A sense of apprehension rides with us like a black cloud as we enter the Pine Ridge Reservation. Perhaps it’s the landscape, endlessly bleak—a sullen geology fitting the dark events that have transpired here in South Dakota between the sacred Black Hills and the Badlands. As we drive out from Rapid City we look ahead for the soaring red and lavender rock spires shown in tourist brochures, hoping to see them lifting up from the horizon to relieve the oppressive flatlands monotony. Then we realize that the Badlands don’t rise up from the landscape, they drop off from it—an eroded netherworld of grotesquely beautiful forms glowing somberly in the quick-changing light; at sundown they are a range of shifting primal colors, from palest saffron-yellow to blood-streaked orange to foreboding scarlet-red.
We’re looking for Mathew King, a well-known Traditionalist spokesman of the Lakota people. (“Don’t call us Sioux”, we are repeatedly admonished. That’s White Man’s name for us. We are Lakota.”) We finally reach the little reservation community of Kyle—a school, a couple of stores, a café, a crossroads of intersecting blacktops that quickly become dirt, and a cluster of crumbling government-built houses. A neighbor’s gaunt-ribbed dog snarls menacingly but keeps a cautious distance as we knock on Mathew King’s screen door.
The short, white-hairs, almost impish man before us grins in welcome. “Come on in.” He leads us through the kitchen into the living room, sparsely but warmly furnished, and motions for us to sit down on a well-worn couch. He sits down in a chair directly across from us. Thought the room is dim, Mathew’s smile radiates it’s own illumination.
The wall behind him is peppered with small holes. “Goons from the Tribal Council did that,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “They accused me of protecting the AIM people, so they shot up the house. Used a shotgun, right through the window. My granddaughter was lying right there on the couch where you’re sitting. I didn’t do nothing. They never investigated it. But we know who they are. Later on those guys got beaten up pretty bad, but we didn’t kill them. I told our boys, ‘Don’t kill them’. I don’t believe in violence. But if I take my guns I can do a lot of damage. I’m an Indian warrior. I’ll fight till they kill me!”
He waves his hand when we try to explain why we’re here. “I know why you’re here! White Man came to this country and forgot his original Instructions. We have never forgotten our Instructions. So you’re here looking for the Instructions you lost. I can’t tell you what those where, but maybe there are some things I can explain. It’s time Indians tell the world what we know…about nature and about God. So I’m going to tell you what I know and who I am You guys better listen. You got a lot to learn.”
He leans forward in his chair and looks into us, right through us.
“I’m an Indian. I’m one of God’s children. My Indian name is Noble Red Man. That was my grandfather’s name. I’m a chief. I say what I have to say. That’s my duty. If I don’t say it, who’s going to say it for me? I’m a prophet of the Indian people. I can see what’s coming. I prophesy what’s going to happen. I can look right into your eyes and heart and see if you’re lying or trying to cheat. I can see if you mean harm to the Indian people. “
“Call me a chief of the Lakota. I’m a speaker for the chiefs. I walk with the Great Spirit, with God. I talk to Him. The Great Spirit guides me in my life. Sometimes He comes to me and tells me what to say. Other times I just speak for myself, for Mathew King.”
“I’ve got Red Cloud’s peace pipe. They gave me that when they made me a chief. I wouldn’t accept it in the beginning. He’s a great man. He made all those treaties. He fought when he had to and beat the White Man’s soldiers. Wiped Custer out. He had a lot of powers. But I’d rather solve my problems through peace. I also have Black Bear’s pipe and Noble Red Man’s. The Peace Pipe is our only weapon. It’s our holy power. It’s God’s powers. The Pipe mediates between man and God. To receive the Pipe, to receive God’s gift, you’ve got to be pure in your heart, mind, body, and soul. And never forget that after the prayers you’ve got to live that life, a life with God. That’s the hardest part.”
“God made everything so simple. Our lives are very simple. We do what we please. The only law we obey is the natural law, God’s law. We abide only by that. We don’t need your church. We have the Black Hills for our church. And we don’t need your Bible. We have the wind and the rain and the stars for our Bible. The world is an open Bible for us. We Indians have studied it for millions and millions of years. We’ve learned that God rules the universe and that everything God made is living. Even the rocks are alive. When we use them in our sweat ceremony we talk to them and they talk back to us.”
“When we want wisdom we go up on the hill and talk to God. Four days and four nights, without food and water. Yes, you can talk to God up on a hill by yourself. You can say anything you want. Nobody’s there to listen to you. That’s between you and God and nobody else. It’s a great feeling to be talking to God. I know. I did it way up on the mountain. The wind was blowing. It was dark. It was cold. And I stood there and I talked to God.”
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