No one who knows me would say I’m a slave to common sense. No.
After all, I drove here, to the Standing Rock Reservation, to record a song I wrote about a man who lived more than a hundred years ago, who was a hero to people who are not my people. Why am I doing it? I wondered that today as I drove out to the Sitting Bull monument about 7 miles southwest of Mobridge, South Dakota. What compels this behavior? Shouldn’t I be doing something better with my time? Acquiring assets? A house? A wife?
The monument - Sitting Bull’s - is simple. A stone bust rests atop a six foot tall pedestal overlooking a silvery bend of the Missouri River. It marks the second of the chief’s two graves. His remains were moved to the present location from another site outside of Fort Yates, North Dakota, in the middle of the night during a blizzard in 1953. I didn’t know that until later today, when Ladonna Brave Bull Allard told me.
The weather today was cold, a windy mix of rain and snow. When I told the people I was staying with what I was planning, they said, we hope your car makes it. I was like, come on how bad could it be? If there’s a road, my car will roll on it. As it turned out, there was a road, only, it was more mud than gravel - a weird kind of mud that filled the tread in the tires and made them smooth as a skinned chicken (I'm staying on a farm so, trying out some new metaphors). I slid off the road twice. The second time, it seemed like maybe I should plan on spending the night there. There were no cars on the road (why would there be?) and the car was stuck stuck. Everything wet, coated, smooth, deep. I kept shifting back and forth between reverse and drive, gunning the engine. The tires smoked, in spite of the freezing rain. I gunned the engine more. Finally something was working and the car lurched out of the ditch and slid across the road and almost into the other ditch. The steering wheel wasn’t much more than a faint suggestion.
I drove embarrassingly slow for the last 2 miles, through country that fell out of a movie screen. Picture the grey brooding skies slinging angry rain, sure, but picture too the gentle, empty land. The small hills like a girl’s shoulders, rising and falling beside me. The soft green earth without face or fence. Crest tumbling into crevice, as far into the distance as rain permits you to see. The world out here is ancient as Eve but for the red puddled road cutting through it.
I was in a complicated mood when I finally arrived at the monument. Relief because the car worked. Haste because I had to be somewhere else soon. Uncertainty because what the hell was I doing anyway? South Dakota is not on the way to Nashville. It's not on the way to anywhere. It's cold and snowy and recording is not going to work today and this is an expensive trip.
I pulled up to the monument and cut the engine. The freezing rain threw itself against the windshield in a splattering sheet. I belong here, it said. Where do you belong?
I could see the monument a hundred feet away and the Missouri River beyond it the color of steel and choppy.
I cracked the door and got out, walking toward the river. The cold was immediate. I wondered why I didn’t pack a coat.
Sitting Bull's head faces south, looks sternly out over the river and girl shoulders. I stood and looked at him. The nose of the statue had been shot off and replaced with newer stone or plaster, discolored. Sitting Bull's trademark feather was missing, broken away, now a misshapen jag at the back of his head.
Well. Should I feel something? The rain was falling off a little, that was encouraging.
I thought: I have permission from the tribe to record here. But I can’t really do that. The wind and rain say no.
Besides there is this other thing. Which I haven't spoken of yet because I didn't want it to be part of the story. Which is that I lost my voice. For the first time in my life. More than ten days ago, while I was in Idaho. The last day I was there, I woke up and, nothing. It felt like I was being strangled by a weakling. Just a gentle, constant pressure around my throat. It’s never happened before. Not being able to sing. Not once. Crazy. I thought it would go away in a day or two. Seven days later, then ten, it still wasn’t working. I'm on antibiotics now. I've been drinking buckets of water. I even bought a vaporizer. I think something might be dreadfully wrong. I am about to cancel a show I have scheduled for tomorrow. And then Monday, back in Nashville, I’m supposed to open for Lisa Loeb and then play another show later that week. What if it doesn’t come back by then? What if it doesn’t come back ever?
I make my living with my voice. I miss three shows and it will hurt, in all the ways. Financially, yes, but also, my confidence. Then, what if it's just over? I'm sure it's happened before, to someone somewhere. One day you can sing and then suddenly you can't. Life happens.
I haven’t spoken of it to anyone, because it could come right back any moment and then what would have been the point? But now, something is wrong. Tomorrow it will be 14 days. While I was in Idaho told my parents that I was starting to get nervous. My mom said, The Lord is in control. Which I guess He is, but to be honest I’ve never been that sure whose side the Lord is on. He sure wasn’t on the Indians’ side.
So I stood there with the collar of my Levis jacket turned up, looking at the vandalized statue of another people’s hero, thinking that life makes no sense whatsoever. I was wet and cold and the wind blowing off the river wasn’t making me feel any more welcome.
Then I thought, well you wrote the song. You wrote it for a reason. You wrote it because you believed in the man, believed in what he stood for. He was an Indian, and he knew who he was, and he wasn't going to stop being an Indian just because he lost the war. And, he might be dead, but you are alive on planet earth, in 2016, and for whatever reason, you are here right now. You are the white son of Christian parents, but you wrote that song, so you might as well play it for him.
That seemed right.
So I went back to the car and put a sweater on underneath the jacket, and a furry cap on my head. I grabbed a little metal chair I brought with me from Nashville, and I got out the guitar my friend from Geaorgia gave me a month ago.
I set the chair down in front of the bust of Chief Sitting Bull. I took the guitar out of the case. I sat down on the chair and I sang the song, with a voice that could only be described as pathetic. It cracked every time it got higher than a G over middle C, and it was weak and wobbly like shaken jello. It was the voice of a person who can’t sing. My fingers were freezing and I missed some chords and it was the most amateur example of a performance for royalty, ever.
But I knew all the words and I thought about them while I was singing. I sang with intention. No one was there to hear and the statue didn't say anything about it either way, but I apologized anyway and I said I meant well and then I got back in my car to drove to my second appointment, which was to meet Ladonna Brave Bull Allard.
I’ve been emailing Ladonna for weeks, like a fanboy, like a stalker. I sent her the version of Last Man Standing (the song I wrote for Chief Sitting Bull) that I sang into the phone right after I wrote it. That was two weeks ago. She emailed me back and said she liked it and they were currently trying to stop the oil pipeline from coming through reservation land and I was welcome to come and sing and make my recording.
She didn’t answer the next three emails I sent, the ones where I said when exactly I was coming, and could she meet me, and was there anyone else she thought I should talk to.
But last night, driving through the Dakotas, listening to NPR, I was suddenly listening to her voice, because she was on the program, as part of a documentary recently made about the Dakota War of the 1860’s. It was so weird: this was the lady I emailed because I saw her name on a website, and she had mostly ignored me, and now here she was on the radio. I decided it was a sign and so I emailed her again this morning and she got back to me and said there was a meeting at the Grand River Casino about the pipeline and she would be there all day and so I was welcome to come.
So I was on my way there when I slid off the road and sang to Chief Sitting Bull on what I think is his actual grave but maybe not and so then I pulled into the parking lot of a place which was maybe nice 20 years ago but not now. I cut the power and checked my hair because you may as well try to make a favorable impression even if you can’t sing anymore and I walked inside, past the lights and beeps and levers and ringing sounds and the long bored wrinkled faces hoping for a slot machine miracle. I saw the front desk of the hotel and walked up to it. I said, is there a meeting about the pipeline? The very white girl behind the counter said yes let me show you where it is.
“If you tell me I can find it probably,” I said.
“I just don’t feel like telling you,” she said, “It’s too much work.”
Her face was eaten up with acne and her belly was protruding so sharply that she must have been pregnant, but I didn’t dare ask her while we rode the elevator together because that’s one thing you don’t ask a woman, even if she seems about to burst, as this woman seemed. So we rode in an awkward silence until there was a ding and the doors opened and I was free to see what’s next.
What’s next was an empty banquet room. No, I discovered rounding the corner, not totally empty. A group of eight people occupied the first two rows of chairs, which had been pulled into a sort of crude circle. At once I recognized Ladonna Brave Bull and she recognized me, as the white guy I guess. We made eye contact. I sat down in the third row. She stood up immediately and walked back to me.
I had taken a sip of whiskey back at the Sitting Bull monument because of the cold and for an unclear ceremonial purpose, and now I was frightened she would notice and think I was insincere. She didn't notice. Or if she did, she didn’t let on.
“Hello,” I whispered, when she sat down.
“Stand up and walk with me,” she said, “We can talk in the hall.”
I liked her intelligent combative eyes at once. There was some kind of gold makeup on the eyelids, which added a reckless touch. Perhaps we are in Mobridge, South Dakota, perhaps we are in Dubai.
We sat in two overstuffed chairs separated by a table such that it was a little difficult to talk, the distance.
I said, “Thanks for meeting me. You were just a name on a website, but you are actually smart and super involved.”
She looked at me like, did I just hear you correctly?
I added: "I will probably say a number of dumb things in this conversation. I don't know how to talk about it, the words. I don’t even know why I’m here exactly.”
“Well,” she said, “I will tell you why I am here.”
Then she turned toward a sign that said there was a bonus jackpot for the newly installed dollar slots downstairs, a guaranteed winner every 17 pulls. She didn’t say anything more.
“Why are you here?” seemed to be what I should ask.
She turned back toward me. “I am here to stop the pipeline. And I am here to protect my people.”
“From what?” I asked.
“From the poison and the money.”
That started a conversation that lasted an hour. We talked about a lot of things but for right now I want to say I loved this woman. I felt like we shared something in common. This is a woman who doesn’t fit, because her people don’t fit. Private property, individual ownership, nuclear family. Concepts so basic to the white conception of Mine and Thine that there’s no real tolerance possible. One side just wins, and the other survives, adopts the white way, or dies. Suicide is a huge problem on reservations. It's obvious why.
Listening to her describe her struggle, I wished so bad that I was a powerful person, that I was a movie star or something, that I could make people notice them, the Lakota. People around here notice them, like they notice a pest. Something to put up with. The Indians are on the dole, they are lazy, it's said, they should just forget about being Indian and start being grateful for all things white and wonderful.
The problem is so big. Runs deep. 200 years deep. The native people are broken so badly. What can be done? How do you fix it? To be Lakota is to wander the plains chasing the great teeming herd of buffalo. That is no longer possible. For one, the government doesn't allow wandering and for two, we slaughtered the Buffalo.
Did you know that in 1840 there were more than 60 million buffalo in the United States, and that by 1890 there were fewer than 100? They were extinguished, on purpose, by our great grandparents. Think about that the next time you visit a Wallmart.
And who cares about this? Who has time to care? Life is hard enough not worrying about things you can't change. But I can't help it.
And my voice is at this moment still wrecked for a reason I don’t understand, except that maybe I’m fighting on the losing side. I'm canceling tomorrow's show, even though I can't afford to. I have no choice.
I'm here in Standing Rock because I wanted to sing a song for Chief Sitting Bull, because I read his story and I felt ashamed of what my people did. Because people don't deserve to be destroyed just because they are different.
And I feel like now I’m fighting on the losing side. Because I have to. I will die, next week or fifty years from now, either one is tomorrow, basically. And between now and then I'm going to stand up for people don’t have a voice themselves, because someone has to. Because they deserve it. And I’m so mad that my voice is all fucked up and I can’t sing and am all weak and powerless and I can’t be a decent help.
I don’t understand why it goes this way. Why the strong always win, why you are rewarded for serving the powerful, why if you try to help the weak, forces congeal, to crush you as soon as possible.
Lonely unto death I've heard it called, this feeling. I wonder if my voice is gone forever. If the Lord, who according to my parents, and me maybe, is really in control. Blessed are the meek, it says in chapter 5 of the Book of Matthew, for they shall inherit the earth.
Are the meek blessed, actually?
Or do the strong always win, in pipelines, in land grabs, in wealth?
Should I just forget God and strike out on my lonely own? Worship at the altar of science like most of my friends? It seems like such a sad thing to do, or, a partial thing at best, parsing the complicated infinite universe into a digestible serving. But at least I wouldn't have to have my feelings hurt when my voice was taken from me.
I could just accept that nothing makes any sense, that there is no plan, that the strong crush the weak, that the smart play is with those who are already winning.
I have to drive south now. I'm glad to stop writing. Writing makes you crazy.