“A Terrible Thing Was Done Here”: Journey to Wounded Knee

The Seattle Times
October 19, 1997
By Alex Tizon

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota Most everyone in the van was glad Vashti wasn’t driving. Nothing against her, but she drives the way she conducts much of her life: without due appreciation for the brake pedal. “My Juggernaut” is what husband Andy calls her. Andy had the wheel. Steady, smiling, always-thinking Andy with his Panama hat. They were headed to Wounded Knee, 17 miles down Reservation Road.

The couple had visitors with them. The visitors had asked, “Why are you here?” Why would a doctor and his wife leave most-livable Seattle and a front-porch view of Mount Rainier to live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the saddest places in America? The drive to Wounded Knee was their answer, or at least part of it. Wounded Knee would speak for itself.

The Indians knew them as Dr. Andrew Hurst and Mrs. Vashti Apostol-Hurst for about five minutes. In the four years since, they’ve been simply Andy and Vashti, the middle-aged wasicu couple from the soggy part of the world. Wasicu (pronounced wah-shee-choo) means “white person” in Lakota. The word still evokes suspicion. The Indians watched them closely.

The wasicu couple arrived in 1994. Andy did his doctoring at the local hospital. In the winter, as temperatures dropped to 30 below zero, the couple handed out coats and blankets by the truckload. They brought firewood and supplies to families stranded in their homes. They delivered emergency food boxes. They brought baby supplies to single mothers. At Christmas, they handed out gift-wrapped presents to giftless kids.

In summers, with temperatures soaring well into the 100s, they had volunteers from Seattle come out to build houses for the homeless elderly. They started an eyeglasses program, a video library and a basketball camp.

“They were a phenomenon,” said Curtis Swiftbird, 41, a reservation resident. “They still are. The years they’ve been here, the work they’ve done — anybody else would have shriveled up, burned out.”

The good works were done under a nonprofit organization the couple formed called the National Association For American Indian Children and Elders, or NAAICE. The organization operates on private donations from friends and supporters who’ve heard about it through word of mouth (one of its biggest supporters is the Seattle band, Pearl Jam).

But everyone on the reservation knows NAAICE is mostly just a fancy name for Andy and Vashti. They’re the founders, directors, and they also answer the phones. They deliver the food boxes and blankets with their one, chug-along Ford minivan with 112,000 miles and counting.

They run NAAICE out of their house. They have two phone lines. Vashti often uses both simultaneously, administering, fielding calls for help, hitting up businesses for donations. The list of needs is endless: lumber, space heaters, appliances of every kind. A pickup for hauling. Travel vouchers. Diapers.

`IT’S ALL SELFISH’

Vashti begins and ends her days on the phone, usually pacing. She’s gregarious and kind, calls everybody “darling” and somehow pulls it off. Earlier in the day, she juggled conversations with a donor on one line, a pizza man on the other.

Left phone: “Yes, darling. The people need everything. Everything. They need roads, they need houses, they need services. Infrastructure, darling, infrastructure. They need it all.”

Right phone: “Louis. Make it Canadian bacon and pineapple. Large. Thick crust. And one pepperoni, same size, same crust. Slam ’em in for me, darling. C’mon, I’ve got hungry men to feed. We’ve got a lot to do. Let’s go.”

Andy’s a tall, slender man with an easy-going Michael Keaton-like twinkle. He’s just as tireless as his wife but calmer. After long days at the hospital, he comes home and gets on the phone to conduct NAAICE business. They haven’t burned out because, when it comes down to it, they like what they do. Not in a what-fun! kind of way, but on that level where personal calling finds its truest expression. Don’t mention the “H” word because it makes them cringe, but humanitarian is, in fact, what they are at heart. The trait runs in their families, from Andy’s physician father and grandfather who tended the sick, to Vashti’s attorney father who championed the underprivileged.

“If we’re humanitarian, we’re selfish humanitarians,” Vashti said. “We do it because we get off on it, darling. We do. It’s all selfish. It makes us feel good. There’s nothing noble about it, nothing selfless about it.”

Both are 47. Their life on Pine Ridge represents a sort of second career for them. Before doctoring, Andy was a back-to-the-lander who planted trees for a living. Vashti was a do-anything entrepreneur who pursued acting in New York. Each lived with an undefined craving to somehow “help people.”

They met 16 years ago on a camping trip near Spokane and found, blissfully, they’d come from the same humanitarian mold. They got married and Andy went to med school at the University of Washington. As part of his residency at Swedish Hospital, he had to do a one-month stint in a rural place. The couple chose the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Why Pine Ridge?

Two decades ago, Andy read the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown, describing the conquest of the American West from the Indian point of view. Vashti had read it, too. In more ways than one, the book had stayed with them ever since. After the stint at Pine Ridge, they returned to Seattle so Andy could finish his residency at Swedish. The couple spent the next year agonizing over whether they should go back to the reservation. Eventually, they said goodbye to their 3,700-square-foot home above University Village and headed to South Dakota to stay.

“All our friends thought we were crazy,” Vashti said. ” `That’s something you do at the end of your career, not at the beginning,’ they told us. It was very hard. We love Seattle. But there are things to do here.”

LOTS OF BARREN LAND

Pine Ridge is the poorest place in the country. It’s home of the Oglala Lakota band of the Sioux nation, once one of the fiercest fighting tribes on the continent, and now one of the most thoroughly defeated. Roughly 25,000 people live on the reservation, which is about two-thirds the size of Connecticut. Enormous spaces separate people from each other and from the world outside. A third of residents report Lakota as their first language.

Driving from one end to the other takes two hours. The landscape constantly changes: pine-covered hills to rolling prairie to flat grassy plain. In the north lies the moonscape of desolate ridges known as the Badlands. The whole reservation can feel abandoned.

Andy and Vashti live in a stick-built rambler in the village of Pine Ridge with two “rez dogs,” Hope and Faith. The wasicu couple saved them from the death sentence handed most stray dogs, which are simply shot on sight. Hope is blind in one eye and Faith is just tired. They stay in a fenced back yard that looks out at Nebraska. From their house, the road to Wounded Knee cuts through grasslands once grazed by bison.

Today, a handful of reservation families raise bison as livestock. The tribe itself owns a small herd, one of the many tribal ventures on the reservation that’s had so-so success. There’s a moccasin factory and a beef-packing plant and a casino.

The Prairie Wind Casino is made up of three double-wide trailers stuck together on cinder blocks. The nearest city of any size is Rapid City, 80 miles west. From a business standpoint, 80 miles might as well be 800 miles. What the Lakota Sioux have a lot of — land — so far hasn’t paid off. As large as the reservation is, its geography yields nothing of economic value: no oil, gas, minerals, crops or lumber, which is why whites allowed the Indians to keep this patch of ground in the first place.

`WE’RE THE FORGOTTEN’

Earlier in the day, before the trip to Wounded Knee, Vashti visited a woman she’d helped in the past, Maureen Piper, a 29-year-old mother with four young children, ages 5 months to 6 years. The family was living in a one-room shack — a shed, really — with one soiled mattress on the floor, no bathroom and no running water. A clothesline ran through the middle of the room. The refrigerator had been broken for a year. The family was living on crackers.

Vashti came to check on them. She was appalled at the family’s condition. She began making a list of needs, starting with food. In the middle of the transaction, Vashti started crying and left. Later, in the van, she said, “Multiply her by a thousand. Maybe two.”

With everything so spread out on the reservation, even hardship can seem dispersed. But as hardship goes, Pine Ridge fits in a category of its own.

Most of the reservation falls within Shannon County, which the 1990 census ranked the poorest of the nation’s 3,143 counties. More than 60 percent of residents live below the poverty level. Only one in four adults has a job. Nearly 1,800 families need housing. The average dwelling houses 17 people. One-third of houses don’t have electricity; one-third don’t have running water. Tribal officials say a stunning 50 percent of tribe members have trouble with alcohol.

“We’re the forgotten,” said Delilah Whitedress, a single mother of two. Whitedress just moved into an old trailer acquired for her by Andy and Vashti. The family had been living in someone else’s kitchen. “Our people were here first, but we are the forgotten.”

Imagine most of Connecticut with no public transportation, no banks, no movie theaters, no bowling alleys or recreation centers, no real restaurants, no nursing homes, few human services — and one might begin to understand the desolation of this place.

Finally, the van pulled off to the side of the road just outside the community of Wounded Knee. It was late afternoon. Everyone got out and looked around. A few hundred feet away, on top of a gradual slope, stood a stone pillar enclosed by a chain-link fence. Inside the fence was a mass grave. On the pillar were the names of people in the grave, names like Spotted Thunder, Red Horn and Chase In Winter.

“This place always makes me sad,” Andy said.

What happened here on Dec. 29, 1890, was not only the final violent defeat of the Sioux nation, it was in symbol the final defeat of the indigenous people of North America, ending what Columbus had begun 400 years earlier.

DEC. 29, 1890

The Apaches and Navajos of the Southwest had fallen. The Nez Perce of the Northwest had surrendered. Most of the Sioux nation had been destroyed, except for small ragged bands that practiced the mysterious Ghost Dance religion. The religion was a mix of Christian and native beliefs. It prophesied the defeat of the wasicu and the resurrection of the Indian way of life. Practitioners danced themselves into fevered states, chanting songs of revival until exhaustion made them stop.

Alarmed by the phenomenon, the U.S. army responded with a massive show of force. Troops gathered on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations where the religion had taken hold. The 7th Cavalry arrested Chief Big Foot and his band of 350 – 230 were women and children. Big Foot and his people practiced the Ghost Dance religion. The cavalry brought them to Wounded Knee Creek.

Soldiers posted Hotchkiss rapid-fire guns around Big Foot’s people and searched them for weapons. The search became rough. One Lakota man refused to give up his rifle. A shot went off. The Hotchkiss guns opened fire. When the shooting was over, 200 Indians — children, women and men — lay dead. Another 100 survivors, many wounded, later froze to death. Two weeks after the massacre, the U.S. government declared the Indian wars over, and the people of Pine Ridge have been defeated ever since.

Neither Andy nor Vashti nor their visitors said much at the site. The place was exceptionally quiet. In the van, on the way home to Faith and Hope with her one blind eye, Vashti said:

“There’s nothing noble about Andy and I being here, darling. Don’t make us out to be these great humanitarians. A terrible thing was done here. We’re trying to make amends.”

Darkness had fallen by the time the couple made it home. Waiting for them were numerous messages, some on the phone, some in notes and letters. One message was from a woman whose thumb had been chopped off by her husband. She couldn’t go to the hospital because she had young children at home and no car. She lived in a remote area and needed a ride. Another message was from a homeless mother with five children who’d found a cheap apartment in the community of Chadron, but didn’t have money for a deposit. Where could she get help? And this letter: “I’m 74. My son’s dying. I don’t have any money or any place to stay in Rapid City. I’m living in my car outside the emergency room in the parking lot of the hospital. . . .”

They took in the messages. Andy disappeared into the bedroom where they kept NAAICE files. Vashti picked up the phone in the kitchen and began talking to the woman with five children. She started dialing on the other phone at the same time. The wasicu couple were back to work.