Blazing a Trail: My Week in a Native American Suicide Capital
A Wasi’chu Arrives with Best Intentions
I received a knock on my hotel door. I wanted to sleep, exhausted from a two-plus hour flight to Denver from Los Angeles, and a subsequent six-hour car ride to Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
Alas, my slumber would be put on hold.
“Who is it?”
”Open up.” Brian Uptgraft, the founder of Blazing a Trail, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to bringing arts education to impoverished Native American reservations. It was Brian who invited me to join him on the present excursion. We met during a speaking engagement, where I was addressing newer writers about the power of networking to further their craft. “Let’s grab a bite,” he said.
Brian is a professional bounty hunter with a heart of gold. For nearly twenty years, whatever money he has earned from his bounties, after bills and taxes, he‘s donated to arts education for Native Americans.
For Brian, Pine Ridge has been a particular focus. When he invited me, I couldn’t turn him down. As a writer, I’m naturally curious about most everything.
Brian drove from Los Angeles to Denver. I flew. He picked me up at the airport for the long drive ahead.
By the time we arrived, I was exhausted. I was in the hotel room for ten minutes when Brian knocked. Clearly, sleeping was not within his agenda.
We walked to the hotel restaurant, incidentally, one of only two hotel-casinos on the entire 3,468.5 square-mile reservation. I’m vegan; I ordered a burrito without the buffalo meat and cheese.
”Oh, we don’t do that,” I was told.
I went through the rigmarole there. Brian had to speak to the manager. After 30 minutes or so, I was served my burrito, and not with a smile.
Being vegan in Pine Ridge is anathema to any sense of normalcy, though I was stunned to find soy milk in a convenience market 40 minutes away.
Regardless, as we ate, Brian filled me in on the details now that I had seen some of the scenery. “Many of them won’t trust you because you’re white,” he said, “even though you’re with me. However, many will be open-minded about you. You need to listen. But keep causing trouble like this, and they’ll hate you. If you hear the word wasi’chu, they’re not being kind. It means you’re a white stranger with a questonable agenda. They don’t know you. You’re not their friend, even though you’re with me. It took me years to gain trust. These are some things you’ll learn real quick.”
”Tell me something positive,” I said.
“You’re bald,” he joked (though I really am). “They can’t scalp you.”
It was going to be an interesting week.
Escape To Pine Ridge, South Dakota
The timing of the excursion was perfect for me personally. I was in the midst of a book tour for my new novel, and heading towards a two week break. I was already in travel mode; staying put for a couple of weeks would make me restless.
And tough to be around, as my personality is such that when something is so close around the bend, it’s much like a layover on an airplane. I can’t relax until the next flight.
“You should come with me,” Brian said.
“Come with you where?”
”Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They have the highest teen suicide rate in the country, and would be inspired by someone like you.“
He went on to explain that in 2015, more than 100 children under 18 attempted to kill themselves in one four-month period on the poverty-stricken reservation. This figure does not take into consideration the successes thereof, or the adults’ related efforts.
Brian asked me to bring a bunch of books for everyone, and I could talk to them about writing. The conversation went on, but the gist is I agreed to go. I’d speak to students, teachers, and tribal elders, and would donate several hundred books to all who would want one.
I welcomed my latest escape from Los Angeles, California, especially considering the reason I was asked. Also, opportunity aside, I was in the midst of an extended personal conflict with a loved one. I’ve long subscribed to the adage that there are multiple sides to every argument - the perspectives of the parties involved, and the truth - and let’s just say the timing of my long-scheduled trip was perfect.
I was in a woe is me mode and had been for several days. The flight would be my escape. Someone else escaped that day as well. Muhammad Ali. He was one of my heroes because he continually made a difference.
I admire that in a person.
I took off from Burbank Airport with mixed feelings, unsure until the very last minute if I should cancel my plans and iron out my personal conflict on the upfront.
I did not cancel. I was heading to South Dakota by way of Denver - the fare was cheaper - and my ride and I would drive five hours from Denver to Pine Ridge, an off-the-grid reservation and among the poorerst in the United States. Pine Ridge is the capital of the Oglala Reservation, which is comprised of eight other districts, and home of the Lakota Sioux.
I didn’t know Brian all that well, but I got his sardonic humor quickly. I also came to know the man, who is an interesting guy for sure.
My First Full Day on “The Rez”
The morning after my first sleep, Brian elected to take me on an abbreviated tour of “The Rez,” as many locals called their reservation. As a professional bounty hunter, Brian is always mentally prepared. Wasi'chu outsiders do not carry weapons on The Rez.
“Let’s continue our education,” he said. “We’re here to help the kids express themselves in their art. Like you as a writer, many of these kids here are immensely talented. The Rez has their share of rappers, dancers, actors ... writers ... You know the biggest problem?”
”What’s that?” I asked.
“Some parents and tribal elders discourage outside art. They may be small in number, but they have influence. They consider it a corruption of their native customs and prefer tradition, such as bead-making and the like. Others, however, strongly encourage artistry, regardless of origin, and yet they do not have the resources or support systems to cultivate such activity. So as the kids are unable to express themselves as they would like, they fall into alcohol and meth, which is brought here from off the reservation.” I didn’t know how to respond. “And one more thing?” Brian said. “Speaking of off the reservation, there’s a ton of racism against Indians. Incidents at sporting events, especially, happen too frequently for comfort, and do you know what happens when someone sees two or more Indians on their property?”
”What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s never been taken off the books. Two or more Indians on private property can be considered an uprising, and if they’re shot it can be considered self-defense.”
I was near-speechless. “Anything else?” I asked.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
It wouldn’t take long. About 20 minutes later, we passed a woman who was walking on a dirt road. Note the geography of Pine Ridge is such that there is no civilization for dozens of miles based on one’s whereabouts. The area is fairly desolate. The woman was walking in an area where the next bit of humanity was 40 miles away. There is no mass transit on the reservation. There is scant wi-fi, and very few gas stations. The woman was walking alone, and must have been at least 60 years of age, considered old for a Lakota Sioux (assuming the correctness of my assumption).
It was close to 80 degrees that day, and the woman was carrying a knapsack on her back. We passed her on the road, and Brian asked me if we should offer her a ride.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Is that safe? What if she has a weapon?” I may have been naive, but I was not in the habit of picking up strangers.
“I’m turning around,“ Brian said. “I’m not worried about it. You’re fine and besides, you need to know what goes on here.”
Not that I had any say in the matter.
Brian backed up, and offered the woman a ride. She was reluctant but she entered our car, and said she was walking to church. She informed us the church was about 40 miles away. The nearest gas station was further than that, I was told, and I nearly prayed (I’m not religious) that Brian wouldn’t run out of gas.
The woman told us she worked in Portland for 15 years in a construction office, and that she's living here on a $159 monthly welfare check. She said she takes this extended walk once weekly, as she could not afford a car.
She also said that near the church is a "ghost house,” and we needed to be careful of "ghost cars“ in the vicinity after we dropped her off. I asked her about crime on the reservation; she said murders are common, as is bullying. She elaborated on the reservation’s “huge meth problem.”
We drove on, passing buffalos and horses for what seemed like forever, with no human being in sight.
We arrived at the church, took some photos before she walked inside, and returned to the car.
”I can only imagine what’s next,” I said.
“I’m going to take you to the Badlands.”
”It’s a landmark. It’s in an area off the road that’s not in the best location but it’s not all that far.”
”Joy,” I said. “What goes on there?”
”The Badlands itself is something to look at. Nothing much goes on there, save for some meth dealings. In the surrounding ten to twenty mile radius, there’s been plenty of crime.”
”Rape, murder, and drug trafficking. That sort of thing.”
”Are you usually this cavalier about everything?”
”I’m a damn bounty hunter. What do you expect?
Day Two: I Was Treated Like Royalty, And Then Reality Hit.
The population of Pine Ridge is just over 50,000 - spread out over many hundreds of miles.
Brian and I had an interview at KILI Radio, known as The Voice of the Lakota Nation, and the only native radio station on the reservation. We were both told by the host, after we expressed our goals, “We’ll see. The white man has not historically been one to trust here.” He followed that with, “Ask some of the people you meet about Kevin Costner.”
The host was a white man. He visited the reservation, met a woman, married her ... and never left. He founded the radio station, and truly made a difference. Everyone we met on the reservation over the ensuing days said they received their news from KILI, and most of them heard our interview.
Regarding Costner, we were told he was very well-received by those living on the reservation when he filmed Dances with Wolves. We were also told he did not follow through on promises, nor show up for a long-planned award that was to be given to him in honor of the movie. The Pine Ridge populace were offended, feeling “dishonored.” Brian referred to the issue as the ”Costner-Effect,” whereby any outsiders - white or not - only want to “take” from the land, as opposed to helping.
We - I, as Brian was already known by many from previous visits - were given, at least, a chance. I had a big schedule that day, visiting three schools to sign books and speak about creativity.
The students were all respectful, and surprisingly shy. Some painfully so. In all three schools it was the same. They didn’t know what to make of me. I tried discussing my own past, being born and raised in the low-income housing of the Sheepshead Projects of Brooklyn, New York, in an effort to be relatable, and I felt in all instances I was only partially successful.
One-on-one, though, when I signed their books they all asked me pointed questions: “How did you convince your parents to let you move to California?” “You never got in trouble for writing?” “Did you ever get arrested for your books or movies?”
The next one I was even less prepared for:
“Are you really Jewish?” I thought he was joking. And then he followed the question with a statement. “You know, there was an Indian holocaust too.” I asked him what he knew about that. ”My parents say the white man is the cause of all evil,” he responded, “but they can’t teach that in schools off the reservation.”
By the time we left, I was unsure how to process some of what had just passed.
After a very long day, a shower, and a second change of clothes, we met Chris Eaglehawk, a friend of Brian’s, for dinner. No questions were off-limits, and so I asked.
He said the meth that was rampant in Pine Ridge arrived by way of the Mexican cartels, and it's fairly recent. Kids purchased the meth off the reservation, and brought the drug onto it.
Chris talked about the dehumanizing of victims - Indians, Jews (it would be the first time he compared the slaughter of Indians to the Nazi Holocaust) - and how it is easier to kill someone if they are lumped into one group. “You don't ever see their faces,“ he said, “their individuality.“ He said he went to a boarding school where white men cut his ponytail. “To a Native,” he said, “a ponytail is spirit. They cut my spirit. They abused me and others, to make us compliant.” He did not say “Wasi'chu,” which was notable to me in context. Chris furthered that due to his boarding school experience, he became addicted to drink and drug for decades.
He is now sober, and has been for many years.
Chris' house is interesting. It is small, and yet many people are always over. He was building a second house on a foundation of tires during the time of our visit.
His son, Charlie, pays $33 a month on rent for his own apartment, including air and heat. The rent went up from $25 as he's now on welfare.
By 8:30 PM, the time we returned to the hotel, I couldn’t wait to hit the bed. The day was intense, and a full night’s shut-eye was definitely in order.
The most wrenching part of the day, however, was yet to come. And then the rerun happened; there was a knock on my door.
“Wake up, buttercup.“ Brain, yet again. “There are two people here who want to meet you.”
The Importance of a Native American’s Hair - Article One
The Importance of a Native American’s Hair - Article Two
- Long Hair in Native American Culture - The Longhairs
For the first post in our Longhair Traditions series, we look at long hair in Native American culture, from what it means to why it’s important.
Day Two Images
Signing Books, and Talking to Students, Teachers and Other Native Lakota About Art and Creativity
Later that Night ...
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
”They want to meet you and take a couple of pictures. They want you to sign some books, so hurry up.”
I forced myself from the bed, yet again. I was perfectly happy to do so; I was just still acclimating to the week’s schedule.
I exited the room, and entered the lobby. Brian introduced me to the young high school student and her mother, who happened to be in the hotel to visit the girl’s paternal grandmother. He said they’ve been looking forward to meeting me, and wanted to pose for some shots first. We did, and then the ceiling fell:
“We met eight months ago,“ Brian said. “Since then, she lost several close friends to suicide.”
I was shocked. “Really? In eight months?”
The mother also informed me that a six year old boy on the reservation was recently, and thankfully, unsuccessful in attempting to snuff his life. He had taken a cardboard box to the middle of a road, and hid under it so a car could run him over.
He was found before tragedy struck. When questioned, he said he was being bullied back home.
The student Brian and I met with volunteered that she had no plans to take her own life, and she may want to work in the police force, as her mother did, after her graduation. She saw a future for herself, and to me represented the epitome of strength. I asked the student and her mother why they believed suicide has become such an epidemic in Pine Ridge. The student answered and a stark truth, later validated several times over, was revealed:
“Many kids will say there is nothing to do here other than drink and do drugs.” I sensed the rest, which Brian and I have heard before. “They will say a lot of parents and tribal elders don’t want us to become artists, other than traditional art for the reservation only —”
”So, none of the parents accept this?” I asked.
Her mother responded. “No, many do. But it’s too easy for them to give up because they don’t have the resources. Some do fear that tradition will be broken. The problem is many of the families have TVs, so the kids are familiar with video games, rap music, movies ... and some manage to get off the reservation to attain these things. Those kids’ parents, the minority of them, sometimes buy drugs or alcohol to deal with the pain of being unable to do more for their kids. It becomes a cycle out here.”
The girl intervened. “Too many kids use their parents and tribal elders as an excuse to drink and do drugs. That’s the truth outsiders don’t understand. They think we all do it.”
“What can we do to help?” I asked.
She looked to Brian. “Are you taking Joel to any tribal council meetings?”
”We have an educational meeting in the morning,” Brian answered.
She turned back to me. “That’s what you can do,” she said. “Good luck, though. Some of them won’t trust you.”
I must have heard that a dozen times to this point. All I knew for sure is when I would finally make my way back to the hotel room, I had a good cry forthcoming.
New York Times Article: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Struggles with Suicides Among Its Young
- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Struggles With Suicides Among Its Young - The New York Times
Since December, nine people between 12 and 24 years old have killed themselves on the South Dakota reservation, and many others have tried.
Days Three to Six: Tribal Council Meetings, the Ceremonial Sweat, and Scouting Locations for Arts Centers
The next morning, Brian and I had an early breakfast. We were scheduled for a 9:00 tribal education meeting, and did not have time to waste. As we walked to the location downstairs in the hotel, he filled me in:
“Unlike the others, they may not be so accomodating. Eyes open.”
We arrived. I spoke about our visit, and our goals, as did Brian. The response was fair, though highly skeptical. And then, members of the tribal council spoke. We had never heard such in-fighting.
Jobs were threatened; many argued. Several yelled. Tribal business is intense, and frankly - though I was learning a great deal - I could not wait to leave.
Note: The following morning, we were set to attend another tribal council meeting. We left before the doors opened. “Come on,” Brian said, surprising me. “We need to go. Right now.“ We heard whispers of “Wasi’chu” and they were becoming angry, likely due to our presence during the prior day’s volatile meeting. And Brian was disappointed, belaboring a point about “disrespect.”
We drove, and Brian removed a map from under his seat. He informed me he made a plan for us to meet with some kids today, who were part of an after-school program.
Brian and I arrived at the destination. We met with the kids ... and I was astounded.
There were seven of them, who showed up with a teacher. The teacher told us these were “some of the most talented kids on the reservation.” Indeed. One recited Shakespeare by rote. Another, a blind student, delivered a rap about his hardscrabble life that was stronger - and more artistically poetic - than most hardcore gangster rap I’ve heard. The student was 15 years old. Yet another performed a scene from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
We were blown away. In one sense, their stories were the same: the lack of parental belief in art. In another, their stories varied based on their individual upbringing. The teacher, having seen first-hand the damage that meth and alcohol have caused to her beloved reservation, agreed with us. WIthout the freedom to express themselves artistically, she said, these kids will continue to be at high-risk for substance abuse, or early death.
Brian and I discussed the astounding talent on display on the way back towards Wounded Knee, where we had an appointment to meet with a friend of Chris Eaglehawk’s. He had the only key to an abandoned structure for us to look at for our proposed first arts center.
The structure would likely be prime with a raze and rebuild, or major repair, though as with any area on the reservation the kids would somehow have to be bussed in. That, along with the need for 24-7 security, and a politically unfriendly location, ultimately caused us to keep looking. We visited a second potential location thereafter, but that one was far too small.
We agreed to keep looking for the most effective location for our purpose, regardless of how long it would take. Our other option, which was a perfectly fair option, was to travel to teach writing classes, acting classes, and the like. Getting specialty teachers onto The Rez would be difficult enough. Asking them to be mobile would be a whole other obstacle.
Regardless, the events of the day only reinforced the importance of our mission. Now, we had to convince everyone else.
The days passed. We visited with Chris and his family, including his son Charlie, a drummer who once played with a visiting philharmonic orchestra. We traveled, and did some slight-seeing. I saw Mount Rushmore from a distance; we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer County.
And then we were invited to partake in a sweat ceremony.
Native American sweat ceremonies vary tribe by tribe. Some use the hallucinogen peyote during the process; some do not. This one was to take place in someone’s backyard, hallucinogen-free. I was told in advance, “If you physically cannot take the heat any longer, say the words All my relations and we will open the tent for you.”
I had no idea what was in store. We heard that “Elvis Presley’s granddaughter” was at the house earlier, visiting. Okay, I thought. Some of the people who live are may be highly spiritual, but they also have active imaginations.
A tent stood in the center of the backyard, covered by quilts. Yards away from the tent was a burning fire, which was heating lava rocks. The fire had been burning for several hours; the lava rocks were so hot they were glowing. I was told it was an “honor” for a Wasi’chu to partake in such a ceremony, the equivalent of returning to the mother’s womb and being reborn.
The lava rocks were moved with a rake into the middle of the tent, through its as-yet uncovered opening. Eight of us entered that small tent. The entrance closed. Brian remained outside, unable to participate due to an illness. Some of the participants had earlier in the day taken part in a renewal ceremony called a sun dance (see article following this section), whereby flesh was torn from their bodies following a 24-hour fast of food and water.
None of these ceremonies were about stamina, per se. It was about giving back to the land, and metaphoric rebirth.
Some of the Native Americans with whom I was now sharing the experience had heavy scars on their chest from their loss of flesh. There was some visibility inside the tent, due to the burning lava rocks. There would be four rounds of approximately 10 minutes each, whereby those in the tent - including myself, though I made it clear I was not religious - would pray to the creator and re-enter the womb of the mother.
Have you ever been to a sauna? Or a steam room in your local gym? The heat inside of a sweat lodge is exponentially hotter; that’s how uncomfortable an experience it is. But, more intense than even the heat, is the experience proper. By the end of 30 minutes in the sweat lodge, I could not take any more. I was beginning to hallucinate, and I battled a welling nausea. I held a towel over my mouth through the duration of the third round, and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest.
Seconds before the last round began, I said, softly, “All my relations.”
I crawled out of the tent with the intention of sitting out the last round. Seconds thereafter, I remained on the dirt, feet away from the tent, in a twilight state for nearly thirty minutes. I could barely breathe and I could not move.
And I thought of the others who fasted earlier. They exited renewed. I exited nearly passed out.
And they did it all to be reborn ... which they do several times yearly.
I am a frequent traveler, and I can state unequivocally that the Lakota Sioux were the most spiritual people I had ever met. That said, when one pauses to consider that their average lifespan is just under 50 years old, how can one possibly reconcile that fact with said spirituality?
It’s not easy. That much I knew.
A Sweat Lodge Comprehensive: Wikipedia
Day Seven and The Pine Ridge Pow-Wow: Everyone Comes Together at The Rez
What more is there to say? There is nothing like a Pow-Wow, an event where all the tribes get together, dance, share their native customs, and celebrate.
Many come from hundreds of miles away, and horseback, to attend. Brian and I met Elvis Presley’s granddaughter there, actress Riley Keogh, who really is the spitting image of her grandmother. At the time, she was looking to produce a film on the reservation.
She really was there.
There is always hope, it appears. Hope for peace, and prosperity. Even us Wasi’chu were accepted in the Pow-Wow, and I was invited to walk among the tribes. I could not resist such an opportunity.
Visiting Pine Ridge was a unique experience. As I was told, “Once you visit the reservation, it is in your blood forever.”
Truer words have rarely been spoken. It Is now 2018. Brian and I last visited the reservation together a year and a half ago. We stay in regular contact, as do we both with many on the reservation. We have yet to break ground on our first arts center. Time is passing by. And yet, like the Lakota themselves, we will keep on striving. We will get it done, because of an obsessive belief that we must get it done.
In the meantime, thanks, as ever, for reading.
Images from the 2016 Pine Ridge Pow Wow
A Pine Ridge Comprehensive: Wikipedia
About “Blazing a Trail”
I am compelled to add one final note. I met numerous Lakota Sioux with whom I was immediately taken. Kind-hearted, spiritual, and more respectful than many outsiders I‘ve met elsewhere. Some have become new friends, truly, and I continue to cultivate mutually productive relationships with others. I have rarely been surrounded by a more passionate group of people.
Like Brian before me, I truly want to help. I feel that they are owed the effort. I personally consider art to be integral to a happy and healthy spIrit, and I will strive to do what I can for my Native American brothers and sisters.
Ideas are highly welcome from my readers.