Death on the Reservation

From drunk driving accidents and suicides to traditional Lakota culture (and the loss of it), death plays an integral, though often tragic, role in the culture of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Traditional Lakota culture places a high value on life. Hunters only took from the great buffalo herds on which the tribes depended when meat was needed, and no part of the animal was wasted. In battle, to count coup was to touch an enemy with a stick and escape uninjured. This was considered a higher honor than killing the enemy.

But make no mistake - the Oglala Lakota also were known as fearless warriors. There is a legendary Lakota rallying cry popularized by the great Oglala war chief Crazy Horse, one he is said to have used at the Battle of the Little Bighorn: “Today is a good day to die!”

It has been more than a century since the Wasichu, or one who takes the best meat for himself, came from the east, slicing up the great prairies with trails, fences and railroads. But now, 128 years after the white man confined the Oglala people to the Pine Ridge Reservation, death lurks around every corner. Life expectancy for a Pine Ridge male is the lowest in the world. Suicide rates dwarf national averages.

These issues are inseparable from alcoholism, which perpetuates hopelessness and despair. Drunk drivers endanger every vehicle on the narrow roads and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders affect youth at disproportionately high rates. And much of the alcohol comes from Whiteclay, Nebraska.

In Lakota religion, everything has a spirit—trees, the Earth, the four directions. After death, a person must travel the Trail of the Spirits (the Milky Way) in their journey to the Spirit World.
For a Lakota warrior, bravery in battle did not require the killing of a foe. Touching an enemy with a coup stick, such as this, and escaping uninjured was recognized as a warrior's highest honor. Photographed at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.
Young Lakota boys were taught how to craft tools, such as the bow and arrows shown here, anticipating their time to prove themselves on the battlefield or a buffalo hunt. Photographed at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.
A buffalo skull rests in a cemetery on Pine Ridge Reservation. Sacred to the Lakota, buffalo were killed only when needed, and no part was wasted. With the arrival of the white man, the great herds were decimated, and the Lakota way of life changed forever.
The vast Western Plains from Montana to Nebraska once supplied the Lakota with all their material and spiritual needs. Immense herds of buffalo and remote badlands were alive with spiritual significance as well as sustenance. Today, their territory reduced to a fraction of its former expanse and sliced apart by roads and fences of encroaching white society, it is often difficult for the Lakota to see a clear road to a balanced life.
In the hills surrounding the Pine Ridge Reservation, this cross is a symbol of cultural dissonance. Erected by a local rancher to honor his father's ashes, it sits on a spot that some claim was the site of the first burial scaffold of the mystic Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse.
This Colt Model 1873 .44-40 Peacemaker was taken from the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, by journalist Charles W. Allen. Camped on Wounded Knee Creek, a band of Miniconjou Lakota under Chief Big Foot were surrendering their weapons to Col. James W. Forsyth and his U.S. 7th Cavalry. A shot was fired. No one knows by whom. The 7th Cavalry opened fire with rifles and four Hotchkiss guns, and within an hour, slaughtered 150 to 300 Native men, women and children. Photographed at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.
After the bloodshed at Wounded Knee, a blizzard swept over the land. Three days later, the bodies were buried in this mass grave, on the hill where Col. Forsyth's Hotchkiss guns had rested. Years later, the Lakota holy man Black Elk recalled the incident: "When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."
From this hotel room in Chadron, Nebraska, General Nelson A. Miles oversaw the 7th Cavalry's effort in late 1890 to stop the ghost dance and confine the last rebellious Lakotas to reservations. Not directly in charge of the troops at Wounded Knee, Miles was highly critical of the massacre, calling it "the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children." His opinion was in the minority. Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to members of the 7th Cavalry for their actions at Wounded Knee—the most ever awarded for a single battle.
This sign, which used to greet visitors to Whiteclay, Nebraska, now rests among rows of junk cars in Denny "Junior" Reynold's lot on the edge of town. Residents of the dry Pine Ridge Reservation, right across the border in South Dakota, consume almost 4 million cans of beer sold every year by four stores in the town of 12 residents.
A 16-year-old girl on the Pine Ridge Reservation wrote this note before taking her own life, leaving behind her 1-year-old child. The girl was part of Tiny's Sweet Grass Suicide Prevention Program. Tiny says that it is especially important for children on the reservation to have Native counselors, who understand Lakota culture. For example, some Lakota considering suicide see a figure from their culture called the Slender Man or the Black Spirit. A non-native counselor might be baffled, but Tiny isn't. She has seen his shadow on the reservation. Despite recent cuts to Sweet Grass funding, Tiny continues to fight suicide on her reservation through prayer and donations.
Battered car bodies are piled in lines in Denny "Junior" Reynold's lot in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Junior says that half of the cars in his yard are from drunk-driving accidents.
On Jan. 25, 2010, a drunk driver veered head-on into a car carrying Pine Ridge residents Randy Skye Kaline, 30, Summer Rose Kaline, 28, and Burt Benjamin Kaline III, 36. All three were killed. Each had two children.