there. They are perfectly pleasant — but they don’t quite go with the scenery.

Flipping around, I find some New Orleans jazz. Again, very nice. But a little incongruous.

Finally, I find some “Indian” music — an interesting, appealing blend of Indian chants and country. It goes perfectly with the landscape.

Music is not meant to be like wallpaper in a room, or to be a soundtrack (unless it is). But you know what I mean . . .

The sign says “Batesland, Pop. 88.” My question is: How often do they change the sign? It must be a pain, if the population dips to 81, or rises to 93 or something.

I notice that the hay is rolled just the way it is outside Salzburg. Only last month, I saw hay exactly like this up on a mountain farm, outside that city.

There is a sign for a tiny community called Swett. I think of one of the most interesting names in American political history: Dick Swett. He was a Democratic congressman from New Hampshire. Later, he was ambassador to Denmark, under Clinton.

Swett has just a few buildings, a few trailer homes — basta.

Just to the east of Swett is a Boondocks Bar & Grill. Almost any establishment in these parts could be named Boondocks something.

In the village of Kyle, there is Little Wound High School. I think, “Better a little wound than a big wound.”

This is something I didn’t expect to see: a Lakota Waldorf School.

A breezy little journal like this is probably not the place for big reflections on big questions. But I think, not for the first time, about what James Watt said about Indian reservations: examples of socialism failed.

Remember Jim Watt? He was Reagan’s first interior secretary, and he was always sticking his foot in his mouth. Got in big trouble. But I’m not sure he was wrong about reservations, generally.

Too pat, too glib, maybe — but wrong?

Hang on, I’ve done some Googling. Let me give you some of the New York Times from January 19, 1983:

Interior Secretary James G. Watt Tuesday called Indian reservations “an example of the failure of socialism.”

Mr. Watt’s department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which supervises the reservations. In an interview to be broadcast Wednesday on the Satellite Program Network based in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Watt said that reservations aggravated social problems. “If you want an example of the failure of socialism,” he said, “don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.”

He said the Indians who lived on reservations maintained by the Federal Government experienced drug abuse, alcoholism, unemployment, divorce and venereal disease. “Every social problem is exaggerated because of socialistic government policies,” he said.

Cabinet members don’t talk this way now, baby! (And they really didn’t then, except for Watt.)

In the past few days, I’ve thought and talked a lot about “what alcohol has done to the Indian.” Of course, we can put it a different way: What do we do to ourselves?

Let me explain what I mean. One of the most famous American poems begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” What Ginsberg is alluding to here is drugs. That line could also be rendered, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroy themselves through drugs.”

I never claimed to be a poet . . .

For decades, certain Indian activists have said two things — two things that contradict each other. In one breath they say, “No one knows about us. Everyone ignores us. We are forgotten.” In the next breath, they say, “White people are always poking around among us. Judging us. Why don’t they leave us alone?”

Contradictory as these statements are, I think there is some truth in each.

If you ever have a chance to ride through the Badlands at night, do. The receding, golden sun touches everything, bison and butte alike.

Hang on, what was I saying about not being a poet?

Back to Rapid City — and let me say this about it: It has a real downtown. An honest-to-goodness downtown. Stuffed with stores, restaurants, people, and interesting things. Downtowns used to be like this, I think. And then everything moved to malls on the outskirts.

Even the parking is free in Rapid City! A wonderful, exemplary downtown.

Norman Rockwell should be here with his brushes: A Red Wing shoe store, with a little American flag out front. You almost want to salute.

For a Detroit kid (Greater Detroit) like me, Red Wings can only mean hockey. But still . . .

Memorial Park has a couple big chunks of the Berlin Wall. There is an exhibit. It teaches about the “cruel border” between the Berlins. It has a tank trap “located between Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie from 1961 to 1989.” (I believe I’ve copied that correctly.) There is a sign about religious freedom.

I am practically dizzy, seeing an anti-Communist memorial. I have seen just a handful in my life.

Remember I mentioned the dinosaur park, in Part I of this journal? Well, I see it has an American flag — which strikes me as a little anachronistic. I mean, Betsy Ross didn’t get sewing until the 1770s, right?

I talk with some Rapid City kids. They say, “Everybody who lives here wants to leave.” They are amazed I live in New York. They think they would find it so interesting, which they might.

They will learn, probably, that place has little to do with happiness or sadness. You can be miserable in the most luxurious and dazzling of circumstances, right? And perfectly happy in plain surroundings. Depends on what’s going on between the ears.

Or am I wrong?

I have had some very fine meals, cooked by some very fine chefs, around the world. Very expensive. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better meal than a sub from Quiznos followed by a blizzard from the DQ. Ever.

Alongside the Rapid City airport are horses. A very nice touch, for an airport.

The airport has a Kitty Hawk Road — another nice touch.

Bear with me, while I give you a memory, from long ago. Well, first, the present situation. Before I left the airport, a few days ago, the woman at the rental-car counter stressed, “Bring us the odometer reading, when you come back.” Now that I’m back at the airport, I see this point stressed again: in a sign. You’re supposed to record the odometer reading.

Okay, no problem. But I think of my friend Meist, long ago. At the Liberty Golf Range, we were always told, “Bring back the bucket.” Meist would never bring back the bucket. For him, it was a matter of principle. He was the customer, and he thought the employees should clear the range of buckets themselves.

As I got older, I understood this better. I believe I understood his point. The customer is not part of the business (though basic politeness always applies).

So, in the parking lot of the Rapid City airport, I’m thinking, “I’m happy to bring in the odometer reading. Dutiful guy, I am. But why can’t they record the readings themselves? It’s their business. They’re the ones making money. We’re the customers.”

Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, I’ll end on this super-triviality — but thanking you for joining me, which is not trivial.