Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a 130 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. A collection of his short stories has been published by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S.. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
I have known Rose Hawk Wing for only a short time.
The sun bleached golden prairie grass is in constant movement, swaying and bending in the persistent hot summer breeze. Rose is kneeling in the grass examining an abandoned quail’s nest. There are pieces of brown, speckled egg shells that she gently prods with her stubby, brown fingers. Her black hair is cut short and is tousled by the wind. Her complexion is the color of dried mud. A plump, almost perfectly oval face looks up from the nest and gazes at me with dark brown, lively eyes. “In Lakota, quail is shu’-oh,” she says. She extracts a gray and white feather from the nest and holds it in the palm of her hand for a moment before the breeze carries it off.
She stands and brushes the dirt from the knees of her jeans, then looks up at the cloudless sky. I follow her gaze and ponder how the sky seems more expansive here. It’s an intense color of baby-blue. She points at a flock of geese as they fly cross the sky in a V formation.
“When you stay still, you become aware of all the things in nature that move,” she says.
From a fence post that separates the Badlands National Park from private land, a meadowlark sings out a burst of melodic notes. The tune draws our attention.
“My people believe them to be a symbol of friendship,” she explains, scanning the trees.
Walking back to my truck, grasshoppers leap about in the grass, some clinging to our clothes.
“A gur’-noh-goh-noh’-shkah,” she says as she grabs one from her blouse then tosses it into the air. “It has been a long time since I was last on the reservation.”
With the windows down, the grass and earthy aroma of the plains fills the truck. Rolling hills with few trees or man-made structures line each side of the highway. Rose has kicked off her sandals. Her toenails are painted fire-engine red. Bugs splatter on the windshield, their bodies become streaked across the glass when I turn on the window wipers.
“The first time I remember riding in a car was when I was eleven,” she says. “It was my cousin Tom Hawk Wing’s Oldsmobile. There was no back seat, so my sister and I sat on the floor. We couldn’t see out the windows. For most of the ride I looked at the back of Tom’s head. He had the longest ponytail in all of Pine Ridge.”
A bumble bee flies in and begins bouncing against the window. Rose takes one of her sandals and gently pushes it across the windshield to her side. As she tries to get the bee to crawl onto her sandal, she says, “People should be alarmed more that honey bees are dying off. Wee-chah’-ah-zhee-pah spreads life.” The bee finally climbs onto the sandal. Rose holds the sandal out the window until the bee is snatched up and carried away by the wind.
Turning off the highway, the layered gray, purple and pink formations of the Badlands rise up from the ground in the near distance like stacks of pancakes. She leans forward, her hands on the dashboard, her face close to the windshield.
“When I was little my grandmother told me a woman who was one of our tribe had done a very bad thing and was forced to live on top of one of the formations for the rest of her life. I had nightmares for years that I was that woman, trying to climb down from the rock.”
The rock formations are on both sides of the narrow two lane road that winds through the park. Most of the way Rose has her eyes tightly closed.
“Are you okay?” I say.
“I’m afraid that I’ll see the woman,” she explains quietly.
Just south of the formations a small herd of buffalo crosses the road in front of us.
“Tah-tohn’-kah,” she murmurs.
At Wounded Knee, Rose lowers the tailgate, and opens her suitcase on it. “You’re a good friend to bring me all this way from Rapid City so that I can join in honoring my sister.”
She lifts a bright blue shift from the suitcase. It’s adorned with multicolored beads on strands of leather, and dark blue fringe that hangs from the sleeves and hem. She slips it over her head and pulls it down over her clothes. After removing her sandals she puts on a pair of white moccasins decorated with blue beads, and ties a string of tiny bells around both of her ankles.
Almost reverently, she also takes out a bright red wool blanket with white and gold geometric Sioux designs. White fringe borders the entire blanket. She folds it over her arm, and walks toward a group of men and women standing in a patch of bare dirt outside the burial ground. As she approaches them, several men begin beating on drums.
After being hugged by several of the women, she joins them in a circle and they begin to dance. They take short steps, stop, then begin again. The bells on the women’s feet jingle with every step. Slowly, they go around. In Lakota, the men sing, their baritone voices lifting into the air in a steady cadence. The drumming and singing stop, and then the dancing. Then it begins again.
When Rose returns to the truck, her hair sticks to her face with perspiration. Her cheeks are ruddy. “My sister was loved by everyone on the reservation. She was beaten to death by her husband,” she quietly says to me.
Entering Pine Ridge, ramshackle homes and trailers stand in disorderly fashion along the road into town. The landscape around the town is mostly barren. On the sidewalk in front of the few businesses, drunken men lie on the sidewalk.
Tears are streaming down Rose’s cheeks as she chokes back sobs.