Out to Indian Country, 1985 and now

I’m looking out the window at fifteen fat juicy wild turkeys grazing in our yard and they make my stomach growl. That’s all the food I’ve got for this week. Wild turkey pate… Wild turkey soup… Wild turkey anything…

But let’s finally get to one my favorite parts of the world…


Notes from the Prairie, January 1985

PrairieThe prairie just south of Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. It seems infinite.

I’m connected to Indian Country in South Dakota through my wife’s experience there back in 1985 when she was in college, and opted to spend the month of January teaching school on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation (CRIR) in the north-central part of the state. She lived in the small Lakota community of Blackfoot — maybe a dozen houses perched on a treeless hilltop. This is January, remember, and the winter we just had in Maine can’t hold a candle to January on the treeless prairie in the northern Plains.

I asked her to throw together some memories and thoughts on that experience, and she sent these along:

– 80 degrees windchill, happy kids…

The big thing that struck me was the sharing and caring among the children. With such extreme poverty, any useful material thing, like good winter gloves, was to be shared with whomever needed it in the moment. 

Many kids had one or both parents away for extended periods of time (fathers off on construction jobs or in jail, mothers away gambling or working far away) – so the kids were on their own and took care of each other.

They were so HAPPY. Laughing, being free, no whining – even those who were chronically sick from living in cold without good heat or winter clothes. No fighting. They accepted each other completely, including those with disabilities. Children of all ages were always welcome, i.e., the little ones when older ones were playing/gathered. They LOVED dancing – pow wow, and break dancing was huge.

Indian humor, good-natured teasing: They amused themselves endlessly, carefully explaining the natural world to an 18 year-old New York City girl… “Those are stars…” (there is nothing like the SD sky in January), or during a rare thaw, “Look, this is a blade of grass…”

(That fits with my experiences with Indian friends or acquaintances in New Mexico: when they’re relaxed with you they don’t mind delivering some gentle gibing.)

The kids were enthralled with my curly hair, girls bringing me curling irons and asking, “Can you make my hair like yours?”


Drummers and dancers at the Presentation College awards and graduations Wacipi ceremony, May 3 2008, Eagle Butte, SD on the Cheyenne River Reservation

And now we go down to the river, where in winter cows frequently fall through the ice and die.

My first day there: The YMCA sent a crate of ice skates up with me. I took 10 kids ages 3-16 skating on the frozen Missouri River. It was THE thing the kids were all waiting for (“The YMCA Lady is here! She brought ice skates!”), and we went out many times. I’d never been on a frozen river before, let alone with a small army of children in my charge, and they eagerly assured me the river “always sounded like that, it was fine.” One girl who had some developmental disabilities suddenly had to pee and before I knew it she took off her clothes – it was probably in the single digits and blowing (always). Within seconds she was too frozen to dress, so I did, had her put her arms inside under her clothes instead of in her sleeves and we raced her home across snow and ice. ALL the other kids cheerfully helped and came back with us, no one laughed at her or acted disgusted. It was just her and her (dis)ability, and the other kids lovingly prioritized her needs in the moment.

The adults were appalled that an 18 year-old (me) couldn’t drive. The response? They wordlessly handed me the keys to the truck one morning so I could drive everyone to church. More laughter along the way… The church (Catholic or Episcopal type mass, can’t recall which, I think the former) was in a little building with a wood stove struggling off to the side – everyone stayed happily bundled up to their eye balls throughout the service.

EagleButteEagle Butte, SD, the CRIR’s tribal capital. This is most of the town.

My host family lived in a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs house, which was small but sturdy and had heat and running water. Kids from another family eagerly asked me to have a sleepover one night at their house, which was not BIA. The kids from this family in particular had constant coughs, runny noses, and more (I’d already given my suede gloves with lamb’s wool to one of them as they had no real winter clothes), and the adults had as many and worse health problems. Their house: basically wood with tin roof (or materials close to that, no real insulation as I recall); one room where everyone slept, parents in one bed, four kids (and me that night) in the other, with a wood stove; a kitchen with a bucket in the corner that served as the bathroom, or you used the outhouse outside (as I did, intense cold being preferable to a kitchen bucket to most 18 year old females). They loaded up the wood stove before going to bed, the fire of course burned out in the night, and the next morning it was -10 F outside when the kids and I all trundled out to catch the school bus, and maybe 0 in the house. That was how they lived.

My host family had a very popular Foosball table. The12 year old “owner” kept a funnel stuck into the side of the table that served as a spittoon for their chewing tobacco.


To this day she stays in touch with her host family from 30 years ago, and we’ve both been out to visit them twice in recent years, stay a few days, do some photography, go to a pow wow. My own sense is that the same community spirit of watching out for each other still prevails. There have been some improvements in recent years getting homes equipped with running water, but most of the problems and hardships from the ’80s continue to hang on.


Young people, especially, have been hard hit by the poverty and limited opportunity on the res (the county is fifth poorest in the U.S.). There was a rash of teen suicides a few years ago, and depression and suicidal behavior continue to be a problem for kids. A bright spot is the Cheyenne River Youth Project, in Eagle Butte, currently serving 369 CRIR families. Hope you’ll take a look.


Next time we’ll come back, visit Pine Ridge, and a large buffalo ranch in the southwest part of the state.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.