Picture it – 1972, my right arm is extended, fingers curled under with thumb up and arched. I’m wearing a pack that makes the one Reese Witherspoon wears in the movie “Wild” look like she snatched it from a preschooler with a penchant for cupcakes and bunnies. Mine extends several inches above my head and weighs almost twice my 119 pounds. Fortunately my dancer’s flexibility and leg strength allows me to maneuver my arms into the padded straps then rise to a standing position. However, like Reese, I have to hunch over in order to maintain my balance. This forces me to lift my chin in order to see where I’m going. I feel like a turtle on two legs.
Michael, Jimmy and I are making our way down a long stretch of road somewhere on the south side of the Badlands. We’re not exactly sure where we are and, as been our practice of late, the boys are hanging back a bit so drivers passing by initially see only me. On this particular day, the South Dakota winds whip their way through Jackson County with such ferocity I can barely hold myself upright. My long paisley printed, purple skirt keeps getting twisted around my ankles making it even more challenging for me to put one heavy hiking boot, in front of the other.
Michael is yelling something at me, but the sound of the wind muffles his words. As I turn around to see what he said, my muscles are no match for the huffing and puffing of Mother Nature and I am blown backwards by a surging gust. Suddenly I find myself flat on my back, the tire-tread soles of my boots facing skyward while my overstuffed back pack serves to cushion the fall. Evidently this is a comical sight, because now I can clearly hear both Michael and Jimmy laughing hysterically. Of course neither of them walks over to help me. Probably because the Women’s Liberation Movement is going strong and I’m usually thrilled when opportunities such as this one allow me to emulate leaders of The Movement. What would Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan do? With a one, two, three, I manage to roll over onto my hands and knees then wobble my way up to a semi- erect position. I see blood dripping onto my white peasant blouse.
Thoughts of the Sisterhood are blown away with the dust and pebbles skittering past my feet and replaced with behavior more associated with a Disney Princess. The boys rush over, Michael shoves my head back and uses his dirty, torn shirt to pinch my nose while Jimmy stands behind me pack-to-pack ensuring I don’t fall backwards again. It is during this display of harried hustle and bustle when a long, black, shiny car pulls up next to us.
“Yea, she just has a bloody nose.”
As the three of us look over to acknowledge the driver we see he isn’t our usual pick up. Those who have been giving us rides as we make our way across the country from West Coast to East are usually “middle America.” Decent people who are more curious than anything, about a 6’2” Grizzly Adams doppelganger, a diminutive but real life Bilbo Baggins, (with a really long beard), and a Peggy Lipton wanna-be, on an adventure most of them of have only heard about and a few dared dream. They ask us questions like; where’r you from, where’r you going, so you don’t have tents, do you work, what do you do for money, so you just sold all your stuff and now you’re out seeing the country? Their interest is genuine and help generous. Of course there have been some who slow only enough to spit a luggy at us and yell something like “go home hippies!” But those are few and far between. Due to the lack of teeth in their heads we don’t take them too seriously. What they do have are rifles on the gun racks of their trucks, spitting back is never an option.
This driver is different. He wears a dark suit and tie and appears to be in his forties. Instead of a gun we see a briefcase on the seat of his car. Because of this, not one of us thinks to ask him for a ride.
“Get in the car.”
Well, that sounds scary. Shit where did all my; I am woman hear me roar stuff go? Michael, Jimmy and I don’t move. Obviously he can’t rob us. You can tell by looking at our tired, dirty and my now bloody face we don’t have any money or valuables on us. Rape is out of the question. Michael looks to be a big, mean, biker guy and some might discern Jimmy as shifty. Though he’s anything but.
“Get in! You’re not supposed to be here. If they catch you, you’ll be in trouble.”
This gets our attention. Still we stand looking at him, heads cocked as though urging him, well go on.
“You’re on Lakota property!”
Michael and Jimmy immediately opened the back door of the car, throw in our packs then push me in. As I sit wedged between my two bulldogs the man asks how we ended up there.
“Where? We don’t even know where we are.” Michael booms from the back seat.
I’m amazed there’s room in the car for the three of us and all our stuff.
“You’re on protected land. You’re on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” replies the man.
“I guess when our last ride dropped off us we walked on without knowing it.” Michael sounds sheepish when he answers.
The man explains in a serious tone, he’s a federal attorney and has been in meetings over the last several days with the chiefs and elders of the Oglala Lakota tribe. For three hippies to be found wandering around without permission could work out badly for us. Especially during a time of unrest, which this is.
“But we’re peaceful,” I murmur.
“Doesn’t matter,” says Jimmy. “The Oglala are one of the 7 tribes of the Lakota People that make up the Great Sioux Nation. The Lakota have been reported to be among the most aggressive of Native American tribes due to their unifying with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho when they wiped out General Custer’s entire battalion.”
“That’s right, Battle of The Little Bighorn.” Our driver clarifies from his position. Jimmy went on.
“The Oglala Lakota are also known as The Teton, which means Prairie Dwellers or The Teton Sioux. But some of their people reject the Sioux name since it is said it was given to them by their enemies the Chippewa. Sioux means snake, so it can be considered a slur. Because Native Americans have their own by-laws and are not required to adhere to state and federal laws, they can judge and sentence people as they see fit.”
“How do you know all that?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know, I just do.”
Jimmy retreated back into his quiet space. He hadn’t said more than four words in the last week, so this splurge of words tumbling out of his mouth and his intimate knowledge about the Lakota was downright shocking to Michael and me.
But now I was really scared. When you realize how close to serious trouble you stood not one minute ago it brings you to a place of introspection and gratitude. We rode in somber silence until we reached the end of the reservation, according to the attorney anyway. I still couldn’t see any kind of boundary of where we were when the man picked us up and now. It was all tall and short grasses amid wide open prairie land that make up this part of the Great Plains.
The man told us there was a small market and gas station about a mile or two up the right side of the fork in the road. We climbed out, thanked him and watched as his big shiny car headed towards the left. It was dusk and all I wanted to do was get to a bathroom where I could wash myself up and change my clothes. As we approached the market Michael said he would buy some food and ask about a good place to camp for the night.
I emerged from the bathroom, in fresh jeans and shirt, legs shaved, (I had perfected the art of shaving my legs in the sinks of public bathrooms), smiling at Michael and Jimmy each carrying a grocery bag filled to the brim. Michael had decided my bloody nose was a result of low iron and not enough food. He bought all kinds of fruit, nuts, raw veggies, beans and beef jerky. Jimmy had the beer, wine and water. And since I had a tougher than usual day, M & M’s, candy bars as well as all the ingredients needed to make S’Mores! I was ecstatic and realized I was starving. The clerk inside told them there was a safe place to camp another mile.
We set up camp, if you can call it that, no tents, just ground cover sheeting, our bags, blankets and bug spray. Jimmy built a small campfire and I sorted through the groceries to assemble dinner. Most evenings I was less Betty Friedan and more Betty Crocker. I pulled something from Michael’s bag I had never seen before.
“Oh that’s an Indian Fig! At least that’s what the lady at the market told me. She said it would be good for you. Have lots of vitamin C, fiber and calcium. There’s jerky for your iron deficiency.”
“Who said I’m iron deficient?”
“Well I’m not.”
“Who had the bloody nose today?”
“They also have lots of potassium in ‘em. You need that too Deborah.” Jimmy chimes in with yet another gemstone of information, causing me and Michael to desist in our verbal tennis match.
“How do I eat this?”
“Ask Einstein, I’m sure he knows,” remarked Michael.
Jimmy did know how to eat the Indian Fig, also known as Prickly Pear, Cactus Fruit or Tuna. Pulling out his hunter’s knife, he began cutting away the skin, explaining the sharp spines, are removed before they reach the market.
“Indian Figs come from a specific type of cactus with flowers that come in white, yellow or red. They begin blooming in early May, so this is their season.” Jimmy continued expounding his knowledge of this rare find.
“It can be used to make jams or jellies. In Mexico it’s used to prepare Colonche an alcoholic drink. Indian Figs are best eaten chilled but since we don’t have access to refrigeration we’ll have to make do. Here, try it,” Jimmy instructed, as he held a small cut of the magenta morsel on the point of his knife.
Cautiously I plucked the piece from its utensil and put it in my mouth. The texture was soft and there were lots of small seeds inside. But the taste . . . the taste was wonderful! Like a juicy watermelon hooked up with a piece of Bazooka bubblegum!
“Wow! I like this! What do I do with the seeds?” I garbled with my mouth full of them.
“You can swallow ‘em or just spit ‘em out.” Jim replied as he began slicing up a second one for himself.
I liked Indian Figs then and I like them now. They can be hard to find. Your best bet is going to a market offering a rich selection of ethnic produce. When I do happen upon some of these delightful, albeit unusual, treasures I buy them up. You don’t have to remove the skin to eat; you can simply cut the fruit in half and use a spoon to scoop out the meat, kind of like a grapefruit. I also like to peel them and throw one into my smoothie. Another great idea would be to cook it down or juice it then use as an ingredient in vinaigrette.