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Rapid City, SD to Alliance, NB to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD  07/04/06 (Day 70)



This is a road trip that celebrates the long and storied car culture of America, after all, so it takes us about 30 seconds to decide to indulge in a side trip from Rapid City out to Alliance, Nebraska to check out Carhenge. Good call. In person the place is less of a gimmick and more of a legitimately interesting art installation as what started on a lark as an ode to Stonehenge constructed in junk cars instead of stone slabs has expanded over the years and now includes a number of other clever projects.

There’s The Fourd Seasons, a series of old Fords planted grill first in the ground and painted four different pastels. Then there’s the Covered Wagon, an old station wagon with a covered wagon frame welded to the roof and a horse hitch out the front with old engines (the horsepower) laid on the ground where the four horses would have been.

One of the other visitors to the site is a woman who says she’s been taking pictures at Carhenge for 20 years. She says she’s there today to take “inventory” since, she whispers, someone stole one of the cars a few weeks earlier. Before she heads off to complete her work, she points out two interesting features in the main Carhenge structure. 1. If you look at the front end of a Caddy positioned horizontally off the ground (and dredge up enough imagination) you can see a dragon’s head. 2. There’s a horizontal Plymouth that brings to mind a shark if you look at it from underneath just right.

When it’s time to leave Carhenge, turn right out of the parking lot and travel down the road a mile or so and you’ll see another, less visited, art installation. Called Rest Area, the site is a huge pile of straw bales with a toilet on top. Everyone’s an artist, right?

From Carhenge, our day trip takes us toward the Wounded Knee monument on the notorious (more on this later) Pine Ridge Reservation back in South Dakota. But first we’re treated to a few miles of distinctly Un-Nebraskan landscape through the state’s panhandle where forested foothills replace the flat, openness that seems to dominate every other inch of Nebraska.

Soon we’re driving in and out of Lakota Indian Reservations and neighboring ranches and towns, including one area that completely demoralizes us and another that offers a glimmer of hope.

The bad news first. Since alcohol has proven to be such a problem among many Native American communities, more and more reservations are choosing to be dry, meaning no alcohol can be sold on them. But they can’t control what happens outside their reservation or town borders, which has led to the proliferation of places like White Clay, Nebraska, where Native Americans living on nearby dry reservations can go to wet their whistles.

We drive through White Clay, which rubs shoulders with the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in the early afternoon and find the dusty, one-street town awash not just in alcohol but in some of its ugliest side effects as well. Native Americans of every age and both sexes are literally strewn around town, passed out on porches, lurching across the street, draped over car hoods.

And the ones who aren’t already drunk are working on it, loading up their falling-down cars with cases of beer from a pre-fab corrugated metal building that seems to be the only thing in White Pine that’s still open for business. The liquor store.

A sign on a long shuttered building reads “Tribal Offenders.” Another pleads “Pick Up After Yourself.” Luckily White Clay is only a few blocks long and we are soon leaving, just as a police car passes us slowly cruising in the opposite direction into town to do what, we can’t imagine.

Luckily, things begin looking up just a few miles beyond White Clay. Despite the fact that Pine Ridge is ranked at or near the bottom of the list in terms of literacy, life expectancy (shorter than Bangladesh) and many other barometers we use to gauge the general success of US communities, there are signs of life. A shiny new hospital. The nicest looking Boys & Girls Club we’ve ever seen. Yes, there are still a lot of junked cars in front of nearly junked trailers, but glimmers of a future that includes pride and self-respect are there as well.

In some ways it’s a wonder that Pine Ridge and the Lakota who live there still exist at all. It’s the site of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre and later the site of a full-on stand-off between some local Native Americans and the FBI. You could be forgiven for thinking the place is doomed to fail.

The struggle to defy history and the stats and ultimately reach a prideful future becomes evident to us in the space of an hour. After reading the Wounded Knee Massacre memorial plaque that’s been erected in a dusty turn out on the side of the road, we walk over to talk to a local woman who has set up a table selling traditional items made and sold by members of the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She is gregarious, knowledgeable, proud, patient, intelligent and charming and we buy a bracelet woven out of dyed porcupine quills by a descendant of chief Red Cloud.

Then we walk to the other side of the turn out to give equal time and attention to a Lakota man selling his own selection of locally made wares. He asks us what we want to know and we ask him to tell us how things are on the reservation and what he sees as the Lakota’s biggest challenges, but he just stares at us then repeats his original demand: What do we want him to tell us? We repeat our questions, and we talk in this circle three or four more times before another traveler walks over and we take the chance to escape.

A few minutes later a car pulls up and as a young Native American man gets out the woman we bought the bracelet from begins heatedly demanding that he leave. “I don’t need your trouble!” she shouts. Then a cop car pulls up and we pull out, feeling marginally more hopeful for the Lakota than not. It’s a small, but crucial margin--for us and for them.
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