Good Friday on the Rez is an effective combination of personal memoir and history organized around a road trip on Good Friday. Author David Hugh Bunnell, back in his hometown of Alliance, Nebraska, sets out on a visit to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, looks up Vernell White Thunder, a former high school student of his who has become a close friend . This a friendship that lasts the rest of Bunnell’s life. The drive is 280 miles round trip, and all along the way, Bunnell stops every few miles to remember his history and the history of the Indians of the area and their frequently disastrous interactions with white America.
Burnell talks about Wounded Knee, both the 1890 massacre and the 1973 takeover which he witnessed. He also was present before that for the trial of the Hare Brothers in his home town. They killed Raymond Yellow Thunder. In 1973, he supported the Wounded Knee occupation, packing up his car with food and supplies to take to the AIM members.
Much of this story focuses on his long friendship with Vernell White Thunder, an accomplished man who has opened a thriving B&B with horse riding tours of the Black Hills and who also raises horses and buffalo – a venture he went into with Bunnell. Their friendship is deep, they stand with each other through hard times and grief.
Good Friday on the Rez is an enjoyable book. Bunell is more successful than most in stepping back from his whiteness and recognizing racism and its pernicious effects. He cared deeply about the Indians of Pine Ridge and Rosebud and the injustice they have endured. Nonetheless, there were times when his whiteness interfered with his understanding. For example, when AIM members were asked to come to Pine Ridge and organize resistance to demand justice for the murder of Yellow Thunder, this is what he wrote, “By seven thirty a.m., a caravan of crazed, radical Indians was on the road, headed for Pine Ridge.” Crazed?
Here is what the “crazed radical Indians” did. They met with the mayor, requested a public meeting/gathering space, held a public meeting and spoke to the history of injustice and the need for justice for Yellow Thunder, and they rallied outside the courthouse during the trial, drumming their drums. Seems pretty standard organizing tactics to me.
He seems to think AIM was somehow dangerous and threatening, inappropriate, and too radical. How can you be too radical in the face of racist genocide? So, yes, I think that no matter how “woke” someone may think they are or may try to be, when white supremacy is challenged in ways that are not suitable for Hallmark cards, the “woke” go back to sleep. AIM did nothing violent in Alliance. They gave speeches, chanted, and drummed. The menace was in Bunnell’s mind, not in AIM’s actions–even with the perspective of hindsight.
This demonstrates a perceptual flaw that afflicts many of us. In the US, whites have a monopoly on protest and resistance. Sure, people of color can protest, but they are attacked by the police and denounced as terroristic. White supremacists and nationalists walk around with their open carry semi-automatics and rifles to display their monopoly. While there is no legal basis on this monopoly, we all know that only white people can do this.
Recently some white militia dominionists occupied Malheur Wildlife Refuge with firearms, damaged the facilities and used threats of violence to hold the refuge hostage. They were indicted and acquitted. NoDAPL protesters were attacked with dogs, water cannons (in the winter) and rubber bullets and arrested. The tactics used against NoDAPL – again on their own land – were nothing like the dainty tender treatment of the Malheur occupiers. The Bundy ranch thugs threatened the lives of BLM employees and were able to continue breaking the law with impunity. The members of AIM occupied their own damn land and were, and still are, perceived as terrorists by many. Leonard Peltier remains the longest incarcerated political prisoner in the world. When LaVoy Finicum was killed by state police due to his involvement in the occupation, no one even considered felony murder indictments of his co-conspirators, though such ironic indictments happen to people of color every week as a matter of course. You break the law, someone dies, you get indicted with felony murder…unless you belong to a white supremacist militia.
But Bunnell is a good storyteller, engaging and able to condense the important elements of a story into short and effective stories. I am less convinced by the conceit of this round trip from Alliance to the reservation and back again, with stops all along the way at all these memorials and touchstones of Lakota history and his personal history. That is one long, long day. He fit a lot into that one day trip, more than seems likely. I get it, it seems a way to tell the stories of his life. I thought the frame he hung his story on was intrusive and too cute by half.
It’s an enjoyable book, but it does not break new ground. Ian Frazier’s On the Rez is much better, more self-aware. Like Good Friday on the Rez, it is a book about a white man visiting his friend from Pine Ridge. One more white friend visiting the rez memoir and we have a sub-genre.