Before I left NYC to live in western South Dakota I did not know how much I did not know—that prairie grass undulates and shines like ocean waves in the wind, surprisingly verdant and smelling of rich earth. That the sky is a full dome best enjoyed from the view on a car’s hood, still warm from the sun and the perfect place to hold hands for the first time. That days and weeks would pass as we watched the towering clouds spark sideways with colored lightning, exploding into rain showers before becoming clear at night to more stars than you ever thought were possible to see.
I did not know that this place would become a place I could not leave, not on my own volition, or that the scorched, hard earth would seduce me into silence and teach me to listen with my heart and skin. I had not seen the marvel of a man emerging out of a white-out blizzard on the side of the road, stick his thumb out to stop us and pile into our car with eyelashes frozen, chunks of ice on his hat and black locks, and say, “I’m headed to Wanblee to check the mail.”
Until I had heard all the ceiling tiles shift in unison in the bingo hall and felt my ears pop, I had forgotten that this was why people had storm cellars, and we made a run for it to the nearest basement (me hauling our infant daughter in her car carrier) as the wind threatened to lift us and stones of hail bounced in the grass at my feet. I had not seen the twisted metal and bared trees left behind, randomly touched by the dangling end of a funnel as it bounced through the outskirts of town. I was still “brand new” as they say on the rez, and I stared in wonder at the ink-dark clouds hanging low in the middle of a summer day, the air smelling of rising dust and petrichor. This became normal.
I had not realized that grit was earned with summer counts and winter counts, like alternating currents, breathing the land and everyone and everything out there. Dragonflies and buffalo and katydids, porcupine and pine trees and weathered shacks left over from the days when going to town meant two days by buckboard and horse.
My husband’s family liked to tease me, one after another like a relay sport. Their easy humor was confounding but he explained that they were showing me welcome, testing me out. “You’re smart but you have no common sense,” they’d say. I laughed, and I eventually learned how they were right.
Lise Balk King is an Emmy® Award and Cinema Eye Honor-nominated documentary filmmaker, writer, photographer, adjunct professor, and impact producer. She studied history at Mt. Holyoke College (BA), sensory ethnography documentary film at Harvard, and earned an MPA at Harvard Kennedy School, where she also served as a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Her other life included almost two decades as an Ashkenazi in Indian Country where she had two children and co-founded The Native Voice newspaper with her then-partner. She is still learning to co-exist between divergent realities and is working on a memoir.