Saturday, May 26, 2007

What it is with the gas cans... Part I

A long, long, long, long, long time ago I lived on a reservation for 8 months. I got there entirely by accident. I was living in Peoria at the time. My first marriage was in major trouble and so I took off for a two week camping trip with a girlfriend, Kathy. She wanted to check out two universities to see which one would be better for grad school: the University of South Dakota, or the University of Colorado. We threw a bunch of camping stuff in the back of her car, some books to read (I had Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown), and I took my journal and some art supplies and we were off.

We were pretty heedless and happy go lucky. We camped at an abandoned farm the first night. The guy whose land it was dropped by. He was nice and told us we were welcome to stay, and he thot we'd be safe. The second day, we hit Vermillion, SD, where USD is. Kathy went to check out whatever program it was, and I wandered the halls, looking at the flyers on the walls. There was a really interesting one for a little college in Rosebud, Sinte Gleska, which had a summer studies program that looked kinda interesting. Since we were sort of just bombing around with no agenda other than checking out the two universities, and since Rosebud was kinda on the way to Boulder, we went.

I don't think many white people dropped into SG asking about the summer studies program, but they were very polite and handed us flyers and we took off. We were planning on going to Wounded Knee, because it was pretty famous at the time - just two years after the occupation. On the way we passed by Ft Robinson, NE, where Crazy Horse was killed. I'd just read about it in the book, and was telling Kathy about it, and, foop! There it was.

And that was it. We spent the rest of the time driving around visiting places in the book, except for a quick dash down to Boulder, which took us by Ft Laramie (very impt in the book!) and back. We had a lot of amazing adventures. They could each be a blog. My brain's exploding... But, back to the story about the gas can. (This IS a story about a gas can.)

So. We eventually returned to Peoria. Absence had NOT made the heart grow fonder, and so I separated from my husband, took one of our cars, and drove back to Rosebud to attend the summer studies institute. I enrolled in four courses, I think. Lakota Thought, Lakota Medicine, Lakota Song and Dance, and, umm, something else. I can't even begin to tell you all the cool things that happened that summer, but by the end of it, I was working for the Media Services division at the library taking pictures and videos of whatever people wanted documented. Mostly I got stuck doing the monthly meetings of the National Indian Alcoholism Task Force. These were in Lakota, which is unlike any European language, and has sounds that are really difficult to make unless you grow up making them. Then you can do them without spitting. Watch Dances With Wolves, if you want to hear people speaking Lakota.

The infamous incident at Oglala happened when I was on the reservation. The politics on Pine Ridge, and, to some extent, on Rosebud in those days have filled several books. They were over my head at the time, and probably still are. Let's just say it could be a pretty dangerous place. But it was also a wonderful place... A magical place... An ancient place. It was just a fairly violent wonderful magical ancient place.

For one thing, everything out there is really far apart. I ended up living in Valentine, NE, and driving up to Mission to work every day. That was 42 miles one way. And usually during the day I had to drive to Rosebud, and then I'd drive home through Kilgore, a notorious town just off the Rez, where the bars were. All told that's about 100 miles round-about, and that doesn't count going out for lunch or anything.

One night I was driving home really late from Rosebud down through Kilgore. This was a little bitty road, dangerous at night, 'cos folks coming back from the bars in Kilgore wouldn't always remember to turn on their lights. And this was winter, and it's fuckin' cold there in the winter. I saw a car in the ditch on the side of the road. In those parts you're kinda honor-bound to stop for cars in ditches. People could freeze to death. It was kinda spooky, but valor got the better of me, and I stopped. There were two people in the car: an older man and a young girl... A really young girl, like teens. The man was loud and drunk. He told me he was a tribal policeman and he'd run outta gas. I was to take him to Kilgore and a friend there with a gas station would sell him gas and I could bring him back and he could be on his way.

I had about enough gas in my own car, a school bus yellow VW Rabbit, to make it to Valentine, and told him so, but he seemed to think his friend would sell me enough gas to make it back up the road and then back down to Kilgore and home again. I was not relishing the thot, because, among other things, this guy was obnoxious. Really fucking obnoxious. He sat in the front and the girl sat in the back. I couldn't see much, but she seemed to be toying with something.

We got to the 'friend's' house and the guy got out and went and pounded on the door. No one answered. He started yelling and pounding on the door and kept it up... Which was a good thing, because the minute he got out of the car the girl started talking a blue streak. This man, she said, had murdered his father and was going to rape her. Please, please, please, she begged me, do NOT leave me alone with this man. The thing she was toying with was a small, metal nail file. She said she would stab the man with the nail file if he tried to rape her. She was desperate. She was earnest. She was very, very scared. I was, too, because the man was coming back to the car, cussing a blue streak at the guy who wouldn't get out of bed.

"Take us to Valentine," he commanded me, "I'll get us a hotel room there and get a ride back in the morning." The girl was staring at me in the rear view mirror.

We drove on to Valentine, another twenty some miles. I was really worried about gas myself. The man was telling me what a piece of shit my car was, not like a good American car. I told him he'd better quit cussing my car. It got about three times as many miles per gallon as his car, and if we were in his car we'd all be walking. He just talked right over me.

I was trying to figure out what to do. Before I did anything, I needed gas, which I could get at the Home Cafe and truck stop. Then I'd drive to the motel in town, and let the guy out of the car, and shoot off with the girl still inside. I mean, this guy's a cop, right, so I'm wondering... Does he have a gun? Will he shoot me? I have no clue.

We get to the Home Cafe, and the guy, thank goodness, goes in to pee, while I fill up. I explain my brilliant plan to the girl. She looks doubtful, but I tell her just to lock her door, so he can't open it from the outside, and we'll wing it. He gets back in, directs me to the motel - "They know me here," he said. "Uhh huh, I bet they do," I thot... - and gets out. He doesn't thank me or anything, just tries to yank the back door open. And with his hand still on the handle, I pushed the pedal down, made a U turn and screeched out the motel's parking lot.

We'd made it! We were laughing! We were free. I was also really, really tired. It was after midnight and I really didn't want to drive back to the Rez. "You wouldn't want to stay at my place for the night, would you, and drive back in the morning?" The happiness went out of her face like a light turned off. "No, I thot not," I said. I told her I'd drive her home. She lived in St Francis, which I knew pretty well, as it was where I first stayed on the Rez. I asked if she'd left anything in the car. Well, there WAS a case of beer in it, she said. Did she want to drive by the car and see if it was still there? Seemed like a good idea to her.

So. That's what we did. We drove to the car, got the beer, and then I drove her home. When she got out, she told me her name.

Now that might seem like a kinda normal thing to you and me. You meet someone, you tell them your name. But it's not on the Rez. These people have lived with each other for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. They KNOW each other's names. They know each other's parents names, and sister's and brother's names, and grandparent's names and great-great's names and what have you. And if you don't know their name, well then you're not one of them... And if you're not one of them, then you must be... The Enemy. So introducing yourself to someone is like saying, "Hi, I'm you're enemy!" It's not something you do, unless you have to or want someone to know your name. So I felt really honored that she told me her name.

Now, I must admit I did wonder if the girl's story was true. You know, the part about this guy murdering her father. And I knew someone who would know: a friend who worked for county assistance. I called her the next morning and asked her. And, the story was true. She filled in all the details, which I have forgotten now. Just the main parts stand out...

And that's the first part of the story...


Amy C said...

Can't wait to hear the rest of the story. Boy, do you seem to have the wildest experiences. This, the atheist and who knows how many more... When are you writing your memoirs?


Anonymous said...

this is a great story--even thought i've heard the UU sermon, i can't WAIT to read the Rest of the Story--

Serena said...

What a great story! How different life seemed back then.

I just wanted to say that I read the book - In The Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen - which pretty much documented the incident at Pine Ridge and subsequent court trials. A very good book.

I enjoyed reading your posts and will be back for more. :)