Easy Chair — From the December 2016 issue

Standing Rock Speaks

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Only as a story will this make sense. One morning in August, craving company, I walked around the corner from my apartment in Livingston, Montana, and sat down at the counter of Pinky’s Cafe. The place was unusually empty for the summer, which is when Livingston fills with visitors from all over the world. I ordered pancakes and gazed out through the big picture window onto Main Street. There were almost no cars, and not a single pedestrian. The town was sleepy. Dead.

I mentioned this to the café’s owner, who seemed surprised I hadn’t heard the news. The Yellowstone River, a world-class trout stream that is also the longest undammed river in the lower forty-eight and the key to the tourist economy of Livingston, had been closed by order of the state. No fishing. No boating or rafting. A quarantine. The cause was a fish kill. Whitefish had begun to wash up on the banks and there was a fear that the trout might also start dying. The immediate culprit was a parasite, a tiny jellyfish, but the larger culprit, it seemed, was climate change. Thanks to a hot, dry summer and a mild winter that had failed to replenish the snowpack in the Absaroka Mountains, the Yellowstone was running low and warm, stressing the fish and rendering them vulnerable to microscopic enemies.

Ten days later, in early September, the river had partially reopened, but the town was still deserted as I sat in my office reading Black Elk, by Joe Jackson, a comprehensive new biography of the fabled Sioux medicine man. I was thinking of writing a review, though really my interest in the book was personal and not easily explained, having to do with a series of strange events that followed my mother’s sudden death, five years earlier almost to the day. To describe these events in any detail might disqualify me as a rational, modern person, so suffice it to say that they involved wild birds — crows and ravens — appearing to me, both as symbols and as living creatures, at critical moments of gloom and indecision. When I told friends about the visitations they listened patiently enough, but only one, Sherman Alexie, the brilliant Native American fiction writer, noted their complex and often contradictory significance. After I spoke with him, I tracked down a copy of Black Elk Speaks, the 1932 oral history of the medicine man’s life on the Great Plains, which includes an account of his childhood vision of the spirit world. I found the book embarrassingly meaningful — embarrassingly because I learned that John Neihardt, its white editor, had molded and embellished the story, some said in order to appeal to dilettantes like me.

Jackson’s new biography rattled me with its relentless bleakness. Black Elk, who died in 1950 at the age of eighty-seven, was present at the annihilation of General Custer’s forces, saw the buffalo vanish from the plains, helped lead the apocalyptic Ghost Dance movement, and witnessed the horror of its aftermath: the massacre at Wounded Knee, which killed up to 300 Lakota, perhaps half of whom were women and children. His fate was to survive a rolling catastrophe with eyes wide open, his luck also his curse. A passage describing the murder of Sitting Bull, the beloved Hunkpapa Sioux chief, on the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas just weeks before the massacre finally forced me to set the book aside and turn on my phone for diversion.

“#StandingRock.” There it was again, that haunting place-name, linked on my Twitter feed to a photo of a dog snapping and leaping at a Native woman. I tapped on the associated article. Five hundred miles from me, in North Dakota, several thousand people, many of them Indians from different tribes, had gathered to protest an unfinished oil pipeline set to run under the Missouri River. They feared that an oil spill might harm the great body of water, which, as it happens, begins in Montana, just west of where I live, and eventually merges with the Yellowstone before flowing south through the Dakotas. Now they were under siege. Again. The attack dogs belonged to a private security firm hired by the pipeline company, and local police had blocked a nearby highway.

There are times as a reader when to keep on reading feels like an evasion. I stared at the book beside me on the couch, feeling angry, challenged, and inconvenienced. To merely review the biography seemed suddenly shameful; the traumas it conjured were still alive, and in the very same locales. My sense of critical distance had collapsed. In his vision, which came to him at the age of nine as he lay unconscious from a mysterious illness, Black Elk had looked down on the source of the Missouri, near the modern-day town of Three Forks, Montana, and beheld a hellish spectacle:

We came above a place where three streams made a big one — a source of mighty waters — and something terrible was there. Flames were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived. The dust was floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting.

I’m no expert on Native American symbolism, but burning water made me think of oil, and most blue men I know work for the police. As for the images of decay and drought, I could find them a few blocks away along the Yellowstone, whose shriveled channels still smelled of rotting fish.

I packed a duffel bag. Around midnight, two hundred miles down the road, a raven sailed through my high beams, deftly banking as it cleared my hood. Once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere, and it’s hard not to feel they’re somehow guiding you.

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