Iron Nation Church in South Dakota

Uncommon Characters in South Dakota

Abandoned ouse on South Dakota prairie
A house on the prairie of South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

Just before traveling to the Sioux reservations of South Dakota for the first time, I read an article in The New York Times’ T Magazine titled “Richard Ford’s Uncommon Characters.” It was written by photographer/film director Bruce Weber, who quoted Ford as saying “A lot of people could be novelists if they were willing to devote their lives to their responses to things.”

 

Stranded on the Road to Promise

Attending Niobrara Convocation
Attending the Niobrara Convocation in Promise, South Dakota.

 

I have never tested this theory in my writing life but I do know that I have devoted my adult life to my responses to things, a practice that can be wearying at times. This was particularly so when I was locked in a battle with myself over the plight of the Lakota Sioux. I am going to be a guest speaker for the Chattanooga Civitan Club this coming Friday, reading bits of my memoir Stranded on the road to Promise, and while going over the material I felt the desire to share certain parts of it with readers of The Diary of an Improvateur because I realized that there are so many heartfelt stories in it.

 

Uncommon Characters in South Dakota

Church on South Dakota prairie
A church languishing on the Great Plains of South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

Today, I’m sharing a sermon by Grandpa Joe Packard, a Yanktonais gentleman who had an ease of delivery that made the quaint humanitarian lessons he plucked from the mundane events of everyday life resonant. He was often charged with presenting the sermons in Wagner, South Dakota, when Father Hobbs was away, and I looked forward to watching him pace in front of the congregation, his hands folded behind his back and head slightly bowed in concentration as he readied himself for the anecdote he was about to share.

 

Church Bell Greenwood South Dakota
The church bell at Holy Fellowship in Greenwood, South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

His baggy, threadbare pants, about a size too large for his frail frame, were cinched to his waist by a disintegrating leather belt. The frayed collar of his shirt, only partially closed under a haphazardly knotted tie because it no longer had a top button, encircled a thin neck the color of cinnamon. He was missing more teeth than he had so his smile puckered his swarthy face when he was amused, lending him the appearance of a wizened old coot.

His habit of removing his badly smudged glasses to wipe his brow with an oversized handkerchief created a series of small silences throughout the service. Though he didn’t do this for the dramatic effect, a certain tension built as he polished the badly scarred lenses, slicked back the few sprigs of gray hair clinging to the top of his head, replaced the dark-rimmed spectacles and jammed his hanky back into his pants pocket—leaving only the pointed end of one corner trailing down the leg of his wrinkled trousers.

 

A Fine Christian Fellow

White Grave Iron Nation South Dakota
The cemetery at Iron Nation, South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

One of my favorite sermons opened with a visit from a neighbor, who said he had heard two of Grandpa Joe’s three horses were for sale. They talked briefly about care and feeding before the man, whom Packard called a fine Christian fellow, left. The next morning when he awakened, two of his horses were missing, leaving his lone saddle horse standing in his corral.

“They must have gotten out and gone down to the crick so I headed in that direction,” he said to the attentive congregation. When he rode past the barn belonging to the man who had paid him a visit the day before, the horse he was riding sounded. In reply, the missing horses whinnied from inside the barn. He swung from his saddle to sling open the large doors, releasing the horses from their confinement and leading them home.

 

Corral on South Dakota Prairie
A disintegrating corral on the prairie in South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

Once he had returned and secured them inside his enclosure, the “so called friend,” as he referred to him, paid him another visit. He told Grandpa Packard he needed to be compensated for keeping his horses safe overnight since they had wandered onto his land. Packard bluntly told him he wasn’t paying him for having stolen his horses.

“You can’t expect to come to church and say, ‘Here is the spirit of the Lord,’ and then live without religion in your everyday life,” he cautioned in conclusion. “God must also be in your home for him to be real.” Witnessing the faithfulness of these Native Americans who have fully embraced Christianity pushed me into a silent rebellion.

 

An Immovable Foundation

Cemetery Near Rosebud South Dakota
A cemetery on the Rosebud Reservation. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

Why is it so hard for me to respect they are willing to trust an institution that mistreated them so severely in the past? I wondered. The stance of the church had certainly changed for the better over time, and I have no idea what it means to want to be accepted by an exclusionary culture in almost every other way.

These loyal Episcopalians seem to have no use for the question “Where was God when the Hotchkiss guns were blazing?” so why should I? I’m smart, I reasoned; I get that the Christian God they have been presented isn’t responsible for the fact the white man slaughtered so many of their people. But my forefathers, some of the earliest wasichu to walk among them, are responsible for so many atrocities; and White religious leaders colluded, forcing our version of a Western deity down their throats along with everything else they deemed sacred.

 

Iron Nation Church in South Dakota
Iron Nation Church in South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

Christian scripture proposes the church is built upon the foundation of God. Those who came to spread “his” word claim they relied solely upon this immovable foundation but it seems to me they used it as much like a crushing weight keeping most Native Americans down than a stabilizing force underfoot. The residue of the historical missteps welled in me like a legacy of shame as I sat and listened to Grandpa Joe’s humble homily.

It’s as if the early clergy chose selective amnesia, forgetting that one of Christianity’s most important building blocks remains the humanitarian teachings of Christ. Maybe I would have been able to let go of my frustration if we had come any closer to treating those who are different than we are with respect and equality, but we have not.

The disadvantaged situations in which so many of the Lakota still live proves we have made so little headway as to have essentially gone careening backwards. Where in all this is the spirit of the Lord? I wondered as Granpa Packard folded his hands in a prayer-like posture and bowed to the congregation saying, “waŝté,” the Lakota word meaning “it is good.”

 

No Indians Allowed in this bar in South Dakota
“No Indians Allowed,” an abandoned bar in South Dakota. Image © Saxon Henry.

 

The Diary of an Improvateur and Uncommon Characters in South Dakota © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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2 thoughts on “Uncommon Characters in South Dakota

  1. Touching story, especially with the state of current affairs. Ironies have had their way with history. On so many fronts, we really haven’t made much progress…

  2. You’re so right, Vicki. The irony of the timing isn’t lost on me. It amazes me that these circumstances have been so prevalent for so long and that nothing changes. I had to tell my story in the hopes it would help but it’s just one small voice against a din of complacency. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to read the post. It means a great deal to me.

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