From On the Rez by Ian Frazier
SuAnne Marie Big Crow was born on
SuAnne’s birth came at a dark time on the
reservation. The ongoing battle between supporters and opponents of Dick
Wilson’s tribal government showed no signs of letup, with violence so
pervasive and unpredictable that many people were afraid to leave their homes.
Just the month before, a nine-year-old boy named Harold Weasel Bear had been
shot and seriously wounded as he sat in his father’s pickup in White Clay; his
father was a
The beatings and stompings and shootings and
bombings on the reservation would continue until the killing of the FBI agents
the following year, after which a general exhaustion plus the presence of hundreds
of FBI investigators brought the violence level down. In those days, if you
were on the Pine Ridge Reservation you picked a side, and Chick Big Crow was
for Dick Wilson all the way. She still calls Dick Wilson one of the greatest
leaders the tribe ever had. Distinctions between those with anti- and pro-Dick
As a Big Crow, SuAnne belonged to one of the largest clans—the Lakota word
for the extended family group is the tiospaye—on
Pine Ridge. In the Pine
Ridge telephone directory, Big Crow is the fourthmost-common
name, behind Brewer, Pourier, and Ecoffey.
(This method of figuring is not definitive, of course, since most people on the
reservation don’t have phones.) Chick Big Crow’s mother, Alvina
Big Crow, was one of nine children, and Chick had many Big Crow first cousins,
as well as many with other last names. Her mother’s sister Grace married a
Mills; Olympic champion Billy Mills
is a first cousin of Chick’s. Chick’s uncle Jimmy Big Crow married a woman
named Marcella who bore him
twenty-four children, including nine sets of twins. TV shows sometimes featured Jimmy and
Marcella Big Crow and their family, and for a while they were listed in the Guinness
Book of World Records. Basketball teams at
The name Big Crow comes up rather often in the history of the
Sioux. Big Crows are mentioned as headmen, though not as leaders of the first
rank like Spotted Tail or Red Cloud. They seem to have been solidly upper-middle-class,
if such a description can apply to nineteenth-century Sioux. When Francis
Parkman arrived fresh out of Harvard to visit the Oglala
in 1846, he stayed in the well-appointed tipi of a man called the Big Crow (Kongra
Leatrice “Chick” Big Crow does not know for sure whether any of these Big Crows is an ancestor of hers, but she thinks not. She says that her branch of the family descends from Big Crows of the Sans Arc Lakota, a tribe much smaller than the Oglala, who lived on the plains to the north and west. A medicine man has told her that among the Sans Arc long ago lived a chief named Big Crow who was greater than any chief we know of. This chief was also so wise that he never put himself forward and never identified himself to the whites so they could single him out as chief, he knew the jealousy and division this would cause. For years the chief led the Sans Arc in war and peace, carefully avoiding all notoriety as the tribe prospered and grew strong. After lie died, the tribe began to quarrel among themselves and dwindled away. The memory of this chief vanished except among a few, according to the medicine man. After SuAnne died, the medicine man told Chick that she had been the spirit of this great leader come back to reunite the people.
SuAnne grew tip with her sisters in her mother’s three-bedroom house in Pine Ridge. She was an active child; she sat up on her own while still an infant, and walked at nine months old. From when she was a baby, she wanted to do everything the bigger girls could do. When she was two, she told her mother that she wanted to go to school. She walked with Pigeon and Cee Cee to the school-bus stop in the mornings and often had to be restrained from getting on. Pigeon’s memory of SuAnne is of her looking up at her from tinder the bill of her baseball cap. She was always looking up at her sisters and following them. When they went places around town, she went with them, telling Pigeon, “I’ll walk in your footsteps.” She played easily with kids much older than she. Chick came home from work one afternoon and found that SuAnne, then only four, had escaped from the babysitter and gotten on a big kid’s ten-speed bicycle. Chick saw SuAnne coining down the hill, standing on the crossbar between the pedals and reaching up with her arms at full length to hold the handlebars.
today, people talk about what a strict mother Chick Big Crow was. Her daughters
always had to be in the house or the yard by the time the streetlights came on.
The only after-school activities she let them take part in were the structured
and chaperoned kind; unsupervised wanderings and (later) cruising around in
cars were out. In an interview when she was a teenager, SuAnne
said that she and her sisters had to come up A4th their own fun, because their
mother wouldn’t let them socialize outside of school. Pigeon remembers Monopoly
games they played that went on for days, and Scrabble marathons, and many games
of Clue. In summer they could take picnics to
Chick Big Crow was (and is) strongly anti-drug and -alcohol. On the reservation, Chick has belonged for many years to the small but adamant minority who take that stance. When SuAnne was nine years old, she was staying with her godmother on New Year’s Eve when the woman’s teenaged son came home drunk and shot himself in the chest. The woman was too distraught to do anything, so SuAnne called the ambulance and the police and cared for her until the grown-ups arrived. Perhaps because of this incident, SuAnne became as opposed to drugs and alcohol as her mother was. She gave talks on the subject to school and youth groups, made a video urging her message in a stern and wooden tone, and as a high-schooler traveled to distant cities for conventions of like-minded teens. I once asked Rol Bradford, a Pine Ridge teacher and coach who is also a friend of her family, whether SuAnne’s public advocacy on this issue wasn’t risky given the prominence of alcohol in the life of the reservation. “You have to understand,” Rol Bradford said, “SuAnne didn’t respond to peer pressure, SuAnne was peer pressure. She was the backbone of any group she was in, and she was way wiser than her years. By coming out against drinking, I know, she flat-out saved a lot of kids’ lives. In fact, she even had an effect on me. It dawned on me that if a sixteen-year-old girl could have the guts to say these things, then maybe us adults should pay attention, too. I haven’t had a drink since the day she died.”
As strongly as Chick forbade certain activities, she encouraged the girls in sports. At one time or another, they did them all—cross-country running and track, volleyball, cheerleading, basketball, softball. Some of the teams were at school and others were sponsored by organizations in town. Chick’s sister, Yvonne “Tiny” De Cory, had a cheerleading drill team called the Tiny Tots, a group of girls eight years old and under who performed at local sporting events and gatherings. SuAnne became a featured star for the Tiny Tots when she was three; many in Pine Ridge remember first seeing her or hearing about her then. She began to play on her big sisters’ league softball team at about the same time, when the bat was still taller than she was. Coaches would send SuAnne in to pinch-hit, hoping for a walk, and telling her not to swing. Often she swung anyway; once, in a tie game, she swung at the third strike, the catcher dropped it, and several errors later she had rounded the bases for the winning run.
Pine Ridge had a winter basketball league for girls aged seven to eleven, and SuAnne later recalled that she played her first organized game in that league when she was in kindergarten. She had gone with her sisters to a tournament in Rushville when a sudden snowstorm kept some of the players away. The coach, finding himself shorthanded, put SuAnne in the game. “It was funny,” SuAnne told a basketball magazine, “because all I really knew how to do was play defense, so that’s all I did. I not only took the ball away from our opponents, but also from my own teammates!” A coach who watched her play then said, “If you ever saw the movie Star Wars—well, you remember the Ewoks’? Well, SuAnne was so much smaller than the other kids, she looked like one of those little Ewoks out there runnin’ around.”
In the West, girls’ basketball
is a bigger deal than it is elsewhere. High school girls’ basketball games in
She spent endless hours practicing basketball. When she was ill the fifth grade she heard somewhere that to improve your dribbling you should bounce a basketball a thousand times a day with each hand. She followed this daily exercise faithfully on the cement floor of the patio; her mother and sisters got tired of the sound. For variety, she would shoot lay-ups against the gutter and the drainpipe, until they came loose from the house and had to be repaired. She knew that no girl in an official game had ever dunked a basketball—that is, had leaped as high as the rim and stuffed the ball through the hoop from above—and she wanted to be the first in history to do it. To get the feel, she persuaded a younger boy cousin to kneel on all fours tinder the basket. With a running start, and a leap using the boy’s back as a springboard, she could dunk the ball.
Charles Zimiga, who would coach SuAnne in
basketball during her high school years, remembered the first time he saw her.
He was on the cross-country track on the old golf course coaching the high
school boys’ cross-country team—a team that later won the state championship—when
SuAnne came running by. She was in seventh grade at
the time. She practiced cross-country every fall, and ran in amateur meets, and
sometimes placed high enough to be invited to tournaments in
went to elementary school in
Some people who live in the cities and towns near reservations treat
their Indian neighbors decently; some don’t. In cities like
When teams from Pine Ridge play non-Indian teams, the question of race is always there. When Pine Ridge is the visiting team, usually their hosts are courteous, and the players and fans have a good time. But Pine Ridge coaches know that occasionally at away games their kids will be insulted, their fans will not feel welcome, the host gym will be dense with hostility, and the referees will call fouls on Indian players every chance they get. Sometimes in a game between Indian and non-Indian teams, the difference in race becomes an important and distracting part of the event.
One place where Pine Ridge
teams used to get harassed regularly was in the high school gymnasium in Lead,
In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game. SuAnne was a full member of the team by then. She was a freshman, fourteen years old. Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from the fans. They were yelling fake-Indian war cries, a “woo-woo-woo” sound. The usual plan for the pre-game warm-up was for the visiting team to run onto the court in a line, take a lap or two around the floor, shoot some baskets, and then go to their bench at courtside. After that, the home team would come out and do the same, and then the game would begin. Usually the Thorpes lined up for their entry more or less according to height, which meant that senior Doni De Cory, one of the tallest, went first. As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder. The Lead fans were yelling epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.” Some were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation’s receiving federal aid. Others yelled, “Where’s the cheese?”—the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese. The Lead high school bind had joined in, with fake-Indian drumming and a fake-Indian tune. Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, “I can’t handle this.” SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place. She was so eager that Doni became suspicious. “Don’t embarrass us,” Doni told her. SuAnne said, “I won’t. I won’t embarrass you.” Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.
She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind. On the court, the noise was deafeningly loud. SuAnne went right down the middle; but instead of running a full lap, she suddenly stopped when she got to center court. Her teammates were taken by surprise, and some bumped into one another. Coach Zimiga at the rear of the line did not know why they had stopped. SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball. Then she stepped into the jump-ball circle at center court, in front of the Lead fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance. SuAnne knew all the traditional dances—she bad competed in many powwows as a little girl—and the dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time. “I couldn’t believe it—she was powwowin’, like, ‘get down!”‘ Doni De Cory recalled. “And then she started to sing.” SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl. The crowd went completely silent. “All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling—it was like she reversed it somehow,” a teammate said. In the sudden quiet, all you could hear was her Lakota song. SuAnne stood up, dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast. The fans began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.
Because this is one of the coolest and bravest deeds I ever heard Of, I
want to stop and consider it from a larger perspective that includes the town
Lead, the town, does not get its name from the metal. The lead the name
refers to is a mining term for a gold-bearing deposit, or vein, running
through surrounding rock. The word, pronounced with a long e, is related
to the word “lode.” During the
In 1877, a mining engineer from
Almost from the moment of the Custer expedition’s entry into the
Sioux leaders of Crazy Horse’s generation began working to receive fair
compensation for the Hills in the early 1900s. The
By the time of the Supreme Court ruling, however, the Sioux had come to
see their identity as linked to the Hills themselves, and the eight tribes
involved decided unanimously not to accept the money. They said, “The Black
Hills are not for sale.” The Sioux now wanted the land back—some or all of
it—and trespass damages as well. They especially wanted the
Inescapably, this history is present when an Oglala team goes to Lead to play a basketball game. It may even explain why the fans in Lead were so mean: fear that you might perhaps be in the wrong can make you ornerier sometimes. In all the accounts of this land grab and its aftermath, and among the many greedy and driven men who had a part, I cannot find evidence of a single act as elegant, as generous, or as transcendent as SuAnne’s dance at center court in the gym at Lead.
For the Oglala, what SuAnne did that day almost immediately took on the stature of myth. People from Pine Ridge who witnessed it still describe it in terms of awe and disbelief. Amazement swept through the younger kids when they heard. “I was, like, ‘What did she just do?’ ” recalled her cousin Angie Big Crow, an eighth-grader at the time. All over the reservation, people told and retold the story of SuAnne at Lead. Any time the subject of SuAnne came up when I was talking to people on Pine Ridge, I would always ask if they had heard about what she did at Lead, and always the answer was a smile and a nod—“Yeah, I was there,” or “Yeah, I heard about that.” To the unnumbered big and small slights of local racism which the Oglala have known all their lives, SuAnne’s exploit made an emphatic reply.
Back in the days when Lakota war parties still fought battles against other tribes and the Army, no deed of war was more honored than the act of counting coup. To count coup means to touch an armed enemy in full possession of his powers with a special stick called a coup stick, or with the hand. The touch is not a blow, and only serves to indicate how close to the enemy you came. As an act of bravery, counting coup was regarded as greater than lolling an enemy in single combat, greater than killing a scalp or horses or any prize. Counting coup was an act of almost abstract courage, of pure playfulness taken to the most daring extreme. Very likely, to do it and survive brought an exhilaration to which nothing could compare. In an ancient sense which her Oglala kin could recognize, SuAnne counted coup on the fans of Lead.
And yet this coup was an act not of war but of peace. SuAnne’s coup strike was an offering, an invitation. It
took the hecklers at the best interpretation, as if their silly mocking chants
were meant only in goodwill. It showed that their fake Indian songs were just
that—fake—and that the real thing was better, as real things usually are. We
Lakota have been dancing like this for centuries, the dance said; we’ve been
doing the shawl dance since long before you came, before you had gotten on the
boat in Glasgow or Bremerhaven, before you stole this
land, and we’re still doing it today; and isn’t it pretty, when you see how
it’s supposed to be done? Because
finally what SuAnne proposed was to invite us—us
onlookers in the stands, which is the non-Lakota rest of this country—to dance,
too. She was in the Lead gym to play, and she invited us all to play. The
symbol she used to include us was the warm-up jacket. Everyone in
“It was funny,” Doni De Cory said, “but after that game the relationship between Lead and us was tremendous. When we played Lead again, the games were really good, and we got to know some of the girls on the team. Later, when we went to a tournament and Lead was there, we were banging out with the Lead girls and eating pizza with them. We got to know some of their parents, too. What SuAnne did made a lasting impression and changed the whole situation with us and Lead. We found out there are some really good people in Lead.”
is made in public, and it’s made for free. It’s not a product or a service that
anyone will pay you for. You do it for reasons unexplainable by economics—for
ambition, out of conviction, for the beck of it, in playfulness, for love. It’s
done in public spaces, face-to-face, where anyone is free to go. It’s not done
on television, on the Internet, or over the telephone; our electronic systems
can only tell us if the leap made elsewhere has succeeded or failed. The places
you’ll see it are high school gyms, city sidewalks, the subway, bus stations,
public parks, parking lots, and wherever people gather during natural
disasters. In those places and others like them, the leaps that continue to
invent and knit the country continue to be made. When the leap fails, it looks like
I find all this hopefulness, and more, in SuAnne’s dance at center court in the gym in Lead. My high school football coach used to show us films of our previous game every Monday after practice, and whenever he liked a particular play, he would run it over and over again. If I had a film of SuAnne at Lead (as far as I know, no such film or video exists), I would study it in slow motion frame by frame. There’s a magic in what she did, along with the promise that public acts of courage are still alive out there somewhere. Mostly, I would run the film of SuAnne again and again for my own braveheart song. I refer to her, as I do to Crazy Horse, for proof that it’s a public service to be brave.
De Cory is a big, light-brown woman with vivid dark eyes and big hair. Or, as she puts it, “huge hair.” “I had the hugest hair in
She had clearly been waiting for someone like me to show up and ask her about SuAnne. She spoke with intensity, in a quiet rush, talking not so much to any one person as to listeners in general. From time to time she elegantly changed bow she was sitting, recrossing her legs. “I was three years older than SuAnne, but it didn’t seem like it,” she said. “Even when she was little it was like we were the same age. SuAnne never hung out with her own age group—she hung with us older girls, and in sports she could keep up with anything we did. She and I were really close and shared everything and talked all the time—almost every day, even after I went away to college. We played on I don’t know how many teams together, from when we were kids, and I had so much confidence in her. I always put pressure on her because I always knew she could do it. In basketball, SuAnne and me were one of the best fast-break teams ever to come out of the state. And it didn’t matter how far down we’d get in a game, we never gave up. Even when we were forty points down we kept playin’ hard, because we had that confidence in each other.
“I just love my tribe to
death, and SuAnne felt the same. That was something
else in common. We used to talk about all the good that’s here, and about how
we were gonna come back after college and make this a
better place. She was really proud of bein’
from Pine Ridge. Anywhere we went, for basketball or volleyball games,
or for cheerleading competitions, she would tell people, ‘We’re from an Indian
reservation in the middle of the country, we’re from
“SuAnne and me always went out of our comfort zone, wherever we traveled. A lot of times the other girls would just want to stay in the hotel, but we were always outspoken and outgoing and adventurous. When we went to Hawaii to be in the half-time show at the Aloha Bowl—our cheerleading squad won a national cheerleading contest in Rock Springs, Wyoming, that’s how we got picked to go—we walked all over the island, it seemed like. We snuck into the Hard Rock Cafe, we weren’t even eighteen years old. We had to rehearse for the halftime show five or six hours a day, and we got to meet the Osmond Brothers singing group. They were the main half-time act, these little, cute boys. We met them at a banquet where there was nothing to eat but stuff like octopus and shark, and afterward SuAnne and me came out of there starving for some McDonald’s food, and we took off our high heels and walked two miles in our bare feet to the only McDonald’s on the island and stood in line for an hour and a half to pay about twice what it costs in South Dakota. SuAnne didn’t care, though. She loved McDonald’s.
“The woman could eat. Four Big Macs and four large fries was nothin’ to her. She’d finish all that and then come around to see if you had anything you didn’t want to eat that was left over. The seven-dollar meal allowance did not begin to be enough for her. She’d stay at our house sometimes, and she could eat four big platefuls of carbo meals like spaghetti, no problem at all. She could eat a whole commod pie by herself—that’s a big casserole made with canned commodity foods like meatball stew. When it came to eating in the school cafeteria, SuAnne could keep up with the guys. She was good at blowing bubble-gum bubbles, too. She’d throw a whole pack of that Hubba Bubba bubble gum in her mouth and blow bubbles one inside the other. She always won the bubble gum-blowing contests at pep rallies.
“One thing I know I helped her with was in how to make herself look good, how to do her makeup and her hair. She was always the center of attention when she walked into a room, but before she was fourteen or fifteen she had never tried to beautify herself I mean, here she was in high school and didn’t even know how to use a curling iron! Before our cheerleading picture one time I made her hair huge like mine, and streaked it with lemon juice and put a whole bunch of mousse in it. After that, when she would get dressed up for something, she would always ask me or Jeanne Horse, our cheerleading coach, how she looked. She was really pretty, and by the time she was elected Homecoming Queen her senior year, she knew it, and she knew how to take advantage of it.
She was a big personality, a big person. She cared so much about Pine Ridge. She wanted there to be more opportunities here. Sometimes we talked about how to provide for the tribe’s future, for seven generations ahead, the way Chief Red Cloud and them said you should do. She always paid attention to anybody who wanted something from her. No one knows what she went through makin’ everybody happy. Anybody who came to her door hungry, she gave ’em something from the cupboard—Chick finally had to tell her to stop givin’ their food away. A lot of kids who are grown up now will tell you, ‘She used to pump me home on her bicycle’-if she saw a kid walkin’ when she was on her bike, she’d tell him to get on behind, and she’d pedal and give him a ride home. She had what she called her giveaway bag in her closet filled with stuff she’d brought back from her team trips, little souvenirs and stuff like that, and any time you went to her house she’d give you something to take with you when you left. Mainly, she helped people open their eyes to the good things that were right in front of them. She saw so much good in life herself. Everything was ... revealing to her. Everything was revealing.”
Doni De Cory said a lot more about SuAnne—about her ambition to be an optometrist, about her sadness at the jealousy on the reservation, about her horrible singing voice, about her collection of sweatshirts from many different colleges, about how hard she worked, about how SuAnne and Doni and a boy cousin once beat the best all-guy basketball teams on the reservation during a three-man basketball tournament in the town of Kyle. Doni also talked a lot about when SuAnne died—about the ugly feeling that came over her out of nowhere as she was doing her laundry at the time of the crash, and about the red light on her answering machine jumping out at her after her father had called to tell her the news.
“For some reason, when I think of SuAnne, the first thing that always comes to mind is her hands,” Doni said. “I could do an exact description of her hands. There was the lump on her middle finger where she held a pencil, and her calluses from playin’ ball, and her fingernails, which she always chewed. She had these real, real low fingernails, probably because you can’t have very long fingernails and handle a basketball. Her fingernails were always so low they looked like they hurt.”
Many people, I discovered, wanted to talk about SuAnne. All these years after she died she’s still on people’s minds. Some people dream about her. Many I talked to would recommend others for me to talk to, who would recommend others, and so on. Here’s some of what they said:
Rol Bradford, teacher and coach: “When I was coaching boys’ basketball at Pine Ridge, SuAnne was my student manager—she did that along with cheerleading—and I used to put her in scrimmages during practice sometimes. When she was playing, unless you looked close, you would never know there was a girl out there. She was just as good as a lot of the boys and better than some, and she could run with ‘em perfectly easy, and the level of play didn’t go down at all. If anything, it improved. For fun in gym class once in a while we used to play this game called Mob Basketball. It’s basketball but with no fouls. Anything goes in Mob Basketball except bitin’, kickin’, and scratchin’. Well, once SuAnne and I went for a loose ball at the same time and we both got our arms around it, and we’re down on the court rollin’ around, and she would not let go. I could not believe she was so tremendously strong. I’m a rodeo cowboy in the summers, I rassle steers—and I really bad to scrap to get that ball away. And I was exhausted when I finally did, too.”
Bergquist, one of the most successful basketball
“What impressed me maybe
the most about SuAnne was how she could play so hard,
right at the top of her intensity, and never show the least bit of impatience
or anger. She had such a pleasant disposition, and she didn’t want to do
anything except have a good time and win. I’ll never forget when we played
against her in a holiday tournament in
Pigeon Big Crow, sister: “She had a funky laugh, this all-out laugh. There was a knock-knock joke she told for a whole summer—now I can’t remember it, it’ll come to me—and she’d laugh at it every time she told it, and you’d laugh at her laughin’. But after Magic Johnson got AIDS and there were those jokes about him goin’ around, you could not say a Magic Johnson joke around her. She loved Magic Johnson and she would not hear a word against him.
“By the time SuAnne was a teenager she was in demand all the time, always with stuff goin’ on. And yet somehow she was always there for my kids. If I needed someone to look after ’em, she found the time. Because of SuAnne, I never had to worry about my kids. I came home one time when Lyle was three months old and SuAnne had his legs propped way out and she was tryin’ to get him to sit up. I said, ‘SuAnne, what’re you doin”?’ She said, ‘I’m trying to create equilibrium.’ She got him sitting up, and she got him walking early, too.”
Chick Big Crow, mother: “Don’t start thinking that SuAnne was only an angel, though. She was mis-chie-vous, with a capital M. She was always testing how far she could go, what could and could not be done. She’d always push you. In our neighborhood we had a bootlegger who sold beer and wine from a drive-up window out of his house. The name he went by was Suitcase, and SuAnne used to harass and devil him. She used to yell, ‘Hey, Soup-Face!’ through the drive-up window at him, which for some reason he absolutely hated. He put SuAnne’s name on a list of people he wouldn’t allow on his property—SuAnne was blacklisted at Suitcase’s along with a couple of the worst deadbeat drunks in town. One time she and another kid set a mattress on fire behind his house.”
Yvonne “Tiny” De Cory, aunt: “I let her play on a girls’ softball team I coached when she was only five or six years old. She wanted to so bad, I couldn’t say no. The helmet couldn’t fit her, it was way too big. I’d tell her all I wanted her to do when she went up to bat was draw a walk. I’d say, ‘Now, SuAnne, you just stand there at the plate and don’t swing.’ She’d listen to every word I said, lookin’ at me with her big raccoon eyes wide. Then she’d go up there—this was a twelve-year-old girl pitching to a six-year-old, remember—and she’d stand there, and first pitch she’d swing away. I’d call time out and bring her over and tell her again, ‘Sue, I told you not to swing!’ She’d look at me and listen and nod her head and say, ‘Yeah, uh-huh, okay.’ Then she go back up there and next pitch she’d swing again. Didn’t matter what you told her, she was going to swing. She always went in there thinking maybe she’d hit a home run. Even at that young age, she wanted to make a statement with whatever she did. She was going to have her swings.”
Banks, AIM leader: “I was running the limo service in
Milo Yellow Hair, tribal vice-chairman: “One of our biggest problems as Oglala people is that we don’t know how to take a compliment. If you single someone out for praise, it’s a fine line not to embarrass ’em and make ’em uncomfortable with the unwanted publicity. For most of us, bein’ a marquee character just is not in our capacity. SuAnne could be comfortable with a lot of attention, but at the same time she always understood that she was just a part of the whole. When she got a compliment, she always held back and allowed the other kids to get credit, too. She might have been the spirit at the center, but she didn’t overwhelm you with her ego, she let the other kids rally around. She understood that was the essence of how things should be done.”
Chick Big Crow: “She would never let me brag about her. She used to tell me, ‘Mom, if you have to do that, I didn’t earn it.”‘
Wesley Bettelyoun, friend, second cousin; hospital maintenance man: “I grew up in the same neighborhood as SuAnne. She was three years older than me, and she used to bribe me to do stuff for her sometimes. Like, if her mom told her to pick up trash around the yard, SuAnne would tell me that if I did it she would ride bikes with me. A lot of kids liked her and wanted to do stuff with her. So I’d pick up the trash, and then we’d go speedin’ around on our banana-seat bikes, racin’ and goin’ over jumps. Me and Butterball Littlebear, we were the chubby kids in the neighborhood, and she let us follow her around. When she was practicing jump shots or foul shots in the gym, we’d retrieve balls for her. SuAnne got me into sports, taught me about sportsmanship. When she was playin’ sports she didn’t ever get angry and she didn’t ever cry. I played on the same hardball team with her one time and I was pretty little and they weren’t putting me in the game, and she faked hurt so that I could play. That was cool of her—she grabbed her arm and fell down, and the coach sent me in for her at first base, and I played a lot after that. But no one besides me knew she wasn’t really hurt, because when she really was hurt she didn’t ever cry.
“One thing she did for me I’ll always remember—I was a freshman at Pine Ridge High School when she was a senior, and back then at Pine Ridge they had this setup where all freshmen bad to go through initiation. The way it worked, a senior would pick a freshman to initiate during initiation week, and then the senior would make the freshman do stuff like dress up in dresses (if the freshman was a guy), or wear weird makeup, or bring the senior cookies, or carry his books, or clean out his locker—stuff like that. Well, when SuAnne was a senior she had to pick a freshman to initiate, and I don’t know why, but she picked me. And then she didn’t make me do nothin’! All the other freshmen were doin’ all these dumb initiation things, and I was walkin’ around free with nothin’ to do at all. Me and SuAnne were just laughin’. It made the other freshmen kind of mad. Pine Ridge outlawed initiations a few years after that.
“SuAnne always told me to be strong, to make my own way, and to look out for my family and friends. She said that if everybody on the rez did that, this place would be a paradise. She always treated people good herself. I never saw her disrespect anybody. She used to say, ‘I want to go somewhere to college and then come back here and work.’ She’s always in my mind. I got pictures of her on the walls all over my room, they’re the first thing I see every morning when I get up.
“Of course I loved her. I love her still.”
SuAnne’s freshman year, the year of her dance at center
court at Lead, the Lady Thorpes basketball team beat
the team from Winner,
The season for girls’
When school started again
in the fall of 1989, SuAnne was a sophomore, fifteen
years old. Many people in high school sports in
A record of this 1989 team exists in videotapes of their games made by friends and family members. The crimson, black, and white of the Pine Ridge game uniforms go well with the girls’ dark features. The girls look confident and strong, exchanging high-fives after a score, hanging their heads and breathing hard during a time-out, ambling to the bench and sitting down and wiping the sweat from their faces with a towel as they listen to Coach Zimiga. Each is different from the next—one is tall, one short, one movie-star lovely, one curly-headed, and so on—and one is SuAnne, even in an amateur video clearly the star. But most striking is how solid they appear as a team. At certain moments when they are standing together, their different-looking faces are all lit similarly from within, and they have a constant awareness of one another in their eyes.
Local newspapers covering
girls’ basketball that year sometimes called her “sophomore sensation SuAnne Big Crow,” and she lived up to the billing. In a
Late in the season the Lady Thorpes went to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, for an all-Indian girls’ basketball tournament. just before it, a medicine man took Chick Big Crow aside and told her that someone was tong to harm SuAnne. He knew this, the medicine man said, because lie had seen blue sparks coming off her. He said be could do a ceremony to remove the danger but that it would require twelve medicine men, because there were so many angry spirits around. In the tournament game between Pine Ridge and Little Wound not long after, a Little Wound player ran tip behind SuAnne when she was shooting a lay-up and slammed her into the wall. As SuAnne collapsed to the floor, the girl who had hit her threw her arms into the air in triumph and grinned at the crowd. SuAnne got up slowly, went to the sidelines, and then came back in and made both foul shots. She felt dizzy and had a bump on her head, and Chick took her to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a mild concussion.
On the strength of their
regular-season record (sixteen games won, four lost) and their victory over Red
Cloud, Pine Ridge got a spot in the district championship play-off against the
Bennett County Lady Warriors, from
By coincidence, the same
week that the Lady Thorpes won the regionals, Pine Ridge was once again in the national news.
A crew from the NBC Nightly News had visited the reservation and
interviewed people and shot a lot of footage for a multipart report titled Tragedy
at Pine Ridge. When people came home the evening of November 20, and when
the girls sat down to dinner after basketball practice, the first part of Tragedy
at Pine Ridge was on TV. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw announced, “This is
Thanksgiving week, of course, but on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in
The success of the Pine Ridge High School girls’ basketball team, the fact that one of its players had set state records that fall, the fact that the team was going to the state tournament—these all escaped the notice of NBC News. Indeed, from the beginning of the report to the end, NBC did not find one good thing to say; the “bleakness” story is a rigorous form, with little room for extraneous details. Undeniably, many sad facts of the reservation can be told with bleakness as the text. But the NBC story irritated people on Pine Ridge no end, especially SuAnne. She talked to anyone who would listen about all the good on the reservation that NBC bad overlooked, and about the unfairness of showing only the suffering and apparently hopeless side. She went around saying “Carnival Week!” and Tragedy at Pine Ridge! in a derisive snort. Years later she would still complain about how stupid Tragedy at Pine Ridge was.
year the state tournament for class A schools (those with enrollment under
four hundred) was held in an arena in
They reached the city late
in the afternoon and checked into the Holiday Inn in downtown
To reach the finals Pine
Ridge needed victories in the tournament’s first two rounds. On Thursday
morning they played the Flandreau Lady Knights, from the
In round two on Friday afternoon, Pine Ridge played the Parkston Trojans, a team with two tall sisters named Dawn and Staci Schulz. Zimiga countered their scoring threat by collapsing his defenders around them, but the game stayed close to the end, with Parkston just two points behind in the fourth quarter. A run of fourteen straight points for Pine Ridge then put the game out of reach, and Pine Ridge won, 62–47. SuAnne scored twenty-eight points, Mary Walking hit three three-point shots, and Rita Bad Bear and Darla Janis each scored ten. Both victories had been tougher for the Lady Thorpes than the final scores made it seem.
While Pine Ridge was
advancing to the championship, so were the Lady Bulldogs, of
Pine Ridge met Milbank for the title game Saturday evening in the Sioux Falls Arena at . As it happened, this was the last game of the tournament (which also included bigger schools, in the AA division), because the bigger schools bad played earlier in the day. Fans of girls’ basketball had heard about SuAnne and they knew how tough Milbank was, and they expected a good contest. The arena was full and highly charged. A large group from Milbank filled a block in the center of the stands on one side. Across the way the Pine Ridge rooters made a smaller group, which was nonetheless impressive when you considered how far they’d had to drive. Chick Big Crow sat close to the aisle; she knew her nervousness would eventually cause her to get lip and walk somewhere. As the public-address system announced the names of the Lady Thorpes one by one and the girls ran out from behind a curtain at an end of the arena, they were startled for a moment at the noise and the people in the cavernous hall. None bad ever played in front of a crowd this large before. The Lady Thorpes formed two lines and gave each other high-fives with both bands, then gathered around Coach Zimiga for some final words as the Milbank team came out.
Zimiga’s strategy for the first half was to try to keep the game close. In the front of his mind was a rule he had learned playing non-Indian schools east of the river: Don’t foul. He told the girls to play cautiously, not to press on defense, and to be patient. Somehow beneath his anticipation he felt comfortable and calm. On the Milbank side, Coach Bergquist’s plan involved maneuvering his tall girls, Kris White and Jolene Snaza, underneath the basket, where they could get rebounds. Mainly, lie wanted to shut down SuAnne. He knew she liked to play close to the basket and lie told his players to try to keep her farther outside.
I must imagine this game based on what people who were there told me, on news stories, and on videotapes made by fans of Milbank or Pine Ridge. My impressions of it are sort of jumpy, like images in a hand-held video camera. The slap and squeak of rubber shoe soles on the floor, the nervous drumming of the ball, the referee’s whistle, and the multiplied noises from people in the stands all crowded together in the brightly lit air above the game. The Pine Ridge girls looked excited enough to run through walls. The effort it took to follow their coach’s instructions about patience and restraint showed in the tentativeness of their offense at first, and in the way they sometimes seemed to recoil from any contact with the Milbank girls. For Milbank’s part, the team moved tip and down the floor deliberately and confidently; some of the Milbank players, of course, bad been in a championship game before.
The collision of the two coaches’ strategies made for a slow-scoring and stiff first half. Milbank kept Pine Ridge away from the basket, and Pine Ridge was hesitant to object. SuAnne got almost no close-in chances. Whenever she took the ball, two or even three Lady Bulldogs converged on her; she scored only five points the whole first half. Mary Walking tried several three-point shots, but made none. Milbank’s rebounding plan worked well, with Jolene Snaza taking the ball off the boards and sometimes putting in missed shots; in the first quarter alone she scored eight points. Kris White got eight of her own for the Bulldogs in the second quarter, mostly on offensive rebounds. If it hadn’t been for Rita Bad Bear, Pine Ridge would have ended the first half far behind. Rita got rebounds and made follow-up shots and short jumpers, to account for nine points in the half. Her performance was the more remarkable because she was weak and faint from spells of morning sickness that came and went in waves. She had recently discovered she was pregnant, but told no one.
When time ran out at the end of the first half, Pine Ridge was behind, 22–18. The Lady Thorpes were dejected; they had not looked flashy or strong, Milbank had stymied them. They went to their locker room and lay on the floor, sat in chairs with their heads drooping to their knees, or perched on stools and stared. Coach Zimiga stood at the chalkboard and described the more aggressive defense they would use later in the second half He did not get mad or holler at them to listen up. In fact, lie was not unhappy with how the first half had gone. His team had done as he asked—their careful play had kept them from collecting too many fouls, and the score was about as close as he had hoped it would be. He knew, too, that Milbank would be delighted at their success against SuAnne, and might get overconfident. He told the girls that they had played well, that they were definitely still in the game, and that they could win.
The start of the second half seemed to refute his optimism. Milbank’s Kris White got a quick tap-in basket, and on their next possession Christi Wherry hit a shot from outside. Pine Ridge was now down by eight. At this point Dakota “Happy” Big Crow decided that since no one else on her team appeared to be hot, she would take a chance on her own. Starting far from the basket she drove through Milbank’s defenses in a high-speed dribble, changing hands as she did, and scored. The dazzle of the move was itself a lift to the spirits of Pine Ridge. Next time Happy got the ball, she took a shot from outside and again hit, bringing her team back to within four. Christi Wherry then hit a shot, which was answered by a score from Rita Bad Bear. On the next Milbank possession, SuAnne stole a pass and sprinted away from everybody for an easy lay-up. Soon after, she hit a twenty-foot jump shot. Darla Janis, the team’s worst foul shooter, then sank two foul shots. The referees had called Kris White for her fourth foul, and Coach Bergquist took her out of the game. A foul shot by Darla in the last second of the third quarter put Pine Ridge ahead, 31–30.
Starting the fourth quarter, SuAnne stole another pass and made the lay-up. Now it was Pine Ridge by three. Milbank then got two baskets in a row, and Rita Bad Bear hit a foul shot to tie, 34–34. On Milbank’s next possession, Mary Walking committed an unnecessary foul, and after the second foul shot bad been missed, she let the rebound slip from her grasp. Milbank grabbed it and put it up and in. Now Milbank was ahead by three. As the Lady Thorpes went back downcourt, Mary called to Happy Big Crow to give her the ball. Happy passed it to her, and Mary pulled up just outside the three-point line to the left of the basket, aimed, and shot. She had not hit a three-pointer all evening, and Zimiga said (quietly), “No Mary no!” as be saw what she was doing. But in the next instant the ball went in, and his last “no” became an astonished cheer.
Now Zimiga was sure they could win. He called a time-out and put in his team in a tight pressing defense. The tactic seemed to discomfit Milbank. Both teams traded foul shots, Pine Ridge getting the advantage by two. Now it was Pine Ridge, 40–38. Milbank’s bail; another foul followed, the foul shot missed, and two rebound shots went wide. Then Milbank’s Ginny Dohrer came tip with the ball and fired an awkward, off-balance shot from about twenty feet away. It went in. Score: Pine Ridge 40, Milbank 40.
Eleven seconds now remained in the game. Zimiga took another time-out. The girls stood close around him listening as he explained a last-second play. SuAnne concentrated so closely, was so focused and attuned, her metabolism seemed to be going a hundred miles an hour. She stood almost on her tiptoes, her eyes scanning quickly from him to her teammates and back again; she hardly seemed to breathe. The ref calls time in. He blows his whistle for play to resume. The ball goes to SuAnne. She takes it fast all the way down the court, pulls up short of the basket, jumps, shoots. The ball caroms off the rim. Rita gets a band on it, slaps it to Darla.
There’s a scramble, Milbank has it for an instant, loses it; and then, out of the chaos on the floor: order, in the form of SuAnne. She has the ball. She jumps, perfectly gathered, the ball in her hands overhead. Her face lifts toward the basket, her arched upper lip points at the basket above the turned-down O of her mouth, her dark eyes are ardent and Aide open and completely seeing. The ball leaves her hand, her hand flops over at the wrist with fingers spread, the ball flies. She watches it go. It hits inside the hoop, at the back. It goes through the net. In the same instant, the final buzzer sounds.
Ginny Dohrer, the Milbank player who tied the game at 40 in the
closing seconds, is now Ginny Dohrer Schulte. She
lives with her husband, Calvin, and their two small children in
The Schultes stopped the VCR and rewound the tape a little and played her victory run again. Calvin Schulte, a Milbank graduate who knew SuAnne only from watching his now-wife play against her, shook his head in quiet amazement as SuAnne leaped and ran. Then he said her name in the affectionate tones you might use about someone you bad known your whole life. “SuAnne,” Calvin said, shaking his head and smiling. “SuAnne.”
The moment Pine Ridge won, a man from arena security came to Coach Zimiga and told him, “Charley, I don’t want your people on the floor.” Arena management was afraid of the Pine Ridge fans making a disturbance. After hugging in a toppling-over pile at center court, the Lady Thorpes shook hands with their Milbank opponents, then ran to Zimiga and lifted him onto their shoulders. The security guard told them to put him down. “We don’t want no demonstrations,” he said. “You’re not gonna do any of that in here.” Along the stands on the Pine Ridge side, security people stood and watched as the fans filed out. On the Milbank side, precautions were not so strict; Milbank fans came onto the court and wandered around and embraced the Milbank players. TV coverage of the scene after the game showed mostly Milbank fans and players consoling each other, with only a few shots of players from the winning team. A half hour or so later, after the arena had emptied out, Zimiga returned with the championship trophy and ran his victory lap around the dimmed court alone.
Outside Pine Ridge’s locker
room, several newspaper reporters were waiting for SuAnne.
She answered their questions, and when they were done she told them, “Don’t
forget to call your story ‘Tragedy at
Zimiga and Jeanne Horse and some other Pine Ridge people took the girls out to dinner at a Denny’s restaurant. They stayed there late, then went back to the hotel. Rol Bradford and SuAnne and some of the other girls grabbed Zimiga to throw him in the hotel pool, giving him time first to remove his billfold and cowboy boots. Both he and the throwers ended up in the water. Everyone then gathered in Jeanne Horse’s room and watched the video of him getting thrown in and talked about the game and made phone calls and accepted congratulations from well-wishers who stopped by and talked about the game some more.
Next morning they got on
the bus for the long drive back to Pine Ridge. Most of the girls finally slept
then. The bus stopped at a McDonald’s someplace for a lunch break, and Jeanne
Horse and the girls decorated the outside of the bus with streamers and
slogans. The whole reservation knew about the victory by that time. In the most
remote places, in houses and trailers scattered across the prairie, people had
listened to the game on KILI radio, and at the end of it they had thrown open
their doors and cheered themselves hoarse into the night. Rosebud Sioux police
cars escorted the bus across the Rosebud Reservation. As soon as the bus
crossed the eastern edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation at the
Along the road approaching Pine Ridge village people had pulled their cars onto the shoulder on both sides facing perpendicular, and their headlights made a lit-up aisle. Hastily painted welcoming signboards lined the route. Horns were honking; pedestrians everywhere caused the bus and its entourage to go slower and slower. By the time the bus reached the four-way intersection in the middle of town, the crowds were too thick for it to move anymore. The sun had just gone down. SuAnne and the others came from the bus to loud cheering, and then several climbed onto the bus roof They had promised each other that when they got to the four-way they would twirl on the streetlight, but now that they saw it they decided it was too high. A drum group had set up by the intersection and was drumming at top powwow volume as the singers’ voices rose in a Lakota victory song. On the roof of the bus, SuAnne and the other girls danced.
People later said that it seemed as if everybody on the reservation was there. “It was the festival of festivals,” recalled Dennis Banks, who had flown home early from a conference when he heard about the victory and had joined the procession behind the bus with his limousine. “Those girls owned that town,” he said. People were carrying SuAnne and Rita and Mary and Darla and the other girls on their shoulders. As the drumbeats sounded, people threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and formed a big circle and began a dance called the round dance. People outside the ring danced, too, stepping now this way, now that, shouting and singing. Kids from Pine Ridge High School and their rivals from Red Cloud, political enemies who hadn’t spoken to each other in decades, country people who had supported AIM and village guys who had been goons, Dennis Banks and men who in 1973 might have been proud to shoot Dennis Banks—there on the pavement beneath the single streetlight at the four-way, everybody danced.
After a while the crowd
went across the street to Billy Mills Hall for speeches and an honoring
ceremony. Fans had decorated the hall with crepe paper and posters, and a big
banner at one end of the hall proclaimed the words that had become a kind of
slogan of the victory: “Tragedy at
Coach Zimiga lives across the street
from the high school. When he awoke the next morning, he could hardly see his
house for all the decorations heaped upon it. There were streamers and
congratulatory posters and banners and artificial flowers and real flowers and
plastic butterflies and wreaths and even a stuffed animal or two—the most
thorough job of decorating he had ever seen. In the days after, he and his team
got fan letters from all over the state. Grade school classes wrote to them, and little girls from tiny towns like Dupree and
Small-town glory is like no other kind. It’s so big you can hardly see around it, yet intimate at the same time. When you’re fifteen years old, it’s as much of glory as you can easily comprehend; praise from faraway strangers seems a bit unreal compared to praise from friends and neighbors you grew up with and run into every day. A small town, and even more a village like Pine Ridge, has for its citizens no very solid boundaries between inside and outside. If you were raised in Pine Ridge you know the inside of lots of houses there, and when you leave your house and walk the village streets you know almost everyone you see outside. Sometimes the warmth of this familiarity can give you an idea of why people decided to live in villages to begin with. And when you’re fifteen years old and the people you see in your village greet you not only familiarly but with shouts of praise—well, for a moment then your happiness wraps around you a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
After basketball season, SuAnne’s year proceeded like the one before it. Christmas was the usual big production in the Big Crow household, and SuAnne and her friends went around the village looking at the lights and arguing about which house had the best display. In the winter there was volleyball and cheerleading for boys’ basketball. That season SuAnne won an individual cheerleading trophy at the boys’ all-Indian basketball tournament. Iii the spring she ran on the track team. She tended to her schoolwork and worked out in the gym and did errands for her mother on her bicycle just as before. Now, though, SuAnne was really somebody. Her school and her town had no bigger star. Little kids copied her, parents paid her to hang out with their kids, old women stopped her in the grocery store to tell her they hoped their grandchildren would grow up to be like her. As is only natural—indeed, as the dark Pine Ridge night follows day—SuAnne acquired rivals, and reservation jealousy began to watch her out of the corner of its eye.
A national Indian
organization called Chick that year and said they were putting together the
first-ever European tour of a Native
American all-star girls’ basketball team, to play exhibition games against
Chick had a vision after SuAnne left
that made her fear the plane had crashed or something else bad had happened to SuAnne. Both Chick’s and SuAnne’s
misgivings turned out to be partly justified. The
Most likely SuAnne did not know that she was participating in another Native American tradition: since Columbus’s time and through the days of the Wild West Shows, Indians have been going to Europe and getting sick there. For Pocahontas and many others, the trip proved fatal. After SuAnne got home she went to several doctors, but none could give her a definite diagnosis. Chick thought it might be a kind of hepatitis. Whatever the ailment was—an unknown virus, travel strangeness, a strong constitution’s first intimations of mortality, or some combination of these—it lingered for a long time. SuAnne was tired and couldn’t keep food down and some days could hardly move. In a span of two or three months she ended up losing over twenty pounds. She couldn’t attend early basketball practice, and during basketball season her junior year she missed more than half the games. To keep up with her schoolwork she went to her classes once or twice a week just to get her assignments, then finished them at home. Her friends and teachers found it strange suddenly not to have her around. Once Jeanne Horse called her to find out how she was doing; she wasn’t even sure SuAnne would answer the phone. But SuAnne did, sounding weak. She said she wasn’t sure what was wrong with her and hoped to be back in school soon.
By the time SuAnne had recovered enough to return to the team, the Lady Thorpes bad lost a lot of games. She played well in several games toward the end of the fall and again was selected for the all-South Dakota team; but this year Red Cloud beat Pine Ridge, and the Lady Thorpes did not advance to the play-offs.
With SuAnne’s illness, a certain darkness enters her story. Chick has said that she does not think SuAnne was ever a hundred percent well again. This darkness often lifted, and SuAnne went on to other triumphs; but somehow from then on it was always there. At a distance, one can understand why SuAnne might have been a bit unhappy and confused at this point in her life. After the excitement of the championship had worn off, her fame perhaps became as uncomfortable for her as it was large. People who remember her often talk about bow down-to-earth and unassuming SuAnne always was—how she took time for the younger kids who followed her around, bow she acted no differently than she ever bad, how she hung out with her friends just as before, Perhaps such self-effacement was a strain sometimes. No society is more egalitarian than the Oglala, and SuAnne had encountered one of its contradictions: how can a person always act just like everybody else when, as it happens, she’s not?
Until then SuAnne had always been the kid sister, the youngster on the team. With the departure of senior stars like Doni De Cory and Rita Bad Bear, she became the leader looked up to by the younger girls. Perhaps as she got older and observed the Pine Ridge world from the higher vantage point of her fame, she could see just how big were the divisions she had miraculously bridged. Reservation enmities generations old had been set aside in admiration of her; what if people expected her to accomplish this reconciliation again and again? Also, she certainly had heard the old people say that no Pine Ridge basketball star had ever gone on to any big-time success in the sport beyond high school, and that she, SuAnne, would finally be the one. Such pressures might rattle anybody, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl.
As I went around talking to
people about SuAnne, I sometimes stopped at Aurelia’s
house to see my friend Le, or I passed him along the highway and gave him a
ride. My interest in SuAnne, when I mentioned it to
him, seemed to make him morose and sour. He said a few disparaging things about
Chick Big Crow and the
The news depressed me to a standstill. I left Le at Aurelia’s house and drove away dejectedly. I didn’t know whether to believe him, as I often don’t, but I bated to hear him say this all the same. I remained in the dumps for a while. In Pine Ridge one afternoon I happened to run into the niece he had referred to, and I told her what Le had said. She said, “Where does Leonard get that stuff? I didn’t go to school with SuAnne—I’m five years older than she was—and I never saw her drink or do drugs, and no one ever told me that she did. I didn’t even know SuAnne. Why does Leonard say stuff like that about me?”
When SuAnne talked about the reservation, People recall, she sometimes used the metaphor of the basket of crabs. It’s a common metaphor on Pine Ridge. She said that the reservation is like a bunch of crabs reaching and struggling to get out of the bottom of a basket, and whenever one of them manages to get a hold and pull himself up the side, the other crabs in their reaching and struggling grab him and pull him back down. The metaphor could apply, no doubt, to many places nearly as poor and lacking in opportunity as Pine Ridge. But somehow it seems even more true here—Oglala society is at once infatuated by and deeply at odds with fame. It creates heroes and tears them down almost simultaneously, as leaders from Red Cloud to Dick Wilson have learned. Perhaps the explanation for this has to do with the Oglala’s free-and-equal view of how people are supposed to be, combined with the general distress the culture has undergone. But if the cause is unknowable, the result is usually quite clear: the Pine Ridge Reservation is not a comfortable place to be famous in for longer than a week or two.
question of where SuAnne would go to college loomed.
One of her life’s ambitions was to play college basketball at a Division I
school. Lots of colleges wanted her, and she had begun to hear from them even
before her junior year. As a star athlete and the best student in her class,
she qualified for full scholarship assistance at many places.
She was seventeen years old
and still had not gone out on a date. Evenings when she wasn’t at some sport or
activity she spent at home, doing schoolwork or playing board games with her
family. A group that wanted to stop kids on the reservation from using drugs
and alcohol paid for her to go to
I know only a few details about the trouble SuAnne got from people on the reservation who didn’t like her. Friends say that kids sometimes yelled insults at her and spread rumors and threatened to beat her up, and that two or three large families were very anti-SuAnne. This hostility saddened her; she didn’t know what to do about it. Some of the problem seemed to come from the rivalry between the two high schools, Pine Ridge and Red Cloud. Some of her most persistent enemies were Red Cloud girls. In the early fall of SuAnne’s senior year, a conflict with Red Cloud kids that had been going on for a while led to a fistfight that ended with several combatants, including SuAnne, in the tribal jail.
The fight started one Thursday evening by the gas pumps at Big Bat’s. SuAnne’s friend and cousin Angie Big Crow and a Red Cloud girl got into an argument, yelling back and forth, and then suddenly began to fight. They were punching hard and ripping at each other’s clothes. Angie ripped off the other girl’s shirt and the girl continued to fight just in her bra. Angie stopped fighting for a moment to let her put her shirt back on, and then they went to slugging each other again. Inside the store Chick saw the fight, and she and SuAnne ran to break it up. Other Red Cloud kids piled out of a pickup and started yelling stuff at Chick, and SuAnne went after them, and a general brawl ensued. The tribal police came and got into it, stopping one group of battlers only to have the fighting break out someplace else. The police arrested SuAnne and Angie and the kids they were fighting with and charged them all with disorderly conduct. (Chick later was also charged, with assaulting a minor.) They put the kids in jail, SuAnne and Angie in the same cell. The two had a long wait before their parents could get them out, so to kill time, they ran through their cheerleading cheers.
In the aftermath, nothing came of the fight. All the charges were dropped eventually, and no one had been seriously hurt. Angie Big Crow got a black eye, of which she was very proud the next morning in school. She later came to be on cordial terms with the girl she had fought. The girl told Angie that for such a skinny kid, she fought good. SuAnne showed no ill effects of the brawl when she appeared as her school’s Homecoming Queen during half time at the football game a week or two later. She wore a ruffled red dress and a black sequinned top and a tiara in her hair as she stood smiling beside the Homecoming King, Charlie Campos, a longtime friend. Her fight, the only one she ever got into, can be dismissed as the kind of minor scuffle that tribal police deal with often. And yet it has endured as a marker on SuAnne’s timeline: The Fight at Big Bats. Like her illness, in retrospect it takes on the exaggerated darkness of a bad omen. To people for whom she was a hero, the fight was an unscripted event, out of character for SuAnne, one that should never have occurred.
SuAnne played a full season of basketball her senior year and did well. She averaged thirty-nine points a game and again made the all-state team, and Pine Ridge lost only twice. Unhappily, both those losses were to Red Cloud, who beat Pine Ridge by three points in the all-Indian tournament and again by three in the district play-offs. None of the starting players from Pine Ridge’s ’89 championship team besides SuAnne remained, and the Lady Thorpes no longer had as much depth as Red Cloud. Late in the season the team went to an invitational tournament, where they gave a drubbing to their old foe Milbank as SuAnne scored forty-three points. After that game, as Milbank’s Coach Bergquist recalled, he had his last conversation with SuAnne.
Many memories people have
of SuAnne her senior year involve “last times.” For
Christmas that year SuAnne gave presents to everyone
she knew. Some of the presents were big and some small, but she made sure to
include everyone, even if the present came from the dollar store. She gave her
mother a necklace with three gold shoes for pendants, each shoe engraved with
the name of her or her sisters and each set with the appropriate birthstone.
Toward the end of her Christmas shopping she ran out of money and was hurrying
from the house of one friend and another to borrow coupons for last-minute
gifts from the grocery store. When people asked her about plans for the future,
she often answered vaguely. Her mother asked if she would like a car for
graduation, but SuAnne said she didn’t think she’d
need one. A chance came up for her to go to
Just before Christmas SuAnne received a letter from a medicine man who told her that she was a holy person of great importance to the future of her tribe. She told her mother what the letter said, and added that it upset her to think of herself that way. She tore the letter up and threw it out.
That year the Pine Ridge
cheerleaders had been invited to take part in another half-time show at a
college football bowl game-the Fiesta Bowl, in
A teacher at
In February, SuAnne and her mother planned to go to Huron,
had her first-ever real date that evening, with a boy named Justin, the quarterback
The day was
She turned onto the interstate eastbound. Chick pushed the passenger
seat back into its reclining position and began to doze. She woke once or twice
to see if SuAnne was getting tired, but SuAnne told her to go back to sleep, she was fine. They
passed several exits for small
The accident occurred at
about in the
morning. A state highway patrol car reached the scene seven minutes later, and
ambulances arrived a few minutes after that. Chick had cuts and other minor injuries,
but was conscious. She could hear people saying that she must be in shock, and
she wanted to tell them that she wasn’t, but somehow she couldn’t talk.
Paramedics were working on SuAnne. She had severe
bead injuries and was unconscious. The police told Chick they were taking SuAnne in the first ambulance and that the second one would
carry her. Chick agreed to this, not really understanding what they meant. Both
ambulances drove to St. Mary’s Hospital in
I could try to describe the sorrow-the telephones ringing all across the reservation and across the state, the calls that poured in by the hundreds to KILI radio, the people driving disconsolately around Pine Ridge village and stopping each other and having nothing to say, the weeping of men whom no one had ever seen weep before, the arrival of SuAnne’s body in the early-morning hours of Monday at the Pine Ridge funeral parlor, the crowd that was there to meet it, the wake on Tuesday night in the Pine Ridge High School gym, the funeral the next morning, the basketball net Coach Zimiga put in her coffin, the military honors which a contingent of Pine Ridge war veterans awarded her, the farewell salute fired over her grave, and on and on—but knowing SuAnne’s dislike for the tragedy-at-Pine-Ridge genre, I hesitate. The truth is, I can hardly bear to imagine it all.
had predicted just a week or two before, the line of cars in her funeral
procession stretched for miles. People said there were more cars than had
followed the bus into town after the ’89 championship game. Also as she had
predicted, her coffin was white. The governor of
Jeanne Horse said later, “So much happened then, it was like a daze. I remember it in pieces. But I’ll never forget that Monday morning, the morning after SuAnne died, when they got all the kids together in the high school gym for an assembly and a memorial. School attendance was almost perfect that day. When I arrived, the gym was already full, and what stays in my mind is the sound I heard as I walked in—the sound of all those kids in the gym cong.”
Big Crow never went back to work for the Department of Public Safety. Aside
from attending the funeral, she stayed in her house day after day. Family
members and friends took turns staying with her, because they did not want her
to be by herself She said little and emotionally more
or less shut down. She had been raised a Catholic but could not see much
purpose to her faith now. When she thought of it, she also remembered the
hostility people harbored for SuAnne at the
Chauncy told her that in her grief she would often feel her soul start to slide away. Each time it did that, he said, the spirits would help it to return. He talked a lot about SuAnne, and what her purpose had been, and how her spirit had been with the tribe since a time far in the past. He said there was a purpose to her leaving and to Chick still being here. He took Chick to a traditional honoring ceremony called the Wiping of the Tears, held in a school gym in the little community of Cherry Creek. Chick resisted going and finally did only on impulse and at the last minute. The gym was packed with people, most of whom she didn’t know. They sang honoring songs for SuAnne and for her, and they gave her gifts, and the elders whispered words of comfort and advice in her ear. Chick said later that if it hadn’t been for Chauncy Yellow Horse she might have lain down and never gotten up again.
She wondered whether it made any sense to stay on in Pine Ridge. When she thought of the sadness here, and of the meanness and jealousy of so many people on the reservation, she considered packing up and moving away. She had no place in particular that she wanted to go—just away. Then one day something happened to change her mind. She tells the story often: “About a week after the funeral I was sitting in my kitchen in the afternoon. I was alone, for a change. I wasn’t reading or watching TV or listening to the radio—just sitting there. it got to be late afternoon and darker outside, and I didn’t even bother to stand up and turn on the light. Pretty soon it was almost completely dark. I heard someone knock on the door and I didn’t care to answer it. The knock came again, and then two girls opened the door and walked in and came over to where I was. I remember what the girls looked like, but I’d never seen them before, and I’ve never seen them since that day. I had my head down on the kitchen table. I could feel their grief as they gave me a bug, and then they opened up my hand and put something in it. Then they left. After a while I finally got up and turned on the light and looked at the paper in my hand. It was a valentine—Valentine’s Day had just passed-and on it were the words ‘SuAnne was our hero. We loved her and we love you too.’ ”
The next day Chick decided what she wanted to do. SuAnne had often talked of an ideal place she called Happytown, where kids could go and hang out and have fun and not get in trouble. As her cousin Angie recalled, “Someday she was going to build Happytown, where nobody would fight or be jealous, where it would be clean, have a mall and lots of places for good fun. She was always malting plans for her Happytown.” Remembering her vision, Chick decided to build a place like that in Pine Ridge. In a few hours she had written out a statement of mission and a description of the facilities a Happytown would require. She envisioned a sizable space with recreation rooms, video games, a snack bar, trophy room, library, game room, computer room, and offices. When she called Rol Bradford and Jeanne Horse to tell them her idea, it was as if they had just been waiting for her to call. They came over to her house right away to discuss the plans with her. A day or two later her friend Tom Grey brought her a set of blueprints already drawn. Within a month Chick had set up the Visions of SuAnne Big Crow, Inc., as a nonprofit corporation to benefit Native American youth. Its board of directors included AIM people like Dennis Banks, along with former goons—the unexpected Pine Ridge coalition that SuAnne’s appeal had helped to bring about.
Chick called tribal councilman G. Wayne Tapio and asked if the tribe had a building it wasn’t using. A few days later he called back and said that she could have the old doll factory, a 6,000-square-foot space full of miscellaneous junk and old machinery. The tribe would lease it to her corporation, he said, for a dollar a year. At first a Pine Ridge group contested the claim to the building, but by May, Chick and her friends had it free and clear. They began by cleaning it out. The former factory had made small plastic Indian dolls to sell with the moccasins from another Pine Ridge factory, and there were lots of doll parts lying around, and hundreds of fifty-pound sacks of plastic pellets, and eight three-ton machines for melting the plastic down and molding it. People came with pickups and carted the sacks of pellets to the dump. In a single day a group of volunteers tackled the machines, heaving and skidding them across the floor on slicks of motor oil until they toppled them out the loading-bay doors. The tribe later sold them, and they were hauled away.
All summer, guys with
carpentry skills donated their time to the
Chick knew that the small
donations that had carried the project so far would dwindle eventually and that
she could expect no funding from the tribe. To succeed, the center would have
to be able to support itself Since the renovation began, there had always been
food at the center; she and her sisters were good cooks; she decided that it
made sense for the center to support itself with a restaurant. In those
start-up days people joked that all Chick had to do
when she needed something was reach up and pull it out of the air. Once, she
mentioned in a meeting of the board that the center needed a hot water heater,
and when they stepped out in the parking lot a local contractor was unloading a
hot water heater for them from the back of his truck. Chick wanted a soda
fountain for the restaurant and by chance came across a used one from an old
drugstore at a small local auction. The auctioneer was trying to get rid of it
and he let her have it for five dollars. Other fortunate purchases produced a
counter, stools, tables, a refrigerator, a grill. The center opened the
During that first year a
representative of the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of
Early on, the center set down a strict set of rules for kids on the premises: No fighting, no speaking disrespectfully to peers or counselors, no drugs or alcohol, and no gang colors. The prevailing difficulty of the Pine Ridge surroundings has often slowed the centers progress. Although dues are fifteen dollars a year per member—a modest amount, given what many parents routinely spend on their kids—most parents of kids who attend pay no dues. (The notion that all services should be free runs deep among people on Pine Ridge.) The prohibition against gang colors and the center’s unwillingness to be a hangout spot for any one gang have limited to some extent the teens it can attract, because so many of the kids on Pine Ridge are in gangs. The no-drugs-or-alcohol rule, which also applies to counselors on or off the job, has made finding and keeping counselors and other workers much harder. Sometimes the center has no teen programs scheduled, due to lack of members or of counselors, or both. Teenage kids on Pine Ridge get into scrapes antiviolence and car wrecks all the time, and the teen suicides common on other reservations also occur far too frequently here. Despite a desire to reach the kids who most need its help, the center often does not succeed.
“I’ve made many mistakes in what I’ve done here over the years,” Chick Big Crow said to me recently. “I never followed up on a lot of ideas for improvements I had, I didn’t acknowledge people who sent me donations, I let important matters slide sometimes. I tried to handle everything myself, from cooking in the restaurant to figuring out our computer system to managing the budget to mowing the softball field. I had a hard time delegating any job. Maybe I was trying to punish myself over guilt at SuAnne’s death, maybe I was expressing a grief that I had never dealt with. I don’t think I was really fitted to the job of running this place—I guess I had never even liked kids very much before. Looking back now, I see what I would have done differently, and what I’ll do differently in the future. I’ve learned a lot—I’ve learned more from SuAnne than she did from me. But considering all my failings, I really believe it was the spirituality of this place that’s kept it open, not me.”
So much is so wrong on Pine Ridge. There’s suffering and poverty and violence and alcoholism, and the aura of unstoppability that repeated misfortunes acquire. But beneath all that is something bigger and darker and harder to look at straight on. The only word for it, I’m afraid, is evil. News stories emphasizing the reservation’s “bleakness” are actually using this as a circumlocution for that plain, terrible word. For journalistic reasons the news cannot say, “There is evil here.” And beyond a doubt there is. A bloody history, bad luck, and deliberate malice have helped it along. Sometimes a sense of it comes over me so strongly that I want to run home to bed—for example, when I walk down the row of almost-new child-size bicycles in a local pawnshop, or when I see a bunch of people the police have recently evicted from White Clay staggering back to it, or when I’m driving on a deserted reservation road at night and there’s a large object suddenly up ahead, and I skid to a stop a few feet from it, and it’s the hulk of a car so completely incinerated that it has melted the asphalt around it; it’s just sitting there with no warning, with no other cars on the scene, empty and destroyed and silent in the middle of nowhere. At such moments a sense of compound evil—that of the human heart, in league with the original darkness of this wild continent—curls around me like shoots of a fast-growing vine.
Good appears most vividly in resistance to its opposite;
that’s what heroism is all about, after all. The more you see of Pine Ridge’s
bad side, long for evidence of good, and the happier you are when you find it.
Great good does exist here, too, in the lives of people who hold fast to
serve their neighbors without much encouragement or reward, and in the
steadfastness of the old Oglala culture that endures.
Longing for the good here was what first drew me to SuAnne.
You sense the good in the
Big Bat’s Texaco welcomes
strangers for commercial reasons, but the
while ago I visited the site on Interstate 90 where SuAnne
and Chick’s car accident occurred. I would not have taken the interstate
otherwise; I was driving from Pine Ridge to
As I got closer to the crash site, I could easily imagine the danger of falling asleep at the wheel. In this part of the state the prairie is rolling, but the interstate travels a roadbed that is raised above the low places and so stays essentially level all the time. I had the state Department of Transportation accident report with me, and it said that the wreck had been at four-tenths of a mile west of the milepost numbered 200. After I passed the Murdo exit I began to look for the mileposts. The time of the year was June and the hour ; the heat above the road was hazy With traffic exhaust. I went as slowly as I could get away With as trucks and cars came up behind me and whizzed by About seven miles past Murdo I spotted the 199 post. Six-tenths of a mile beyond it I saw the fatality marker erected by the state. The right-hand shoulder descends in a long, rather steep grade here, and the fatality marker looked small down at the bottom of it next to the fence that runs along the highway. If I had been in the passing lane I could not have seen the marker at all, nor if I had been on the westbound side. Even going as slowly as I was, in a second it had disappeared behind me.
I understood better now how the accident might have occurred. SuAnne, walking when her drifting car hit the delineator post at the roadside, looked to her right and saw that long and steep decline. She then probably turned the wheel violently to avoid going down it, and the suddenness of her correction caused the car to overturn. As the accident site receded in my rearview, I wondered how I could get back to it. Then I noticed a small dirt lane running just the other side of the highway fence. I turned off the interstate at the next exit, found the lane, and went bumping slowly back along it in the direction I had come. It dead-ended at a little hollow filled with brush. I left the car and walked through to grass along the highway fence to the fatality marker.
I had never visited a historic site on an interstate highway before. I climbed over the fence and examined the marker. Its grim slogans—X MARKS THE SPOT and DRIVE SAFELY and WHY DIE?—looked new, their lettering still unfaded by the sun. It was, of course, a distance from here to the pavement and median strip, the actual site of the crash. From the marker I walked up the long incline to the shoulder beside the eastbound lanes, where the continuous traffic was going by like a loud, sooty wind. The cars made a humming that expanded in the ear as they passed, and the trucks gave off a rising and falling whine. I walked along the shoulder trying to imagine: The car would have hit the Post here, it would have rolled there, it would have ended up there. In a momentary break in the traffic I could almost see it—but then the cars and trucks again came rushing by. Each passing vehicle was like the swoop of an eraser on a blackboard, and millions of them, probably, had gone across this piece of highway since SuAnne died.
Occasionally a passing driver quickly turned his head to look at me. I wasn’t hitchhiking, I wasn’t walking, and no disabled car waited nearby, so my presence could not be explained. This simply was not a place for a person to be standing around. After a few minutes I walked back down the incline to the fatality marker and sat beside it in the grass out of sight of traffic. When I did, I noticed wildflowers—little megaphone-shaped blossoms of pale lavender on a ground vine, called creeping jenny hereabouts, and a three-petaled flower called spiderwort, with a long stem and long, narrow leaves. The spiderwort flowers were a deep royal blue. I had read that in former times the Sioux crushed spiderwort petals to make a blue jelly-like paint used to color moccasins. Mid-June must be these flowers’ peak season; among the roadside grasses, lost hubcaps, and scattered gravel, the spiderwort and creeping jenny grew abundantly.
There are no historic markers by the sides of interstate highways. You find them by two-lane roads, but almost never by any roads that are bigger. Evidently history cannot exist at speeds above 55 miles an hour. Because I knew that no historic marker here would ever tell about SuAnne, I began to compose one in my head:
SUANNE BIG CROW
SuAnne Marie Big Crow, a star basketball player for
During her high school career she set two
On down the slope, across the corner of a wheatfield, was a grove of cottonwood trees. I climbed back over the highway fence and walked to it. Perhaps because of the rolling topography, I could hardly hear the traffic here. Just a couple of hundred yards away, the twenty-four-hour-a-day noise of the interstate had disappeared into its own dimension. The cottonwoods stood in a grove of eight or ten, all of them healthy and tall, around a small pool of clear water bordered with cattail reeds and dark-gray mud. Herons, ducks, raccoons, and deer had left their tracks in the mud not long before. From the cattails came the chirring song of red-winged blackbirds, a team whose colors no other team will ever improve on. Old crumpled orange-brown leaves covered the ground around the trees, and false morel mushrooms of a nearly identical shade grew in the crotches of the roots. The cottonwoods had appeared a deep green from the highway, but seen from underneath, their leaves were silvery against the blue sky. High above the trees bright white cumulus clouds piled one atop another. They went on and on, altitude upon altitude, getting smaller as they went, like knots on a rope ladder rising out of sight.