Breaking Down the Border Town

After finishing David Treuer’s Rez Life a couple weeks back, I thought to myself, Well, someone has managed to write about the rez in a way that isn’t completely depressing. My eyes then drifted to The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Continuing my over-wrought inner dialogue, I said to myself, Well, if a book about the rez by an Indian is not completely despairing, I bet this book about border towns by a white guy is definitely going to be.

I guess that makes me a person who likes to be sad because I went right from the rez to the border town.

If suburbia and the rez are like twins, and I’ll let you decide which is the evil one, then what does that make the border town? Much like David Treuer’s assertion that reservations are both the most and least American places, the prologue to The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder quickly declares that reservation border towns are “quintessentially American,” despite the fact that the image most associated with a border town is the Mexican-American town racked by drug cartels and border control police. Most people have probably stopped thinking of the signs that read “Now Entering [Reservation Name Here]” as demarcating any sort of real border, but of course that ignorance as to what a reservation is, what an Indian nation is, is very much a quintessential American quality.

One thing that the border towns that reach the nightly news and those that are intentionally ignored have in common is that both are always defined as places to be avoided, sore spots with an ugliness we would like to be rid of but cannot. Border towns are always violent.

In the town of Gordon, Nebraska, on the Pine Ridge Reservation border, this characteristic violence is often committed not by powerful gangs with American-made weapons but small groups of bored teenagers. Yet, both are backed by a corrupt police force and a long history of conquest and colonialism. Such was the case on the night of February 12, 1972 when a series of events was started by a group of drunken twenty-somethings that would eventually lead to the untimely death of the quiet, Lakota ranch hand Raymond Yellow Thunder.

The story of Raymond Yellow Thunder– how he was kidnapped, beaten, stripped and pushed naked into the American Legion Hall, sent back into the night only to be re-kidnapped later and put in a car trunk before being finally released into the freezing cold night with no way home and nowhere to stay but a police cell and then an empty car where he would slowly die, his brain hemorrhaging from an exterior wound– this story is the starting point from which Stew Magnuson will trace the history of white-Indian relations in Sheridan county. As you might be able to tell, it has all the trappings of tragedy that people usually associate with Indians while also addressing the border town culture of violent racism  people usually try to deny.

In its examination of Nebraska border towns, the book zig-zags through time like the drunken drivers that populate its stories, describing at once the American Indian Movement protests brought down upon Nebraska like a firestorm forty years ago, going further back to the history of white settlement in the plains and the greed that fueled it, then jerking forward again to the massacre at Wounded Knee, which hangs like a specter over all that happens at Pine Ridge. Despite the wild veers from one period to the next, the narrative is whole, highlighting the reality that much of what happens in the border town has happened before.

There is a sense that every instance of violence and anger has a history behind it stretching all the way back to the original violence inherent in the arrival of settlers on Indian land. People in the book are always introduced by where they came from, when they arrived, and who their parents were. They become characters in a book that is not completely made of facts, a book that takes what is written along with what is said and re-imagines it much like a novel. Is this a fuller version of the truth or only history made palpable with imagination? Magnuson fully admits that he is constructing the story as “narrative non-fiction,” taking perspectives which did actually exist and interpreting them through his own idea of the story. Perhaps it is not all that different from most versions of history.

Much of his narrative centers on alcoholism, a curse-like condition Magnuson sees as near inevitable when living in a place with few opportunities for a meaningful career let alone a meaningful weekend night. Magnuson rightfully takes time to cast doubt on the popular idea that Indians are somehow biological unable to hold their liquor, a trait attributed to the so-called Indian-alcoholism gene, which some say causes an enzyme deficiency needed to break down alcohol but which has never actually been proved to exist. The fact is America needs its Indians to be drunk in order to deem them unfit owners of the land government and industry always want more of.

Border towns are also fulled with white drunks for whom the “poverty, hopelessness, and grief” that Magnuson cites as causes for alcoholism are also pressing realities. The big difference is that while the white drunks are protected by power, Indians, drunk or not, are pursued by power. Plenty of people, white and Indian, walked the streets of Gordon smashed, but in the history of the town’s records only Indians had ever been thrown in jail for “public intoxication.” Though it was hardly talked about or even acknowledged, people deep down knew that in Gordon, there were two types of justice. One worked for whites and the other worked against Indians.

On that February night in 1972, Raymond Yellow Thunder told the police what happened, that he had been beaten up by four white boys and pushed naked into the American Legion Hall. Lee Le Hare was heard loudly bragging about his role in the incident in a diner on the outskirts of town. Nobody asked Raymond if he wanted to press charges; nobody questioned the Le Hare boys about what they had done; and when Raymond’s family came to the police station looking for him, nobody bothered to tell them what had happened. It was obvious from the beginning that the Gordon police force couldn’t care less about another dead Indian.

Raymond Yellow Thunder was not the first victim of border town violence and he most certainly was not the last. He was the first however to bring political protests to Gordon, the “little town with a big smile” that claimed it didn’t have a problem with Indians. When the Lakota community decided to pursue the case against Yellow Thunder’s tormentors and the town that protected them, they sought out a new organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM), to help them organize their protests for justice.

AIM was eager to prove themselves to the reservation residents. Until then, their followers had been urban Indians, many with some college education, who had been inspired by the civil rights movement. They knew if they wanted to go big, they had to win over the rez. Border town campaigns were to become one of their favorite tactics.

Magnuson draws a clever parallel between the prairie fire hysteria of the 1880’s, when the ghost dance was taking hold and settlers of Gordon were convinced wild Indians were readying for a massive attack, and the prevalent fear in 1972 that AIM was going to lead an armed assault of angry Indians against the people of Gordon.

There was no armed assault (this time) when the AIM leaders, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means, came to Gordon. Instead there was an organized march through town, an occupation of the city center, and an all-Indian grand jury where citizens spoke their grievances against the town for two hours. Means made his typical brand of fiery speech laden with anger and pull quotes to the press. In the end, the big three were granted a meeting with Sheridan County Attorney Michael Smith, an emissary from the governor’s office, and other city officials. Magnuson describes the meeting as a compromise from the start: “AIM leaders wanted a piece of paper that would show their followers that they’d made the white man bow, and Smith didn’t want to give away anything of substance.”

The two sides agreed on the suspension of one of the more notorious Gordon police officers, a second autopsy of Raymond Yellow Thunder (AIM didn’t realize this was already under way), and the formation of a human relations council  of clergymen and Lakota to mediate problems. AIM leaders were ecstatic but for little reason: of all the city’s “concessions”, only the, ultimately ineffectual, human relations council would be carried out. But armed with their paper victory, AIM was now a force to be reckoned with in Sheridan County. They would return time and time again to protest the racist border town brand of justice.

Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether AIM’s presence in Gordon, Whiteclay, and other border towns was ultimately successful in improving Indian’s control over their own lives. The organization was racked with in-fighting as strong personalities jockeyed over power. While AIM was responding to very real problems in Indian’s lives and their leaders were truly passionate about fixing those problems, their bull-headed, macho tactics often led to disastrous results.

Pine Ridge for instance was consumed in the 70’s by a dirty war between the corrupt tribal government and AIM members who challenged their power. It was an important battle to wage, but instead of only being directed at a corrupt tribal government and the colonial government that backed them, it became an all out war between mixed bloods and traditionalists. Many innocent people lost their lives and AIM leaders always seemed to high-tail it out of town before things got ugly.

The second chapter of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder takes a turn for the moribund. Magnuson describes in detail AIM’s 1999 takeover of Whiteclay after Ronnie Hard Heart and Wally Black Elk were found beaten to death in a road-side ditch. After describing each demand during that time, he solemnly repeats “not a damned thing changed.”

In the end, this continuous harping on failures and self-destruction becomes another exercise in the genre of doomed Indians. Instead of describing the dismal situation in border towns  in order to create discussion of how to change the reality, Magnuson seems convinced history is a curse that cannot be unbroken. Going back to Treuer’s Rez Life, the two’s views could not be more different. Treuer looks back at the history not to despair but to move forward.

This difference between Treuer’s and Magnuson’s works hint at a more general difference between Indian and white accounts of America’s relation to indigenous people. One is truly invested in critiquing the past in order to create a future, while the other is attached to the notion of an inescapable destiny defined by moments of death and only rarely shot through with hope. Magnuson’s uniqueness in this genre comes from his insistence that white people, in a betrayal of the frontier myth of endless opportunity, are also doomed for the same grave and it is a grave they had a big hand in digging. In short, crime (as in the crime of settler colonialism) doesn’t pay.

Raymond Yellow Thunder’s story and the stories of border town violence that continue to occur every year are not some kind of destiny. This is not some Greek tragedy that is doomed to play over and over, destroying the lives of those unfortunate to fall into its story. These are stories with concrete causes that can be addressed. Stew Magnuson has written a good book, many of his peers have called it an important book, but he has not written a good ending. Only we, the indigenous, the strong, the critical,  can write the good ending.



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7 responses to “Breaking Down the Border Town

  1. Carol

    Fascinating and so well written!

  2. Stew Magnuson

    Thanks for the very thoughtful review. Point taken on the future.

    • Thank you so much for reading it. I really enjoyed your work– it was very ambitious in its scope and contained so much more than I could even begin to address.

      What are you working on these days? Any plans to return to Indian Country?

  3. Stew Magnuson

    BTW, you may want to correct the statement that the perpetrators were teens. Their ages ranged from 22 to 27.

  4. Stew Magnuson

    Actually, my next book is as ambitious in scope, but it is not exclusively about Native American history. I am writing a book about U.S. Highway 83, which goes from border to border, and the stories found along it. Of course, every inch of this country was once traversed by Native peoples, so there are several sections devoted to their stories, particularly the Assiniboines, the The Tree Affiliated Tribes, The Rosebud Lakotas (the highway cuts through the reservation), the Pawnees, Cheyennes, Comanches and Apaches. I’m learning a lot doing the research. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that one. I’m a long way from finishing the first draft. Meanwhile, I continue to write my View From a Wasicu column/blog, which appears periodically in the Native Sun News and is rerun here:
    I’m not going to Indian Country soon, but if you read the column on the Dakota Conference, you will see that I have an interesting weekend ahead of me.

    • Wow, that is indeed an expansive topic to cover– looking to displace Route 66 as America’s most iconic highway, eh? Though we’ll have to wait for that sure-to-be-hefty work, I look forward to your thoughts on the Dakota Conference. In a more perfect world, I would hope Elizabeth Cook-Lynn would get all the attention, but I’m sure all eyes will be on the usual suspects.

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