As we continued on our quest to listen to the native voices we ventured onto the Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest county in the United States and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. On the top of a dusty hill just off the highway there is a long narrow area enclosed by a chain link fence with a small stone monument along one side memorializing those who died in December of 1890. The fence marks the boundary of the mass grave of nearly 300 women, children and old men murdered by soldiers of the United States. As I walk the perimeter of the mass grave a stiff breeze blows across the hundreds of prayer cloths tied to the fence to honor to dead. Outside the fence are graves of descendants of the victims, some recent with modern granite headstones and others old and marked with stones and simple offerings. There had not been any rain on the Reservation for more than three weeks prior to my visit leaving the hill brown and parched with patches of overgrown grass and weeds interspersed among the graves. Once on top of the hill you could hear the birds singing and feel the ghosts of those who rested there. While seemingly a neglected, unkempt place, it is a sacred site that deserves more respect then it has received by non-native people and the U.S. Government.
Another encounter I will never forget also was on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We stopped at Betty’s Kitchen – a trailer set on a hill – for an Indian taco. Betty O’Rourke is a lively woman in her 80’s who cooks for the local graduations, weddings, and other festivities and her trailer sits on a famous landmark – the place where Nicholas Black Elk recounted his story which became the book Black Elk Speaks. Betty is the great granddaughter of this famous medicine man and she showed us photos of him and her father and other family members hanging on her living room wall. Having read the book I was thankful to have met her.
Driving through Pine Ridge we made another stop at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. Thunder Valley is actively working to address systemic inequity by bridging Lakota culture with the rapid pace of change in contemporary society. The Community Development Center consists today of “green” housing, a sustainable farming initiative and working to build the economy and overcome the inter-generational poverty created by colonization.