****I shall not be here, I shall rise and pass, bury my heart at Wounded Knee
- Stephen Vincent Benet
****In March 1973, when I was young and invincible and into journalism, I traveled with a group of other young, invincible 19 year olds to Wounded Knee, South Dakota from Winnipeg, Manitoba. An uprising was underway between AIM and the United States government under the presidency of Richard Nixon. We'd thought we'd report on it. So we rented an LTD and drove 15 hours non-stop to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. It never occurred to us that we could have gotten our heads blown off.
****As life and the ways of God frequently favor the foolhardy, brave and naive, we showed up at Wounded Knee at the same time as a temporary truce went into effect. So instead of being stopped stone cold by federal troops and US marshals and turned back, we were permitted into Wounded Knee at our own risk. We didn't think it was a risk. A white pillow case flying from our aerial, down into the valley we went. And were immediately stopped by a carload of Native Americans armed to the teeth who wanted to know how many troops were at the checkpoint we had just driven through.
****So began our long day at Wounded Knee which is the basis of this story here. As I wrote it, I mused about my experiences growing up in Manitoba and the First Nations people I had met. I also thought about God and Christ and how much of the gospel, or at least the way we presented it back in 1973, was centered on how whites saw the world, and not on how other races and cultures might see it. And how they might see Jesus. I also thought about the centuries of warfare between Europeans and Native Americans - could the migration from Europe have been handled more peacefully? But you cannot go back. Only try to listen to the right voices and go forward.
****I originally entitled this story White Man's God. That's how you find it in the book of stories of which it's part (Mister Good Morning). Today I'm giving it a new title which I've taken from the last line of the story - An Evening For Angels.
I hope it speaks to you.
It really is based on a true story.
An Evening For Angels
In June the cottonwoods release their seed and for weeks it is a summer’s winter. White swirls in and out, tumbling and turning, as if the world is a glass globe a child has lifted and shaken. Overhead, the blue dome is spotted. Some detest the whitefall. I feel it is a time of magic. Anything might step out of the whirling. Anyone might come in out of the storm. And so it is that Jimmy Strikes With A Gun comes my way. June is a new earth in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The town has lived more than a hundred years along the banks of a gold and green creek. Hills rise all around, and in the west, mountains blue, mountains purple, mountains at morning and at dusk. A footpath of gravel edges the banks of the creek. I see him coming, his face like a chisel, a straw cowboy hat tight on dark braided hair. I sense us riding toward each other, a harsh riding, his face cold and blunt, mine sharp and steep and far, rifles in our fists, the plains cracking with the fast hooves of our ponies. But out of the white falling, it is him.
He stares. “White Man’s God!” he laughs.
It is March. The city is melting. Water pools in the gutters and glitters in the empty fields. A warm south wind. Parkas are shorn. A smiling. A straightening of backs. The prairie winter is done. Sprinklers are spitting and hissing on the fairways. I am studying journalism, hopelessly behind in my assignments, slumped at a typewriter, trying to work something onto the sheet of paper directly from my head, without a rough draft, the way the pros do it. Tim, round glasses and short beard and jeans, he snips into the room. I lift my head. Soon I am in a car, an LTD, a dark one. There are six of us. Driving down the plains, north to south, from farms to ranches, flat land to hills, greater heat, longer suns, brown grass.
At the last of the fifteen hour drive I am behind the wheel. We have come through night and morning and now it is past noon. Hill after hill. Buffalo - we are not only going south but going into time, it is not only another country but another era. We see a few pickups. Then, for a hundred miles, nothing.
I am still at the wheel when the man swings the machine gun and aims it at my head, the head of the driver, as a man with a gun is trained to do. He is in cavalry blue. But he is no older than I am, standing up in his dirt green armoured car. We are the same. But we started in different places. I brake quickly. The LTD swerves and slithers. I throw up my hands.
“What are you doing?” shout my friends and fellow students. "Get going, get going!”
“I’ve got a gun pointed at my head.”
“He’s not going to shoot. Get going, get going.”
He never relaxes the grip on the gun. The gun is mounted on a swivel and it tracks us. We drive down into the valley at our own risk, he says. We’re laughing too much, almost giddy. Both sides have agreed to a temporary truce. The other students back home swore we’d never get in. We tie a pillowcase to our aerial. I’m driving again. Into the valley. Into Wounded Knee.
A raw wind had been blowing at the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. We said nothing about the uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. We stopped for coffee at a local watering hole south of Fargo. Ranchers with curled and battered stetsons. It was 1973 - they didn’t like the look of my hair. They said something, steam flickering over their hands, clutching their coffee mugs for warmth. I was polite - tired but full of the good will sparkle which comes with impending adventure.
“Pardon me?” I asked.
The ranchers eyed me, then smiled with the blue cut of the ice dawn snagging the windows of the diner: “You got hair like a sheep, boy. We ought to shear you.”
The ranchers laughed. I laughed, but from my nose, pretending. I laughed that laugh again when the muzzle of an AK-47 dangled lazily at my stomach.
“Hey. I’m gonna use this white guy as a shield and start blasting.”
They were mostly Sioux. They had about as deep and healthy a laugh at my expense as the ranchers had had over their Saturday morning breakfast. I was standing in the valley with a ridiculous notepad in my hand and there were loaded guns all around me and buildings full of bullet holes and underneath the grass was blood.
The United States government had cut off power to the Knee but someone had jury-rigged a system so the Sioux could still pump up gas from the underground storage tanks. Cars and trucks darted back and forth as we headed toward the station, edging our way down and in from the valley’s rim. A car jumped out of the trees and cut us off. They wanted to know how many soldiers and federal marshals were up on top. We drove to the gas station. That’s where Jimmy sat, rolling a cigarette. He watched us and listened to us for a few minutes.
“Where’s your college?” he asked suddenly.
“The Canadian Indians are jerked around worse than we are. And they don’t even know it.”
A young man with long dark hair, headband, and black-rimmed glasses rode up on a paint, holding the reins to a horse trotting behind him. He held a Winchester lever-action.
“Patrols,” said Jimmy.
“Are you all Sioux?” I asked.
“Nah. Cheyenne. Crow. Nez Perce. I’m Blackfoot. Hey. You should have seen the firefight last night. Tracers slamming into everything. Now we got this truce. But it won’t last. What are they going to do? Give us back Mount Rushmore?”
The more we relaxed, the more our group split up and wandered, photographing, listening. The South Dakota sun was warm but the breeze held the memory of the dead snow. We slipped on our jean jackets. I stared at bunkers that had been cut into the earth, concrete blocks stacked around their edges. The Catholic church flew the stars and stripes upside down over its doorway. Inside the altar was crammed with a stereo system. Some women were ladling out cups of hot soup. Covers from Dee Brown’s paperback, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, were taped up in various buildings. Or pieces of foolscap:
WE ONLY DIE ONCE, LET’S ALL DIE HERE TOGETHER
IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON YOUR FEET THAN TO LIVE ON YOUR KNEES
WOUNDED KNEE (AGAIN)
I was watching them slaughter a steer a native rancher had brought up in the back of his truck. The sun dropped gunmetal blue behind the church. Jimmy walked up with his AK-47.
“Sitting Bull. He was killed just north of here. On the Grand River. Did you know that?”
I shook my head. “Soldiers?”
Jimmy laughed. “Sioux. Indian police. Right after that the soldiers moved up the Grand River Valley into Wounded Knee and opened up with their hardware. Right here. Shot down everybody. Same old story. Women and children. They were afraid of the Ghost Dance. Afraid there’d be another Indian uprising. They were after Spotted Elk. He rode with Sitting Bull. It was Custer’s old regiment did the job. The Seventh Cavalry.”
The church’s steeple was a cross. Two perfect black lines against the blue sunset. Jimmy eyed it.
“You a Christian?” he asked.
“Methodist?” he prodded.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us. It’s all the White Man’s God. What do Christians care about freedom and creation and respect? Where are you spending the night?”
“I guess we’ll huddle up in the car.”
“Better come with me. In case there’s shooting.”
It was a shack with three or four others sleeping on the floor. I didn’t belong. But no one asked Jimmy why. And no one offered me a blanket. I draped my denim jacket over my back and shoulders. Runners for a pillow. It was dark. And cold. But no gunfire.
“Where are the other white kids?”
1970. A high school play on Louis Riel. All the Metis and Cree parts were being played by Metis and Cree. I’d wanted to play Gabriel Dumont. But I wasn’t Metis. A tall Cree girl asked me where the other white kids were. I’d never been given a colour before.
I woke. Starlight? Moonlight? I didn’t think it would be a good idea to move around in the dark so I lay there. I tried to pray. What do you pray for? Sitting Bull had gone to Canada for a few years, Jimmy had said. But the Canadian government had abused him and his band so badly he returned to the U.S. He had become famous. Buffalo Bill signed him up for his Wild West Show and Sitting Bull wound up scribbling autographs. He even wore sunglasses for his old eyes. Jimmy had laughed: “But every Indian is a drunk, right?”
A story formed in the night before I fell back to sleep. I had scarcely any notion of writing one. I’d become bored with my journalism classes and was thinking about dropping out. Someone spoke in their sleep. The story would come to be published on the front page of the city paper. I would be invited to speak at various places about what had happened at the Knee. A friend who farmed would snort at my reporting: “Really unbiased. Yahoo for Sitting Bull and the Little Big Horn. Tears for Wounded Knee. If they want to be free, fine. Tell them to stop taking government handouts.” A friend of my mother’s would listen to my story as I told it to her in our living room. She would shake her head: “But they’re the children of Ham. It may seem cruel but it’s the judgment of a just God. The children of Ham will always be slaves to the whites. It’s God’s law.”
The toe of a boot dug into my ribs.
“Let’s go,” Jimmy was saying, hanging onto his AK-47. “Maybe the truce is over and I‘ll need you for that shield.”
A large white tepee had been erected and drums were beating. A crowd had gathered.
“It’s a ceremony for those warriors who had their first fight Friday night. The warriors are blooded. You can watch. But don’t go near the tepee. Powerful medicine flows from its entrance. A guard will knock your head off if you get in the way.”
Shirts and jeans and Winchesters and semi-automatics and headbands and beads. They moved in single file, their feet shuffling with the drums. They came up to an old monument erected to those killed at the Knee a hundred years before. Each one placed their hand on it. Jimmy too.
“I joined AIM a few months ago,” Jimmy was telling me later. “I knew they were planning this.”
“So what’s going to happen?”
“What can happen? Eventually, we’ll have to surrender. There’ll be no water, no food, no ammo. We’ll last awhile though. It’s spring.”
“You don’t think Nixon will negotiate. You think he’ll answer with guns.”
“Yeah. He will most probably. But we’ll get a piece of him. Of all of you. Dark children of a White God.”
“Jesus was a Jew.”
“He wasn’t white.”
“The traders with their whiskey were white. And the pony soldiers. And the preachers who called us devils.”
“Indian tribes fought each other and lied and broke trust. That doesn’t make native religion worthless in your eyes.”
“There is nothing in the Christian’s heart for the land, even though they claim God the Father made the land.”
“Yes. God created. He told us to be caregivers for the earth and all that He made.”
“Sure. And a lot of whites follow that, don’t they?”
“You can’t say every white is a Christian.”
“I could blow you away. You think this is a seminary? We’re fighting for our lives, not a bunch of doctrine. White Man’s God.”
The truce ended before we could drive out and that night the fire fell. Jimmy was smoking in the graveyard and telling me that the Quakers had been trustworthy in dealing with the Indians. Lights formed a sudden parabola over us. He pushed me flat behind a headstone. Then came the sound, not nearly as loud as in the movies: Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack.
Jimmy hunched over and ran and I stumbled after him. We dropped into a bunker. There was another man there, a friend of Jimmy’s I’d met at the gas pump, Michael Many Wounds. Michael and Jimmy watched for the source of the U.S. fire and then opened up with their own tracers. The shots went where they wanted them to and they cheered. WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK. Now the noise hurt. I had a swift image from the afternoon of a Sioux woman, a flower of wrinkles, smiling and telling me Sitting Bull would be riding this night as she pressed hot bannock into my hand. Firing erupted from all over the valley and the hills. Then it ended. In the silence, one last shot.
“Thirty-thirty,” grunted Michael.
“So, White Man’s God,” rumbled Jimmy, leaning back into the cool earth of the bunker. “What would you do?”
“If you were Sioux. Apache. Blackfoot. You’re on your front lawn and they drive up and beat on your father and mother and on your grandmother, they throw you out of the house, rip up your garden, tie you up and tell you it’s not your property anymore.”
“I’d get a lawyer.”
Jimmy laughed. “White Man’s God and his lawyers and judges. No. There’s no law for you. They just take. They rape your kid sister. Now what?”
“I fight back.”
“I wouldn’t stay on a reserve.”
“You’re going to leave the reserve? The Cheyenne tried that and the U.S. called out ten thousand soldiers to track them down. The Nez Perce tried it too. Of course, we’re talking a hundred years.”
“I’d go anywhere.”
“The white man doesn’t want you on his street.”
“I’d get a good job.”
“A white man’s job.”
“As soon as I’m doing it, it’s my job.”
“So easy. You grow up in a clean house with a green lawn and all your rosy options. But what if all your family and friends are on the reserve? What if it’s your ancestral home? Try to think Indian, White Man’s God. Try to feel it.”
“Sure. I left.”
“That was good, wasn’t it?”
“For you everything is something to be used to get you farther and higher. I can’t think like that. For Christians the whole earth is something to be used up.”
“How can I think that way? All of God is in creation. It says His divine nature is in everything. You can see it. You can see Him. You get to know who He is just by looking. How can I desecrate what is part of him? It’s Christ’s face.”
The bunker was so black I could not see them. Jimmy only grunted: “White Man’s God.”
All the next day there was firing from one end of the Knee to the other. Scarcely anyone moved from place to place. They were worried about snipers. A few crawled back and forth with food and water. Tim ended up in my bunker, his beard longer and scruffier. He was incensed.
“Did you know they put a bullet in the LTD?” he squawked. “What are we supposed to tell Hertz?”
“They can bill the President of the United States,” grinned Michael Many Wounds.
At night we were free to walk. Jimmy took Michael and I back to the graveyard.
“If we get hit, it’ll save us a trip,” he smiled. He lit up. “I’ll tell you something else you don’t know, White Man’s God. It was a white man went to Cochise. A Christian. I guess he was a real one. Usually the best white man is one that’s shot and hung. But this man kept his word. He would read his Bible and pray every morning. Cochise saw that. And he treated the Apache with dignity and respect. He treated them as if they were also God-made, like all whites think white people are. He made the peace. He was a soldier too. I cannot understand that.”
“What was his name?”
“Howard. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I keep hoping there are others like Howard and like Penn and the Quakers. A few more whites who belong to God. Michael hears me talk all this crazy talk. No one else.”
Michael grinned in the dark. “It’s good crazy talk.”
Jimmy’s face was sparked by the cigarette. “I’d like a God who was God for everyone, not a Sioux God or a Peigan’s Blackfoot God, not a white man’s God or a Hindu’s God or a Moslem’s God. I think there has to be this Great Spirit for all peoples. Doesn’t the Christian Bible say everyone is made of one blood, every tribe, every nation? So a priest told me when I was a boy. I want this God.”
I squatted under a tree, its branches still sharp and bare. “I used to walk from my house in the suburbs to downtown, to Main Street. I wanted to see Indians.”
“I’ll bet you were always glad to get back to your home in the suburbs, weren’t you?”
“I thought that if I were an Indian, I would return to the old ways. I would go back to the pride that used to be the Indian people before the alcohol came. I would break free and be a warrior once again. And the God I would worship would have the face of Jesus, dark with the sun of the desert. He would be the Great Spirit. I kept going back to Main Street. It depressed me. But it was something exotic at the same time. I wanted to tell them to go back to their dignity, to go back to their strength.”
“You were one of the crazy whites who gets romantic about the Warrior of the Plains. But no people can go back.”
“I had just become a Christian. I was only fourteen. But I thought a true Christian should be full of life. There should be rivers and mountains and immense prairies in them. Purple thunderstorms and long yellow seasons of the sun. Snow and ice and winds that soared. Stars so sharp they cut slits in the night. I read some of the Plains Indians own writings. We had so much in common. Surely they could see Christ was a God for them, full of courage and sacrifice, strong with love and noble suffering, not afraid to die, not afraid to rise again, purifying everyone, restoring everything. I read that the Father God chose to make all the earth through Jesus. All the trees. All the beasts. All the winds and clouds and waters. This is your God, I told them, this is the One to rescue you. I said all this with my heart. That’s why I keep telling you: The Indian should be what he was created to be. What the true Christ created him to be. What Father always intended him to be. But how often is this true God talked about?”
“When you talk crazy like this, what do your white friends say?”
“I had the Cree make me a buckskin shirt. I showed them the design I wanted. No buttons. I just pulled it over my head. It was a very light tan, all kinds of fringes, and just a sun and a moon on the front for decoration. It was a beautiful shirt. A man at my church saw it and he advised me to destroy the shirt because it was associated with native spirituality. No, I told him. I designed the shirt. The sun and the moon come from St. Francis of Assisi, who loved God’s creation. Brother Sun and Sister Moon. This got me into more trouble. St. Francis was a Catholic and I was supposed to be a Protestant. Destroy the shirt, he said. It will bewitch you. The Indians are a downtrodden people because they worship false gods. I thought about this. I came back to him and I asked him what he thought white people worshiped. Jesus, he told me. No, I said, mostly they worship money and sex and power. Aren’t these false gods?”
“One day I left the church. There were other reasons as well.”
“But you did not stop believing in your crazy Christ?”
“No. I could not.”
“Or remaining among Christian people.”
“There are Francises there. And Howards and Penns. You told me.”
“There are Indians who are Christians.”
“Some. Apples. I’m not interested in sucking up to the whites. I want the real God who says I am equal with everyone. But is it Jesus? Is it Buddha?”
The sky erupted. Flares and tracers and the hammer, hammer, hammer of guns, fire scribbling across the night. The three of us ran to the bunker. As the AK-47s bounced against their shoulders, I covered my ears. Once a cluster of shells shattered the cement blocks near our heads and we hugged the bottom of the bunker.
“If you get shot,” Jimmy told me as we lay in the dirt, “you can come back as an owl and tell me which God I should believe in. Okay?”
With the dawn came another truce.
“Get out,” ordered Jimmy. “Tell our story. Here.” He grabbed an orange bumper sticker that read, Wounded Knee, National Historic Site, and scribbled an address. “When I’m out of prison, write me. Go.”
Tim was rounding everyone up. “It’s only a three hour truce. We’ve got to move.”
We piled into the car and started up the hill, toward the armored car and the young man with the machine gun. The FBI were there too. They would detain us for an hour, ask us question after question, until an an old pro for U.S. News and World Report would persuade them to let us go. He put an arm around my shoulder and smiled: “It’ll be worth it, son. You’ll get your first byline for this story.” I could see Jimmy Strikes With A Gun and Michael Many Wounds still watching from below as we got back into the LTD. They must have seen me. No one waved.
I walked down Main Street in my home city and I felt stifled. I wished I could take all the Cree and the Metis from Main Street to the Knee. Let them be warriors again, I prayed. Let them want dignity and freedom more than anything else. No one at my church was interested in my story. The city paper published two articles and paid me and I got an A+ in reporting that term. I went on to seminary. My buckskin shirt was stolen, along with my luggage, the evening I flew into Vancouver to begin my studies.
The uprising collapsed many weeks after we left Wounded Knee. Only a few managed to escape the armed noose of the U.S. government. A few years later, in court, AIM successfully defended itself against the charges brought against it by the FBI over Wounded Knee. I saw a photograph of AIM leaders celebrating their courtroom victory with a huge cake strewn with candles. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Spotted Elk I read about in books. I passed through my years as a white man’s pastor. Some I met despised all Indians. Some loved all Indians. I met many Cree and Sioux and Blackfoot who had returned to their native spirituality and embraced it, drumming, drumming. I met others in churches. On special occasions, they dressed in white deerskins and eagle feathers. They drummed too, drummed that Jesus was the true God, the God for all peoples.
A hot wind. Cotton bursts over our knees. Jimmy buttons his shirt. He has shown me the massive scar tissue from an FBI bullet, like white plastic melted and waxy over his dark skin.
“I forgive them,” he says. “They’re just crazy white men.” He grins. “White Man’s God. All right. I will tell you. I follow the God of all peoples. But it is no white man’s religion. No. The white man actually does pretty badly at it. This Christ, you know, he does not have a white bone in his body. What do you think?”
I laugh. “I think you are right.”
We can only talk for an hour. He is in town for a Peigan pow-wow. White and blue and white the sky. It is strange to pray together. I see him with the AK-47: “I’m going to use this white guy as a shield and start blasting.” There is a small Bible covered in deerskin in his shirt pocket, stained with dirt and sweat. He reads to me from it and the fingers on the white paper are strong. The sun over the Dakotas. The sun over the Rocky Mountains. A thousand years.
“It could have been Sitting Bull beside me. It could have been Spotted Elk,” I say.
Jimmy saddens, his whole spirit seems to droop. “All the blood of my people. If someone had spoken well a hundred years ago. If someone had prayed well. No Washita. No Little Big Horn. No Wounded Knee. No white bodies. No brown bodies. Only one body, only God’s body. Ah. I dream too much. Foolish dreams. Is this a world without suffering and death? Out of the broken soul, an eagle. Out of one tired to death, one who runs. Out of blood and nails, a life, all life. How else can Father work?”
Jimmy stands. “I have to go. There are things I need to say at the pow-wow.”
“I guess we won’t see you again.”
“No. I don’t think so. Not here.”
“God gave us the creek.”
We embrace with strength. The wind has dropped and the air is quiet.
“Jimmy. What happened to Michael?”
He smiles gently in his sadness. The cottonwoods are a rich green. They do not move. In the silence of the wind, you can hear the creek. Over stones, over sand, over time.
“Michael was killed a few days after you left. He is buried at the Knee. No. Don’t speak. I must finish. He never forgot how you talked that last night. Prairies in you. Thunderclouds in you. A God of all peoples and beasts. The God for the Sioux and the Cheyenne and for the earth. The dying God. The God to free us. No white had ever spoken like this. He would joke about it just to keep it from his soul. The only good Indian, he would laugh, is a free Indian. When the bullets found him, he lived a few minutes. He wanted me to pray with him. How could I pray? I remembered the stations of the cross. I talked about the stations of the cross. I believed nothing. He believed everything. I buried him the next day. Alive. What else could he be? He clenched life in his dead hands and took it with him. I was the dead one. After the uprising ended, I had nothing. Except Michael. He haunted me. What he believed haunted me. When I had found my way to the truth, I came back. I put flowers at his grave and a new stone. There is a cross on it. And what he prayed at the end: “God of all bloods, I am Michael, your son.” When you go back, White Man’s God, you will find it. It is not obvious, but you will find it.”
He begins to move off down the path. Now a warm breeze blows from the mountains and the cottonwoods rush overhead like a sea. Some bits of seed dance around us, bright as grains of starlight. The blue softens and moves over and around all the earth. Soon he is far away but he laughs as he crosses the wooden bridge over to the other side of the shining creek: “White Man’s God. It is an evening for angels.”