South Dakota Journal, Part IV

Dinosaur Park in Rapid City


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 . . .