The Forgotten Four: An American Retrospective (Pt. 2)
"South Dakota is a strange place to visit. In general, it’s exactly what one would expect, being filled with “Gundersons”, “Flemmings” and “Kaufmanns.” The culture is strange, since it highlights the best of homespun hospitality, but still has an air of adventure, shown best when you look out at the miles of barren mountain and valley in every single direction. But if you look out far enough, if you can spot the colossal horseman carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, you may be lucky enough to learn a hidden truth. Because if you’ve ever met any of the LDM people, indigenous to the plain lands, you may know this truth."-Doerr
Part 2: The Craftsman
Meeting the old man was not my first encounter with a member of the Sioux. As a child, there was a dealer of baseball cards and memorabilia at my local flea market down a little way from the New Jersey Shore. But he was silent on the topic of injustice, refusing even to talk to my grandfather, a South Dakotan through and through. So, when the old man at the Crazy Horse Monument opened up about his noble history and the injustices he has been faced with in his lifetime, my undivided attention was his.
He started by stating that there were more deserving LDM heroes than “Tȟašúŋke Witkó” to have immortalized in stone. The reasoning behind the choice, he postulated, was that it would attract the most people based solely on the name. “Crazy Horse” is exciting, it draws people’s attention. People would spend money.
The next thing he told me was a story of his youth, of trying to find a job back in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Have you ever seen television programs that teach the history of Civil Rights for African-Americans?”
I replied yes, who hadn’t? He then told me of how he would see signs that said things such as “No Red Here” or “Red’s Don’t Apply” in windows of stores as a young man. All through his life, this man had been denied opportunities based on his culture and the color of his skin. He then mentioned that though the problem of racism toward African-Americans had been addressed and the government intervened, there were still other people treated as secondhand in the US. At this point, my grandfather, who had just recently found his way over, interjected.
“Aren’t there discrimination laws against that? That outta have been illegal for a long time.”
The old man replied that today, it is. But that doesn’t stop shop owners from refusing to hire his people. These laws didn’t stop teenagers from throwing beer bottles at his people when they drove by in their expensive cars. It didn’t stop the locals from sneaking onto reservations or sacred lands and vandalizing buildings, all in the name of initiation to a team or club. Though it was less public and there were laws protecting against it, the injustice hadn’t stopped. After all, how illegal is something if you never get caught?
My grandfather was surprised by this to say the least. In his many years as a youth in South Dakota in the late 40s and into the mid-50s, he had never witnessed this. He mentioned to the old Sioux that in all of his years as a varsity football player in Howard, he had never experienced this kind of injustice.
“If you’re not going to buy something, go away. I’m tired of talking to you people.”
The old man then motioned to his table, which was filled with necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry. All of the pieces had intricate glass and bead designs, each different from the next. My grandfather and I shared a quizzical look at each other, and neither of us went for our wallets. Finally, after a deafening silence, I spoke up.
“Did we do something to upset you? I genuinely wanted to hear your story.”
He shot me a look I would never forget. It was if pure, unbridled rage and sorrow had mixed, and his expression was the result.
“I am not here for stories and I’m not here for lore. The reason I come here is to sell these necklaces and to make money for my people. Why do you need to know my story? You’re never going to help me or my people, and I doubt we would ever even let you. You’ll forget what I said the moment you get back on your bus and head back home. Take me serious or don’t take me at all.”
In hindsight, I guess he was wrong. I couldn’t forget something like that.