Once I Lived without Money, Yet I Was Not Poor

Tenth Place, Essay, Writers Digest Contest, 1996; Second Place, Essay, Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, 1997; First Place, Creative Nonfiction, Oregon Writers Colony, 1999. Honorable Mention, excerpted in Nostalgia,1999.

When Indians die, there’s a big feast and giveaway; but when Whites die, there’s a giant yard sale!

Reservation Saying

In 1977 I married a Sioux spiritual leader and moved to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the poorest county in the United States, Shannon County, SD, with 80-90% unemployment and a per capita income below $2000 a year.

The TV documentaries and Life magazine articles about alcoholism and poverty on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation didn’t scare me. I wanted to simplify my life, extract myself from materialism.

We moved into a one-room cedar log cabin with a polished-dirt floor. It was easy to heat and clean, cool in summer and warm in winter, weather- tempered by silver-gray walls more than a foot thick.

There was clear cold spring water, an outhouse, wood stove and kerosene lamp. Icebox and root cellar, battery- powered radio. Space and beauty: 800 acres for horses and dogs, 360-degree views of sunrises, sunsets, stars and town lights thirty miles away.

Immediately my husband took me to meet his eldest sister, Emma Blackcrow, in her Lakota-speaking home. He went out with the men to cut firewood, leaving me sitting around the big kitchen table with the women.

Tanigha, cow guts, boiled away in a huge pot on the stove. Emma switched to English.

“How many brothers you got?” She was beginning by establishing relations, the opening of any Lakota conversation.

“One,” I replied.

She leaned forward, peering over her bifocals used for beadwork. “Only one?”

I nodded, thinking of my brother two thousand miles away, last visited by me three years ago. I asked, “How many brothers do you have?”

“Eight living,” she paused, “and two dead. How many sisters?”

“None.” I sipped the thick reboiled coffee I’d been given.

“None?” She glanced around the table at her two sisters on one side, and the third one next to me. “How many cousins?”


A pause, then she laughed. “Only one? One cousin?” The others laughed, too.

“Jeez, imagine! Only one cousin!” Rena Belle, the youngest, with a tightly-permed afro, spoke out of turn. “Never met nobody with just one cousin!”

“How many aunts?” Emma’s litany continued.

I began to get it. I was a little hesitant. “One.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded, her eyes crinkling. “And how many uncles?”

“One.” I felt myself flushing, ashamed in spite of myself.

Un-shi-ka, the four sisters murmured in unison, leaning on the “oon.” Pitiful.

A loner, I grew up thinking in terms of me, me, me. Depending on viewpoint, I was self-sufficient and individualistic, or self-centered and deprived. Suddenly I felt poor.

Emma reached across the table and took my hand. “Welcome to the Blackcrows. Now you got lots of relations.”


So I became rich in relatives, marrying into an extended family of artists, headmen, and spiritual leaders, trained from birth to think in terms of we, we, we.

They did not consider themselves poor, but high-class traditionals who had kept their language, culture, religion, and some of their land.

They shared their rich heritage with me: feasts and fasts, pow wows and sundances, memorial dinners and giveaways, bingoes and auctions, old treaty meetings and Indian rodeos.

We were always busy, whether butchering and drying deer meat, building a summer kitchen or sundance arbor, breaking ponies or fixing fence, beading moccasins or threading bone breast- plates, carving cedar flutes or piecing star quilts.

All of us worked hard: six of us quilting all night; butchering till all the meat was hung to dry; fixing broken fence wire in the dark; making 36 pies assembly-line for the next day’s feast; rounding up loose buffalo in thirty-below weather through 8-foot drifts.

Not for money, simply what had to be done. I became rich with meaningful work.

Yet work was also fun. We’d go on modern-day raids: raids for square bales alongside the thruway.

Raids to the nearby rich-town dumps, rescuing baling wire, old leather for bridles, repairable tires, cleanable mattresses and furniture, bathtubs for livestock tanks.

Raids to Goodwill–free clothes to Indians on Wednesdays–galoshes, parkas, coveralls.

Raids to hock shops for unclaimed saddles, mechanics’ tools, beadwork.

Raids to auctions for old school windows, fence posts.

Free cheese at the courthouse.

Free broccoli from a wrecked semi-truck.

Free fence posts over near Blackpipe.

Free barb wire over to Red Skaffold.

Free antelope, chased down from the_Black Hills by the cold.

Free to carry away, and we did.


“Get in,” my husband’s voice was soft and rich. “We’re going on a raid.” I hoisted myself into the banged-up high-center pickup. Four nephews hunkered down in the back with chain saw, rope, and lantern.

“We need you to drive. Highway patrol won’t stop you.” Since I was full-blood White, I always negotiated with bureaucracy. I looked innocent and talked fancy. Besides, I had a legal driver’s license.

It was a May midnight, cold and moonlit, the last late snow melting in the ditches. Washbaugh County was replacing telephone poles along Route 73 south from I-90 to Nebraska.

The rejects lay alongside the road, perfectly good creosoted logs, thick and sturdy for a corral.

We began at Quiver Hill in the “Land of Red Cloud” and continued down into Redstone Basin toward the White River. The two-lane highway lay nearly deserted.

Down in the Basin two semi-truck headlights inched slowly toward us. Coyotes yipped and howled over by Pyramid Mountain.

I slid to the driver’s side, window down, put it in low and crawled along the edge of the road so the headlights illuminated the ditch. My husband hopped out, grabbed the chain saw, revved it and began cutting frost-coated poles into twelve-foot logs.

Blue-green domes on the discarded crossbars glittered in the ditch. Nephews hoisted logs into the pickup, working quietly and quickly, push–roll–hoist–drop. The chain saw drowned out the thunk of logs sinking the pickup bed lower and lower.

I kept watching for headlights in the Basin below. Just before the semis crested the top of Quiver Hill, I cut the lights, our signal to stop the chain saw and hit the ditch, hide behind last year’s tumbleweeds.

I ducked down until the two semis passed, caravaning together across the desolate waste of the reservation. As the truckers shifted gears, I knew they would not stop to check an empty Indian pickup on the other side of the road.

Truckers never stopped between the white rancher towns of Kadoka and Martin, SD, as afraid of us as we of them. Though none of us had to duck or hide in ditches, it was part of the fun.

When the pickup was full of logs, the boys roped them down. One climbed in the back, two hopped on the running boards, and one rode the hood to weigh down the front.

My husband retook the wheel, driving by moonlight and memory, lights off. We careened off the highway along a dirt track eastward, cutting through the pines, tribal timberland just above the Basin wall.

A wire gate loomed, opened by the boy on the hood, and then he shifted into second as we rolled onto Blackcrow land and through the buffalo pasture.

Five dips and rises later, pulling into the half-finished corral and loading chute, we were home safe. One more load and call it a night.


On the reservation jobs were scarce, so we lived cash-poor, but rich in ingenuity.

We bought $100 cars and fixed them up, trading parts with relatives.

Cars held together with bailing wire, jump-started with screw drivers, and always parked to roll downhill.

One month we lived on $10 cash, which bought car gas and oil, kerosene, shells, stamps.

Soap and toilet paper from motels_cleaned.

Food from treaty reparations (commodities), foraging and hunting.

Salt and sugar from relatives.

No electric bill, gas bill, water bill, mortgage or taxes.

If we needed cash, we hocked valuable things–the chain saw, which we always needed–or heirlooms–the beaded buckskin dress.

Yes, there were hardships.

Run out of meat and eat popcorn meals, pancakes and corn syrup.

Run out of wood and burn old tires.

Run out of gas and walk to town in 30-below weather.

But no one faced hardships alone, and hardships were offset by comforts.

Go visiting and always be fed and put up for the night.

Give away worldly goods and receive more at the next giveaway.

Get a flat with no spare, and the next car will stop to help.

Hitchhike and always be picked up–by relatives.


On the reservation we were rich in relations, rich in sharing, rich in spirit. A native story reminds us:

“Long time ago the mountains thought they were People.

Long time ago the trees thought they were People.

Long time ago the birds and animals thought they were People.

S o m e d a y__t h e y    w i l l     s a y :

The Human Beings thought they were People.


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