National Geographic : 2004 Sep
rom the top of Coffee Bte in te land of the Cheyenne , you can see 50 miles in Direction. As I circled my gaze, I uld see black dots on the wide, s plain below. Buffalo. I picked out one herd, then another, another and another. A herd in each of the four directions: good omen. "Look" said Dennis Rousseau, of the tribe's Game, Fish, and Parks Department, "over there." I followed his stare to a group of brown specks on a ridge, two miles to our east. "Wild horses," he said. "Coming our way." I watched as perhaps a dozen animals flowed toward us down the slope, smooth as rushing water. They were half a mile away, led by a brown stallion, head up, alert to any danger. Sure enough, distant as we were, the stallion caught wind of us. He stopped abruptly on top of a hill, stared, then turned, driving the horses before him, out of sight as quick as the flash of a hawk's wing. Wild horses are back on the reservation after an absence of 140 years, trucked in from Nevada, where they were being shot at and killed by poachers only a few years ago. Their return, like seeing buffalo in all directions, was enough to stir the blood of at least one old East Coast Indian: me. For the first time in generations, "the buffalo, the elk, and the mustang are all back on the reservation," said Dennis, lowering his binoculars. "One of our holy men told me that means something really good is going to happen." I'd come to Cheyenne River looking for some thing good: the same spirit of revival and hope that I'd heard about in Indian communities across the United States, from the stone-cold canyons of Manhattan to the quietest hogan in the desert Southwest. In a thousand small ways, that revival-cultural, political, econom ic, spiritual-may wind up transforming the lives of 4.1 million Native Americans, the vast majority of whom today live somewhere besides a reservation. And yet, as I'd driven across South Dakota to get here, I'd expected this place to be differ ent. Confined to some of the driest, most un forgiving real estate in North America, Sioux 86 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . SEPTEMBER 2004 reservations on the Great Plains are among the poorest in the country. Just south of Cheyenne River, people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reser vation live on a third of what the average Ameri can earns and are three times as likely to be job less. They also commit suicide twice as often. In this part of America, whole landscapes seem raw with the memory of what went on here in the late 19th century. This is the land of the Custer campaigns and the Ghost Dance, where Lakota Sioux resisted the coming of the whites and the loss of their sacred lands with every beat of their hearts. Sitting Bull's grave is out here. Approaching Cheyenne River after sundown, I hit the search button on the radio and landed on the biggest station around-KLND, Indian owned and operated-just in time to catch a ded ication. "For all you lovebirds out there, whether you're snaggin, shackin, or married," said the deejay. "Here's Lil' Kim!" If nothing else, young Americans of all colors have music in common: 50 Cent and Eminem are just as popular with Indians as they are with other American kids. Short hair, tattoos, and baggy pants are every where you look. Even adult men who used to wear shoulder-length hair have gone to the buzz cut, in a quiet revolt against Indian stereotypes. A while later, at my motel, I tuned in channel 30 on cable and saw an ad from Emmanuel Red Bear-who also goes by the Lakota name of Tatanka Iyotake, the same name as his great-great grandfather, Sitting Bull-making it known that he is a certified Lakota language instructor, an experienced emcee for powwows, honorings, and giveaways, and is also available for suicide coun seling and gang awareness workshops. It was a vision of hope that made me sit up in my chair. The next day I caught another glimpse of hope, this time in black and white. On the wall of Dennis Rousseau's office hangs one of those reservation maps I've grown familiar with over the years, showing the checkerboard pattern of lands once reserved for Indians. Today about LIFE ON THE REZ Children get lessons in calf roping as Sunday afternoon winds down in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The reserva tion, at 25,500 square miles-about the size of West Virginia-is the nation's largest. The Navajo Nation has about 250o,ooo members, more than half of whom live on the reservation.