To the Editors:
I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach last month reading a powerful passage in Ian Frazier’s new memoir, On the Rez.
Frazier wrote about a girls high school basketball game in South Dakota between the town of Lead (pronounced “Leed”) and a team from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation, in the southwestern part of the state, is the home of the Oglala Sioux tribe. Lead, 140 miles north, is a gold-mining town and mostly white.
Frazier’s book, in part, tells the story of SuAnne Big Crow, a star basketball player who led Pine Ridge High School to a state championship in 1989. SuAnne died in a car accident in 1992. One of the most gripping stories in On the Rez begins: “In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game.” Frazier had my attention. My great-grandparents homesteaded near Lead in the 1880s. My family has lived in the surrounding Black Hills for six generations. More to the point, my niece Amy played in that game. My brother, Bob, and his wife, Gen, were there too.
Frazier described the scene as the Pine Ridge girls waited to take the floor: “The Lead fans were yelling epithets like ‘squaw’ and ‘gut-eater.’ Some were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation’s receiving federal aid. Others yelled, ‘Where’s the cheese?’—the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese. The Lead high school band joined in, with fake-Indian drumming and a fake-Indian tune.”
SuAnne led her team into the gym and stopped at center court, according to Frazier’s account. She took off her warm-up jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and began a traditional shawl dance, singing a Lakota song. “The crowd went completely silent,” Frazier wrote. Then SuAnne picked up a ball and dribbled around the court. Frazier continued: “The fans began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.”
Frazier called this “one of the coolest and bravest things I ever heard of.” Cool indeed. It sounded so cool The Atlantic Monthly excerpted it and a New Yorker review repeated it, as did reviews in big-city newspapers nationwide. Larry McMurtry also excerpted this story in his review in the February 10 issue of The New York Review.
SuAnne’s “cool deed” is becoming part of the national lore about racism in South Dakota. It would have sounded cool to me too, if I wasn’t sick at heart. Frazier was writing about my relatives. To make matters worse, I’ve been a reporter in South Dakota for twenty years. I had never heard the shawl dance story, and missing it was embarrassing. A couple days later, I asked my brother and his family to read the passage. They were dumbfounded. Nothing sounded familiar, so we checked the newspaper clippings in Amy’s scrapbook.
It was my turn to be dumbfounded. First, we discovered Pine Ridge did not even play at Lead in 1988. We checked box scores against quotes in On the Rez. The game Frazier described could only have been in 1987, but unlike Frazier’s storybook ending, Lead won that game.
The shawl dance still could have been a cool story, but there were other problems. My brother and his family did not remember the racial taunts, for example, or the “fake-Indian tune” or fans waving food stamps. More puzzling, they did not recall SuAnne’s crowd-silencing dance. “I know I’d remember something like that,” Gen said.
I decided to dig deeper. I interviewed a dozen players, parents, coaches, and school officials from Lead—everyone I could find who was at the 1987 game. I also interviewed the only two Pine Ridge sources Frazier cited by name in his account. No one remembered a dramatic center-court dance that tamed an ugly crowd.
Among those Lead fans was Lena Norris, a freshman back in 1987. “There is no way that happened,” she told me. “We had a really strict athletic director. He’d yank kids out of the stands for cussing. Besides, there is no way I would put up with that.” Norris is Lakota and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
Most of Frazier’s account of the game is unattributed, but he did quote Pine Ridge player Doni DeCory. I called her, too. DeCory, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, told me the dance was “highlighted too much” in Frazier’s book. She said a group of “rowdy teenage boys” banged the bleachers, going “woo-woo-woo,” but she did not remember racial epithets, insulting music by the school band, or food stamps. According to DeCory, SuAnne did a short dance at one end of the court as both teams warmed up, but she didn’t sing. SuAnne was just clowning, DeCory said, as she often did before games to ease tension among teammates. The crowd took no notice. “It wasn’t a big deal,” DeCory said.
Then I called Ian Frazier. I wanted to know if he had checked the story with anyone in Lead. He hadn’t. He was writing about the reservation, he said, so he reported from the reservation. Frazier had read the shawl dance story in a book and in a weekly Indian newspaper. Many Pine Ridge people repeated the story to him, he told me, but he never talked about it with a single person in Lead. “It didn’t occur to me to check it, and I should have,” he said.
Frazier’s “1988” game had a storybook ending. I’d like one, too: Arrogant East Coast writer exposed! Racism debunked! In truth, Frazier sounded contrite. He promised the next edition of his book would be more fair and accurate. Frazier got this much right: there is racism in South Dakota, shawl dance or not, just as there is racism in New Jersey, where Frazier lives. But bad behavior cuts both ways. Doni DeCory, the Pine Ridge player, told me her school had its share of “rowdy teen-age boys” who heckle opposing teams. She also told me, “I understand how people can get upset when something negative and wrong is said about their town.” She’s right. People in Lead are angry about On the Rez. That’s why Frazier’s unverified account of a basketball game is disturbing. Racism in South Dakota is more complex than any one story can project. When a story about it is distorted or untrue, it makes healing our differences harder. Especially when the story becomes lore. And guess which version of this basketball game will be immortalized when the movie comes out.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Ian Frazier replies:
I based my description of SuAnne at Lead on interviews I did with people from Pine Ridge who were there. Before publication the story was checked with them in detail by the checking department at The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Aside from a couple of errors of fact (the year the game was played, and who won it), and aside perhaps from the scale of the dance’s effect, I believe that this event took place essentially as I described.
What Mr. Harlan mainly objects to is my portrait of the Lead fans as obnoxious and racist. His personal attachment to the town makes it hard for him to accept how bad Lead’s reputation for that kind of behavior was. A number of people on Pine Ridge—coaches, parents, and former players—told me that they encountered insults and racial taunts at Lead, and that Pine Ridge teams did not like playing there. “Those fans at Lead were terrible” was a statement I often heard. I did not mention in my story an incident when Lead fans vandalized the Pine Ridge team bus. The incident stayed in the memory of the coach and the girls on the team and, racially motivated or not, contributed to people’s bad feelings toward Lead. There were also, as Mr. Harlan knows, other incidents of unruliness on the part of Lead players and fans in which racial slurs were involved. Making all this even more galling is the fact that the land the town is on, and the rest of the Black Hills, were stolen from the Sioux in the first place. Mr. Harlan considers me remiss in not checking the story with people in Lead. I regret that I didn’t, because I want my reporting to be as thorough as possible. But given the town’s reputation and the evidence I found to support it, I do not feel I was being unfair, in the big picture, to Lead.
It is indeed remarkable that a newspaper reporter with twenty years of experience in western South Dakota should not have heard the shawl dance story. Aside from its wide currency on Pine Ridge, it appeared in The Lakota Times, a newspaper whose coverage of the reservation was by far the most thorough of any, in the issue of February 19, 1992, in a special two-page section done at the time of SuAnne’s death. There Doni DeCory told the shawl dance story in the same version she later told me, though to me she mentioned more detail. SuAnne’s death was probably the biggest event on the reservation since the occupation of Wounded Knee and its aftermath in the Seventies. But there is apparently a wide difference in perception between people on the reservation and their non-Indian neighbors. As I told Mr. Harlan on the telephone, I was writing mostly from a Pine Ridge point of view. I am grateful to him for showing the Lead fans as other than a faceless, hostile mass. Clearly many people in the stands, including his relatives, did not act in a hostile way toward the Pine Ridge team. I now think that probably the fans at this particular game were not as obnoxious as I described them, and that fewer of them took part in the heckling. I regret the overstatement, and in future editions of my book will make appropriate changes.
Mr. Harlan does not mention a part in my book, just after the shawl dance story, in which Doni DeCory says that SuAnne’s bold act led to friendships between girls on the opposing teams, and to Doni’s realization that “there are some really good people in Lead.” If the story of SuAnne at Lead has moved partly into the realm of myth, that should not obscure the real and important truth it tells: SuAnne Big Crow was a great hero who stood up for her people against contempt and meanness and racism, and who managed to do it in a way that was large-souled and generous to her non-Indian neighbors as well.