My name is Tom Three Deer. I was born on the Pine Ridge reservation at the southern end of the Bad Lands… I am Oglala Lakota Sioux. My father had a ranch he inherited from his father who had inherited it from his… where we raised fine horses and splendid ponies and where the grasses grew thick and where we were happy. I remember the house as a big place though I was small… it was dug halfway into the ground and built from fired adobe bricks with a roof of large logs covered by dirt and grass that sloped so when the cold rains fell it stayed warm and dry inside.
Close to the house were corrals and barns and chickens wandering aimlessly pecking at the ground and sleeping cats in the sun and dogs licking themselves. Mother would go each morning to her hen house to gather eggs and three or four times a year father would butcher a fat hog and the neighbors would come from miles around to help make sausage and bring their kids. On those nights there would be a bon fire with men sitting in a circle drumming their drums and chanting while women cackled in the shadows and we kids gathered green sticks to slide the fresh hog intestines over inside out running to the creek to wash off the shit, and then roasting the chitins over the fire, eating them greedily.
We fetched our drinking water from the clear creek that ran singing back of the ranch and we bathed there as well. Mother had a rock where she slapped our clothes clean and father strung rope between the trees growing close by on which she hung out the laundry to dry flapping in the sunshine and the breeze. There was an outhouse not far from the house where we did our business and every so often I’d help my father dig a new hole, slide the john over it, and cover up the old hole. In the summer wasps made nests in the corners and spiders lurked under the seat and in the winter I recall hurrying lest I freeze to the seat itself.
I had two brothers but they both took sick and died when I was too young to much remember them. I recall they were born, squalled a lot, and one day stopped. My father wrapped them in burlap burying them on top of a hill where a lone crooked tree grew and carved their names on a flat stone apiece. There were other flat stones there too… my father’s father and mother and his grandparents too and other names who I didn’t recognize. Sometimes a storm or the snows of winter would knock down the stones and father would set them to rights again and mother planted colorful flowers on the graves. But I recollect it was still a lonesome and a sad place.
My two sisters were older than I was and they went to the reservation school miles away. The school required that they wear uniforms that made them look like little white girls. My father swore when he saw them but my mother said, “Hush.” She brushed their long black hair until it shined putting it up in braids and made them a lunch each morning before they left for the hour-long walk to school. On rainy days father might drive them and in the winter they stayed home doing their numbers on a chalk board mother kept under the Hudson’s Bay and reciting Bible verses over and over until they got them right.
In the spring we’d plant a garden and everyone helped. My father hitched the most docile horse to a plow breaking the soil so we kids could work it with hoes making it fit for planting. Mother saved seeds from last year storing them carefully wrapped in handkerchiefs and placed in jars that she kept in the fruit cellar. After father was done plowing he’d go off and smoke his pipe and watch while mother instructed us where to dig the furrows and how deep and then dropping seeds in each before covering them up again. She made us put up chicken wire fencing around the garden to keep the critters out and she shot any rabbits she saw putting them into a stew.
Most summers were spent playing and swimming in the creek fishing when we took a mind to and catching frogs and crawdads when the creek ran low and we could spot them in shallow pools. The days were hot but the house held the coolness of the nights being half below ground and the row of cottonwood trees my grandfather’s father had planted provided shade from the afternoon sunshine. My father sat on the porch all summer drinking strong parsnip wine he’d bottled the previous year sometimes laughing with friends who stopped by and my mother sighed watching them and shook her head.
In the fall we’d harvest corn and tomatoes and squash and beans and dig potatoes and onions and garlic and spend weeks putting it all up with mother boiling up her canning jars and supervising us kids picking and cutting up and peeling and dicing. We’d spend days berrying, picking blackberries, mulberries, raspberries, and gooseberries. Each autumn father would haul the old sand out of the fruit cellar bringing fresh sand from the creek bottom in wheelbarrows spreading it on the cool floor thick and deep. I was short and he was tall so it fell to me to do most of the work down there but I didn’t mind. I remember it smelled of earth and of home. What we stored down there lasted all winter and was still palatable next spring.
In the winter mother made soup sometimes with venison that my father shot and buffalo meat when we could find it but mostly with vegetables from our garden. She boiled it up in a huge stew kettle she kept hanging over an open fire that served both to warm the house and to cook our food. Sometimes cinders flew into the soup when she opened the top to stir it but no one seemed to mind. She bought bags of whole wheat at the general store grinding it herself on a milling stone that sat out back by the creek to make fry-bread and biscuits. She made jams and jellies with the berries we picked and dried the rest to flavor the desserts she concocted from sugar and cream.
My father was forced to give up his land by the War Department in 1942. They knocked down our house and barns and put an army base there and shot big guns and dropped bombs from airplanes. After a time of staying in rented apartments in town that smelled of death and decay we became homeless, living in tents or out of the back of an old pick up truck with a wooden box for sleeping. I was eight years old. My father received a small settlement check each month from the United States government as payment for the land they took from him. He promptly drank it up. He died of alcohol poisoning when I was ten years old. They found him in the gutter where he had fallen and dogs had eaten part of his face.