In the Shadow of Wounded Knee

After 150 years of broken promises, the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are nurturing their tribal customs, language, and beliefs. A rare, intimate portrait shows their resilience in the face of hardship.

Almost every historical atrocity has a geographically symbolic core, a place whose name conjures up the trauma of a whole people: Auschwitz, Robben Island, Nanjing. For the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that place is a site near Wounded Knee Creek, 16 miles northeast of the town of Pine Ridge. From a distance the hill is unremarkable, another picturesque tree-spotted mound in the creased prairie. But here at the mass grave of all those who were killed on a winter morning more than a century ago, it’s easy to believe that certain energies—acts of tremendous violence and of transcendent love—hang in the air forever and possess a forever half-life.

Alex White Plume, a 60-year-old Oglala Lakota activist, lives with his family and extended family on a 2,000-acre ranch near Wounded Knee Creek. White Plume’s land is lovely beyond any singing, rolling out from sage-covered knolls to creeks bruised with late summer lushness. From certain aspects, you can see the Badlands, all sun-bleached spires and scoured pinnacles. And looking another way, you can see the horizon-crowning darkness of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

One hot and humid day in early August, I drove out to interview White Plume in a screened outdoor kitchen he had just built for his wife. Hemp plants sprouted thickly all over their garden. “Go ahead and smoke as much as you like,” White Plume offered. “I always tell people that: Smoke as much as you want, but you won’t get very high.” The plants are remnants from a plantation of industrial hemp—low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Cannabis sativa—cultivated by the White Plume family in 2000.

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