A Friend in Wounded Knee

The least of my worries in Pine Ridge

The least of my worries in Pine Ridge

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota is infamous: this was the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 and in the 1970’s, a series of deadly sieges between members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI. Today, Pine Ridge is the 8th largest reservation in the US by area and the poorest: 80 percent of the 40,000 residents are unemployed. Most live on less than $6,000 a year. At times, the reservation has reported six times the crime rate of similarly sized regions. Alcoholism, drug abuse and diabetes are rampant; average life expectancy hovers around a half-century, the lowest in the country.

Pine Ridge is a dangerous place, especially for women, who suffer from some of the highest rates of abuse and assault, along with some of the lowest rates of  prosecution. So when I saw a woman thumbing a ride on the side of Highway 27, near Wounded Knee, I stopped and offered her a ride. Her name was Trisha and she looked about my age. She needed a ride into Manderson to buy groceries. She had three kids, a missing husband and no car. Such is life on the Rez.

Historical sign marking the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre

Historical sign marking the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre

Trisha asked me where I had come from and where I was going. She was incredulous that I had traveled by myself all the way to Alaska and back. She asked what on Earth I was doing on the Rez; a place she herself had never once left. Pine Ridge is a dangerous place, but it’s also a beautiful place, just south of Badlands National Park. I hadn’t really planned on driving through Pine Ridge, but I was heading south to Nebraska. Manderson was north of Wounded Knee, in the opposite direction, but I gave her a ride anyway. A few fleeting moments that morning had put me in debt to the Rez and I wanted to give something back.

Earlier, I had crossed paths with two little boys riding two big paint horses, bareback, with only string for reins. As I drew close in my car, the boys looked back, saw me and goaded their horses to gallop, running alongside my car, their little brown bodies stuck like glue to the rhythmic backs of those beautiful brown and white horses. The boys laughed and waved and I waved back and nearly cried. I have seen plenty of great horsemanship in my life; few compare to those two boys. They rode like they had been born on horseback, like they had learned to ride even before they learned to walk. And they probably had.

Pine Ridge Horses

Pine Ridge Horses with the Badlands in the background

On our way to the grocery store, Trisha gave me the tour: A marker on the side of the road where her little sister had been killed by a drunk driver. A newly-built cinder block community center, already tagged with spray paint and broken windows. “Kids and their gangs,” she said. We passed a crew of what looked like teenagers, sprawled on a decaying porch, bottles in hand. “Drunk,” she said. It was mid-morning. I was reminded of my trip to the Makah Indian Reservation on the northwest tip of Washington State. So many kids, sitting around, bored to death, looking like trouble. A generation earlier those kids would have been learning to hunt whales from canoes with handheld harpoons. Now they hunted bottles and gangs. May those little boys stay horseback forever.

The Badlands from Pine Ridge

The Badlands from Pine Ridge

At the grocery store, the shelves mostly bare, nothing fresh, all processed, Trisha stocked up on canned beans and tortillas, soda and chips. I offered her a ride back home. Home was a rundown trailer. Her three kids, two shy girls and a rambunctious boy, had been left to watch out for each other. The oldest was ten, the middle eight, the youngest two. With their mother translating, they asked to touch my braid and I obliged. Trisha told me their father had been a mean drunk and when he disappeared, she hadn’t gone looking for him. Good riddance, she said.

She asked me to stay for lunch, tortillas and beans. On the table, amidst a pile of bright white scraps, I saw a small buckskin pouch, decorated with a porcupine quill and red and purple beads. “I made it,” she told me. I asked if I could buy it. She offered to give it to me, in exchange for the ride, but I insisted. Lunch was a fair trade for the ride, I told her. I want to pay you for this.

Lucky Charms in the Raven. They haven't let me down yet!

Lucky Charms in the Raven. They haven’t let me down yet!

Before I left, Trisha waded into the sagebrush alongside the trailer and stuffed my pouch with a few scented sprigs. Then she picked up a perfectly round pebble, placed it in the bag and cinched it shut. “The sage will keep you healthy and the stone will keep you safe,” she told me. “Hang it on your rearview mirror and you’ll have a friend everywhere you go.”

Read my previous posts the Lost Art of Hitchhiking and Trespassing in Canyon de Chelly.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
This entry was posted in Cowboys & Horses, Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to A Friend in Wounded Knee

  1. Of all the stories of yours that I have read, this one I like the most. Made me a little misty-eyed.

  2. anniespickns says:

    Dang, this one made me cry.

  3. Barneysday says:

    I. too was moved to tears. We are so cruel to our fellow man. Sad.

  4. That was a beautiful post!

  5. Mary, This is both beautiful and sad. Thank you for your courage and your kindness, as well as sharing the story with us. Carol

  6. Michelle says:

    This has to be the best I have read here amongst some really good stuff. Thanks for sharing this story – I will be more grateful today. I really admire what you do…

  7. Michelle says:

    I think my last comment was lost in the ether… This has to be the best I have read here amongst some really good stuff. Thanks for sharing this story – I will be more grateful today. I admire what you do…

  8. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Mary, WOW! this is one of my favorite subjects. I have the book ‘ Bury my heart in Wounded Knee’ and have been interested in the Native Americans for many years. There is a lady on Pine Ridge Reservation who along with many volunteers help to build houses using pallets for the poor people on the reservation. Also some houses are called Cob Houses. Her name is Shannon Freed her web site is called Earth Tipi. I did a short write-up about her some time ago. Thanks for this lovely post and your kindness in giving the lady a lift.

  9. natureglo says:

    I cried when I read this. It is deeply sad and troubling to hear about the beautiful natives of this land. I hope they can be restored to the land and their heritage. It’s wonderful to hear of their precious encounter with you though. We’re all not out to take more from them than what’s been taken. Hats off to you.

  10. Craig M says:

    Beautiful story, I live in Flagstaff for a few years and worked with a couple of Navajo girls. Something that impressed me about them was a sense of inner peace and calm that they exuded. I strive to find that inner peace in my daily life and backpacking into the wilderness
    on occasion helps alot! Love reading about your travels and your wonderful pups, keep it up!

  11. sedonagirl says:

    And THAT is what it’s all about. Positive human interaction. ♡♡♡♡♡ Namaste

  12. Stormy says:

    Don’t ask me what I was doing walking barefoot and half naked through the rez but I stumbled upon The monument for Wounded Knee at the end of my journey. It was raining harder than I have ever seen and lightning was splitting the sky. The monument was old rusty and almost illegible. Of all the memories I have in life that was is still the most clear. The whole place felt like death, because of that experience I read the book bury my heart at wounded knee. The most tragic book I have ever read.

  13. Tim Shey says:

    I have hitchhiked through the Pine Ridge Reservation once and the Rosebud Reservation a number of times. Beautiful country. I have done a lot of hitchhiking in the United States. In your travels, keep picking up hitchhikers—they can be very interesting people.


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  15. Donna says:

    You seem to spread and share beauty where ever you travel, please never stop.

  16. beeseeker says:

    Touching – your words and sensitivity and the generosity of people is encapsulated here. I love your blogs, but there is something extra special about this one.

  17. matthew says:

    Thank you for your postings. I am often blessed by your pictures and perspective. It is encouraging to read of your opportunity to show love for another individual. At the same time, I am a pessimist, so I consider that while we are products of our environments, we are still responsible for the way we use the limited resources we may receive.

  18. tinycamper says:

    This is one of the most moving and gracious blog posts I’ve read anywhere recently.

    I am so glad that you and Trisha were able to enrich each others’ lives for a small moment in time.

    And I also hope the little riders stay horseback forever. That image will stick in my mind for a long time.

  19. When I was a classroom teacher, we studied Wounded Knee. I was inspired to read, in my free time, many stories about Pine Ridge and Rez Life, in general for a good year afterwards. So, this post really touched my heart. Such stark contrasts between Beauty and Suffering. Thanks for sharing this story.

  20. ldsrr91 says:

    In my wandering, I found a glimpse of life this morning, and I thank you for this. It touched my heart in a profound manner and it clearly made me aware of how special my life is, even during the mundane and boring periods.

    Good stuff.


  21. It is truly sad what we have done to a beautiful people and how we slaughtered the bison to starve these people out, I can not understand how Buffalo Bill can be placed on a pedestal. BTW, where is the back half of the sign, at the bottom it says “over”???

  22. Sandra says:

    She saw your soul that day and smiled. I teach American Indian history at a liberal arts university and would only hope that my students will gain half the understanding and compassion that you exhibited in this post.
    By the way, that is some beautiful quill work on that medicine bag.

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  24. hollybernabe says:

    Awesome. I love exploring and meeting new people like this.

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  27. beachman says:

    wow I love this blog…great..made me cry too…

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  31. Bob L. says:

    Thanks for perpetuating negative stereotypes. Not that the type of desolation at PR doesn’t exist elsewhere but that rez is one of the remotest and the people who stay there will probably never thrive in any way. Other Indian people are trying to progress and aren’t quite as hopeless.

  32. emma4rose says:

    WAW! this is so touching, I really like your writings. Thank you for sharing this story, it certainly wasn’t a waist of time! A story to remember …

  33. vincentgoetz says:

    That brought tears to my eyes….

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  36. Travel gently, safe, and well. Aho and Aye Says I, Capt. Rick. Killeen-Fort Hood, Texas.

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