Indians Feeling Crunch Already
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD –
“What size shoe do you wear?” asked Dixon Tall Bear, my Korean War vet friend, lying on his bed at midday, his tiny 12 x 12 ft. shack filled with garbage, soiled clothing, fly-covered macaroni and cheese, dirty gauze bandages, dozens of cigarette butts burned into the floor, and take-your-breath-away stench. ‘Squalid’ is the word.
“These are too big for me,” he added.
I wear a size 13, but didn’t tell him. “What size do you wear?” I asked, standing in the doorway.
“I wear elevens,” he said. “These are thirteens.”
I wasn’t going to take his boots, a good work boot, although I could have used them, and was cutting wood in moccasins. He asked me to open up his windows. It was stuffy in his house, way out on ‘the flats’ northwest of Oglala, a good two miles off the blacktop across open, tire-rutted prairie. It smelled like hospital or nursing home death.
“You’re going to need those boots,” I told him, wondering what he’d wear if he gave them away, and wondering why he’d offer me his boots. Did he think he wouldn’t make it through the winter?
I had brought another load of stove wood since Gina, behind the counter at Cubby’s store in Oglala, told me that Dixon had just gotten out of the hospital, and was burning newspapers for heat.
“He don’t look good,” she said. “He’s not taking care of himself.”
For the past couple of years, Dixon, who owns several hundred acres on Pine Ridge, has allowed us to cut wood on his land in Slim Buttes, and whenever he stops by, about once a month, I usually give him twenty bucks for a half load, although he normally only asks for ten. I hadn’t seen him for a year, and wondered why he hadn’t stopped by for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, sitting on a chair just inside the door with those oversized boots on his feet.
He’d lost some weight, which he acknowledged, and gave a half-smile when I joked that he needed to get back to his fighting weight, to ‘get your strength back’, I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
It was clear he wouldn’t be splitting any wood, although he had an axe lying on the floor beside his portable toilet, which I was thankful that he didn’t ask me to empty. He did however, ask me to fill his plastic water pail from the pump, just outside.
Backing up to his woodpile, I negotiated Betsy between piles of trash, glass, and who knows what lying around his house, stacking the wood and buzzing up some other longer pieces that he would never get to with the axe.
“You sure you can make it through the winter on one cord?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It doesn’t take much.”
Somebody had recently painted his house yellow. It used to be white, the girl at Cubby’s said, who had given me directions to his place.
“We got rid of his dogs and cats while he was in the hospital,” she had said, shaking her head. “And we tossed out his furniture. It was all infested,” she said, adding, “He’s going to need assisted care.”
After seeing his place and his condition, I could believe it. Who was going to look after a 73-year old man? Gina said he was her uncle, and they were taking him his meals.
Before I left, he thanked me twice. “Nobody has ever done anything like this for me,” he said.
I thanked him back, told him to get back on his feet, and left. He said he wanted to move back down in Slim Buttes.
As I drove away, with Dixon’s little yellow house shrinking and vanishing in the rear-view mirror, I told Betsy that she’d done a good job. “Mission accomplished,” I told her. We drove between the cows that didn’t want to move, and passed a small, ancient abandoned homestead that appeared to have been occupied twenty years ago, then on further, another place as small as Dixon’s.
Parked outside was a mud-caked fairly new car, by rez standards. People were living there, a young couple outside the place with a small child. No wood pile. I thought to stop and ask them what they were doing for heat, slowed down, but kept on going.
p.s. I wrote this last week as Americans fixated on a fiscal crisis, thus the title. By odd timing and circumstance, I went to Oglala today about noon, and got flagged down by Dixon’s relatives, who recognized my truck. He told me Dixon died on Monday. Would I be a pallbearer and help dig the grave. They’re going to burn everything. Those were his wishes. Wake Friday night. Burial Saturday. Gina, over at Cubby’s, gave me the details.