Reflections on finding truth

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

Somewhere on the windswept plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, history washes over us and the world crawls back a few centuries to start over.

As I stand in the ramshackle cemetary of Wounded Knee, I imagine children loping across the plains heading home to watchful mothers.

I imagine a time before me.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I don’t have a tremendous amount of white male German guilt. If I thought about it long enough, I suppose I could eventually accuse my ancestors for everything that’s ever gone wrong, but that’s not how I live.

I haven’t personally deprived the Native Americans of land. Nor has anyone I knew.

But I have practiced a far more insidious form of murder.

I lived five miles from the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation and the stereotypes and prejudices that flew around my small town were rather rampant and had the tendency to re-program young minds.

Although I have come to realize that all stereotypes have one toe dipped in the truth, but everything else doused in uncertainty, I occasionally find myself slipping into old prejudices.

As we drive into a melancholy afternoon, I reflect on the fact that I expected a lot more squalor out of Pine Ridge.

After all, I have seen the reports that say that Shannon County (where the reservation is located) is the second-poorest county in the nation.

I expected utter desolation.

I got something between that and normal small town America.

My prejudices have stood in the way of truths. Coming here as a reporter, I have been able to see with fresh eyes a world caught between a proud past and an uncertain future.

There are people here who grasp life so firmly that they seem to shimmer with hope and promise.

I think of the almost toothless woman who shook with laughter when remembering children she filled full of Lakota culture and language and the woman who fought against a racism she perceived all around her to educate the children who filtered through her classrooms every day.

I think about how she wore giant purple rimmed glasses that she frequently took off, just as it seemed she might cry from a life of hardships.

I don’t know how I succumbed so easily to the stereotypes and prejudices of my area. I was raised by parents who tried to instill in me a sense of judging people as individuals and not as groups. Several of my teachers educated us about Native Americans.

Indeed, it’s not as if I looked at Native Americans and thought terrible things.

But those thoughts always lurked behind other thoughts, hiding from my best intentions.

Now, I see that the truth is far more complicated, as it almost always is.

As I stand looking at the graves festooned with trinkets and memories, I am confronted by a man who tells me a long, rambling narrative about Wounded Knee, unmarked graves and a gold mine that only his dead cousin knew the way to.

The man is confused, but he is also urgent. And always, buried somewhere in urgency, is truth.

I stop and listen.

It’s a good place to start.

Write Todd VanDerWerff at [email protected].