The sun was just beginning to set as I rolled into the reservation. I stopped at the gas station to refill my tank, taking a moment to study my surroundings.
Traffic whizzed through the intersection. A family of four piled into an old station wagon with Pow Wow gear stashed in the back. Two rez dogs sat outside on the corner like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. To a well-trained eye, everything appeared to be completely normal.
I finished pumping the gas and walked inside to pay. The walls were decorated with a mural of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) and the bathrooms were labeled in Lakota. The fliers on the bulletin board advertised church services, drum circles, and addiction support groups.
The voice on the radio encouraged residents to join him at the community center this weekend for a family event day. There was going to be an ice cream social, live entertainment, even a moonbounce for the kids. It sounded like a great time. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have forgotten I was practically standing in a third world country.
Three women stood at the counter, one of them still breastfeeding her child. Their lively chatter stopped as I approached them. They stared at me judgmentally. I was probably the first Wašíču they had seen in weeks.
“Híŋhaŋni wašté!” I said cheerfully, lying my cash out on the counter. “How are you today?”
The woman behind the counter said nothing. It was practically impossible to place the expression on her face. I realized it was quite possible she hadn’t understood me one bit.
“Pump five, please,” I continued.
The woman looked at the cash on the counter and back at me before punching in the keys on the register. Her eyes motioned to the total on the screen. I sorted out the money and she gave me the appropriate change. The other two women continued to stare at me silently.
“Thank you!” I chirped brightly. “Have a good evening!”
As I turned to go, one of the women stopped me in my tracks.
“Are you traveling through here alone?” she asked.
“I’ve been traveling alone for as long as I can remember.”
She looked at me and nodded her head knowingly.
“Stay safe out there,” she said quietly.
I looked around behind me as I walked back to my car, ever vigilant of my surroundings. I saw a few more people staring at me, but no one who made me feel particularly uncomfortable. I hopped back into my Jeep and headed East on Highway 18. The sun was just behind the horizon now, and I still had to drive the rest of the night.
I first encountered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a Native American History class my first semester at the University of South Dakota. The second time was my last semester, when I chose the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee as my research topic for a Historiography paper.
This was my third visit to the Rez in the two years since graduation. It seemed like everything I’d learned was only now starting to sink in. Thanks to my white privilege, I knew very little about Natives and even less about their history. Everything I thought I knew was just a carefully crafted lie to make the patriarchy look good on paper.
The history of Natives in the United States is a long and difficult one. The plight of the Oglala Lakota is particularly tragic. As it is not my job to whitesplain to you what happened, I urge you to take the time to learn their history from the people themselves.
What I can tell you is that the research I undertook for my project fundamentally changed me as a person. I suppose nobody who ever willingly immerses themselves in another culture ever really comes out the same, but for me the change happened on a deeply spiritual level.
To be honest, I expected that. That’s why I was there. I wanted to be transformed. Everyone knows the only way a rich white person can become spiritually enlightened is by hanging out with poor people of color.
I bet if I really tried to be an asshole, I could go on for pages about how much the Native American Indians taught me. I really learned how to embrace my 1/18th Cherokee Princess heritage, you guys. I even have my own Indian name. It’s Makes Fun of Privileged White People Who Pretend to Be NDN. You can just call me Sounds Like Asshole for short.
Truth be told, I decided to research Wounded Knee because my first topic fell through. Then I figured, since I was in South Dakota, I might as well learn some more about Native Americans. Since Historiography is the radical idea that there’s more than one version of history, it seemed like the Native perspective was the best way to go.
So, I got an internship at the South Dakota Oral History Center, checked out a bunch of books and DVDs from the library, and settled in to learn about that one time a group of militant Indians literally took over the tiny little town where their ancestors were mercilessly slaughtered and held it in a standoff with the US Government for 73 days.
You wanna talk about multiple versions of history? Oh boy. I can honestly say that I never heard the same version of that story twice. It seemed like everyone had something to say about Wounded Knee, especially the people who weren’t even there.
The experience of researching the paper was definitely better than the paper itself. I had a lot of trouble cramming everything I was learning into just 20 pages. It just seemed like it was a better idea for a book. There were so many equally fascinating people to interview, so many interesting and unique characters. It was impossible to know where to start and when to stop.
Truth be told, it wasn’t my best work, but I did the best I could under the difficult circumstances. It’s clear that while I went well beyond the bounds of what’s traditionally considered academically “appropriate,” I definitely did all of my research. Sometimes you have to think outside the box when approaching a new historical narrative.
Professor White Male Privilege, however, did not feel the same way. This was how The Controversy started.
While I agree with his criticism of my overreliance on one secondary source for summarization purposes, I do not agree with his mansplaination of why the source itself was inappropriate.
The source in question was a book called “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” by Peter Matthiessen. My professor believed the using a source written from the Native American “point of view” about Native American people on a Native American reservation fighting for Native American civil rights was “bad history.” It was overly biased, you see. Unlike traditional Western history, which is told exclusively from the point of view of rich, white males and focuses solely on their achievements at the expense of just about everyone else.
“Is this not the entire point of Historiography?” I implored. “To show that there is no one perfect version of the story because everyone has their own point of view?”
“Then wouldn’t you say I understood the assignment quite well? I studied one event through multiple perspectives and biases. It looks to me like I completed the assignment.”
“No,” the professor said, “And I’ll tell you why. You didn’t do your research. This source is unreliable.”
“All of the sources are unreliable,” I said. “That’s the entire point. You are the person who told me to use this source in the first place.”
“I told you that the author of this book was sued by my close, personal friend, Governor Bill Janklow.”
“You also told me to check out a box of Janklow’s personal papers from Special Collections and ‘decide for myself’ what I thought about the lawsuit. That’s exactly what I did.”
“So why did you use the source?” he asked angrily.
“You failed to mention that Janklow’s lawsuit was dismissed multiple times in multiple courts in multiple states because of the First Amendment.
“You also failed to mention that the subject of the dispute was a woman named Jancita Eagle Deer. She was only sixteen years old when Janklow drove her out into a field and raped her. He gave her $20 for babysitting his kids and dropped her back off at school where she belonged. She gave the money away without a second thought and left the Rosebud Reservation forever.
“By the time the American Indian Movement tracked her down, Janklow had moved on from scamming Natives and was running for public office. Jancita Eagle Deer came forward with her story. The media tore her apart. Before the election, she was mysteriously killed in a car accident. When her mother tried to seek justice for Jancita’s murder, she was found beaten to death. Both murders remain unsolved to this day.
“This story appeared in multiple sources. Sources that didn’t gain nearly as much media attention as Crazy Horse. Sources that Bill Janklow didn’t file high-profile lawsuits against. To me, that doesn’t sound like the behavior of someone who’s innocent.
“I’m not saying it’s a perfect book. Sure, there’s a lot of shady stuff in there about Leonard Peltier, but who even knows what’s really going on with that guy anyway? My paper clearly didn’t have enough pages to open up THAT can of worms.
“I made a judgment call based on my own research. I spent hours in Special Collections pouring over Bill Janklow’s personal papers. It looked to me like there was plenty of proof Jancita Eagle Deer was telling the truth.”
“Listen,” he said impatiently. “Bill Janklow was a friend of mine. He would never do anything like that.”
“We are talking about the same Bill Janklow who killed a motorcyclist in a drunk driving accident outside of Trent, South Dakota, yes?”
“That was different!”
“I’m sure it was,” I said dryly. “Listen, I’m not actually from here. I’m from Washington, D.C. I had literally never heard of Bill Janklow before I started this project. I don’t have any kind of personal or political agenda against him. All I know is that everyone, literally everyone, I’ve talked to has said he was a crook. Even people who liked him say he was a crook! It’s not exactly difficult for me believe a guy like that raped a sixteen year old girl.”
“I don’t know what proof you think you have, but I’m not accepting this as legitimate source material.”
“Look,” I said tiredly. “I know what it feels like to be raped. It’s happened to me before. I know what it feels like to have your story and your feelings dismissed while everyone is shouting in your ears and shining the spotlight in your eyes. The transcript of her interrogation reads just like mine.”
At this, he was infuriated.
“You’re wrong!” he shouted angrily, and promptly started spamming my inbox with his own “evidence.” Needless to say, I wasn’t convinced by the stream of testimony from Janklow’s family and “friends” proclaiming his innocence.
After reporting my professor’s inappropriate behavior to my academic adviser, we both decided not to waste any more time on him with a hearing and move on with our lives. I just wanted to graduate, and she understood. She confided in me that I was not the first female student to file a complaint against him, and she was confident I would not be the last. It was only a matter of time before he brought himself down.
When I got the C+ back on my transcript, I knew it was personal. That was when I learned everyone really does have their own version of history. I thought of the professor’s smirk at graduation and sighed. It all seemed so far away now.
I thought to myself that if I ever wrote a book about my adventures out here in the West, I’d dedicate it to her. So I said a prayer for Jancita Eagle Deer and turned my attention back to the road.