While collecting stories of endangered languages from Native American communities across the United States, photojournalist B.A. Van Sise stops in a small town in South Dakota and must reckon with the unwelcome commentary that his project stirs up.
all photographs from FARMLAND, by B.A. Van Sise
[Author’s note: this essay contains ethnic slurs that are objectionable, but accurate to this nonfiction story.]
It is a strange but surely undeniable fact that almost every person on Earth thinks the nation they were born in happens to be the best, just because they were born in it.
So it goes, too, here in Whitewood, South Dakota — a small and dusty town of two intersecting streets with just as many saloons, a few miles up the hot and shadeless road from the more famous, and more ominously-named, Deadwood.
You can wait at any of the town’s four corners – so long as you face away from the barroom or the casino – for an hour and see hardly one person pass. Still, this is the America of which so many dream: a place where the west was once wild and the west was once won. And now, Whitewood is still here, even if (judging from the place and populace) it seems that flush toilets and dictionaries are yet to arrive.
Often, the middle of a journey can be the destination.
It’s a stopping point on the way from somewhere to somewhere, pursed up among the plains on a drive that’s taken weeks with weeks to follow. Still, the trip here has had its treasures: long, quiet days on meandering country roads punctuated with an extended ellipsis of flyblown towns populated by perennial ghosts. The distance between the unexpanding dots is dictated even now by a time that is long gone and barely lasted: the time it took a man (and it was most certainly a man) to ride a horse in a day and still get back for supper. Now, riding on four wheels instead of legs, we hit a new one every twenty minutes.
The road that was once mud and then gravel is now smooth tarmac that undulates like the loose dirt and springy grass that frames it. The best of it is briefly beautiful, as sepia dust billows up in curlicue crescents behind old pickup trucks driven by even older men.
Every once in a while, a small sign on the side of our sunrise journey tells us that we’ve changed time zones: Eastern turns to Central, and Central erodes to Mountain. The planet keeps moving at the same speed, and our nearest star comes to greet us at the same time, but it’s still unavoidable: as we get further along on our journey, dawn comes later, every day.
The road here passes by past-tense cowboy watering holes and hollow mines still tended by hollow men, high-backed bison that still lumber across the plains, and Indian reservations built almost entirely out of trailers: the contemporary replacements for the ubiquitous tents that once teethed three thousand miles of American soil. It’s hard to forget, ambling down this almost-scenic byway, that everybody who is here has been here for 140 years or 40,000 or, most likely, both.
But the past tents are past tense; now it’s towns. Hot towns under hot suns, with beer and burgers. And, after a week on the road, it is the time for patriotism. In Whitewood, as in almost every white-hot, hot white place nestled between the oceans, it is time to celebrate the greatest nation ever made great by our presence in it: red, white and blue banners bought at Walmart are crowned over every building like Caesar’s laurels. It’s absent here at the little ranch where we’ve rented a room, owned by a woman named Cindy who used to grow crops and horses here but now, more profitably, grows a wide variety of government subsidy checks. She’s small, disheveled, sweaty, with short hair and a tight jaw. She’s pleasant enough in demeanor: energetic and ruddy-faced and rotund well into her seventies, she’s got a materteral manner to her.
She tells us about the place: we’re staying in the old ranch hands’ quarters, which are small but pleasant enough. She lives there with her husband, who is unseen but frequently smelled, puffing behind one building and the other on cigars he buys in town. Her mother-in-law lives in the house, and her mother-in-law’s dogs scurry about the property. We can feel the conversation turn a corner when Cindy tells us that she can’t wait for her husband’s mother to die, that she might go ahead and kill those dogs in good conscience.
She asks why we’re in town, and I tell her I’m making my way across America photographing an exhibition about the speakers of America’s many endangered languages. The hundred and forty and the forty thousand alike have defined this, in the majority, as a small but determined band of sparse Native Americans working, tirelessly, to bear their words into a fickle future.
Cindy is shocked. “You mean you’re going onto the reservations?” I tell her, to her greater surprise, that this is just about all I’ve been doing for sixteen months. “You better be careful out there. They kill white people. I had a friend who had to escape the reservation because she got pregnant by a white man, and she was worried all the Injuns up there would kill her baby.”
This is, well, bullshit. It’s also a challenging thing to respond to.
A thick cloud of flies takes up as much air as the spaces between them, due to the collapse, two days earlier, of the shed for her lambs that sent a fluttering ebony hurricane scattering out of the home they’d made there. The wood is piled just as the world placed it, but the lambs are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they fled. Perhaps the flies, great in number as they are, carried them off.
“Be careful not to talk to them. You don’t want to talk to no drunk Injuns. And they’re all drunk.” She offers to make us a cocktail. I don’t drink – though I’d surely like to – and try as politely as I can to change the topic to any of the many non-Native shoots I’ve been doing. I offer as a distraction the story about making a portrait of an Amish man in Pennsylvania; they forbid photography, and I only earned his trust through milking heifers at four in the morning. Surely, that must be enough to change the topic. It feels like a natural segue: a small male bull, no more than three days old, is wandering around the property, lowing plaintively for his mother who he will never, ever see again. Cindy has creatively named him Cowboy. “He’s a cow. He’s a boy,” she explains. He is, of course, neither.
“Aaaanyway,” she says, “back to what we was talkin’ about. Today’s the fourth of July. You know that in the declaration they called them merciless Indian savages. Was true then, was true now.” The next day I’m to make my way overland to photograph a woman a state away who has learned the Hidatsa language of her ancestors. She is young, and beautiful, and fighting a battle against absolutely overwhelming odds. A couple days after that, I’m to photograph another young woman in Tacoma who’s made it her life’s work to resurrect the Puyallup language that’s gone extinct but is being slowly given new breath by education programs she’s spearheading. And only a few days earlier, I’ve photographed a woman at the other end of her life: an Oneida pastor who’s uncertain if she’s the last person alive who speaks the language.
“And none of them believe in Jesus,” Cindy tells me, drinking a beer. She tells us about all the apostates in our mix: how all the Natives pray to rocks when they’re not worshiping liquor, and how she won’t rent out her property to atheists, no matter how much they offer, because they’re certain to rob the place blind.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her. Egged on by this sudden obligation, I scanned the area for anything worth taking but found not one thing worth having at all.
I keep on looking for all the lambs, and Cowboy’s mother, as this ambassador of Christ keeps on keepin’ on, on this Independence Day. “But that doesn’t matter. When I meet Jesus I’ll finally get some peace,” she tells us. “No atheists. No Injuns. No dogs.”
It’s a long night. We make a vow to leave at very first light, and next morning we get up with the sunrise, which takes forever to arrive: after all, dawn comes later, every day. On our way to the shoot, we decide to stop in famous Deadwood, right nearby, and see the celebrity town for a couple hours before heading off to work. The road feels different, this morning, amber and sun-kissed though it is, as we pass a half hour worth of battered houses held up, it seems, by badness and bunting.
I’m excited to go because a distant ancestor of mine – a man I never met and surely would have hated – was there in the bad old days of mustachioed pistoleros. He was a frontier lawyer, and then more: Judge Edwin Van Sise was the first man in Deadwood to get a bathtub, and that porcelain clawfoot gem, I’ve been informed, is now mounted on the wall of a renovated saloon right in the center of town.
I ask around, and everybody’s seen it, but nobody quite remembers where it is. We stop in one shop and tavern after another, and ask, too, in the various gift shops selling extra-extra-large t-shirts depicting Donald Trump as Rambo, or Joe and the Ho Gotta Go t-shirts. By Joe they suggest they’re on a first name basis with the president of the United States. By the ho they mean his vice president, who is by all accounts also a Black woman.
Our search for the ancestral cauldron isn’t very fruitful but buys the time to see the frontier the way, surely, history meant it to be seen: every hour, on the hour, a few men in ten gallon hats and vests and spurs set up orange traffic cones at either end of the town’s main thoroughfare. In Deadwood, daily, there is not just one duel but a dozen, as bad actors pretending to be nineteenth century gunmen fall heaving to the street as a reminder that there were once merciless savages here and, as the crowd applauds, that they remain.
The family bath will have to wait or, more likely, be forever unappreciated: just a piece of porcelain on a wall that holds some remnant of whatever oils the ancestors wanted to get rid of. It’s time to go: there’s no more time for the past, and the future is calling. I stop at the car for a moment to make sure that, well, nothing has been taken, and also that my gear is ready for the afternoon’s shoot.
It’s an absolute mess, I realize. I can use a rag as an ersatz solution, I’m sure, but still: this is all one big mess. After days and days, my camera has dirt on it. Literal soil, kicked up by tires, by shoes, by wind. Dirt on the lens, dirt on the mirror, dirt on the sensor. Nothing much to do, now. I guess it’s just something to accept: every time I come to the middle of the country, I find myself covered in land I have to struggle to clean off.