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With Reservations: True West

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True West: Racial Stereotypes in a Small South Dakota Town

I grew up in a very small town (population 700) on the prairies of South Dakota. I was not aware of a wide disparity of classes at the time; but looking back, I see that there really were classes based on economic and racial factors.  Since my town was situated quite near to several Indian reservations, there was often at least one native American in my class.  In the second grade, it was Clifford Leading   Cloud—14 years old and placed in the second grade.  Needless to say, he towered over the 7-year-olds. No doubt this was why he was constantly stoop-shouldered and his demeanor was apologetic and shy.  He was a wonderful artist, and I still have several of his drawings.  “Clifford drew this for me!” I proudly wrote beneath two colored-pencil sketches in my scrapbook, but when I took them home to show them to my mother, she said, “Be sure to always wash your hands after you touch those.”  Obedient at this stage of my life, I remember complying, but I was always puzzled about why.

Since my name began with a “D” and our placement was always determined alphabetically, I sat behind or in front of all of the Native American kids who joined our class for a year or two before disappearing: Clifford Leading Cloud, Phoebe Crazy Bear, Nordine Fink (Who was my assigned “date” for Freshman initiation, but who somehow disappeared during the year.) Phoebe had very long black hair that I loved to brush during Geometry. (In spite of former warnings from mothers who told us to be careful not to contract lice from the “Indian” kids.) She was a good student, and I liked her dry sense of humor; but although I invited her to slumber parties, she never came and she, too, vanished by the end of our Sophomore year.

I know there was a division in our community between the white population and the Native Americans, many of whom still lived in tents along the railroad tracks because it was federal land and the head of the railroad allowed them to live there free of charge.  When I was given release time from study hall to teach P.E. and reading to first graders my Jr. year in high school, the sweetest and most beautiful first grader was another Leading Cloud—who, probably due to living in a tent with no bathroom facilities and no running water—had such a strong stench that it brought tears to my eyes to stand over her for long as I guided her in her reading.  My mother attributed this to the use of “bear grease” in the hair, but I think she was a few generations behind in her thinking.

The factors of difference in culture, living arrangements and economic factors divided us from the Native American citizens of our town so that aside from actual classes as school, they faded away into the environment in a manner that should have been impossible in a town as small as ours.  They did not attend games, dances, or participate in any of the extracurricular activities of the school. They did not attend church or hang out in restaurants.  I do remember my mother asking us to sit in front  and back and either side of her when we went to the movies in White River, 32 miles away.  Closer to the reservation, there was a higher Native American population and my mother, sensitive to smells, wished to take all proper precautions.

My mother was not unkind. She fed any hobo who showed up at our door. She took boxes of clothing out to the dump and set them where foragers could easily find them.  She also told me never to mention that clothing had been mine if any of the Native American kids showed up wearing one of my give-aways. But she was the product of an age where we had not yet thought to struggle against racial stereotypes.  My father regularly employed seasonal workers from the reservation and even learned to speak some Sioux.  He was a natural born storyteller who loved gleaning material from all and sundry and a broad-minded thinker. One of the few Democrats in town, he counted everyone among his friends–from his Hunkpapa Sioux employees to the Governor of the state.

Yet, should the doorbell ring when my dad was not at home and  if my mom were to see that it was someone from the reservation stopped at our house to ask for work on his way into town, she would tell us not to answer the door and would cower in the hallway out of sight. Again, I know my mother well enough to know it was genuine fear that prompted her actions, not meanness or hatred.

There were two families of Sioux lineage in the town who did manage to bridge the gap of cultures.  In one case, it was a handsome young man who was an incredible basketball player whose name revealed his mixed Sioux and French genes. He was the secret heart-throb of many a girl, and his sister, as beautiful as he was handsome, was a cheerleader and generally accepted, I believe, although they were enough older than I am for this all to be hearsay.

The other family that was able to bridge the two cultures was also of mixed lineage–white and Sioux.  Another beautiful family, their son was also an excellent ball player and both of their daughters were cheerleaders. (This was the highest rank of success in our town—far above Valedictorian.) In both cases, the cultural differences were only a matter of skin color. They were not living in tents along the railroad tracks or migrating back and forth from the reservation.  In  most respects, their lifestyles were no different from our own.  Still, I have heard that when one of our most popular young men married one of the popular young ladies I’ve just mentioned, that his mother was heard to say, “He’s marrying that squaw.”

It seems as though the major factor, then, that created a class structure in our town was one of culture coupled with economic duress.  Yes, there were poor families in our town and many times they did not participate as fully in what little social life there was in our town, and yes, although I started out inviting everyone in my class to parties, in time the parties got smaller and the guest list included mainly those friends from my neighborhood or those I found to be the most fun or who participated in the same activities I participated in.

This narrowing of social circles is natural, I think, but when I look at who was excluded, I don’t feel as though I used any criteria other than whom I enjoyed being around. I would have loved it if Phoebe had come to my slumber parties. She was smart and even then I had a curiosity about other cultures and other ways of life. I was the first friend of any new girl who moved to town—a fact that caused some resentment on the part of my old friends, I now see clearly.

We all make excuses for ourselves when it comes to discussing our own prejudices, and I am no exception to the rule. Native Americans were stereotyped because the most extreme cases of behavior were the most obvious. The few women from the reservation who came to drink and lay sprawled in the street created the stereotype that all “Indian” women were “drunken squaws.” No one ever saw any of then mothers of the Native American children we went to school with. They were no doubt at home trying to scrape out a meal or school clothes for their children’s next next day at school.  And their fathers were probably out working in the fields for our fathers. But we did see the drunks on the streets every Saturday night as we exited the movies, and so this is the stereotype that formed in our minds, no matter how much our actual experience with kids at school rivaled that stereotype.

Many years ago, I started to write a book called “Vision Quest” about a young Native American boy who grew up in our town. This was a work of fiction, but I drew of course upon actual experience for details of plot.  I know I came back to it at least twice, but never got beyond the first few chapters, probably because I had so little experience to draw upon; for in spite of the fact that I grew up in a state that contained numerous reservations and in spite of the fact  that all of the surrounding towns contained a Native American population, in fact our cultures were so widely divided that I had as little insight into their lives as they must have had into mine.

The term “Native American” had not been coined when I last lived in my hometown, and neither had the sensibilities that I hope go with it. When Dennis Banks and Russell Means were heroes to much of the rest of the world, they were outlaws and trouble makers to those non-Native Americans who lived in their midst. To someone stopped from driving on highways where they had always driven, they appeared to be highwaymen or brigands. It is hard to make a hero of someone you grew up feeling superior to, and hard not to stereotype any race or cultural group according to what you know about the few representatives of that group with whom you have come in contact.

But I have to say that coming back to my town and hearing one of the supposedly kindest and admittedly hardest-working members of the church I grew up in describing the wife of a local boy as a “N—–” and scathingly speaking of the Native American Rights movement of the seventies made me take a really long look back at my own past as well as to reappraise my former affection for this woman whose small-mindedness revealed itself at a time when I myself was in love with an African man, teaching African children and living with African housemates.

The last time I visited my hometown, I did not go to see this lady and by the time I next went, she had passed away. Hopefully with the demise of these last citizens of the old ways, prejudice will pass away with them. I am afraid, however, that prejudice is born anew in each generation—perhaps towards yet a new group of immigrants or transplants who threaten the so-called “American Way of Life.” It would do us all well to remember that America was meant to be a melting-pot, and as in any recipe, it is made more palatable by a variety of spices.

 

This is a reprint of a piece from two and a half years ago. The prompt today is reservation.

Almost Holy

My sister Patti and I, all dressed up for church and told to smile, no doubt! Photo by sister Betty 

 

Almost Holy

I always wanted a set of those panties that had a day of the week embroidered on each one, but I grew up in an era when kids didn’t ask for things.  I know my mom would have bought them for me if she’d known, or my grandma would have ceased her endless activity of sewing sequins on felt butterflies or crocheting the edges of pillow shams long enough to embroider the days of the week onto the baggy white nylon panties jumbled into my underwear drawer. I never asked, though.  Never told.

So it was that on Sunday I’d arise and put on the same old underpants, cotton dress with ruffle, white socks, patent leather shoes. I’d take a little purse no bigger than the makeup case in the suitcase-sized purse I now carry. Into it I’d drop a quarter my dad had given me for the collection, a hanky and the lemon drop my mother always put inside just in case of a cough. I never coughed, but always ate the lemon drop, sucking on it during Sunday School and sometimes asking for another from the larger supply in her purse during church.

Why my mom never sang in the choir I don’t know.  She had a fine true voice.  Both of my older sisters did and so did I, once I was in high school.  I remember when I was little watching the choir in their fine robes that looked like they were graduating every Sunday.  They sat facing us, in three rows to the preacher’s left, as though checking up on us to make sure we didn’t misbehave or yawn or chew gum.  In addition to lemon drops, my mother always carried Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum in her purse.  Sometimes the gum was a bit red  from the rouge she always had on her fingertips on days she applied makeup. It seemed to me like the rouge flavored the gum a bit.  It tasted of clove and flowers.

“Just hold it in your mouth,” my mother instructed, my sister and me; and if we chewed, she would take it away from us. “Just chew it enough to make it soft and then hold it in your mouth.”  This was an almost impossible challenge for a child and actually even for a teenager.  By then, we’d learned to crack the gum and to blow bubbles even when it wasn’t bubble gum.  That fine pop and final sigh of air as the bubble broke–so satisfying. The threat and memory of everything we could be doing with that gum resided in each small wad of it held in our cheeks as we sat lined up like finely dressed chipmunks listening to the minister drone on.

Hymns were like the commercial breaks on television–a chance to move around a bit and look at something other than the preacher–to ponder the curious lyrics such as, “Lettuce gather at the river,” “Bringing in the sheets” and “Let me to his bosom fly.”  (Just what was a bosom fly and what had lettuce and collecting sheets from the clothesline to do with religion? Once again, we didn’t ask.)

Then we’d sit down again for the Apostle’s Creed or a prayer or benediction or the interminable expanse of the sermon–half an hour with no break.  I’d listen to the drone of the flies buzzing in circles at the window, or the sound of cars passing in the summer, when the front and back doors were left open to encourage  breeze where no breeze existed.

Now and then a curious dog would wander in and be ushered out by the man who stood at the door to hand out church programs.  Everyone would hear the scramble of dog toenails on the wooden aisle and turn to watch and laugh.  Even the minister would laugh and say say something like, “All of God’s creatures seek to commune with him upon occasion.”  Then everyone would laugh softly again before he turned his attention back to telling us what was wrong with us and how to remedy it.

That afternoon, Lynnie Brost and I were going to play dress up and have a tea party under the cherry trees and bury a treasure there.  We’d already assembled it: my mom’s old ruby necklace, a handful of her mom’s red plastic cancer badges shaped like little swords with a pin at the back to put on your collar to show you’d given to the campaign,  my crushed penny from the train track, her miniature woven basket from South America that her missionary sister had brought her, a tattered love comic purloined from her older sister. (We’d “read” it first–which at our age meant looking at the pictures.)

I fell asleep thinking of what else we could add to our cache, to be dug up again in ten years or for as long later as we could stand to put off exhuming it. I leaned against my mother as I slept, and if she noticed, she did nothing to awaken me.  She shook me a bit, gently, as the congregation stood after the sermon, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the minister marched down the aisle, smiling and greeting parishioners and the choir followed him, as though they were being let out early for good behavior.  At the door, we greeted the preacher again, standing in line to shake hands and be blessed, then ticked off his mental list of who had been among the faithful on this fine summer day when they could have been out mowing the grass or rolling in the piles of grass emptied from the clipping bag.

Then we drove the block home, for no one ever walked in a small town.  Well done rump roast for dinner, as we called the noon meal. Mashed potatoes, brown gravy, canned string beans, a salad with homemade Russian dressing and ice cream or jelly roll for dessert.  All afternoon to play. Another small town South Dakota Sunday of an endless progression strung out from birth to age eighteen, when I departed for college and the rest of my Agnostic life.

 

This is an essay from almost 5 years ago. Hopefully, you’ve either not been reading my blog for that long or you’ve forgotten it and it will read like new, as it did for me. I missed the boat when it came to religion, but it wasn’t for lack of experience. The prompt today is almost.

Sweet Clover

Getting ready to leave for Minnesota in an hour, so I’ll rely on a poem written two years ago that meets the demands of the prompt word today, which was “honk.”

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Sweet Clover

Before our dad told us its real name,
we used to call it wild mustard.
What did we know about sweet clover except for its color
and that summer smell, cloying in its sugared perfume.
It filled the air and smothered the plains—
bright yellow and green where before
brown stubble had peeked through blown snow.

On these dry lands, what flowers there were
tended to be cash crops or cattle feed.
Sweet clover or alfalfa.
The twitching noses of baby rabbits brought home by my dad
as we proffered it to them by the handful.
Fragile chains we draped around our necks and wrists.
Bouquets for our mom
that wilted as fast as we could pick them.

Summers were sweet clover and sweet corn
and first sweethearts parked on country roads,
windows rolled down to the night air,
then quickly closed to the miller moths.
Heady kisses,
whispered confessions, declarations,
unkept promises.
What we found most in these first selfish loves
was ourselves.

The relief of being chosen
and assurance that all our parts worked.
Our lips accepting those pressures unacceptable
just the year before.
Regions we’d never had much congress with before
calling out for company.
That hard flutter
like a large moth determined to get out.
Finding to our surprise,
like the lyrics of a sixties song,
that our hearts could break, too.

Hot summer nights,
“U”ing Main,
cars full of boys honking
at cars full of girls.
Cokes at Mack’s cafe.
And over the whole town
that heavy ache of sweet clover.
Half promise, half memory.
A giant invisible hand
that covered summer.

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The prompt word today was honk.

Unpredictable

The unpredictability of my internet connection, my camera and my cell phone were distressing over the past few days and will result in few postings about the reunion itself, but I did have some remarkable encounters and heard some wonderful stories—some of which I can share and others which I cannot, due to their personal nature.  All in all, however, I’ve had a fabulous time—perhaps the best I’ve ever had at any of the reunions we have had every 5 years for the past 50 years.  (I think I’ve attended all but one.)

On our way back to Sheridan, we stopped by Richard Hullinger’s 1880’s Town, which he has assembled from actual antique buildings moved here from all over South Dakota as well as movie sets from the film “Dances with Wolves.” A small part of the  extensive collection assembled by Richard and his father Clarence over the years is shown below.  Although it is a short distance west of Murdo, I had never visited it before.  It is well worth the stop.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/unpredictable/

Fenced in, Fenced Out

From Sea Ranch in Northern California to our old ranch in South Dakota, rustic fences predominate in these photos.  That fence hardly seems sufficient to fence in a dinosaur, but it has been keeping it confined for at least sixty years, when is when I first witnessed the concrete beast on my way to the Black Hills in Dakota. Petrified gardens and Wall Drug were must sees then, and still are.   This cemetery sign is right across the street from the last remaining piece of land we still own in South Dakota.

http://run-a-roundranch.blogspot.mx/2016/05/good-fences-114.html

Follow the Lines: Cee’s Compose Yourself Challenge: Leading Lines

Follow the Lines
(Click to enlarge pictures)

IMG_0105 Version 4You need to CLICK to expand this one. Although this looks like a panoramic shot, it is actually a cropped version of the photo below. I think the  horizontal imagery of the photo (in which every element is horizontal) is brought out with more effectiveness in the cropped version, perhaps because the canvas itself is more extremely horizontal. Unlike leading lines that demonstrate perspective by leading the eye back into the photo, these lines draw my eyes back and forth, so I wonder if they qualify as leading lines or if perspective is a requirement.

IMG_0174 (1)(This is the original of my cropped version favorite above it)

IMG_0563 (1)I almost didn’t use this photo because of all the contrasting round and curved shapes, yet I feel in spite of them the horizontals of the music draw the eyes back, especially because of the narrowing perspective.  I’m interested in what Cee has to say about this.

DSC00627 - Version 2I love this scene and took it from about 5 different perspectives and focal lengths, including a shot that reveals shoreline for miles up the beach.  There is something about the simplicity of the wave line in this shot echoed by the ripples on the sand that made me like it the best.  Showing this line extending for miles seemed like overkill.

DSC01483Searching for leading lines in my current library of photos on my computer made me realize that I really do concentrate on curves and more rounded shapes.  What lines I found were almost always of roads or beaches, so it was fun to include these raindrops on the windshield of a speeding car.  They seem to fulfill the assignment to me, but still I’m interested in what Cee has to say about them.

Now, on to the additional assignment of including curves.  I think these photos fill the bill:

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http://ceenphotography.com/2015/10/28/cees-compose-yourself-photo-challenge-week-5-leading-lines/