RAPID CITY, OCCUPIED SIOUX TERRITORY – I’m sitting in a bar speaking to two very kind, warm and welcoming older men about the benefits and drawbacks of living in Rapid City. They tell me that it’s nice to walk everywhere, and that the weather is pretty good. They also tell me there are too many drunk Indians from the nearby reservations living on the streets. The Rapid City community believes these people choose to be drunk and homeless. When it gets cold in the winter, they figure they just all go back to the reservation.
I have this conversation in the closest thing Rapid City has to a gay bar. Not just a gay bar – a punk bar, an art bar. A bar for outcasts. Everyone I speak with is rather despondent when discussing the future of the United States. I see a few youth, the only black man I’ve set eyes on in town, a handful of men with long hair and crooked mustaches. There is a brief and fleeting bachelorette party of three. I ask if it’s always this sparse on a Saturday night, and they make a gesture signaling futility. The entire town seems empty.
I don’t get a queasy feeling until the conversation turns towards the Lakota who live nearby. I walk back to my room alone with it and lay in bed fully clothed with this feeling lurking in the pit of my stomach. At midnight on a Saturday, the city is dead quiet except for a train whistle in the distance.
Young people walk down the streets arm in arm dressed in nice clothes and having a nice time, passing by and then back into silence. Bronze statues of every US president stand at each street corner in the downtown area, a startling presence in the middle of the night when you find yourself alone in the streets.
The door to my ground-floor motel room does not have a deadbolt. I fall asleep until someone bangs on my door at four in the morning, tearing me out of sleep and into frantic alertness. They wait ten minutes, quiet, and then lay into the door again. They say nothing, and I do not answer the door. This is the first time I feel scared in my 73 days on the road.
I shouldn’t be here.
Rapid City is in the Black Hills, a part of the continent that is so beautiful it’s unreal. Everything around is gorgeous in the light of the setting sun. The air is crisp. The Black Hills themselves look a dark purple in the twilight. The town center is well-lit and immaculate. Alleys go for blocks and blocks, spotless except for the occasional lone figure standing far off in the distance.
The Sioux nation (properly named Očhéthi Šakówiŋ – the seven council fires) claims this land as its own. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is theirs, and awarded the Sioux what amounts to $1.2 billion dollars for their loss. The Sioux refuse to collect the money, saying to do so would be to participate in a “sales transaction”. This is not the kind of place where you say, as a shrugging settler, well, it’s all stolen land. No, the Black Hills are special. They hold spiritual and national significance.
The statues of the US presidents around town seem to seem like stakes pushed into the earth, pinning Rapid City and its settler history to the map. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are carved into the Black Hills. The Parks Service calls this vandalism Mt. Rushmore. The popular HBO television series Deadwood is based on a town nearby, which features a “Wild West” aesthetic and therefore erases the Native Americans completely, except as a decapitated head that one of the main characters occasionally consults on personal issues.
I stopped in Rapid City for the night because I am on my way to Standing Rock, where the indigenous people are fighting to protect their water from a pipeline that the US wants to build through their land. The Dakotas are so remote from other parts of the country. It only makes sense that the US has laid such vigorous claim to exploit the incredible resources the land holds – whether the gold in the Black Hills or the oil sitting under the Bakken formation.
It’s an 8 hour drive from Denver to Rapid City, and another 5 hours to Standing Rock. All via county roads lined with sunflowers and no phone service. The fact that there need to be settlers out here, so far from anything else, seems almost absurd, until you realize how rich these hills are in mineral wealth. It’s what drove Lewis and Clark across this part of the world to perform ethnography on their famous tour, as they documented each nation they came across. In Philadelphia, I saw their logs in the American Philosophical Society Hall as an exhibit. Under orders from Jefferson, they dutifully catalogued warrior strength, population size, language, traditional enemies and what kind of wealth they were sitting on.