Just below the South Dakota badlands, and due east of the Black
Hills lies the Pine Ridge Reservation hamlet of Kyle, isolated from any major highway or interstate, known for producing top notch Oglala rodeo cowboys and stock car racers.
The Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) selected this area to settle a handful of industrious Indio vaqueros back in the 1860’s, hoping they would help transform the hunter/gatherer warrior Lakota into Christian ranchers and farmers. At this, the vaqueros were only partially successful, as the Oglala did a thorough job of transforming the vaqueros into Lakota, given most vaqueros were full-blood Pueblo Indios.
Not surprisingly the OIA enrollment clerk had no working knowledge of Spanish, and the vaqueros were illiterate, so Tapia entered the tribal rolls as Tapio, Gallego became Giago, and these families intermarried every which way into the Oglala, until by the time Ethel Giago was born at nearby Wounded Knee in 1930, she was just another breed Oglala.
Eventually the family would ship Ethel south to Holy Rosary Mission, where she would be dropped off at the boarding school in September and not be picked up until June. But her preschool summers were spent in Kyle and Wounded Knee in a little house beside a field, and on the far side of the field ran a creek, and the old Lakota, adults when the tribe had surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877, lived in moldy surplus Army tents along that creek bed.
Ethel’s mother, Lupita née Tapio, would sometimes bake bread, and the smell would waft to the far side of the field, and the old Oglala women wrapped in their shawls would walk single file up from the creek bed, and sit in a circle on the kitchen floor, each enjoying a buttered slice of Lupita’s bread.
These old women saw Lupita and her family as iyeska, mixed bloods, not White people, but removed enough from the old ways iyeska were an identity unto themselves. They would speak Lakota with Lupita but she was not them, for she had been raised Catholic, they had been raised living Wakantanka, the Great Mysterious, growing up in matriarchal, sister wife networked bands called tiospaye, and by 1950, all would pass from this world, still fully immersed in the traditional ways.
Come Independence Day, there would be fireworks, and large crowds would gather to watch the town baseball team, because most iyeska celebrated the “Wasicu” holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, but not the old Lakota down along the creek bed.
They saw Ethel and her siblings up late, playing in the field, no adults about, and while fireworks popped and crackled near the baseball field, they scooped up the kids and took them back to their tent village, and put them to bed.
Lupita thanked them next morning, relieved to locate her children safe and sound, but after she got them back home, she told them to stay away from the creek bed, which is understandable, given all of them now had hair teeming with head lice.
Years later, when she had become Ethel Davies, and was struggling to raise nine kids on welfare and food stamps in Rapid City’s Indian ghetto, my mother would tell me about those old women, and how much she missed their kindness, their quiet dignity, and how little of that survived in the modern Lakota world of alcoholism and violence.
Eventually, I returned to work on the reservation, to help my uncle Tim Giago start the first Lakota owned and operated newspaper in the state. I was young then, and could run for miles, and I would get up at the crack of dawn, because I had found a route to run through town out onto the prairie, that gave me peace of mind, helped me reconcile all the blight, the poverty, the degradation about me in Pine Ridge village.
Near the end of my run, I topped a rise, and one little guy was high up off his bicycle seat, peddling like mad up the hill toward me. As he drew near, I smiled, about to say good morning, when he looked up, and his eyes met mine, and we passed without a word.
It has been over 30 years, but the look on his face still haunts me. He had been maybe five years old, but his eyes had been harsh and cold, not a shred of innocence left in his tiny body.
(Contact James Giago Davies at email@example.com)