A Little Dead Girl’s Pain Cripples My Wife : A Night Run through the Northern Cheyenne Reservation

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My father’s ashes

The pain that cripples my wife today is nothing new. One fine summer night in 1997, making a run through the Northern Cheyenne reservation, a long-dead llittle Cheyenne girl’s pain, terror, and traumatically induced obsession–all of these transferred to my psychically sensitive redhead.

For a time, most intensely during the first few months but taking years to really fade, the desire to take a certain seemingly bizarre action nagged at her.

Let me explain.

My father had recently translated (died). Living on remote ranch land in western South Dakota, renting space for our mobile home but having no phone, we’d missed the funeral. My sisters had postponed spreading Dad’s ashes in the mountains he loved so well, however, until we finally checked in. When we got the word from my niece Amanda that our presence was still very much needed, we boogied, running the freeway system through Wyoming, then west on I-90 to the Drummond, Montana, area.

We stayed a few days with my Mom, in her eighties by then and living alone in the couple’s double wide mobile home. Ghost Dad was still hanging around. I’m not sensitive enough to pick up on things like that, but Pam spoke with him a number of times. She’s a five foot, 92 pound redhead, half Jewish, quarter Choctaw, and all ghost whisperer.

She and my father had been close, despite having had just two opportunities to visit with each other while he was alive. The bond between them was instantaneous, happening much faster than it did between Pam and me. (It took us a few weeks to figure it out.)

During those final days, he could still find a bit of lust in his heart, too. The day they met in the nursing home, the minute my back was turned, he told Pammie frankly and honestly,

“I like your calves!”

He had good taste. I like Pam’s calves, too. But that’s not the point of this particular tale.

Map of the Northern Cheyene Indian Reservation, inside the dotted green line, just east of (and much smaller than) the Crow Indian Reservation.

Map of the Northern Cheyene Indian Reservation, inside the dotted green line, just east of (and much smaller than) the Crow Indian Reservation.

Busby

On our way home, I decided to take the “scenic route” through the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. This is a two lane highway, fewer miles to cover than going by freeway, though of course slower going as well. Primarily, I wanted to show my lady places she’d never seen before but which meant something to me.

Many years earlier, when I was “just a kid” growing up on our Montana ranch, Dad had headed east with his stock truck, hauling cattle or horses or some such for this or that customer. He’d been a week late getting home. The truck’s engine had blown up, and he’d had no choice but to hang out in Ashland, Montana–just barely east of the Cheyenne rez–until a local mechanic could get an engine delivered and dropped into his vehicle.

During my Army service, stationed in Germany, Cheyenne soldier Ron Glenmore had been one of my roommates for a time as well as one of my best friends. He’d also underscored my well deserved humiliation, some years after we’d both been discharged back to civilian life. I’d gotten my Pro Rodeo announcer’s card, used that to wangle a job announcing the amateur rodeo at Busby in 1981, and blown the job badly.

It hadn’t gone so horribly at first, but–well, as Ron put it when we happened to pass each other on the way out after the rodeo,

“Run out of rodeo words, did you?”

That pretty much summed it up. Had the rodeo been a pro show, where the action moves right along at a cracking pace, I’d have made it without my deficiency being noticed. But amateur rodeos generally move slower, with sometimes lengthy gaps of time between bronc riders coming out of the chutes. An announcer at an amateur show had dang well better be ready to talk nonstop all afternoon–and, sickeningly, I wasn’t.

It wasn’t a matter of freezing up at the mike, exactly, but yeah. I ran out of rodeo words. The stock contractor paid me the agreed upon $100 for the job, but he was seething inside, nearly ready to explode all over the place because he’d hired a pro whose output–in a word–sucked.

I didn’t blame him. Had it been a different time in my life, had I had two dollars to rub together in my pocket, I’d have refused my paycheck.

But I couldn’t. Rose (third wife) and I were dead broke. If we didn’t take that check, we didn’t eat. So I took the money, put a lid on the guilt, and vowed silently never to tackle a job like that again without being prepared. Heck, I could have rounded up a book or two for reference, just in case, something to tell the folks to keep the audience interested…if I’d had the money for a book, or a library card, or something. Which I didn’t.

My debut rodeo announcing job, and I’d come off as totally incompetent. Yeah, I needed to show my new woman where that happened, all right. Proud moment, right there.

Seven years before the Day of Humiliation, I’d been through that way with a U-Haul truck, followed by my second wife, Carolyn, in our spiffy blue Gremlin. Carolyn and I’d stopped for lunch at the one cafe in Ashland, mostly because (a) it was lunch time, more or less and (b) Dad had been stuck there for a week once.

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Pam and I had made good time since leaving Drummond. We continued on I-90 from Hardin on into and through the northeastern corner of the Crow Indian Reservation, through Crow Agency, then hooked east on Highway 212.

We stopped for a while at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, known to the Cheyenne and their Lakota and Arapahoe allies as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, where General George Armstrong Custer met the fate he so richly deserved.

I’m no fan of Custer’s–though I had to keep my mouth shut when I lived in Custer, South Dakota, where he still has a rabid fan club. For me, the song by Johnny Cash summed it up well:

Now I will tell you buster that I ain’t a fan of Custer

And the General he don’t ride well anymore

To some he was a hero but to me his score was zero

And the General he don’t ride well anymore

Now Custer done his fightin’ without too much excitin’

And the General he don’t ride well anymore

General Custer come in pumpin’ when the men were out a huntin’

But the General he don’t ride well anymore

With victories he was swimmin’ he killed children dogs and women

But the General he don’t ride well anymore

Crazy Horse sent out the call to Sitting Bull and Gall

And the General he don’t ride well anymore

You can walk the actual battlefield there, along an asphalt path that has markers showing where various white soldiers fell. The Indians, of course, got their dead out of there, and nobody back East cared about them, anyway.

Pam will never make that walk. It would be too painful, at every level.

However, we did go through the display inside the monument building, I explained some of what I knew, and we picked up a few books on Custer as well. Know your enemy.

After a few minutes inside, we got going again. We were burning daylight.

The horror began clamping down on my girl by the time we hit Busby, Montana, the community on the Cheyenne rez that my friend Ron Glenmore claimed as his home town. She (Pam) was getting the heebie-jeebies, feeling more and more psychic pressure, getting more and more paranoid.

From there, it only got worse–and in a hurry, at that

The little girl

By now it was full dark, we were somewhere between Busby and Lame Deer…and Pam was off the passenger seat of our 1991 Mercury Cougar, curled in the fetal position on the floorboards, crying, trying her utmost to hold off the screams.

She could see, feel, and hear the little Cheyenne girl’s cries, maybe nine years old, and a lot of other wails as well.

No. That’s not right. She was the little Cheyenne girl, in great pain from the loss of her arm–from the slash of a cavalry sabre, perhaps, though she had no memory of the injury itself. She only knew that she hurt, her arm was gone, and her parents were gone as well.

Not all of her people; she was not totally alone in the physical sense, yet in the innermost recesses of her being, she was utterly alone, adrift in the cosmos, a being formed of agony, cutting off her doll’s arm to match her own damaged body.

It was not easy for me to extract this information from the woman mewling under the dash. Pammie was lost in terror, her only lifeline my voice asking for the details of what she was experiencing, then explaining exactly why that made sense that it would happen here, in this land, among these people who had suffered so greatly at the hands of the white man’s westward expansion.

Besides trying to help her hang on to sanity, the only thing I could do was keep driving, putting the miles behind us, one after another.

But I could not rush, could not put the hammer down. Speeding through the rez in the middle of the night might only make things worse.

“Hang on, baby,” I told her. “All I can do is get you on through the rez as fast as possible. Doubling back ain’t gonna cut it.”

For long minutes, there was no relief. I kept talking to Pam, kept driving. Pam kept trying to hold on.

Thankfully, by the time we passed through Lame Deer, the deepest intensity of her tune-in to the pain of the past–which is still very much the pain of the present–began to slacken a little. Once we were off the reservation, passing through Ashland, it was clear she would survive without losing her mind completely.

Every mile made it better, left a little of the horror behind. I’ve never in my life been so glad to see the lights of Broadus, knowing we’d be back home in South Dakota very shortly thereafter.

But it was not over. Not by a long shot.

The doll

A few weeks later, we took another trip to Montana. This time we would primarily be going to visit my mother, but also to let Pam visit the mountain location where Dad’s ashes were scattered.

Mom had a few knick-knacks on wall shelves. One of them, a little Indian girl doll, hit Pam hard.

She wanted that doll. Fiercely so, which was a new thing. On our first trip, neither of us had even noticed its presence, though it had been standing in that same high-shelf spot for a good five years.

We let my mother know of Pam’s interest. However, although Mom would most likely have parted with the doll then and there–her love and affection for my redhead ran deep, strong, and true–I managed to postpone the doll’s transfer from woman to woman for a couple of years.

There was a reason.

Pam wanted to cut off one of the little doll girl’s arms to match the little Cheyenne girl’s maimed body.

No, of course we didn’t let that out. That was between my wife and me, period. But I didn’t think cutting off that doll’s arm would be good for anyone–not for Mom (in case we let the truth slip out one careless day), not for Pam, and certainly not for the Spirit residing in the doll.

So I waited, discussing it with Pam every so often, hoping she’d eventually be able to release the obsession she’d absorbed from the Cheyenne.

Which she did, though it took a while. Today, when I reminded her that she’d wanted to do that, she was much relieved to hear that she hadn’t acutally done it. She does own that doll now, but it’s thankfully whole, with all its limbs intact, an indicator that Pam finally managed to more or less rebuild her own mind as well.

The Cheyenne girl believed she had cut off her own arm to memorialize her grief at the loss of so many from the cavalry attack. That does not seem likely. For a Cheyenne woman to cut off a little finger or some such to mourn the loss of a loved one, yes, but an arm?

No.

As a mental defense, allowing her to block the memory of a bloody sabre flashing in the dawn’s early light, removing only her arm when her neck was undoubtedly the real target…yes. The conscious mind of the human being shuts down what it cannot handle, shoves it into the subconscious. I did that once when I embarrassed myself on a saddle bronc at a rodeo, for cry-yi; how much more might such a thing occur following the coming of Evil with the Morning Star?

And having seen the arm gone, unable to recall its going yet aware of grownup women around her cutting themselves in lesser fashion to mark their loss, why would she not conclude that she, this little one whose grief and terror knew no bounds, had cut off her own entire arm? Of course she had done so, she tells herself; she’s the Biggest Griever of the entire nation, is she not?

And of course her doll must be mutilated likewise, since the doll is a Human Being, one of her own family, grieving as she grieves.

And of course Pam–whose own arm ached terribly at odd times after that–looked at Mom’s little doll with an eye that saw its wrongness, saw a doll that had not yet admitted its grief by chopping off an arm.

It is a good thing, I have told myself more than once, that my college degree was in psychology. It helped prepare me for Pam, who was told by a clinical psychologist one day in Sturgis, South Dakota,

“Of course Fred gets something out of your relationship. You give him purpose.”

Truer words were never spoken.

An acquaintance recently asked me why I felt so strongly about writing multiple Hubs on genocide in Canada against the Native peoples of that country. “All that happened a long time ago,” he told me, echoing the standard refrain of Holocaust deniers everywhere.

“It happened a long time ago,” I replied, “and it’s still happening today, both here and up north.”

“What do you mean? About it still happening here?”

I remember sighing. It’s hard, sometimes, trying to figure a way to hold up a picture the uninformed cannot manage to ignore. “The residential schools are gone, yes. But–well, you know about the oil drilling boom in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, right?”

“Sure.” This guy works in the energy industry; he would have to know. “A lot of that is on the rez up there, making Native Americans rich, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t–”

“Hold on.” I held up a hand to stop him. “Do you know how the money works when it comes to the Indians?” (I still forget to use the more “modern” term, “Native Americans”, at times.)

“Uh…yeah. I think so. The feds hold it in trust, and then…no, I guess I don’t know, really.”

“You got that first part right. The government does hold it in trust. But the last I checked, as of the day Barack Obama was first elected President in 2008, the government also makes it as difficult as possible for any Indian to get his money back out of trust and into his own hands.”

“Really?” My lunch partner looked skeptical. “How tough can it be?”

“Twenty-nine steps.”

“Huh?”

“A bunch of Chiefs met with Obama after he was elected, asking him to do something to streamline the process. They told him it takes twenty-nine steps–years, sometimes–for an Indian to touch his own money. Years, Charlie.”

“Hunh. Didn’t know that.”

“Few do,” I admitted, “Outside of the Indians themselves. But you can bet they all know. And as far as I’ve heard, Obama didn’t do one thing to help them, either, just snagged his photo op and sent them packing. We’ve gone from the Great White Father to the Not So Great Half-White Father, and not one &%*&#!! thing has improved for the Native peoples of our own country.”

Charlie scratched his beard, pondering. “Okay. So…why aren’t you writing more about that, then, instead of focusing on Canada?”

“Easy enough.” I grinned at him. “Any warrior worth his salt knows he has to pick his battles. If you try fighting every good fight that comes along, you’ll lose every one of them. Guaranteed. Canada, right now, is a juicy target for me. Those a**holes haven’t even owned up to where all the children they murdered are buried, so their bones can be brought home. It’s hard for people to argue against that.”

“Ah.” He nodded, giving the waittress a thumbs up as she refilled our coffee cups, and we moved on to other topics.

Later, when I got home, I wrote another Genocide in Canada Hub. In the comments that followed, Pam’s temporary crippling from the pain and terror experienced by a little Cheyenne girl on what is now the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation came to mind.

The past is not really the past, nor is the future the future. It’s all here and now. Time alone does not heal all wounds.

Deal with it.

3 thoughts on “A Little Dead Girl’s Pain Cripples My Wife : A Night Run through the Northern Cheyenne Reservation

  1. we have the same thoughts on Native issues to the tee. I haven’t met anyone so in tuned as you. Most NATIVE people have a limited perspective of the reasons and causes of their ongoing conditions. I actually aggravates me to no end when Whites claim Indian heritage or linage and yet know nothing about the people they want to rob their blood; for what; to sound cool or what? They (for the most part) don’t even get that that either. The entire claim your native blood was a set up deal by BIA to dilute the population roles then disqualify those not living on the reservations. Than in turn lowered the financial obligations for per-cap payments.. Whites that formally received acknowledgement as being part Indian only diluted per-cap money. Another stinking trick in my book. I use to rodeo myself as well, rode broncs bare back and team roped. I was asked to announce a girls barrel race event once but declined. I KNEW I would screw it up.. Then someone would be asking me if I needed a break (permanently).

  2. I really liked your story. I can’t say I ever met a double in life but I sure see one in your stories. it’s amazing; how our lives have paralleled in philosophy and jobs and attitude. Even in obscure topics like the NATIVE AMERICAN ISSUES. How many folks have you met who 1. even give a rats ass or have a clue about the actual events at GREASY GRASS or WOUNDED KNEE or the second wounded knee. I became an AIM member by donating a few bucks and getting a patch but; I just couldn’t leave my oil field job as I WANTED TO but my WIFE wouldn’t hear of it. and my Kiowa friend told me I WOULD probably get my ass kicked for my efforts.

  3. Thanks. We do seem to have traveled more than a few parallel pathways. And I certainly know what you mean about the (tiny) number of people who understand the issues. Speaking of AIM, I remember my second wife–who grew up in South Dakota, no less–expressing complete befuddlement on what Dennis Banks and Russell Means were trying to accomplish. She’d heard of “Custer’s Last Stand” but the Battle of the Greasy Grass had never crossed her consciousness. She knew nothing of (either) Wounded Knee, or for that matter the Trail of Tears or the passing of smallpox infested buffalo robes to the Blackfeet or any of the rest of it. I’m not sure she understood a whole lot more when I was done pontificating, either, but I did try.

    Your Kiowa friend was undoubtedly correct about getting your ass kicked. Duh. That’s the price of the whistle. I may have the lyrics published somewhere on this site (can’t recall fore sure), but the first song I ever recorded in Nashville (no, it didn’t make me famous) goes like this:

    BLACK HILLS SAGA

    We took these hills from the Indian
    And now he’s a Native American
    He holds these Black Hills sacred, you know
    But that didn’t stop us from digging for gold

    Custer came ’cause he had it to do
    Just doing his job like me and you
    Crazy Horse kind of felt the same
    But he held a different hand in that card game

    We hear about reconciliation
    From sincere people and politicians
    There things change they seem same
    But it’s only karma, no need for shame

    If you worry about destination
    Consider reincarnation
    There’s always a factor of destiny
    We keep coming back till we get it clean

    I am your brother, red or white
    One of these days we’ll get it right
    It does not matter how long it takes
    The Creator is patient for mankind’s sake

    It loses a bit without the music. I wrapped it around a D minor chord, giving it a bit of a wailing sound, and throw in a chant (of sorts, nothing anybody would mistake for a true Native song). I was writing and singing that about midnight one night when my (6th) wife (Pam is my 7th) got up out of bed and came out to the living to find out what awesome song I’d found on the radio. She honestly thought it was a commercial recording.

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