New Rockford Transcript - Official Newspaper of Eddy County since 1883

"I can't believe they'd do that to people"


August 12, 2019

India and Gus the Wonder Pug waited in my old Mustang convertible while I surveyed my hat rack, trying to decide which one I would take on our pilgrimage. I finally grabbed my Baltimore Orioles cap.

The sun was high when we stopped at the Sitting Bull and Sakakawea monuments near Mobridge. We stood a while at an obelisk marking Sakakawea's time on this earth, a legend at 19, dead in 1812 at 25 of a fever during childbirth, about 25 miles from that spot.

India and Gus trotted out ahead of me to the chief's grave on a bluff, overlooking the Missouri far below.

Sitting Bull was 59 when he died on Dec. 15, 1890, shot down along the Grand River during an arrest attempt by authorities who feared that he might further encourage the apocalyptic Ghost Dance movement that was building among the Sioux. Two weeks later, the 7th Cavalry, which had suffered defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876 by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, massacred hundreds of men, women and children at Wounded Knee.

There was charred sage at the base of Sitting Bull's statue, dried wildflowers, a broken, slightly weathered cigarette, two plantains, and a handmade redwood cross inscribed with one word: “Faith.” Sitting Bull's stone visage gazed east as if waiting for the next sunrise.

We continued south through deep green valleys, inhaling the perfume of cut hay. There was road construction a few miles from Wounded Knee and the smell of hot tar. It was late afternoon when we arrived and lumbered up a washed-out, dusty clay hill best suited for a four wheel drive.

Dozens of faded prayer cloths adorned the wire fence surrounding the gray monument. Outside the fence were more recent graves, the dirt held in place by weeds and wildflowers. Some plots had military markers decorated with American flags. At one grave, chips of blue paint were all that remained of a name once painted on a large wooden cross. There was something atop the cross, and I moved closer to see. It was a sun-faded Baltimore Orioles cap.

Standing there, my mind recalled the photographs of the killing field, the frozen bodies, one old man's icy hands clawing at the sky.

There was one survivor. Four days after the slaughter, an infant was discovered, protected by her mother's frozen corpse. The baby girl, who was adopted by an army general, became known as Lost Bird. There's no happy ending to her story. Caught between cultures, possibly abused, then abandoned by her adoptive father, she became a curiosity relegated to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and later, Vaudeville. She died penniless of influenza at 30 in California on Valentines Day, 1920. In 1991, her people brought her home.

Small irises struggled in the unforgiving soil covering the grave. Someone had placed two small teddy bears alongside prayer bundles and painted stones. I left a penny on her headstone.

A day later, as we drove homeward into an inky night, I thought about the day Dylan and I went to Standing Rock during the pipeline protests. Thousands of Water Protectors were blocking an oil pipeline poised to cross the Missouri just a mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation.

When we arrived, a march began, so we followed, but no one seemed to know the purpose. We later learned that bulldozers were scraping away what Lakota archeologists deemed a sacred site. A helicopter hovered overhead menacingly in the unmerciful heat.

I fell behind, but Dylan, who'd borrowed a camera from his college communications class, filmed from the front lines as black-shirted security forces turned attack dogs on men, women and children in a scene reminiscent of Birmingham in 1964. Young bareback horsemen whirled protectively back and forth between their people and the security forces, helping drive them into retreat.

I hitched a ride back to my pickup and was waiting when Dylan finally emerged from the milling crowd, older than when he went in. He didn't see me at first— looked right through me before I got his attention. He climbed in wearily and sighed. Staring straight ahead through a bug-spattered windshield, he said, “Dad, I can't believe they'd do that to people.”

We drove a long while in silence.

© Tony Bender, 2019


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