2017-04-19 / Top News

Margo Iron Hawk’s inspirational walk

By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

Good Friday walkers, Pastor Byron Buffalo and Margo Iron Hawk (carrying the cross). Flanking Margo are her two children, Breyana, age 5, and Brax, age 9. 
Photo by James Giago Davies Good Friday walkers, Pastor Byron Buffalo and Margo Iron Hawk (carrying the cross). Flanking Margo are her two children, Breyana, age 5, and Brax, age 9. Photo by James Giago Davies RED SCAFFOLD –– A remote stretch of gravel road connects the Cheyenne River Reservation hamlet of Red Scaffold to South Dakota Highway 73, 12 miles to the west. This is some of the most rugged and wild country in all of West River, and if the ghosts of long dead ancestors were real, this is the place they would want to inhabit, these are the people they would want to remain close to.

Because this country is so isolated, the Lakota families that settled here over a century back have retained much of the language and behaviors of the people they once were. They will be essential contributors to preserving the language in the years to come. When you meet them, they are humble and personable, and although they are out of assimilated lockstep with much of the other members of the Four Bands, there are some sad things their world does share with the world up in Eagle Butte—there is poverty, there is violence, there is substance abuse, and there is death.

The original charter member plaque for Frazier Memorial Church, six miles east of Red Scaffold. 
Photo by James Giago Davies The original charter member plaque for Frazier Memorial Church, six miles east of Red Scaffold. Photo by James Giago Davies This is not an indictment of who these people are, it is simply stated for perspective, because despite that grim everyday reality, the people around Red Scaffold are people of deep faith and heartfelt resolve.

Almost thirty years ago, Brother Paul and other members of the Catholic Church in Red Scaffold begin a six-mile long Good Friday walk up the winding, undulating gravel road, six miles east to the United Church of Christ church. Besides Brother Paul, there was Ted Knife, Larry Mendoza, Emmett Hollow Horn and Dwight Collins. Many have passed on now.

The morning begins with Inez Iron Hawk alone at the United Church of Christ church, alone but for her tiny grandson and two dogs, awaiting others to arrive for the walk to Red Scaffold, and also waiting for a large search party to arrive, ready to conduct a comprehensive grid search for a man missing since last August. The kitchen will serve to feed the searchers.

Beside the new church (a new church clearly showing twenty years of wear and tear), is an even older church. The new church has metal siding, but the old church is narrow, painted white, traditional in every sense, right down to the bell tower, rusted and twisted lonely metal supports where the bell used to be.

“I got married in that little church,” Inez says. “Got married there in 1969. It was like a fairy tale. I’d known my husband since I was nine years old.”

About that time, her uncle, Matt Iron Elk, pulls up in a van, and he has a cross with him, about three feet tall.

“There’s a lot of history in that church,” Matt says, indicating the old church where Inez was married. “Used to be a cross on top, but they took it one time.”

Matt explains the cross he now has is three years old, smaller than previous crosses, easier to carry: “We always make a cross but then somebody will eventually take off with it…”

Matt tells of the time the meeting house, just ten feet north of the old church, caught fire, and the $8000 in insurance money helped to build an even better church/meeting house in 1995. The old meeting house still stands, presentable enough on the outside, but gutted on the inside.

Building the new church marked the high water mark for the congregation. Matt says, “We had about fifty members, but there’s no jobs. Everybody moves off to Eagle Butte or Rapid City.”

During most years, weather permitting, walkers would head out from one church to the other, and as they walked the six miles, people would join in on the walking. Matt says: “We start out like this, sometimes just three of us, but people start coming. All these years, I never walked the whole way because I had surgery on both knees. Each mile we stop and pray, pray about problems we have with work, next time it might be kids and family.”

Matt recalls the first time he ever saw people on the walk: “I was coming up the road from Red Scaffold, and first thing I saw was that cross bobbing up and down, and Brother Paul was carrying that cross. He did a lot for the Church, and the community, and not the Catholics only, he included everybody.”

There is a fascinating reversal of reality at play in Red Scaffold country. On most reservations, the people in the large population centers are mostly Christian, while those in remote areas preserve traditional doctrine and ceremony. Today, most living in the larger communities are well familiar with traditional religion, smudging, sweating, sundancing, while out in the sticks, Christianity remains strong among the isolated clans.

A member of the United Church of Christ, Matt explains his take on religion: “During 1988 to now, I noticed that trend of people going to Native religion. I don’t have anything against it, just so they go to something, sweats, sundances. Some people say we pray to the same God, and I believe that.”

Like his Lakota ancestors, Matt displays flexibility and acceptance toward other people’s beliefs and traditions; historical Lakota were live-and-let-live folks, and this aspect of who they were, remains strong in the hearts and minds of their Red Scaffold descendants.

Another vehicle pulls up, and Pastor Byron Buffalo introduces himself, and mentions that Margo Iron Hawk had a deeply personal experience the year before. Pastor Buffalo pastors two congregations most Sundays, one up in Eagle Butte, and one down in Bridger.

Margo sits just inside the door of her vehicle, and she is young and handsome, with an exceptionally pleasant and expressive face. She explains how she first started this walk when she was a little girl, how she wanted to carry the cross, but it was too heavy. Even Inez remarks about the time Matt was carrying the cross high, a bigger cross than the current cross, and the wind caught it and took off with him. Margo says, “In the past we used to have a lot of people who came, a lot of them passed on, the older ones we looked up to.”

“Last year we said (starting time was) ten, but nobody showed up. It was just me and the cross. I remembered the past, and my parents, and all of my friends, I remembered their faces.” At this point Margo cannot continue, and tears run down her cheeks. It was hard for Margo to keep going, all alone, carrying that cross, so she started running, “and I got close to Hollow Horn Approach and my cousin pulled up, him and his wife and her kids, and we started praying. We talked about it, and we just kept going, we got to that next mile. Eventually my cousin William showed up with his kids, and my cousin Colleen joined us. It was kind of cold and windy and cloudy and every once in awhile it would drizzle.”

Sometimes it takes only one determined person, to fight back the tears, and literally bear the cross for the rest of us. Like JD Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Margo Iron Hawk was there to catch that cross and carry it away from the cliff, back up the road, the sole strength and resolve remaining on that walk, and with every step she heard the lost voices of the past, the footfalls of her family, friends and community, when she was a little girl, unable to carry the cross at all.

This year she starts out once again, accompanied by her two children, Brax, 9, and Brenaya, 5. As the search and rescue UTV’s come down the grassy hill to the north, having taken ten minutes to find the remains of the missing person, Margo is already well up the road, celebrating her faith and carrying hope to those yet living, and if there is a carload coming east from Red Scaffold, all they will see is a bobbing cross held aloft, topping the rise of the dusty windblown back country road.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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