I was invited to tell a story at a recent storytelling event. This is the story I chose to recount. It is true, and as accurate as my memory permits. I have the photograph.
Summer 1986. Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
I was driving cross country with my boyfriend, Andy, and on our way back east we visited Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. The site was a circus: tour buses, gift shop, maps of the battlefield, pristine white gravestones. Outside the chainlink fence, outside the gate, a member of the Navajo nation manned a table selling turquoise and silver jewelry. We left without riding the tour bus, without listening to the self-guided audio tour. We left and went to Wounded Knee. It was a day’s drive.
When we got there, we found one historical marker and a graveyard roughly the size of a family plot here in Delaware County. The entrance to the graveyard was marked by a brick and concrete archway, with some metalwork on top. There were bricks missing; the mortar was crumbling. We read grave markers: Elizabeth Fast Horse. Ann T. Respects Nothing. Wooden crosses hand lettered. We wandered through the plot, weedy, overgrown, crumbling. Next to the graveyard there had been a building but all that remained in 1986 was a cinderblock foundation.
We stood there, taking it all in, when a child arrived. If you are unfamiliar with the South Dakota landscape, there are no trees. No bushes, no shrubs, no houses, no buildings. Just emptiness, dust, sky and locusts. The boy just appeared, materialized out of the parched earth itself standing beside us. We asked him all the normal things adults tend to ask children although I was only 20 and neither adult nor child. What’s your name? Everett. How old are you? 11. Andy asked him “are you related to anyone who is buried here in this graveyard?” Everett jerked his thumb towards the nearest grave: “see that one there?” The cross read “Everett M. Jealous III” – “that’s my dad,” he said. Andy stalked off, kicking at weeds. Everett and I shared silence and space, the way 2 eleven year olds might. The comfortable silence of just being in the hot sun together, rattling around, looking for what to do next.
Half a dozen men on Honda Goldwing motorcycles with North Carolina plates pulled in, parked and began talking. Men aged 50 or 60 patted Everett on the head, told him he was a cute lil Indian feller, picked him up and sat him on their motorcycles, and took his photo. I retreated to the truck and waited.
They left as abruptly as they had arrived and Andy and I prepared to do the same. The key was in the ignition and my eyes were full of tears when Everett appeared at my window. He was shoving a poster in through the window, saying “here. I want you to have this.” He had not been holding it when we first saw him. It was clearly old, had been on somebody’s wall, was dog eared and yellowed. It was the image of the iconic painting The End of the Trail. The Lakota brave in the war bonnet sitting astride his pony, downcast, the pony’s head and tail are down, the warrior’s eyes are down. It is an image of defeat, but in this poster, there is a shadow of triumph. Behind the warrior, the his shadow is triumphant,, arms outstretched, sitting tall, pony’s mane and tail flying, ears pricked. It was beautiful. It was moving. I was blown away. I leapt out of the truck and dove into my duffel bag in the bed, pawing through all of my belongings, searching for something to give Everett in return. I came up with a t shirt I had purchased as a gift for friends back in New York – a shirt I bought in Seattle, white with black splotches on it. “Here.” I handed it to him and added “it’s cow moo flage.” And for the first time since I met him, Everett smiled. I went to get back in the truck but hesitated and asked “may I take your photo?” he said yes and he climbed up onto the archway at the entrance to Wounded Knee and he sat down and he looked away. I shot one frame and left. I did not stop crying for hours.