My Firsthand Experience in Rapid City, South Dakota
By Andy Christian Castillo
On comes the rain – rushing over the landscape, and quickly approaching my uncovered self.
I hurriedly pack up my camera and tripod, and turn toward the woods to flee for shelter. Suddenly, two figures emerge from out of the gathering dusk.
One is slouching heavily against a tree; the other is to his left, hands in pockets and face obscured by night – he takes a step forward.
Behind me, is a two hundred foot drop: in front, an unknown menace; I prepare for the worst.
The man on the left awkwardly approaches and asks: “Where are you from?”
His accent is unfamiliar, demeanor is drunken, his words are slurred and his actions are slowed. I hesitate, unwilling to reveal my purpose.
“I’m just taking some photos. It’s a gorgeous sunset out there,” I say with a glance over my shoulder at the almost dark sky.
“Yes, this is beautiful country.”.
The other man grunts and slips further down the tree. I heft my backpack over my shoulder. My belongings are secured, and I’m ready for action. I think of the knife buried deep in my bag, and wish that it was more accessible.
“You From Around Here?”
“Are you guys from around here?” I ask, attempting to make conversation and break the heavy silence.
“He’s from a reservation near the Missouri River,” a toss of the head towards the leaning man; “I’m from just down the road.” Again comes the question: “Where are you from?”
I take a few steps away from the edge to gain solid footing. Relieved of my predicament, I gain confidence and reply: “I’m from Massachusetts. I’m backpacking through the States on a Greyhound bus.”
There’s a laugh, or at least I think that’s what it is; and then: “Beautiful night to be out on a hike.” The conversation is going in an awkward circle, and I don’t know how to continue. They won’t leave, and the other man – who has slipped even further down, is now breathing heavily and is propped up by an arm.
“Are you headed down the mountain?”
“Yes,” I reply; “But I don’t have a flashlight and it’s pretty dark out there. Good luck going down”.
I wish them goodnight, and step out with resolve to escape the situation.
“My friend is really drunk. We need help down the mountain.”
His friend isn’t doing so well, and neither is he. I can smell the heavy stench of alcohol. Even from ten feet away, it’s wafting on the evening breeze, through the now steady rain. I can’t quite make them out through the rain. They both appear aged in more than years; both are short in stature and speech.
“He needs hands-on help.”
I understand the situation: he’s drunk; his friend is drunker; they can’t navigate the treacherous descent to level ground on their own. They need my help.
I consent, and move towards the slouched figure – ready to move quickly at the least sign of hypocrisy.
The other man is a Native American; with a tooth missing, a scrunched face and a wide nose. He stands with poor posture; heavily breathing, heavily standing, and heavily intoxicated. The first man is also Native American, and wears a hat pulled down low, with thick black hair escaping from under it in a crazy fashion; his eyes are glassy and bright, and his teeth are all in tact.
Gerard E. Elkfoot
He introduces himself as Gerard E. Elkfoot* with a firm shake and a toothy grin that smells like alcohol. The other is “Jim* who drank way too much”. Jim is Gerard’s brother, and he was supposed bring him home sober. They’d ventured up the mountain hoping the fresh air would do Jim good. My suspicion is that they both had too much at the top; and also everywhere in between: to navigate up the winding trail in Jim’s unfortunate state, would have been nothing short of a miracle.
Gerard turns to Jim and says in a boisterous voice: “This man is going to help you down to the flat ground.”
Jim grunts something about “F–k you” and refuses to move.
I take him roughly by the hand and arm. Despite his protests, we all three begin down the mountain – a gloomy trio amidst the equally gloomy pines which stick out of the mountain and into the rain.
“They say that Indians walk quietly through the woods, but they lie,” Elkfoot comically states. “We make just as much noise as anyone else.”
I laugh and ask: “What do you do for work?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“You’d be surprised. Try me.”
“I’m a translator for archeologists who dig stuff. I went to college and studied linguistics.” The trail down to the bottom.
“Oh thats awesome what’s your ethnic background?” I am genuinely curious.
Bullying and Obama
His response is disfigured, something about bullying and Obama and being one with nature and the woods. Now the conversation becomes completely confused, and I can’t follow his train of thought.
Jim refuses to continue and grunts “F–k you Gerard,” with increased vigor, and breathes even heavier. He stops in his tracks.
Again: “F–k you Gerard.”
“Come on Jim, we’re just trying to get down to the level ground.”
Elkfoot takes out a cigarette and lights up.
“F–k you Gerard;” he clumsily holds up a middle finger, and leaves it hanging in the air. Then to me: “Do you want a shot?”
I say that I don’t care for one.
Now Gerard takes a long drag and blows it out.
“I like being out here, where the trees bend down and hear you whisper. Buildings don’t do that. You can’t find medicine in the city. Not like here. Here, there is medicine everywhere.”
A broad sweep of the hand.
“My little niece said to shoot for the stars, but you can’t hit the stars. That’s impossible. Now we’re all left as failures. They all treat us like were something different, but we’re the same. Just as smart up here as anyone else.” He taps his head with the back of his cigarette hand.
Another sharp inhale on the butt; another long exhale of smoke.
“Out there, everything matters. In here, nothing matters.” He motions towards the distant lights. “This isn’t your country. This is the country of my ancestors. You all should go back to your own land; to where you came from.” He looks at me with a distant stare; “This is my country.” And then: “I love it out here”… “I love it out here.”
“F–k you Gerard.” Jim mutters under his breath and stares at the ground, changing the subject.
“Come on Jim. We’re just trying to get down to level ground.”
Now another finger.
I suggest that Gerard goes on ahead, and I continue behind with the intoxicated Jim. He agrees, chucks his cigarette, grinds it into the dirt, and moseys off into the darkness ahead.
Finally, with stumbling steps and the smell of incontinence, we emerge at the bottom to the waiting Elkfoot. On level ground, Jim is in a much better mood; he gives me a toothy smile as thanks. I shake hands, bid them goodnight and rush away through the rain and the night, before they can rope me into something else.
*The names and ages have been changed, but the story is true.
Reflections On My interaction
Let me first say that I’m a privileged, white American male who grew up in Massachusetts – where I don’t interact with many Native Americans.
Throughout my conversation with Gerard and Jim, I couldn’t help but notice the intense racial undertones beneath the casual conversation; intentional or not. We brought our own, biased perspectives into the interaction. Gerard expected me to react a certain way, without having met me; and I brought my own expectations, not based on any previous experiences.
There was a far deeper interaction occurring beneath the surface conversation.
Through this experience, I understood more fully, that racial prejudice in the United States isn’t based on any one person; instead, it’s a cultural problem that won’t be cured by people saying it doesn’t exist. And Native Americans like Gerard and Jim, are victims of that huge, terrible problem – they are suffering from, as Jon Stewart put it: “an open racial wound that will not heal.”
I don’t have the answers; I don’t know how to fix America. But I do know, that I can’t sit around and watch others fight a losing battle for justice alone, without standing up and saying that something is terribly wrong.