Ghost Dance

Activists still wonder if Standing Deer died in a plot by the feds or Indian foes or for no reason at all

When he was sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery of a bank, it looked like Standing Deer was going to be a cliché, another good-for-nothing Indian in the eyes of the McAlester prison authorities. What happened instead secured his place in modern Indian history.

Pius Vinton Smashed Ice was seven years old when Standing Deer went to McAlester in 1972. He was born on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, a place so bleak there was just as much chance of his becoming a cold-blooded killer as not.

Anna (shown with Standing Deer) was scared by Smashed Ice's outburst.
Anna (shown with Standing Deer) was scared by Smashed Ice's outburst.

Like every other reservation, Rosebud was built on a lie.

The United States government promised the Lakotas sovereignty and an abundance of land, but then pulverized their rights and reduced their land in a succession of so-called treaties.

Rosebud, the second-poorest reservation, comprises the fifth-poorest county in the country. Half of the 28,000 enrolled tribal members are unemployed and impoverished.

Many men scramble for seasonal labor, but with no consistent workforce and high poverty, there is also high crime. Thirty percent of males on the Rosebud reservation are in prison before their 23rd birthday. The crime might not be so bad if the reservation could afford to provide more than one police officer for every 400 square miles.

Smashed Ice was born in 1965 in the Rosebud town of Parmelee, the son of Sam Smashed Ice and Sarah Medicine. Like all the other Smashed Ice children, Pius was baptized Catholic. He attended the St. Francis Indian School, where he says they cut his hair and washed his mouth out with soap if he spoke Lakota.

His father, then a tribal policeman, divorced Sarah in 1973 and married another woman six days later. Sam, no longer wanting to be associated with the Smashed Ice clan, adopted his grandfather's name, Wounded Head. He is now one of the most prominent medicine men on Rosebud.

Pius moved back in with his mother after his parents' breakup. She gave him enough confidence to become a formidable bareback rider in the reservation rodeos. When he got thrown from horses one too many times, he switched gears and earned a reputation on reservations in three states as an excellent horse mugger. In a three-man team, his job was to confront the wild horse head-on, jump on the thrashing animal's neck and hold it down to be harnessed for the rider.

That ended when his mother died of cancer when he was 17. Her death destroyed him. He lost interest in the horses and in school, eventually dropping out. When his grandmother died four years later, he felt completely alone. He wandered the reservation for months, sometimes staying with his sisters on the reservation, sometimes staying with relatives in Rapid City.

It was in Rapid City that he first got into trouble. He stabbed a white man in a public park in 1997 and served five years in prison. Smashed Ice told family members the man he stabbed had attacked a relative; he told the Houston Press his victim was a homeless drunk who came at him with a knife.

He was released in July 2002, eight months after Standing Deer was paroled to Houston. Five months later, the two would meet, and Smashed Ice would kill him.

In his Oklahoma prison, Standing Deer was smart and strong. No matter how hard he said the guards beat him, or how long he was thrown in the hole, he would emerge more vicious than before. In 1973, he took part in a prison riot that killed three inmates and caused $20 million worth of damage, burning the administrative sector of McAlester Prison to the ground.

After order was restored, according to the Deer's writings, prison guards walked from cell to cell, firing tear gas at the prisoners. The Deer wrote that he was gassed so much he went deaf in his left ear and his vision was damaged.

In another story of retribution, Standing Deer said guards denied all medical attention. He told of being in agony from two wisdom teeth bursting through his gums, until he begged the most sadistic guard in McAlester for a nail and a pair of pliers. The guard obliged, on the provision that he could watch.

After driving the nail into his swollen gums to loosen them, the Deer ripped out his teeth with the pliers.

This is the man the authorities put on a bus for a transfer from McAlester to Stringtown in April 1975.

He and a friend hijacked the bus, escaped and went on a robbery rampage for the next 12 months. After an Oklahoma City bank holdup, he shot a cop. In Houston, he robbed a diamond importer after holding three employees at gunpoint.

He was captured in Chicago, handed three life sentences for the Houston heist and sent to a maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois -- even as Oklahoma authorities indicted him for attempted murder and escape from prison. It looked like Wilson would never be free again.

A year after the 1972 McAlester prison riot, hundreds of Lakotas tied to the decade-old American Indian Movement gathered in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to protest the deplorable conditions on Rosebud and the neighboring Pine Ridge reservation.

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