by Fen Montaigne
This article is a reprint of a 1989 copyrighted story from the Feb. 26,1989, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER of Philadelphia, Penn. It is reprinted here [MOBRIDGE TRIBUNE, March 15,1989] by permission. The article was written by INQUIRER reporter Fen Montaigne who came to Standing Rock last summer to do his research for the article.
The snow began falling on Monday and continued, off and on, for the next six days, piling up a foot and half on the wild, rolling prairie of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Missouri River, the reservation’s eastern boundary, was frozen, and to the west stretched a broad expanse of snow-covered hills and buttes, broken occasionally by a ranch or Indian village. The snow stopped on Saturday, the skies cleared, and the hamlet of Wakpala, South Dakota, came to life. At the north end of town, Sylvan George Beautiful Bald Eagle emerged from the tiny, two-room wood house he shared with his wife and five children and began chopping firewood.
The flurry of activity was due in part to the weather lifting, but it could also be explained by the arrival of the welfare checks. Nearly three-quarters of the Indians on Standing Rock receive welfare or other government assistance, and the economic life of the reservation ebbs and flows with the checks. When word spread that the money had gotten through, descendants of Gall, Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face and other Sioux warriors who dispatched Custer at the Little Big Horn trudged through the snow to the Wakpala post office to collect their stipend from Uncle Sam.
One of those getting a check was John LaFromboise, a half-brother of George Bald Eagle. Lafromboise was a young man who spent most of his time watching TV, drinking and hanging out with friends in the village, this day he borrowed his mother’s car and drove 10 miles to the off-reservation town of Mobridge, S.D. where he bought gas, groceries and a half-gallon of vodka. Upon his return to Wakpala, he headed for his brother’s house, where he found Bald Eagle at the woodpile.
Standing in the bitter cold LaFromboise proffered the vodka. Bald Eagle, a short, well-built man whose handsome features had gone puffy with drink, had vowed not to touch alcohol again, and he refused the bottle. But Lafromboise persisted – he did not want to drink alone. By night fall, the two brothers had consumed most of the half-gallon. Bald Eagle’s wife angered that he was drunk, stormed out, leaving Bald Eagle with their five children, all age 4 or younger in a house that lacked running water and a toilet and was heated only by a wood stove. She would not return that night.
Later in the evening, Friends saw Bald Eagle near his house. He was on his knees, reeking of alcohol, trying to shovel snow. At some point, he stoked the fire in the wood stove, left the house and stumbled through the village, eventually passing out at his sister-in-law’s. Early the next morning, spilled ashes from the stove started a smoldering fire. By daybreak, Bald Eagle’s five children were dead.
The most unusual thing about the fire, which occurred on March 1,1987, was its very ordinariness. What would be freak calamities in most American communities have become almost routine events in the scattered villages that are the heart of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In Wakpala, a place no bigger than a typical suburban block, seven children and two adults died in alcohol-related fires in a recent seven-month period. In Little Eagle, a community of several hundred, three people were murdered in drunken fights in a six-week period. In Cannon Ball, alcohol-related child neglect is widespread; recently, a baby girl was born brain-damaged and smelling of alcohol because her mother drank heavily during pregnancy.
Making sense of a place like Standing Rock is not easy, for it is beyond the experience of those who live in the East. First, there is the land itself – endless, rugged and beautiful. Standing Rock sprawls over 2.3 million acres of western North Dakota and South Dakota. The reservation is half the size of New Jersey, yet only 5,000 to 6,000 Indians and several thousand whites live there. It is possible to drive for miles without passing a car or a house. Coyotes, antelope and prairie dogs come into view from time to time, and in summer golden eagles circle overhead, lazily riding the hot winds. The vista is unbroken from horizon to horizon, and the rare rainstorms can be seen from miles away, with stunning clarity, advancing over the prairie.
Set against this backdrop is a jarring poverty. Villages such as Wakpala resemble nothing so much a ghettos grafted onto the lovely, fawn-colored prairie. Near Wakpala, a dump fire smolders, and garbage blows across the buffalo grass. Junked cars sit on dirt front yards, tumbleweed bounces down the streets, stray dogs sulk among the federally built houses. The structures, strewn along the hillside above Oak Creek, are scarred and mud-spattered. Inside, tiles peel off floors, pipes leak, and the winter wind shakes the dwellings to the core. Villagers generally drive aging clunkers, and the rumble of their engines fills the air. Alcoholics wander the landscape like ghosts. The village’s largest structure, a gymnasium built with federal dollars in the 1960’s is riddled with gaping holes and surrounded by rubble. Across the street is a reminder of a more self-reliant era – a root cellar, made of stone, where Indians once stored vegetables from their gardens, Now, there is scarcely a garden in sight.
That Standing Rock has become a breeding ground of sorrow is beyond dispute: Traditional Sioux culture has been shattered, the economy is a shambles, welfare is king, alcoholism is rampant. More than $200 million in federal funds has been spent here in the last quarter-century, yet the reservation remains an economic wasteland. Not one sizable Indian business or industry exists. Three quarters of the adult population is unemployed. The two counties that make up Standing Rock are among the 25 poorest in the United States.
On Standing Rock, and on numerous other reservations throughout the country, much has gone haywire. Federal programs designed to make America’s 800,000 reservation Indians independent have had precisely the opposite effect. On Standing Rock, the tribal government preaches economic self-determination yet works hand-in-hand with a powerful white trader who epitomizes the company-store system that has reigned on the reservation for more than a century. Tribal councilmen rail at the federal government for ruining the reservation economy, then take tens of thousands of dollars meant to bring businesses to Standing Rock and squander it on junkets. Hundreds of Indians receive huge amounts of free food from the government, then turn around and sell it to white ranchers on a thriving black market.
In affixing blame for the mess on this and many other reservations, all eyes traditionally have turned to Washington, and with good reason: The federal government’s mistreatment of Native Americans is legendary. But a visit to Standing Rock suggests that things are more complicated and that clinging to the view that it is all Washington’s fault may actually be impeding the progress. In hamlets such as Wakpala and little Eagle, villagers offer up this news: The tribe’s leaders – now the dominant force on Standing Rock – are failing the people as badly as the federal government has. And many Indians, withered by the pervasive welfare system, are failing each other.
Left to live with these conditions are Indians such as George Bald Eagle, who is now serving a six-year sentence in federal prison for negligence in the deaths of his children. A soft spoken man with a halting manner and downcast gaze, Bald Eagle has struggled with the demons that pursued his father – alcoholism, joblessness, finding his place in American society. In his 37 years, Bald Eagle and his family have had to live with the wild swings of American Indian policy and with a chronically incompetent tribal government. Shortly before the fire, things had been looking up for Bald Eagle: He was holding down a job as a health worker in Wakpala, and he was drinking less. But the downward pull of reservation life – personified by the appearance of John LaFromboise at the woodpile, half-gallon of vodka in hand – proved too strong.
Bald Eagle’s story, and the story of his reservation, provide a compelling look at the nation’s failure to solace one of its most enduring problems: how to ensure a decent life for the original inhabitants of the continent.
To make sense of George Bald Eagle’s life, it is necessary to understand one basic truth: The federal government has conquered the Indians of Standing Rock twice – first with its calvary, then with its largesse. Increasingly, the dominant culture here is welfare, not Sioux.
From the provision of bacon, blankets, farm implements and cattle promised in the 19th century treaties, the reservation system has blossomed on Standing Rock and elsewhere into an elaborate welfare state. Special Indian programs provide food, health care, education, scholarships, housing, welfare for able-bodied men, fuel assistance, burial insurance and other benefits. Often the aid is inadequate, the care substandard. But the coverage is cradle-to-grave, and it is possible for many tribal members to get by without lifting a finger.
“The federal government has pumped money in here for years, and all we do is regress,” said Joe Keepseagle, a tribal member and 30-year Bureau of Indian Affairs employee. “My father talked about how, years ago, people lived on the land, had gardens. Now they have moved into town and become dependent on massive federal payments. The structure of society falls apart. I have witnessed that over the years. It’s destroying us.”
No situation better illustrates how federal aid has backfired then the black market in commodities. Several days each month, a tractor-trailer loaded with free food rumbles over the reservation’s roads, stopping in Wakpala, Little Eagle and other villages. One morning last March, the truck pulled into Cannon Ball, N.D., a motley assortment of pastel-colored houses overlooking the Missouri River. At 11 a.m., workers began handing out U.S.Department of Agriculture foods marked “Not to be sold or exchanged.”
Among those picking up commodities were Freland Dog Skin and Delbert Cloud, two unemployed, middle-aged tribal members. Loading the food into a friend’s car, they drove 13 miles across the snow-dusted prairie to Solon, N.D., a tiny settlement just inside the reservation. There, in a dirt lot, they met a white man from one of the ranching communities to the north. The man picked through the boxes and cans of meat, vegetables, juices, pasta and evaporated milk, then put the goods into his car. He handed the Indians $15 and drove north across the Cannonball River. Cloud walked into a nearby grocery store and bought two half-gallons of Gold Bell White Port with a $10 bill. Twenty minutes later, he and Dog Skin were back in Cannon Ball, drinking wine in the 40-degree air and watching the winter’s ice melt on the Missouri River.
Nearly half the 5,000 or more Indians on Standing Rock receive free food from the government: About two million pounds of commodities, worth $2 million, are doled out each year. Officials estimate that as many as half the recipients peddle some of their food on the black market. “The quantities of commodities you get are amazing,” said Cedric Good House, a Tribal alcoholism counselor. “The non-indians look at them as groceries. The Indians look at them as cash. Alcoholics are depriving their kids of commodities.”
“Twenty years ago, people did not try and beat the system,” said Red Gates, director of Standing Rock’s commodities program. “but then, they threw all this low-income money at us, and people wanted to use it for alcohol, so they came up with schemes, and it caught on. In the mid ’70’s you could see it really start to deteriorate. It has gotten completely out of hand now.”
About half the tribe’s members receive welfare payments through the BIA’s general assistance (GA) program or through the national welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC). Hundreds more live off Social Security or Veterans Administration (VA) benefits. Listen to Nora Hawk, an elderly Wakpala resident, go down the list of her neighbors:
“This place, the man gets GA, the wife works in school as a teacher’s aide. Sam, he’s on GA. The next place, they don’t work. The next place is a Social Security couple. The next place is GA. The next place, he gets a VA pension. The next place, the old lady there gets Social Security, and her grandson is on the tribal work program. The next place, she is on Social Security, and the boy is on GA. Across the street, they have three daughters. He gets a VA pension, and the daughters get AFDC…”
Hundreds of men sit idle in reservation villages every day, but Indian ranchers say it is difficult to find people willing to work. “All they’re worried about is that welfare check that will be coming in two weeks,” Said Indian rancher James Jamerson. “They’re living from day to day, just surviving. They say, `Why should I work? I’ve got welfare.’ That makes crooks out of them. They have no ambition to better themselves. I think they have totally lost their pride.”
Though a welfare culture has taken root in many inner cities, nowhere is it as strong as on reservations such as Standing Rock, far removed from the mainstream American economy. Says Norvell Laurent, a black social worker who has worked on Standing Rock for 10 years, “When I see the situation here, I am thankful that black people didn’t have the kind of agreements that Indians have with the U.S….A person can spend his entire life here, and all their basic needs can be met without struggling at all. Even in the welfare system off the reservations, it’s a struggle in the ghetto.”
The fits and starts of American Indian policy run through George Bald Eagle’s life, marking his years like growth rings on a tree. Bald Eagle was born in 1951, at the dawn of what the government said would be a new era for Native Americans: assimilation. Indians would be moved off reservation to cities, where they would get good jobs, blend into white society and claim their piece of American dream. Tens of thousands of Indians left the reservations in the 1950’s. Among them were Dave and Rena Bald Eagle, their daughter and their infant son, George.
The family moved to Los Angeles, where Dave Bald Eagle worked in a repair shop until his heavy drinking soured their stay. Then, like thousands of other Indians unwilling or unable to blend into American life, the family returned to the reservation. In Washington, the assimilation policy came under attack for its attempt to end the longstanding U.S. recognition of tribes as quasi-independent nations, and eventually the policy was scrapped.
George Bald Eagle fondly recalls his boyhood, when he swam, fished, rode horseback and picked wild cherries near his home along the Grand River. It was there, and in the bottomlands of the Missouri River, that the last vestiges of traditional Sioux culture flourished. Since moving onto the Great Plains in the 1700’s, the Sioux – or Lakota, as they called themselves – had wintered along the rivers. The bottomlands offered protection from the brutal Plains weather,and the sheltering cottonwoods, oaks and ashes contained abundant game. In George Bald Eagle’s youth, bands of extended families continued to live in the bottomlands, cultivating gardens, picking natural medicines and wild fruits. Though the federal government provided some free food, Indians along the rivers often supported themselves.
The place resonated with Lakota history. Just a few miles west of Bald Eagle’s home, on the flats of the grand river, was the spot where Sitting Bull was shot and killed on Dec. 15, 1890, by Indian police officers working for the Army. Up the road was Chief Gall’s grave. Bald Eagle’s grandfather, Harry Bone Club, told stories of his own father’s participation in the battle of the Little Big Horn.
The old way of life along the rivers ended in the bitter winter of 1960. It was then that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as part of a massive flood-control and hydroelectric power project on the Missouri River, finished the Oahe Dam. When the floodgates were closed, 56,000 acres of bottomland on Standing Rock were inundated. All told, one quarter of the tribe’s members – about 800 people at the time – were uprooted. Entire villages were abandoned, their residents relocated onto the top of the windswept prairie. What happened on Standing Rock – the destruction by the federal government of vital Indian resources – was repeated on reservations throughout the nation.
Forced out of their Grand River home, George Bald Eagle’s family moved into Wakpala. It was an excellent vantage point from which young Bald Eagle could witness the next phase of American Indian policy: the flood of federal dollars from the Great Society. He watched as Indians were moved from isolated homesteads into ghetto-like clusters of public housing. He watched as federal funds were used throughout the reservation to build gymnasiums, community centers, a housing factory, a bowling alley, a restaurant, an arts-and-crafts store. He watched, too, as they closed, one by one, usually the victim of mismanagement by the tribal government.
The most conspicuous failure was the Chief Gall Inn, just a few miles from Bald Eagle’s home. Opened in l973 at a cost to the federal government of $2.1 million, the 48-room, tepee-shaped motel was poorly planned by Washington and even more poorly run by the tribe. Tribal councilmen ran up large, unpaid bar bills and packed the payroll with relatives and friends. “It was a joke,” said Robert McLaughlin, then an economic planner for the tribe. “It rapidly dissolved of its own weight.” The motel closed in 1977.
George Bald Eagle’s teenage years were shadowed by the heavy drinking of his stepfather (his father had left when George was a toddler, and his mother had remarried). Bald Eagle liked sports and became a basketball star at Wakpala’s tiny high school. “I started out being a good boy,” Bald Eagle said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Center in Milan, Mich. “But through my high school years, I started drinking, too, just like everybody else that grew up there. I thought I was a big shot or something.”
He graduated in l972 and was faced with the dilemma of most young Indians on Standing Rock: There was little to do. Decades of mismanagement had thwarted the development of a reservation economy – a situation long blamed on the federal government. But as tribal failures mounted in the 1970’s, and as Congress shifted more and more power from the federal to the tribal governments, Indians on Standing Rock began to see that the problem was not only in Washington. It was also in Fort Yates, 40 miles to the north, where their elected tribal leaders were running a government plagued by incompetence, nepotism and petty corruption.
In an obscure program with the acronym TERO can be found a lesson about why the Indian government of Standing Rock has failed to dent the reservation’s cycle of poverty and dependence. TERO was begun in 1984 with high hopes and a simple concept: Tax outside companies doing business on the reservation and use the proceeds to create new businesses and jobs. Over the years, TERO – the Tribal Employment Rights Office – collected $201,000. Yet not one new business was created, and now, only $2,000 remains in the account. Where did the money go? Roughly half was used by the tribal government for trips of questionable worth, and the rest went for administrative expenses.
One victim of the program was the Standing Rock Construction Co. The tribe was to have set aside $30,000 in TERO funds for the firm, which would have employed large numbers of tribal members to build houses and do other constructive work on the reservation. But the money was squandered on travel, and today Standing Rock Construction is no more than a piece of paper, employing no one.
“TERO,” said tribal finance director Larry Luger, “has become a slush fund for the council.”
In 1987 alone, dipping into TERO, as well as various federal accounts, 17 tribal council members and other tribal employees spent $430,000 on travel. Many of the trips were little more than junkets. On Dec. 8, 1987, for example, three members of the Standing Rock Tribal Council and three tribal employees flew to Las Vegas for a two-day seminar on Indian business development. The trip cost $6,013 and accomplished little or nothing. Councilman Mike Faith spent time at the gaming tables while the seminar was in session, and he returned to the reservation talking not, of business development but of a casino show by the country singer George Strait. Councilwoman Maxine White Bull also went; in an interview last year, she could not recall the purpose of the trip.
Some council members file fraudulent expense reports. On Feb. 7 and Feb. 8, 1988, six councilmen went to Billings, Mont., for a meeting with federal officials on irrigation. Each councilman contended that he had driven the l,0l8 miles to and from Billings, and each received at least $305 in mileage expenses, tribal records show. In fact, only two of the six drove.
Each council member has at his or her disposal a $5,000 fund, to be used for travel or for constituents who need emergency money or food, shelter or clothing. But numerous council members merely dole out these public funds to themselves or relatives. In a five-month period in 1987 and 1988, Councilwoman Elsie Martin gave $l,925 in tribal funds to her daughters and their husbands. Councilman Jasper Iron Cloud gave $l,867 to his relatives, including $662 to his wife. Councilwoman Maxine White Bull gave $1,200 to relatives, including a $500 emergency grant to her husband because “he didn’t have no job, and our bills were piling up.” Asked about a second emergency grant of $150 to her husband on Jan. 11, 1988, she replied, “Uh, let’s see. He had to get something. It was a bill he had to pay. I think it was our light bill.”
In the villages of Standing Rock – where dozens of families have no indoor plumbing or running water – such actions have left Indians scornful of their elected leaders. “The tribal government isn’t helping our people,” said Issac Dog Eagle, a Little Eagle resident. “They’re now just as corrupt as any political organization in the United States.”
In 1975, George Bald Eagle left Standing Rock, just as his father had done a quarter-century before. He did not go far, driving 100 miles east to Aberdeen, S.D., where he took a job in a 3-M plant. With him were his high school sweetheart, Rosemary Ducheneaux, and their two young sons. This was Bald Eagle’s chance to make it off the reservation, and for a time, life looked promising. He worked on an assembly line that manufactured painter’s masks, eventually making $5.72 an hour. Hoping to become a counselor, he took psychology courses at Northern State College.
“We both worked, and we had it pretty good, to the point where we wasn’t really struggling,” Bald Eagle said. “We had everything that we needed, had some dollars left over, you know.
George and Rosemary were married in 1976. Then, in a replay of his father’s move to Los Angeles in the 1950s, things went downhill. Work on the assembly line was drudgery, and, with his limited education, the chances of advancement looked dim. His drinking worsened. “I drank pretty heavy when I did drink,” he said. “If I was going to drink, I went to where I just blanked out.”
In 1978, Bald Eagle’s sojourn to the outside world fell apart when his wife took their two sons and returned to Standing Rock. “It was my drinking, I guess,” he said. Rosemary divorced Bald Eagle and, with a tribal court order limiting his visiting rights, he rarely saw his sons again. Bald Eagle bounced aimlessly around South Dakota, taking jobs building grain bins or laying pipeline. Off the reservation, he felt out of place. On the reservation, he was confronted by a 75 percent unemployment rate and runaway alcoholism.
“The reservation is like some place that just draws you right back,” Bald Eagle said. “I don’t know…, you tend to go back there all the time. But back home there’s just nothing for people to do. You wake up, you just got no place to go, you know? You want to look for something, look for a job, and there’s no job. But there’s always that bottle there, you know? The alcohol. Somebody’s always got a bottle some way or another.”
Fifteen miles west of Wakpala, in the village of Little Eagle, Chris Fire Cloud and his son, Ben sat behind their decrepit two-room frame house, under a grove of cottonwood trees, taking in the pleasant fall afternoon and drinking Lysol. Over the last several years, the spray disinfectant has become the drink of choice for many alcoholics on the reservation. It is cheap, only a couple of collars for a large can. And it is powerful, containing 79 percent ethyl alcohol. It’s also easy to make the Lysol-and-water concoction known variously as an “I-90 cocktail” or “Montana gin.” On that afternoon, Oct. 7,1987, the Fire Clouds had punched two holes in the top of the can, and out hissed the aerosol. They poured the disinfectant into an empty bottle, cut it with a quart or two of water, and were off.
Late in the day, a neighbor saw Ben Fire Cloud passed out in the back yard, and shortly after midnight, the neighbor discovered the house in flames. Elray Fire Cloud, another son who lived with his father, was swatting the fire with a blanket and screaming for help. Within minutes the house had burned to the ground, killing Chris and Ben Fire Cloud.
Two days later, all that remained were charred timbers, two wood-burning stoves, an iron bed, and a dozen or so blackened lysol cans, holes punched in the tops. A few steps away was the Fire Cloud’s garbage pile, and heaped upon it were used cans of government commodities, green bottles of Royal Host White Port, fifths of Clear Spring grain alcohol, and scores of Lysol cans. Police concluded later that the blaze had begun when a kerosene lamp on a stove caught fire.
Lysol drinking is the most recent example of the alcoholism that is tearing apart the close family structure that has long been a cornerstone of Lakota culture. Tribal and federal officials estimate that 20 percent to 50 percent of the adults on Standing Rock are alcoholics. Two-thirds of the crimes and more than half the hospital admissions are alcohol-related. Here, and nationwide, Indians are nearly five times as likely as other racial groups to die of alcohol-related illnesses and accidents. Recent research has found a direct relationship between the length of time an ethnic group has been exposed to alcohol and its rate of alcoholism. Worldwide, Native Americans (including Eskimos), who have the highest rate of alcoholism, have been exposed to alcohol for the shortest length of time.
Five days after the fire, Chris and Ben Fire Cloud were buried at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, a small, white frame building nestled in the folds of the prairie 10 miles outside Little Eagle. The church was filled to overflowing, and children scrambled up and down the aisle throughout the service. With the front door open, the hymns, sung in Lakota, poured out of Good Shepherd and washed over the families leaning on cars outside. Six of Chris Fire Cloud’s surviving sons were in the front row. Among them was Elray, a man addicted to sniffing gasoline. He stared at the floor, his black hair falling like a curtain across his face.
Virgil Taken Alive, a tribal councilman who wears his hair in long braids, stood and eulogized his cousin. “The thing I’ll always remember my cousin Ben for was all the help he gave to me and my family when there was work to be done,” Taken Alive said. “Whenever you did something in the community, you could always count on Ben to help. Now I can’t say to my brothers, `Let’s go get Ben, he’ll help us.’ When I heard of Chris and Benny’s death, I cried that morning. I cried in the old way. I know my cousin Ben, and I know I will see him again with my brothers, Art and Jack. They all died because of alcohol. We’ve got to get back to the things we used to have, what we used to be until alcohol got control of our lives.”
The congregation moved outside, a hearse leading the way to the cemetery, 200 yards distant. It was a glorious autumn day – 60 degrees, a steady breeze, an immense, blue, cloudless sky pouring a crystalline light over the hills and buttes. The mourners crushed the gray-green sage plants underfoot, and the menthol smell filled the air.
The minister, his swarthy face highlighted by a shock of white hair, stood on the prairie amid the plain white wooden crosses and intoned, “Man is born of woman and has a short time to live and is full of miser[y].” Older women, their heads wrapped in scarves, watched impassively. A pot-bellied honor guard fired a four-gun salute, a relative wailed, a man and woman played guitar and sang “We Will Meet on the Beautiful Shore,” and Elray Fire Cloud lifted his head for what seemed like the first time that day and cried.
GEORGE BALD EAGLE’S WANDERINGS ended in 1983 when he met and married Rosella Bird Horse. Bald Eagle adopted her son, Evan, and gave him the Bald Eagle name. In short order, George and Rosella produced four more children: twins Kristelle and Kara, born June 9, 1984; Sondra, born June 14, 1985; and Sylvan George Beautiful Bald Eagle Jr., born Jan. 30, 1987.
Bald Eagle reveled in his new family. By all accounts, he was a good father, often taking the older children to basketball games. “There wasn’t much you could do out there, but whatever I did, I’d be with my kids most the time,” Bald Eagle said. “Evan, I liked the little guy. He wasn’t mine, but I took him in. I treated him like my son. He had a personality of his own, laughing all the time. He was a happy little guy. The twins, they were great. All my time with them was good. And Sondra, she was walking. Little George, he seemed like he knew me. Mainly I was the one feeding him late at night. I could get him to smile.”
Bald Eagle relied on an endless round of welfare and odd jobs to support his family. Then, in 1986, for the first time in his life, he got a job he liked. Through a government program designed to get tribal members off welfare, Bald Eagle was hired as an assistant to Wakpala’s community health worker, Eloese Ducheneaux. He seemed to find himself at last, learning first-aid, transporting patients, delivering medicine and even attending a training course in Rapid City, S.D., for emergency medical technicians.
“George was a really good father and really good at his job,” said Ducheneaux. “We had a lot of workers, and he was the only one who wanted to be an emergency medical technician. He was the only one who really showed an interest in it. He didn’t drink that much and only one time missed work because of his drinking.”
I liked it,” Bald Eagle said, “It made me feel good. It made me feel like I was helping somebody, like I was making something out of myself.”
Still living in Wakpala was a grinding struggle as he and Rosella tried to find decent housing and to support a large family on his $350-a-month salary. They lived in a van, then in a home without water, adequate heat or an oven. Finally, they settled into the two-room house that had no electricity or running water but was well-insulated and warm. George and Rosella slept in the back room and put the children in the front room, by the wood stove. Rosella often melted snow to wash dishes, George hauled drinking water from relatives, and they would go to his mother’s home in the federal housing area to bathe. In the winter, returning from work at 4:30, Bald Eagle would chop wood, then get up several times during the night to stoke the fire.
“I’d put wood in and stay up and wait awhile and make sure it got warm in the house before I went and laid down again,” Bald Eagle said. “I’d check up on the kids and see if they’re all OK, make sure everything was secure before I went back to bed. I tried to create a home somehow for my family, even though the place wasn’t that great.”
Just buying food or diapers was an ordeal, since Bald Eagle or his wife had to drive to the off-reservation town of Mobridge to shop. Not one store existed in Wakpala. There were few businesses on the rest of the reservation, and almost all were owned by whites. At times, it seemed as though the Indian reservation hardly belonged to the Indians. There were no Indian banks or credit unions, and few Indians had bank accounts. When tribal members wanted a loan, they usually sought out a white trader. Eventually, most wound up face to face with a man who was a throwback to the 19th century, a man known simply as “Uncle Lloyd.”
ON THE DUSTY, FOUR-BLOCK MAIN street of the reservation headquarters of Fort Yates stood a small, yellow-brick grocery store. Inside, it was cluttered, cheerless and busy. Used stereos and television sets rested on the top shelves that lined the store’s walls. The proprietor, a man of ruddy cheeks, thinning hair and amiable disposition, was Lloyd Martinson.
When a tribal member needed a loan, Martinson was the man to see – never mind that his interest rates could sometimes be as high as 50 percent. When a tribal member needed quick cash and had a television or star quilt to sell, Martinson was the man to go to – never mind that he pleaded guilty in 1985 to receiving stolen guns and ammunition. When a tribal member was out of money and needed groceries, Martinson was there – never mind that he’d been caught abusing a government nutrition program for children and infants.
The sign in front of the grocery said “Lloyd’s Super Valu.” It might as well have said “Bank of Standing Rock,” for that, in effect, is the role he has played. Such is his sway that some Indians regularly turn over their welfare checks to the white trader, who deducts what he is owed, then pays their rent and other bills. “Once you’re caught in the merry-go-round with Lloyd, then comes Christmas, then comes school clothes,” said Renee Yellow, director of the Standing Rock Housing Authority. “Everybody goes to Lloyd, then he’s got total control. And they like it that way, too. They’re afraid to get out of the cycle. They’re afraid to make it on their own. They’re afraid when they don’t have credit at the company store.”
Tracking the flow of money on Standing Rock is an uncomplicated affair: The government checks pour in, quickly pass through the hands of tribal members and wind up in the pockets of white businessmen in and around the reservation. “In most communities, a dollar pumped into the economy is recycled seven times,” said Chaske Wicks, a tribal member and former Marine. “On Standing Rock, it hits the Indian, and then it hits the general store. It’s only got one bounce, and it’s gone.”
Whites have taken control of two-thirds of Standing Rock’s 2.3 million acres, largely because of a late-19th century federal law allowing homesteaders on Indian reservations. Now, only 850,000 acres remain in Indian hands. Indians and whites live in two different worlds – and two different time zones. Whites set their watches to Mountain Standard Time. Indians, who deal frequently with federal agencies in the central time zone, set their watches to Central Standard Time.
Lloyd Martinson has moved to the top of the economic order here by doing two things: providing services not found on the reservation, and working closely with the tribal government. The tribe has a unique arrangement with Martinson virtually assuring him that his loans to tribal employees will be repaid. When tribal employees borrow money or receive credit from Martinson, they sign a form authorizing the tribe to make deductions from their paychecks and send the money to the trader. Last March 84 of the tribes 200 employees had money withheld from their paychecks and sent to Martinson. That month, the tribe deducted from it’s employees and forwarded to Martinson more than $26,000 – a typical monthly amount, officials said. For the service, Martinson pays the tribe $200.
“Mr. Martinson is running a loan sharking business,” said tribal employee Ken Billingsley. “He gets tribal employees, and squeezes them. You go from payday to payday. You haven’t earned that money yet, and it’s already spent.”
In December, Martinson consolidated his business. He sold the grocery store and moved a few doors down the street, where he continues to lend money and run a pawn-brokering operation. Martinson declined to discuss his business practices. Asked the number of Indians who rely on him to handle their money, he replied. “It would be quite a few. They have quite a bit of trouble budgeting their money. They run short of money for groceries and gas. This has always been the problem. They can not budget their money. I guess the white man did this to them.”
AT 4:30 ON THE MORNING OF SUNDAY, March 1, 1987, as George Bald Eagle lay passed out drunk at his sister-in-law’s house, Harlan Cadotte was awakened by the sound of Stanley Four Bear striding toward the bedroom of his trailer home. “I heard him come down the hallway, and I knew something was wrong,” said Cadotte, a custodian at the Wakpala school and a neighbor of Bald Eagle. “I knew his walk. He never walked that fast.” Cadotte, a slight, soft-spoken, intense young man, had gone to bed at midnight while his friends Four Bear and Donovan Sam continued watching videos in his trailer. When the last of the movies ended and Sam headed home, he immediately saw flames climbing up the front door frame of Bald Eagle’s house. Sam called to Four Bear, and they ran to the fire through the knee-deep snow.
The blaze had not spread far – only a small section of wood near the door was burning – and they quickly extinguished the fire with snow. When they forced their way through the smoke and saw the children, motionless and covered with soot, they decided to go get Harlan Cadotte. “We went in the house, and I seen two kids laying on the floor,” Cadotte testified at Bald Eagle’s trial. “I checked the two kids, and they weren’t alive. I seen the third one on the bed. I checked her. She wasn’t alive.”
He turned around and, with a start, saw the month-old infant, George Bald Eagle Jr., dead in the car seat that served as his crib. “The baby is the one that got to me,” Cadotte said in an interview. “It kind of scared me after I turned around and seen it there.”
When firefighters arrived from Mobridge, they found the 4-year-old, Evan, under his parent’s bed. At the trial officials said that the position of the children’s bodies indicated that they had not died in their sleep, but rather had awakened and were trying to escape the smoke that killed them. The fire marshal testified that ashes from the wood stove – which Bald Eagle, in his nightly routine, apparently had tended – ignited two small fires.
Neither Bald Eagle nor his half-brother John LaFramboise could shed much light on the night’s events; both had been so drunk, they scarcely remembered a thing. Rosella Bald Eagle asked her husband that night why he had broken his pledge to stop drinking, and she testified that he responded, “Just this once, because Bungie (LeFramboise) doesn’t have anybody to drink with.” She testified that when she left the house, she thought George would watch the children. Later, her decision to leave was criticized by many in the village.
When Bald Eagle was awakened at dawn at his sister-in-law’s and told his children were dead, he did not go to the house. He later testified, “I didn’t want to see them burned.” At 9:45 a.m., Archie Fool Bear, captain of the Bureau of Indian Affairs police on Standing Rock, found a dazed George Bald Eagle wandering on the highway to Mobridge and placed him under arrest for child neglect.
SPEND ANY TIME ON STANDING Rock, and the conclusion becomes inescapable: The current system of running the reservation doesn’t work, and it must go.
For more than a century after its founding in 1824, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs ran this and other reservations like a colonial power ruling a conquered people, controlling nearly every aspect of the lives of its wards. Indian leaders rightly blamed deplorable reservation conditions on the mismanagement and corruption of the BIA. In the last 20 years, however, the situation has changed fundamentally. As a result of the Indian civil rights movement of the late 1960s and the passage of key federal laws in the early ’70s, power on reservation has largely been transferred to tribal governments. Today, tribes have authority to run most of their own programs. But a major problem remains: As tribal governments have grown, the BIA has not shrunk, and today many of the nation’s 300 reservations are caught in the paralyzing and untenable situation of being run by two governments – one tribal, one federal. The solution, in the opinion of many Indian leaders, is this: Tribes must throw off the BIA, take full control of their reservations and spend federal funds as they see fit. With such a change, though, must also come an honesty and competence that often have been lacking in many tribal governments.
Ross O. Swimmer, a Cherokee who runs the BIA; has proposed that his agency be eliminated or radically streamlined and that power be fully transferred to tribal governments. Swimmer and many others think that as long as the BIA exists as a shadow government on American’s Indian reservations, many tribal governments will never stand on their own. “Tribal governments need to be in charge,”Swimmer said, “They don’t need us backstopping them, because that gives them an escape route and sends the wrong signal.”
There are three major obstacles to reform. First, it is never easy to kill a bureaucracy, and the BIA is a massive one: 15,000 employees – 85 percent of them Indian – working in Washington, 12 regional offices and 84 agency offices. Second, Congress is reluctant to change a failed – but politically safe -status quo. That is especially so because of the third obstacle: a resistance to reform among many Indian leaders themselves.
“True self-determination sounds scary to Indian tribes,” said James R. Richards, inspector general of the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the BIA. “It sounds like termination, which became anathema in the 1950s when the federal government tried to terminate its relationship with the tribes. Congressmen aren’t about to stick their necks out without the backing of the Indian community. It’s always,”Give this tribe more, they’re out of money.” But it’s never to change the system.
Richards and others propose giving money directly to tribes under the supervision of a far smaller federal Indian agency. Under the current system, the $1 billion that Congress appropriates annually for the BIA is largely swallowed up as it makes its way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy. Nowhere is this more evident than on Standing Rock, where the combined BIA and tribal bureaucracies – with roughly 300 people and $15 million in annual budgets – consume badly needed funds, duplicate effort and entangle the reservation in ted tape. As Joe Flying Bye, a traditional religious leader on Standing Rock, puts it, “A big bag of money is sent to Standing Rock, and when it gets here it is a little bundle.”
There is, however, reason for hope. Recently, the tribe, the federal government, the state and a North Dakota bank all helped tribal member Helen Hanley Comeau begin a cable television business that serves 350 households on the reservation. A sizeable number of younger tribal members are returning to traditional religious beliefs and ceremonies – such as the sun dance and sweat lodge – that are at the foundation of Lakota culture. Many others are fed up with self-serving tribal leaders, and talk of reform is in the air. Significant change must come to the reservation, they say. Otherwise, the welfare culture – a culture that erodes traditional Lakota values, nourishes alcoholism and engenders despair – will continue to reign here.
“This keeps up,” said David Archambault, president of Standing Rock Community College, “and we’re not going to make it.”
AS HE SITS IN THE MEDIUM SECURITY federal prison in Michigan, George Bald Eagle thinks often of Bear Butte, a sacred religious site in the Black Hills where the Sioux have gone for generations. He first went there in high school with his father, with whom he had been reunited after more than a decade. Since then he had returned often, once even taking his children. He went to Bear Butte to pray in the summer of 1987, shortly before his trial, and he plans to go back as soon as he is paroled. He hopes to be released this year.
Reticent and withdrawn before he entered prison. George Bald Eagle has emerged as something of a leader among the Indians there. He regularly participates in the purifying ritual of the sweat lodge, and he plays an important role in a group that practices a traditional Indian approach to treating alcoholism known as the “Red Road.”
To this day George Bald Eagle cannot bring himself to talk about the fire. He has spent his months in jail going over and over his life in Wakpala and the deaths of his children, and it has steeled his resolve. He says he has two goals: to never take another drink, and to return to Standing Rock to become a counselor. “I would like to have my experience, my tragedy, help other people,” he said, his black hair falling to his shoulders. “I want to get back there and help out instead of being in here. Because in here, it’s just not getting anywhere.”
Back in Wakpala, Harlan Cadotte finds himself having trouble sleeping some nights. He thinks of his friend and neighbor in prison. He is dogged, too, by the memory of George Bald Eagle’s infant son, sitting in his car seat in the house next door. “I get up and walk around during the night,” Cadotte said. “Sometimes I get a sixth sense that something is wrong someplace.”