Excuse the poor photo. Cool to see Pierre, SD native and Austin TX musician and record producer Chris Gage playing mandolin and organ on Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Show, here with Nico Case and also with Elvis Costello!
In 35+ years in media I’ve never been what you’d call “star struck”. I’ve met a lot of celebrities and gained access to some remarkable locations, but never asked for an autograph and RARELY took a photograph. That being said, I have ended up in some pretty remarkable circumstances. This week’s passing of Dennis Banks, aged 80, Native American activist, author, educator, actor and central player in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, brought back perhaps the most unusual.
In February 1985 I had just turned 24 and was the morning radio host at KIOV-FM 104.7 in Sioux Falls, SD. A few months prior, Dennis Banks had ended 11 years in California and New York avoiding prosecution for his involvement in the burning of the Custer County Courthouse in Custer, SD, which preceded the world-famous occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Banks surrendered himself to SD authorities, and was sentenced to 18 months in the SD State Prison in Sioux Falls. After all those years on the run the world’s media wanted to talk with Banks. As I remember, he accepted two media offers. One was with French Television. The other was with KIOV News Director Jerry Dahmen, who was also stringing for NBC. After the interview Jerry casually asked Banks how he was spending his time in prison. Banks said he was leading a group of Native American prisoners dedicated to living a life of traditional diet, study, spiritual practice…and basketball. Jerry told Banks the station has a basketball team of its own, and wondered if the Banks-coached Native prison team would be interested in a game. Arrangements were made, and a game was set for February.
There was only one problem: KIOV DIDN’T HAVE A BASKETBALL TEAM. However, the offer had been accepted, so we had to come up with something, and FAST. We scraped together five volunteers who I think included GM Don Jacobs, Farm Director Tom Lyon, announcers John Jacobs and Dan Iseminger, and me. I also made an impassioned call to my long-time friend Lee Erickson in the Twin Cities with an offer he couldn’t, and didn’t, refuse.
So the Saturday in February arrived, and our rag-tag 6 met at the Pen. We changed into short pants and sneakers in an unused room at the prison, were lead through a couple of cell blocks, past the cafeteria, down a long tunnel, emerging in a cavernous, double-wide underground gym. There was one way in, and one way out. To our left was a boxing ring where two inmates were punching the bejesus out of each other. On the opposite side was the court, where 15 or so highly conditioned and disciplined Native young men were warming up. The crowd was very sparse. Program Director Reid Holsen, News Anchor Lori Scheel Martell and my brother Mike made up our cheering section/gang. A few dozen Native inmates were seated behind Banks and their bench. During the shoot-around I took a minute to stop, shake hands and introduce myself to Banks. As a 6th grader I’d followed Wounded Knee on TV and through the Weekly Reader (true). I don’t know if it was the nervousness of meeting this genuine historical icon, or the impending thrashing we were about to take on the court, but I have no memory of what I asked him or how he answered.
Thoughts quickly returned to the contest when from one end of the court emerged about a dozen Native prisoners and a drum. The BIG drum. The 12 spread out around the instrument and began playing and singing. The deafening emotional echo of the two gyms only magnified the power of the song, and our sense of dread, now in full flower.
We stayed with Banks’ team for about one quarter. Then every five minutes or so a fresh five would come off the Banks bench and RUN, RUN, SHOOT and then RUN some more. They were gentlemen throughout the game, and showed us skill and exceptional sportsmanship by only doubling us up 120-60. We considered it a moral victory that none of our “Iron 6” barfed or suffered cardiac arrest until after the final buzzer.
A camera crew from KDLT-TV shot the event. Somewhere, all that remains from that day is a short TV story including me in short gym shorts and a fuzzy white-guy semi-afro talking with possibly the world’s most influential Native American activist inside an underground prison gym in South Dakota. However, from that point forward, whenever my friend Erickson and I got up a pick-up game with some dangerous dudes on an inner-city playground, we were quick to let them ALL know the skinny white dudes they were about to tangle with had played PRISON BALL WITH DENNIS BANKS FROM THE INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS ARMED OCCUPATION OF WOUNDED KNEE. You can’t make it up.
Our work office features a wall of windows facing west. That wall of windows looks upon Vern Eide Honda. More precisely, it looks upon Eide’s side lot where the wonderful odd ball vehicles reside. Here you’ll find vintage cars, late-model high performance special edition cars…basically anything that they take in on trade that doesn’t fit nicely into the traditional “used vehicle” category.
Today I couldn’t help but see these three beauties. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to own an International Scout like these two, or an International Travel All, IH’s answer to the Chevy Suburban. Back in the day, these, and IH pickups, could be purchased at your local International Harvester Tractor dealer. Farm operators might live many miles from an actual late-model car dealer, but your home-town IH dealer let you purchase and service your tractor, corn picker, haying accessories and your truck, pickup or in these two your Cro Magnon 4 wheel drive SUV. I’ve always figured if you owned an old Scout you’d better know how to source scare parts and possess the knowledge (and perverse joy) in constantly fixing the vehicle, which pretty much put me out of the running from the start. Yet, the dream dies hard, and the lack of all that doesn’t kill the fun of imagining one of these parked outside.
The car below (and sitting about 5 spots away from the IH’s) is an early 70’s Mercury Comet. I don’t know the official Ford name for that paint color. Calf Scour Yellow-Green is probably most accurate, although I can imagine the difficulty of getting that one through Marketing. I’m not your go-to classic Ford encyclopedia. (Frankly I don’t have to be, because I have friends who know as much or more detail of anything FoMoCo this side of Dearborn). I think I’m safe in thinking the Mercury Comet of this era is the twin of the Ford Maverick. Two doors are neat, but I’m guessing there’s little else about this model which evoked the word “COOL” back in the day. Regardless, I like ’em, and I had a lot of fun in Comets/Mavericks, and as a teen in the 70’s, that Comet was infinitely cooler than…walking everywhere you wanted to go.,,
Huron, SD is a mid-sized community (by South Dakota standards anyway) in east central SD. It sits at the intersection of US Highway 14 and SD State Highway 37. Before the advent of Interstate Highways 90 and 29 in SD, Huron was host to two of the major east-west routes across the state. Huron can trace its origins to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad’s decision to make this town on the west bank o the James River as its Divisional Headquarters. Years later when auto and truck traffic became central to economic growth, US Highway 14 was built going through Huron. The giant Armour Meats had a packing plant in Huron, which also supported a significant stockyards and markets. If you lived in the region, Huron was the retail center. It’s where you went to the doctor and dentist. It was (and is) the home to the South Dakota State Fair. It was home to Huron College. Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why Huron was a h0ppin’ place. However, progress in the form of those interstate highways some 50+ miles to the south and east, the closing of the Armour plant and 550 jobs, the heavy hits doled out with the farm crisis in the early 80’s and a number of other circumstances hit Huron hard.
Since the Ancestral Manse in Forestburg in just 30 miles south, I venture up to Huron a handful of times every year. I have an addiction to farm and home stores and hunting for old junk, and those itches can get scratched a little there. Beyond that, I’ll admit lately I’ve had few words of compliment for Huron. Nothing personal, but every time I drive through Huron I sense its best days are in their rear view mirror. The main street is wide, and there are buildings of a scale you don’t see in many other SD towns of similar size. However, there’s emptiness everywhere. Empty store fronts. A little dumpy in places. An almost palpable absence of hope. The sense isthat important things USED to happen here. Mitchell, its neighbor some 50 miles to the south, bustling with new construction and vitality and straddling one of those interstate highways, has a big heartbeat you can feel as you drive through. Huron feels like it needs a pacemaker, and would be wise to have the portable defib unit nearby and fired up in case today’s the day. It’s unfair to compare the SD State Fair to the State Fair in Minnesota, but having worked around 60 days at the Great Minnesota Get Together during my 6 years at KSTP it’s hard not to. Not only doesn’t the Fair compare to Minnesota’s, it doesn’t compare favorably to the SD Fair 20, 50 even 100 years ago. Ooo that smell.
I’m not the type to kick someone when they’re down. I feel terribly guilty talking negatively about Huron or any town in South Dakota. However, for better or worse, 38 years of trying to be a worthy member of the Fourth Estate means trying to stay honest with both criticism and praise, even when its been detrimental to my career and life. And honestly, the vibe isn’t great.
I was in Huron a couple of weeks ago. I was downtown and as usual lamenting the general state of things. I made my usual two stops, and as usual was wishing I didn’t feel like I was driving through a cemetery… However, for some reason, instead of leaving town as quickly as possible, I turned west onto a downtown street (3rd Street SW). I normally don’t travel, and ran smack into things of immense beauty, hope, pride and energy. I stopped so quickly I would have caused a rear-ender…had there been another car on the block.
There before me was an immense and incredible hand-painted mural, full of antique race cars and their drivers. I had neither seen nor even heard of this huge work, nearly half a block long. It’s not like it was a recent addition (1999) and is probably common knowledge to many reading this post. But it was new to me, and it was incredible.
The mural is on the side of the building housing Huron’s Sportsman’s Bar. (Note #1: The Sportsman’s is next to one of Huron’s gems, Manolis Grocery, maker of arguably the best deli sandwiches in SD.) The half-block mural is full of antiquated open-wheel race cars from early in the 20th Century (see wholly inadequate pictures below). The plaque details an historical event I had never heard of before but now am excited to find our more about: The Great Race of 1913. It featured 30 dangerous machines and determined pilots on a 110-mile race to De Smet and back, ending at that very spot. Who knew??? The mural is painted in the sepia tones common to photos of the era. Early photography always makes me feel like life was black-and-white up until after WWII. What color were these cars, and what colors were the drivers wearing?
As I turned around, headed back to the GMC I looked up, and there across the parking lot was ANOTHER half-block long mural! This one depicted the era of the Land Rush in 1882 when what is now Huron was first opened up for white settlement. (Note #2: One man’s land rush is another native man’s loss of his entire world, and I understand and respect the conflict. We’ll talk about that in future posts). This 2001 rendering uses more color than its neighbor down the street, but is limited to muted and coolish blues, grays and browns. The descriptive plaque notes a restoration of this mural in 2007. Where the Great Race mural down the street references speed, danger and adrenaline, the Land Rush mural features moods from the very intimate between the couple with the pioneer-style wagon to the chaotic rush outside the land office (see more wholly inadequate photos below). Both murals are first-rate, full of flare, evident of talent and moving…and uniquely Huron.
As I drove back south to the ‘Burg, I thought a lot about those murals. I also thought a lot about my current attitude towards Huron. Yes, the negative evidence suggesting Huron’s best days are behind her is still there. And yes, Huron is still not on my personal list of Top 10 Places to Live in SD. However, it revived in me something significant and important. It reminded me there is beauty in nearly anything IF you take the time to look for it and are open to it when you find it. As the ride home continued, I was also reminded the same sentiment holds for situations and events, and most importantly for people. Yes there are places, feelings, opinions and people who have buried what little good is in them so deep it may never surface no matter how hard you look for it. Those are (thankfully) the exception rather than the rule. It also reminds me there are different kinds of beauty, and just because something doesn’t fit my idea of beauty doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.
There will always be ignorance and closed minds. There will always be those who are quick to judge anything or anyone who is different. There will always be those who see someone else’s open mind as a weakness to exploit. There are significant times in my life (some recent) where people have used my open-mindedness and trust against me at significant cost. Maybe that makes me naive, or foolish, or even stupid. Yes, an open mind can come back to hurt you. However, it can also foster innovation, growth and greater good. As the New Year arrives, I’m still going to keep the Big Stick within reach, but try to more often look for the beauty in places and people first. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we needs as many quality beholders as we can round up.
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