Visiting the reservation reminds me that I’m a poster child for the folks who tried to integrate Indians into the mainstream version of settler life—what Robert Warrior calls a Judeo-Christian viewpoint fueled by material capital.
When I return to the place where my mother and her mother and her mother were born, I see indigenous people who stayed in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is still home to the Osage.
For the Osage, pieces of the reservation were carved up by the U.S. Government and given to tribal members at the turn of the 20th century, with the hope they would sell their land and assimilate into mainstream culture.
Many did, including my relatives.
Today more than half of tribal people have left their reservations.
For me, growing up in urban climes, reservation life seemed a distant past.
One day, while visiting Sioux relatives in Pine Ridge, it hit me like a lightning bolt: the first generation of reservation relatives was very recent indeed.
My uncle John’s mother remembered the time Rosie Red Top came to live with them at their house at Stinking Water Creek.
Rosie was married to Bad Wound, one of the leaders of the Oglala Sioux. The young couple was part of the 1875 delegation to Washington D.C., where Sioux leaders met with President Ulysses S. Grant, requesting their treaties be honored.
The Sioux were concerned because thousands of settlers had begun to take their wagon trains through Sioux lands without their permission.
To make matters worse, rumors spread that gold had been found in the Black Hills, which are sacred to the Sioux. General George Armstrong Custer was sent to help secure the Black Hills.
A year after Rosie and Bad Wound visited Washington D.C., the Sioux and their kin routed Custer at Little Big Horn, and a series of battles ensued.
Soon after, the warrior Crazy Horse, regarded by many as the Sioux’s greatest champion, gave in to the military and turned himself over to U.S. agents in 1877.
The ensuing years would find indigenous people corralled onto reservations where they would depend on the U.S. government for housing and food.
Rations for the Pine Ridge Sioux would be whittled to slim pickings because their agent, Valentine McGillicuddy, wanted to show his leadership skills to Washington bureaucrats.
In his first annual report in 1881, McGillicuddy claimed to have saved the U.S. some $50,000 by “economizing on rations” intended for the Indians, according to a book by Irma Miller.
Reservation life was difficult, and Bad Wound convinced the Lessert family that his wife would be better off living with them.
I imagine Rosie stuffing her smoking pipe with tobacco and red willow bark, a story Uncle John heard from his mother.
And I realized that John was only three generations removed from reservation life.
For him, that’s not distant memory. It’s recent memory.
When I visit South Dakota and Oklahoma I now remind myself: memories are still fresh and alive, and we need to remember our stories that are, after all, not so old.