Two blocks south of my closed bedroom window, 20-year-old Wesley Bad Heart Bull fought for his life, and lost.
A gunshot would have rung with telltale clarity through the frigid January night, from one end of the dying railhead town of Buffalo Gap to the other, and probably would have jolted me from my sleep.
Maybe that is why Bad Heart Bull’s murderer used a knife. Knives don’t make much noise, but there would be plenty of noise a month later at the county seat up in Custer. When Bad Heart Bull’s murderer was given just a one-day sentence, violence erupted, and the Custer County Courthouse was set ablaze in February 1973, during a riot involving a couple of hundred AIM activists, and the Custer Chamber of Commerce building was turned to blackened rubble.
The intent of the courthouse protest was to demand justice for the death of Bad Heart Bull. AIM’s hackles had been justifiably raised a year earlier, by the beating death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, down in Gordon, Nebraska. Yellow Thunder came from the Pine Ridge Reservation town of Kyle, the hometown of the Giago clan, where my mother Ethel Giago had been raised, and it seemed I could not get away from some connection to these tragic deaths.
Given all the isolated towns on long stretches of remote blacktop, it is easy to understand why people are not aware of the connective threads that bind Lakota country tight, because the invasive, sprawling, impersonal Wasicu culture that encircles them, has few such connective threads.
Local magistrate Merton Tyce once admitted to one connective Wasicu thread, while talking to a French journalist. He admitted that a white defendant committing the same crime, with a similar criminal history, always got a lighter sentence (and the murderers of Bad Heart Bull and Yellow Thunder were textbook examples).
Tyce also admitted this was not just, but that it was largely unintentional, that the white defendant tended to resemble people the other white folks in the court system cared about, a father, a brother, a son, a husband, and the Lakota defendant did not. It was nice of Judge Tyce to come clean, but he was not nice the day he signed an arrest warrant for my mother, based on the bogus charge she had gotten drunk and assaulted my aunt.
My mother did not smoke or drink. She had never been arrested before, had never been in jail, had no criminal history. What she had done is move us out of the violent, drunken, self-destructive world she had been raised in on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
She chased my drunken Uncle Tony and his two binge buddies out the front door with a broom, the night they barged in from the winter cold and tossed us kids from our bunk beds. She also came home to find my Aunt Shirley sitting on our sofa with her friends, hard liquor bottles littering the coffee table. She ran them off, too, although she was considerate enough not to do it with a broom.
The result was police coming and arresting my mother, handcuffing her, and hauling her off to jail. When my aunt never even bothered to show up in court, Judge Tyce apologized for the arrest, but it was just another example of a criminal justice system failing the innocent people it was created to defend.
Had I not spent my life immersed in the violent, alcoholic, unjust world in and around reservations, I might believe most of the lies told by people on both sides of the conflict, scrambling to justify their actions.
Back in the early 1970s, none of us could see what fateful catalysts the deaths of Yellow Thunder and Bad Heart Bull would become, especially Yellow Thunder, as a camp named in his honor may have caused the unraveling of a grand strategy that could have returned the Black Hills.
Mario Gonzalez is a fellow Oglala, and my best friend.
He is one of the world’s leading experts on Indian Law, with a long and storied history of battling for tribal justice, against what he calls “a system of legalized theft.”
He was empowered by the tribe to file an eleventh-hour injunction that stopped the distribution of monies awarded for the Black Hills in June of 1980. That’s right, the Black Hills have already been sold, that’s what the $104 million was— payment for the Hills.
The other six Lakota bands sold the Hills. They had an attorney, Arthur Lazarus. His firm worked for a quarter-century to get those Hills sold at his client’s behest and then took his $10 million cut.
Mario told the tribal council that Lazarus had not renewed his contract with OST and so this loophole could be used as a pretext to opt-out. The council agreed, and in court, the government agreed, and this stopped the distribution of funds. When added to a subsequent $40 million Docket 74 award, another award Mario helped block from distribution, $2 billion now sits in the bank drawing interest.
Thing was, Mario now had an idea about how to get the Black Hills back, an idea that could very well have worked had opportunists not bungled everything. Mario devised a strategy that would start with establishing good stewardship of the Black Hills via well-managed encampments. But Mario wanted to take the time to lay the environment-friendly infrastructure for those camps.
A bill before Congress for the return of the Black Hills, a bill Mario drafted which later became the Bradley Bill, was the final step after good stewardship could be argued in court.
Unfortunately, loose lips sink ships. There was a man working in Mario’s office who ran off and told two people of Mario’s encampment strategy: Stanley Looking Elk and Russell Means. Looking Elk was OST president, and he had voted against all of Mario’s actions, motivated by the oldest and ugliest enemy of the Lakota people— nawizi, jealousy. Looking Elk decided to start a camp over at Wind Cave, where creation myths say the Lakota people walked up out of the earth, the horse right behind them. Means decided to start Yellow Thunder Encampment, an encampment he respectfully named in honor of Raymond Yellow Thunder.
In the end, the camps did not prove good stewardship. They proved bad stewardship: piles of garbage, scattered car parts, puddles of engine oil. Mario saw a picture of the carnage and knew the government attorneys would have a field day with that. Scratch the stewardship strategy.
There was still the Bradley Bill but Gerald Clifford spearheaded that when they should have just left it to Mario. He knew all the issues. He had all the expertise. There was only a Black Hills left to fight for because of Mario’s injunction strategy. But Mario was Spiola, an Oglala of Hispanic heritage, and in that regard, the tribe was as racist as the racist whites they decried.
Mario is mentioned prominently in the newspaper accounts of that time, but little in the subsequent history, testimonies and recollections. He has been blue-penciled because he is Spiola, and people cannot process a Spiola as a tribal hero. In the end, Clifford proved thin-skinned and contrary, jealous of any contributions that might be better than his contributions. Power went to his head, he created dissension and mistrust, and Bradley got sick of the whole mess. The bill was watered down, poorly networked and articulated, and it failed.
In Lakota country, almost every tribal member has a roller coaster seat through a turbulent, crisis-driven free-for-all, and there is one enemy out there greater than the violence that prompted this article, greater than the alcoholism that prompted the violence, an enemy as old as the tribe itself— nawizi, jealousy.
In the end, it will destroy us all. It will undermine every interaction, great and small. Jealousy will harden our hearts, soften our minds, dull our arrows, and keep our powder soaking wet. Jealousy creates malicious gossip and fosters abiding unkindness. Jealousy keeps us so deeply divided the Wasicu will never have to actually conquer us. We will be engaged fighting each other, tooth and nail, while he giddily waltzes off with all that remains of our world.
James Giago Davies has been a Lakota journalist since the 1980s, he is recently retired.