I've been through Pine Ridge before this, a quick roll-through on Ne87/SD407, but I hadn't been off the highways before. A friend from Chadron took me through here on a side trip to Rushmore, but he refused to stop.
The side streets are dirt tracks, no signs, no names. The ditches are filled with beer cans, cheap cans of food, diapers, broken glass. The houses with boarded windows, broken-down cars, some blackened by kerosine fires. (Most homes don't have central heating. It's very common for one to get burned out by an indoor campfire.) Roofs caving in, doors flown off. Still there were children playing in front of these places. People lived here. Broken down cars. Churches with bars on the windows, needles in their yards. The grafitti, the rusted septic tanks, the dust. The lung-chewing dust of urban decay. Dogs that should have died months ago from whatever was turning their coats into mats of blood and pus.
Trash filling the yards, the ditches, the same deritus of living hand-to mouth that one finds in any Nebraska trailer park, but at every single house in this town.
We walked into one of the burnouts and filmed it. It was to badly damaged for anyone to live here (as far as we know) but was still used at a party pad. Probably by thirteen year-old kids who worried about getting caught by their thirty year-old parents out doing the same thing. A heap of broken drywall and Hurricane cans. Some more graffiti on one of the remains of a wall. Back outside, people with fifty year old faces on twenty five year-old bodies tottering into one of the shacks.
I kept my sunglasses on, tried to keep my face neutral, more out of respect to the people we were gawking at than any sense of personal dignity. Don't hide your face in your hands, keep breathing. Look straight ahead, this is what you came here for. Keep walking.
A man walked out of one of the burnouts and asked us what we were doing. (We're gawking at how poor you are) (We're treating your town like a haunted house) (We're taking pictures of your neighborhood without anyone's permission to impress our middle-class friends and we would appreciate it if you stopped trying to accost us you filthy street urchin.)
"We're seeking truth" I said.
"Ha, ha, that's good." "Lot's of truth on the Rez."
"Is there a hotel here?"
"Ha, ha, no! Try the casino."
We walked up to the a church, filmed the barred and boarded-up windows, and decided to make our way back to the car. We could have crossed the highway and gotten more of the same. We all knew we were tresspassing, no need for anyone to step away from their curtains and tell us so. We were leaving now.
The man came back out holding a can of Natural Ice. "I got your truth right here" he said. We gave him a noncommital dude-laugh and a nod and kept walking. After a few steps I turned back and asked him what his name was. It was either shame or curiosity that made me do it. I was a coward back in Whiteclay, simple as that. Now had we come here to learn something about the people or keep treating them like goblins for three days?
His name was Warren, and the burnout was one of his crash pads, him and his buddies Spanky and Derrick. Spanky's face was scarred from some sort of burn injury. Huffing accident? The kerosine fire? Acid attack? He didn't talk about it, I didn't ask him. He knew I was looking at it and was curious. I knew that he didn't want to talk about it.
Dan has documented this incident as his cliff-notes version account of the whole trip on his blog, complete with modern visual technology. I prattle on and on about it because, I don't know. The story of this place needs to be told from street level, without angles, without powersuit reporters asking the people how miserable they are from a personal canyon away. Or maybe I just like writing about myself so God-damned much. http://www.whyareyoukillingme.blogspot.com/
So, yes. No heat, no electricity, no plumbing, perfectly normal. Spanky said they had promised to bring electricity to the place some months before. Who they were, I don't know. A case of Hurricane sitting in the corner. "Yeah, no jobs, no opportunities, so we just drink."
They asked us who we were and what we were doing. We were all students, all cornhuskers we said. "Guerilla journalism" I said. I've always been good at thinking up clever sounding bullshit on the spot. Warren said that he liked the Cornhuskers. Spanky likes the twin cities pro teams. I said that I liked the Dodgers in baseball. Clever bullshit on the spot.
They invited us into their drinking circle. that's how they do their drinking here. One can at a time, shared amongst all. It's a deeply moving bonding experience until the money starts to run out, then drunks will be drunks. Me and Paul partook. We wern't tresspassers anymore. At any rate I had been sucked in by the nihilism of the place, felt the same need to feel something that Warren and the gang did. (Even those who hadn't fallen to drinking at noon on Tuesday just sat on their porches or walked nowhere. Pine Ridge has as much economic activity as a village one tenth it's size.)
Warren is twenty-eight. He was a fugitive protected now from South Dakota justice by Lakota sovereignty laws. He had been caught delivering three pounds of weed to Rapid City in a friend's or a friend of a friend's car. Sentenced to five years in prison. His mother died about six months ago, he was given furlough from the prison in Yankton to attend the funeral. Now here he is. He has a son by a nominal girlfriend that is not quite a year old. The boy lives with his great-grandmother. Warren is allowed to see him if he hasn't been drinking.
All three of these men claimed that they had a chance to "make it". Get off the rez and live a nice middle class-life somewhere, through sports. Warren played basketball, Spanky ran track. They spoke in hushed tones of the fourteen year-old boy who had won the state championship in 100 meters. Than he was shot by someone and died.
The dropout rate is sky-high here, and it's easy to see why. All the men in this group were high-school graduates. It gains them nothing. The junior college here, same thing. A degree doesn't change the fact that there are maybe two hundred jobs here for three thousand people. Warren is hoping he can get a job at Pizza Hut. He'll huff gasoline sometimes. I don't know why one would buy a lawnmower here even if one did have enough money for it.
That's his story. What else is there to say? Would Warren be better off in prison than his home? Would his son be better off with his father as a rumor instead of the wreck that he can see for himself? Three meals a day, running water. The risk and bother of making a batch of payo would ensure that he drank less. Or would he simply lose the last of his humanity? Come back indifferent to his son and grandmother? Help contribute to a culture of surrender? "This is how we live"
"No jobs, so we drink, so you know, fuck it. Fuck everything"
That's his story.
We took some pictures and eventually left. We went to Taco John's for lunch.
Paul was inside ordering the food when one of the rez dogs showed up. (Her name was Sheila) She knew it was the humans lunch hour. Some people, the ones with freshly painted trailors and cars from the late nineties, have personal dogs of their own. Mostly it's the rez dogs. They are everybody's and nobody's. They are filthy, skinny, ridden with sores and parasites. But they have names. call them by their names and they'll tolerate your presense. Give them food and they'll wag their talis and maybe hold their tongues out.
Dan decided to give her the rest of the Matza bread. So we dug it out of the pile of travel deritus and handed it to him. He gave Sheila a piece and she inhaled it. Some more dogs, four or five, emerging from around the alley in full submissive begging poses. Dan divided the bread as best he could and gave it to them
He cut quite the saintly figure. He looks older than he is, with his shaved head and hermit-like attire. So here was this middle-aged Teutonic monk bringing succor to the beasts. It lightened the load on all of our hearts, I think, took us out of the funeral home and back to the vacation.
We decided to try to find this casino. We'd rather sleep here than in Gordon or Rushville. Warren told us it was past Ogala. Those should be directions enough. Why should we start planning in any meaningful way now?