It’s clearly the place to be, and the first time I’ve seen men hanging out in groups, as they might in eastern countries, since arriving in the USA. Indeed it’s the first time I feel like I encounter America head on. There’s a funk in the air, a feeling of dilapidation, of despair, of bleak surrender.
Among the throng an unmistakable face stands out – an elder – the deep ingrained lines of his weathered face, a thick coat pulled all around him. Wistfully I wonder who seeks out his wisdom, at this crossroads, in the cold night of an American gas station? The younger folk gather in groups, waiting, talking, supping coffee. Photographs of tribal elders circumference the ceiling all around them.
A few short miles away lies the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee where, in 1890, between 250 men, women and children of the Lakota were killed.
That funk has long historical roots indeed.
64% of the population of Pine Ridge currently live below the poverty line. Multitudes of millions of dollars have been made selling alcohol from trading posts surrounding the reservation to a tribe who have no tolerance for the stuff, and never will. Six generations of corrosive alcoholism proves this.
Still. I innocently see beauty, kindness and openness in the faces that pass by.
At Wounded Knee, reservation dogs bark. Orion stands proud in the night sky. A crescent moon rises as car headlights crisscross the plain returning home.Beauty can belie reality.
In the Pawnee national grasslands of Colorado I sensed a similar history of extractive enterprise.
There, layered in chronological order in the soil strata lie remnants of a human culture 12,000 years old; above which lie the last remaining fragments of a rich agricultural land that blew away during the dust bowl. What has been left behind is a thin soil potted with mile deep oil wells, a soil good for raising beef cattle and injecting with sand, water and chemicals for fracking.
There are, perhaps, few examples of a place and a people so successfully pillaged than those on these Great Plains.
But there are small signs of what would happen if nature were allowed to win over this desolate landscape. In a section of prairie fenced off from the intrusions of cattle, scrubland has started to regrow. And in places where the grasslands are sensitively managed a wide abundance of bird and mammals can still be seen, though not of course, the buffalo.
Posted 25th February by Marc Perry