A Lakota Tribute to Gratefulness
“Wake up,” Tori says as she opens the curtains. “Kiktá yo.” The sun is already high in the sky. I remember last day’s beers and mushrooms. I remember coming back during the night and waking the dogs.
“What time is it?” I ask, half-naked in the sofa.
“Late. Travis will be here soon.”
I quickly head to the bathroom, piss about a gallon, wash my face and put some clothes before going back into the living room. Nila, Tori’s five year-old daughter, is in the kitchen eating leftover pizza and drinking flat cherry coke. She smiles at me.
“You made noise yesterday. You woke me,” she says.
“I’m sorry honey. I was a little tired.”
“Mama says you were drunk.”
I smile and sit on a chair near her. Her cousin, his brother and two other kids I don’t know burst in the room running and make a beeline for the back exit door. I hear their shouts in the yard.
“She’s right. I was.”
“That’s okay,” she says. “Travis is often drunk too.”
Nila has grown without a father since her second birthday. Her dad, a Lakota Indian who went by the name William Plenty Fire, died of a liver failure at only 48. Her mother has been raising her since, helped by her extended family.
Lakota tribes, and by extension most of Sioux Indians, have a very wide concept of family. They stand together at all times, living together, sleeping together, eating together, working together. They follow tiospaye, which implies that family unity must be held at all times. What this means is that houses like the one I’m standing in are quickly overcrowded.
What this means is that kids have to sleep under tables and that there is never enough space on the sofa to watch TV.
“Nila, you don’t talk like that about your father,” says Tori to her daughter. Even though Travis is not the little girl’s father, he’s considered as if he is by everyone in town.
I make myself a cup of coffee, my head still hurting from the night. Tori’s mother Angpetu comes behind me and pats Nila on the back. She’s wearing an Coors Light sweater and has put her hair in a bun.
Travis’s car pulls up in the driveway, tires screeching on the gravel. He gets into the house, leaving the door open.
“How’s it, brother?” He asks, greeting me.
“I overslept,” I reply.
“I’m hungry as shit. Tori, what do we have?”
Tori turns around and gives him a mean stare, looking at him, then looking at Nila, then looking back at him.
“What?” He goes. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Your language,” Tori scolds him.
Travis removes his shirt and shows two scars from sacred piercings he received during a ceremony when he was a teenager. He puts on a hoodie and sits at the table next to me.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” He asks Nila.
“I don’t have school today. Mama will bring me to grandma Chumani so I can play with Josh and Brody and Sara,” the girl answers, finishing her pizza bite.
“I got to eat something,” Travis says. “I’m starving.”
“There’s meatloaf and cornbread in the fridge,” Tori responds.
Travis looks at me and shrugs.
“I feel like pancakes,” he says. “That’s what. Pancakes. Don’t you want fucking pancakes?”
Tori hushes him and tells Nila to go to her room.
“But I want pancakes too!” she says before obeying.
“I got you,” Travis says, winking at her.
“You got nothing,” Tori says. “She already had breakfast.”
Travis looks at me in despair and stands up, taking her in his arms while she twists and squirms to free herself from his hug.
“Come on,” he says. “You know you want pancakes too. Pancakes are fucking awesome. Everyone loves pancakes.”
She chuckles and opens a kitchen cupboard, browsing for a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. I try to help her but Travis asks me to go help him loading the car instead.
We go outside. Children are playing in the street. We hoist a rolling tool cart into the Impala’s trunk, the rear of the car sagging as the weight compresses its worn-out springs.
The street is filled with trash. The houses, mostly trailers or small bungalows, are almost all rundown. Yards are overgrown with weeds. Rusted metal sheets stand on the ground, garbage bags are left to rot in the sun, and the whole place looks like someone brought Detroit to South Dakota.
Pine Ridge is among the poorest towns of the poorest counties of America. The unemployment rate ranges from 80 to 90 percent. The per-capita income is about $6,200. The alcoholism rate is estimated at 80 percent in the reservation. At 50 years old, life expectancy is the lowest of the nation and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere, just behind Haiti.
Pine Ridge’s motto should be: WELCOME TO THIRD WORLD, USA.
“It’s a good day, today,” Travis says as we sit on a minivan bench installed under a tree by the fence. “I’ll fix my cousin’s truck and then I’ll show you the hills. You’ll see.”
“Where did you spend the night?” I ask.
“I stayed in Whiteclay.”
Whiteclay is the small town right on the other side of the South Dakota and Nebraska border. The town was built for one purpose only — providing Lakota Indians with alcohol. The only buildings there are bars, liquor stores, bars, and more liquor stores. There’s a pawn shop too, which also sells alcohol. And a supermarket, which always has good specials on beer.
Alcohol was prohibited on the reservation until August of 2013. The elders wanted to hinder addictions and keep things under control by rendering its distribution or consumption illegal, but the ban was soon found impossible to enforce and the Oglala Tribe members eventually decided against it. Whiteclay’s bars and shops haven’t seen a difference in sales since the ban was lifted. The locals were good customers before and will be remaining good customers in the future.
Tori calls us from inside. We get in and there is a familiar pancakes smell in the kitchen, with a full plate put on the table.
Three more kids come out from the main bedroom and run towards us screaming. Nila’s grandmother stops them and make them sit on the carpet, waiting for Travis and I to take a chair.
“I fucking love pancakes.”
Nila is called from her room and joins us with a doll she was given at church. We start to eat.
Everyone is suddenly quiet. I watch Tori and see the pride on her face — a motherly pride for being there and feeding this whole family day after day.
“These are fucking good,” Travis says, immediately regretting his language as the two women in the room sternly look at him.
The plate is finished in a matter of minutes.
Later, when we’re ready to go to Travis’s cousin house, Nila comes near me and takes my hand. I follow her on the deck where she shows me her doll, neatly laid in a weaving basket and covered by a colorful blanket. A toy cell phone has been squeezed between the doll and the cover, taking half the basket’s space.
“I put the baby to bed all by myself,” the girl says.
“Did you read him a story?” I ask.
“No. Derek, he has the books and he don’t want to share. But I gave the baby a milk bottle still.”
“What’s with the phone?”
Nila looks at me like she doesn’t understand.
“It’s in case he overdoses. So he can call 911,” she says.
I don’t know what to say so I just stay here with her and listen to her speaking to her baby until Travis comes see us, motioning me it’s time to go.
We drive up a muddy dirt road towards the fields. The town’s water tower gets smaller in the rearview mirror.
Travis’s cousin is waiting for us at his doorstep. A dog runs toward us and jumps around in the littered grass.
“Hau,” the cousin says. “Toníktuha po?” Hi. How are you?
“Wašté, hwo?” I reply. Good, you?
The man looks at me in disbelief.
“Lakhótiyá wóyaglaka he?” He asks. You speak Lakota?
He bursts into laughter and jokes with Travis.
“I’m Darren,” he finally says to me as we shake hands.
Darren’s Dodge RAM truck has been sitting in front of his trailer house for months. Darren was recently asked if he could help a local contractor with plumbing in exchange of a couple hundred dollars. Darren needs the money to pay for his marijuana. And his electricity, too. And so Darren needs his truck fixed.
I help Travis unload his toolbox and he starts working in the engine bay, opening a can of beer that was waiting for him on the truck’s hood.
A gentle south breeze blows wildflowers in the hills around, pushing the rare clouds off the bright blue sky.
“It’s your radiator. There’s no coolant in it anymore. I’ll find the leak and plug it. And your transmission oil is burnt,” I hear Travis say as I try to push away the dog trying to hump me.
Darren nods and offers me a beer that I politely turn down.
“I love this guy,” he says about his cousin. “He’s a stand up man. He’s good. We have a word in for this. Wacantognaka, it is. It means generosity and kindness.”
“Travis sure is generous,” I say.
“I love this guy.”
Later, after Travis has fixed the radiator leak with K-Seal, we all get into the pick-up for a test drive.
The big block V8 cranks and whines, and blue smoke is spurted out the exhaust, but the old Dodge eventually starts up.
Darren opens his fifth can of Bud since we arrived. I remember the South Dakota statistics on beer consumption — one of the highest in the country at 38.1 gallons per person annually.
“Let’s go to the lake,” he says.
“Your transfer case is still heating like a motherfucker,” Travis says.
“It’ll hold out just fine.”
I fasten my seat belt under the amused eyes of Travis while we start rolling away from the house.
“All this is badlands,” Travis says, showing the low hills that surround us. “Nothing grows here. But this is our land. This is our land.”
We make a turn on the main road and an older man on a small horse waves at us, a bottle of scotch in his hand.
“We’re horse people. Šunkawakan Oyate. The horse nation. It’s not just about booze, you know. We still have our values.”
The fields spread ahead of us in yellow and light brown hues. Trees are sometimes scattered on top of rocky mounds that rise in the middle of parcels.
We leave the highway and go onto a narrow trail that snakes through the tall burnt grass. We soon come to a halt on top of a hill towering over a small lake.
The two cousins open another beer each.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Travis asks, looking afar.
We all agree quietly. Darren is hazy. He rolls a joint and has to make four attempts before managing to light it, his hands shaking in front of the cigarette.
“Get a beer, brother,” he says to me.
“I’m good for now,” I reply.
“You’re too good to drink with us?” He goes, raising his voice and leaning on me.
“No offense meant, man. I’m just not thirsty.”
“So why the fuck are you here?”
He rises up in front of me with a threatening stare.
Travis pulls him back but trips and falls down. Darren moves towards me and I’m not sure about what the hell is happening — until he grabs my shirt and pushes me against his truck with a strength I wasn’t expecting from a man this drunk.
“Stop it, you stupid fuck,” yells Travis, half serious, half laughing. “Leave him alone!”
Darren makes me bang against the door. He fumbles in his back pocket and I try to stay calm, thinking he’s his cousin, don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him…
Travis pulls him by the arm and makes him tumble to the ground and away from me.
“He just don’t fucking want to drink, let him be already!” He shouts at his cousin.
“Why wouldn’t he want to drink?” Darren replies.
“You stupid fuck,” Travis repeats, shaking his head.
It’s only when I help Darren getting up that I notice the hunting knife in his hand.
“Put this away,” Travis says.
“I wouldn’t have used it for real.”
“Give it to me.”
Darren sheepishly surrenders his knife, looking at me with a confused expression on his face.
“Now I need a beer,” I say, and we all burst out in laughter.
We pass Darren’s joint around. His weed is great and we stay on top of the hill until there’s nothing left to smoke.
It’s getting late and we decide to head back to Pine Ridge. Darren plays with his keys and offers me the front passenger seat.
“I can drive if you want,” I propose.
“You think I can’t?” Darren says, now completely wasted.
“Darren’s a good driver,” Travis adds as if it was supposed to comfort me. “He’s used to it. Trust me.”
I find myself praying as the truck swerves on the dirt road. Darren spots my white knuckles and my hands tightly gripping the car’s oh-shit handle. He lets out a loud howl by his open window.
“Huntá yo!” he hollers. Coming through!
He pushes on the gas pedal and the Dodge roars, leaping forward and bouncing on the rocks in a cloud of dust. I see the steering wheel turning by itself, I feel the rear of the vehicle swinging left and right —
Right and left —
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit —
The truck flips on its right side, paper cups and sunglasses going airborne in the overturned cabin, the roof collapsing below me, over me, the Dodge rolling twice before coming to a stop, back on its four wheels with dirt dripping from its cracked windshield.
I’m still attached to my seat. I wait a few seconds without moving while Craig Morgan sings Almost Home on the stereo.
Travis is on the floor and moans “I’m alright” in a broken voice, a light streak of blood barring his arm.
Darren’s face is still buried in the deployed airbag but I can see him breathing normally. I give him a push. “Let me fucking sleep,” he groans, opening an eye.
I get out of the wrecked truck, coming round in the fresh air. The body panels are all crumpled, the roof is crushed, the wheels are bent and broken parts have been spread over 30 yards.
A surge of anger grows inside of me as I open Darren’s door, dragging him out as he tries to protect his face, nose bleeding and body all limp.
“Move the fuck up,” I scream in his face, slapping him twice before Travis joins me and makes me stop.
We all stand on the trail, Darren finally able to speak again and checking on his cousin. I assess the damage. The engine is amazingly still running, gurgling under the smashed hood.
“I got to piss,” I hear Travis say as he walks towards the ditch we rolled over in. After which I hear the recognizable sound of a beer can being opened.
I curse this place and all the drunken people that live here. Fuck this land and fuck this reservation. Fuck Dodge trucks. Fuck Bud Light. Fuck all of it. And fuck Craig Morgan and his fucking song, someone please make him stop singing it before it gets stuck in my head — fuck Darren, fuck Travis and fuck me for being so dumb to go with them.
The sky is still blue. Pine trees are rising from the earth. I’m at the same time stunned and relieved for having nothing broken. My heart rate slowly calms down.
I get in the driver’s seat and give a little gas. The transmission seems to be going fine.
“We should be able to make it home,” I say to the two cousins.
Everything shakes and vibrates and squeaks when we get back onto the main road, but the pick-up is still running. I stay at 25 miles per hour the whole time, creeping on the highway and across town, people looking at us with wide eyes.
“At least the radiator is fixed good,” says Darren when we arrive at his place. “It doesn’t seem to leak no more.”
We drink water and wash our faces, our clothes stained with mud and sweat, and we make sure none of us has anything broken.
From there we all embark in Travis’s Impala to return to Tori’s house. Teenagers are playing in a skate park near the recreation center. The Sioux Nation market is preparing to close.
Tori has already prepared dinner. There’s about twenty persons in the small three-bedroom trailer.
We all find a place to sit and start eating chicken and peas, the kids fighting for something I don’t understand, the adults speaking in Lakota about a ceremony recently held by medicine man Rick Two Dogs near Manderson.
Travis finishes washing off the blood from his arm and neck — just a small cut from flying glass. He stays up near me while I eat.
“What you boys have been doing again?” Asks Tori.
Travis recounts what happened for the greatest pleasure of the little crowd who comments and hoots at our unfortunate feats.
“He went at it like a crazy man, I thought he was going to hit me,” says Darren talking about me. “I just wanted to sleep!”
Everyone cracks up and pats him on the back while cheering at me, raising their glasses as high as they can.
Nila keeps quiet at a small Fisher Price table. She hasn’t touched her meal yet. I kneel by her side.
“My friend Sara, she was supposed to have a little sister. But her sister died in her mama’s belly,” she says.
With everyone around us drinking and chanting.
“Those things happen sometimes,” I reply, doing my best to sound convincing, even if I know the infant mortality rate is five times higher here than the national average.
“I know. I just don’t know why God didn’t save her.”
I kiss her in her hair, holding her in my arms.
With everyone around us laughing.
Tori sees us and puts her hand on my shoulder. She’s working tomorrow. Women are the only ones with college education, here. Like Tori, they are the only ones with jobs to attend to.
“She makes the best fucking pancakes in the world,” tells a sleepy Travis to an elder man, pointing at her. “She’s the best person I’ve ever known,” he adds.
“I need someone to help me with the dishes,” Tori says, instantly surrounded by all the women in the family.
Travis waves at me.
Darren is on the sofa with kids climbing over him, him trying to tickle them and pretending to chase them through the tight hallway.
“We are going fishing tomorrow. Come with us if you want. You got wacintaka, you’re ballsy, I like you.”
“Only if you let me drive.”
He grins and nods. I watch him getting up and dragging his feet to the door, putting his jacket on.
“Wášni kta ké. Doka!” I’m going home. See you!
The TV is on with an episode of Dora the Explorer but no one watches it, too busy talking with each other.
I go out on the deck where three men are smoking marijuana and playing with a laser pointer, teasing a dog in the backyard with it.
There is an occasional shout in the street when drunk neighbors come home or argue with their wives.
I stay here under the cold stars, with these people who have become little less than statistics in a country that has abandoned them. I think of the government-recorded data that doesn’t mean anything once you’re there. Of the beliefs that fight to remain.
Of the lost history.
And as I hear the family gossiping behind the patio window, I cannot help but feeling comfort in being here with them, in spite of their dreadful issues and their inabilities to sort their lives out. Because in the end, Lakota Indians are still holding dearly to values most of us have long forgotten, sticking together always, helping their kin, sharing and caring before anything else.
I smile alone in the dark, thankful for not having been stabbed by a drunk man in South Dakota’s wilderness and for not having died in a roll-over crash. Thankful for the conversations and for the Milky Way lighting the northern skies. Thankful for the love and the friendships.
Thankful for being alive.
But most of all, thankful for the fucking pancakes.