Friday, September 12, 2008

Just Then It Got Quiet


Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD – Whereas some activities require solitude, there are some things you probably shouldn’t do alone. Take for instance, swimming, running a chain saw, or going through life.

Take Four

A chain saw
Through life

A running chain saw
Through life

That way, you can clear your way, and everybody will stand back.

Hector hacked Angel’s legs with a chain saw
Then cut his way through the wall.

With chain saws, there are known knowns, unknown knowns, and known unknowns, all full of allegory and metaphor. A person probably shouldn’t cut wood in flip flops. That would be a known. It’s not going to start on the first pull. That’s universal. Don’t stand directly over the saw. That’s pretty much a known.

Like the ‘buddy system’ in the water, take a friend. This person will help you by loading while you cut. They can also help you out if your saw gets bound up.* And, they can be there in case of emergency, or major arterial bleeding. All kindza shit can happen in the woods. That’s one of the unknown knowns.

So why all this chain saw business? You may have your own chain saw stories. I know two of you do. There’s probably more.

I went out today in flip flops, because the socks and bullshit ten-dollar Wally World moccasins I just got were ABSOLUTELY FULL of grass seed and little eeny teeny burrs from an earlier-in-the-day quest for ‘dead and down’ ash trees, and for the past five years, I’ve stubbornly refused to purchase a work boot or any other enclosed footwear, much to the chagrin of Tom, who’ll often say, ‘Nigga, you can’t do any work in flip flops.’


Like Milo laughs about Louie, saying, “Louie moved to Pine Ridge because he heard there wasn’t any work.”

If it’s not hot enough to wear sandals, then it’s time to go. But here it is September, the annual Running Strong Bus Tour came through just today, marking the end of hectivity here on the rez, and already, the overnight lows are scaring the tomatoes and making me feed the wood stove.

After presentations by Uncle Joe** and Milo, they had me do a reading for the tour. Three essays from Keeping Heart, then sitting around the fire eating Indian tacos with short one-on-one conversations with people I’ll probably never see again in my life.

In that brief interaction, what can you learn? What will you say? Listen. Listen and hear what people have to share of their lives. Paul’s little girl is in the second grade. Another lady was retired after twenty years in the air force. She was stationed in the Philippines when McCain arrived straight from the Hanoi Hilton. Judy asked who was the elephant team, and was involved in creating a tropical rain forest butterfly haven in Missouri.

Joe, concerned about American politics and the excitement of the coming election, presented a brief historical education, naming the presidents since Lincoln who had died in office when being elected on a year ending with 0. “Regan broke the mold,” he said.

There was more, but I guided him into the garden and directed him toward the cherry tomatoes. Thereafter, we became separated.

Just at sunset, it became still and quiet as the tour members meandered around the grounds at the base farm, taking digital photos, checking out the garden, the sweat lodge, the timber frame building, the greenhouse, the tractors, the beaded jewelry Loretta had collected from local artists, and the big 30 ft. tipi erected for the occasion.

The four dogs on the grounds settled down, waiting for after-dinner scraps. One of the ladies remarked, ‘It sure is peaceful out here.’


Sure Is Peaceful

At times it’s so quiet out here in Slim Buttes the only thing you can hear are the thoughts bouncing off the inside of your skull. Like right now, it’s dead silence.

For some strange reason, on the way home from Chadron, where I passed three cars pulled over with the occupants out fixing a flat, I was overcome by a wave of sadness, sweeping in from the distance like a prairie fire or huge shadow of a cloud passing before the sun. A sense of dread. Why? It was, in fact, a beautiful fall day.

‘All those visits to the shrink were in the fall,’ I thought, with the only alternative they could offer to twice weekly sweat lodge was VA prescription antidepressant medications and the horrifying physical reminder over at the VA of how messed up America’s veterans are. You mean, a PILL can fix it?

Best at times like that to think of the suffering of others. Who out there isn’t in pain? Everyone pretty much suffers their pain alone, it seems. There are those who’ve just recently lost loved ones. Those who’ve lost health or homes. There are many caught in the grip of alcohol, slobbery drunk before ten in the morning. Saw it today. Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?

Diving down into the lake bottom of my heart, I drove mechanically, absorbed in the idea of human suffering, when all of a sudden in the middle of a curve atop a hill, here came someone the other way, a carload of Indians, heading into ‘Chad’ in a beat up rez ‘low rider.’

Being preoccupied, my sixth sense wasn’t working right then, in the Here and Now 3-D World, and I was on the inside of the curve, same as them. I should’ve felt ‘em coming.

I whipped the wheel to the right, fishtailed back into my proper lane, straightened her out, and had time to flip a two-fingered wave*** off the steering wheel as we passed, like everything was cool.

He had a surprised look, that other driver. His mouth was open when he went by. He didn’t wave.

Jesus was sitting here on the steps when I got back. He had shaved, and had his hair pulled back in a pony tail. I’d never seen him like that before, and did a long stare. He looked more like a guy from Seattle.

“Man, am I glad to see you,” I said. “Can you help me with this stuff?”

He helped me unload the groceries I’d gotten from town, carrying it to the trailer.

“You could’ve gone on in, y’know,” I said. “The place is open. Have you seen ‘Puff, Puff, Pass’? I got it from the video store. Pretty funny.”

He shook his head ‘no’, and we went on inside. “You hungry?” I asked him. “I’ve got Chinese ‘to go’. They always give you enough for two meals.”

“What is it?” he asked.

“Mongolian beef.”

Something was bothering him. He seemed unusually quiet as I heated water for coffee and he picked at the Chinese food.

“You still on foot, or did somebody drop you off?” I asked.

“Still hoofin’ it,” he said. “But I’ve been thinking about a little motorbike.”

“You okay?” I asked. “You seem…I don’t know…down.”

“Awww,” he replied, pushing the Mongolian beef aside like it didn’t taste good, “sometimes this reservation is…”

He just shook his head and looked at the floor.


“Yeah,” he said. “It’s almost as bad as Darfur or the West Bank, or Somalia.”

“Shantytown in Nairobi sucks pretty bad, doesn’t it? Mexico City? We’re not as bad as Mexico City.”

“Nah,” he said. “Not that bad. But here, you see so many signs of hopelessness.”

“All those places you mentioned…those are all full of refugees.”

Looking up at me directly, he asked, “Isn’t that what you are here?”


*One time I had to leave my saw bound up in a tree, stuck fast like Excaliber, protruding out from three fourths of the way through the trunk, the entire weight of the tree resting on the saw. To free it, you need a pry bar, or worst-case scenario, another saw.

It’s embarrassing. If you know what you’re doing, it shouldn’t happen.

**Uncle Joe will often don full regalia for official or semi-official presentations. That’s beaded moccasins, fringed deerskin shirt, and eagle feather headdress with ermine and the whole nine yards. You’d say, ‘He’s sure enough a chief.’

At a recent meeting here in Slim Buttes with some Onondaga Chiefs, Uncle Joe came in late, all dressed out like that, apologized for being late and sat down, explaining he’d been at another meeting.

De-facto and self-proclaimed tribal spokesman Chief Oliver Red Cloud, dressed in blue jeans like everybody else, sat over there, checking him out. I tried to pick up on his thoughts, but it was in Lakota, and I couldn’t tell, but the look in his eye said something, I’m not sure what…something of a mixture of a little bit of envy, a little bit of outrage, and some of ‘what the hell is this?’

After his presentation with the tour group and everyone had gone to the kitchen, Uncle Joe, now in a ribbon shirt, was folding up his ceremonial clothes inside the big 30 ft. tipi when I popped in, looking for folding chairs.

“Eeeeeeee,” I said, nodding at his headdress. “Where can I get one of those?”

Joe chuckled, then said, “Prairie Edge.”

(They just don’t give away war bonnets. You’ve really got to be somebody to get one, like they gave Clinton one when he came out. Joe is the only person I’ve seen wear one, besides a medicine man on tree day at sun dance once.

‘Prairie Edge’ is a big Indian Arts store in Rapid City, SD where you can buy a replica of any ‘real deal’ Indian artifact).

***Raising two fingers off the steering wheel, sideways, not like a peace sign, but more like ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors.’ A flash.