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  • Riding With Ghosts

    A living testimony: Premier of Indian-interest film, “Riding With Ghosts”
    by Abena Songbird
    Native American Times - 24 August 2006

    HOT SPRINGS, SD -- As part of a larger Native art show called, “What is Oppressionism”, the Shaman Gallery in Hot Springs saw the premier of an important Lakota documentary, “Riding with Ghosts.”

    The film, allegorically follows it’s maker, James Starkey, through a seemingly “Dantean” redemptive journey of stark realities; as an original War Lord gang member and paint-huffer, into the South Dakota prison system for murder, and out the other side, coming home to traditional ceremonies: Sun Dance, inipi and a salvation through the arts.

    Using the voice narration of family and friends underscored brilliantly with a soundtrack featuring Anishnaabe artist Annie Humphrey’s revolutionary folk and his own autobiographical song lyrics, the documentary begins in 1986; laying a grim reality that Starkey’s male Indian friends, like himself, were imprisoned, or died by suicide, all before the age of 40.

    This 83 minute film by Oyate Underground Akicita Society of Minnehaha, while reminiscent of the recent film, “Trudell”, has a rougher, more grassroots edge.

    The cinematography itself winds the documentary masterfully; with photography by co-producer Joe Hubers, it paints the struggle, the pain and the redemption, following and enhancing the storytelling style, which does flow, as Starkey hoped, with a ‘natural, real cadence.’

    “I wanted it to be like traveling, non-lineal, and like most Lakota storytelling, it tells you to finish the story yourself,” he said.

    Starkey said it was initially shunned at most major film festivals, though it recently garnered Houston, Texas’ prestigious American Indian Genocide Museum Film Festival Award, beating out “Trudell” and Robert Redford’s film about the Western Shoshone.

    Starkey’s film does much to dispel the myth that Indians are ‘damn dogs, lazy, drunk, dogs’ he said. “We’re not dogs at all, we’re wolves – shungmanitou Oyate,” said Director, Starkey adding, “As Lakota, coming from a matriarchy, a matrilineal society, ‘we implode, not explode’ and are powerless because all the wasicu society responds to is aggression.”

    This is a film for indigenous peoples – street youth, grieving mothers, Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Oyate, a powerful message to Indian men, reclaiming their pride, sovereignty and masculinity from a emasculating society.

    The documentary traces the history of the early gangs in Rapid City: the War Lords, Lakota struggles in the ’70s and 80’s, first called “The Feud”. Starkey, a founding member, said that the gang was ‘friends helping friends’ in the early 80’s in Rapid City.

    The film traces the grimness of his reality: By 1986 his friends and fellow gang members were dead, ravaged by alcohol and drugs, in prison, or headed there for crimes some didn’t commit. Starkey said they were always ridiculed as not ‘a real gang’ because as Lakota, they didn’t get AK- 47s and just ‘blow each other away.’ They were, however, maced and billy clubbed by local cops.

    No love lost for “Rapid City’s finest’ toward the Lakota, Starkey described the tension of those early days between the RCPD and the War Lords as “two canines fighting over pissing territory” that although himself, Leighton, Warren and friend had their frailties, contraries, and contradictions, and he doesn’t romanticize the life, Rapid police themselves committed retaliatory vandalism and tagged their badge numbers over the War Lord monikers in this ‘pissing contest.’

    Leighton Rich, another Indian artist, and former War Lord, whom the penal system made out to be ‘a monster’ according to Starkey, was more an artist, ‘a dreamer.’

    “Tell them there’s something evil in there,” Rich said of his prison experience in the film. “Pray for me.”

    Denied medications, having serious hallucinations, he began seeing Jesus in his fasting and his artwork grew more urgent.

    “Leighton escaped oppression through suicide in South Dakota penitentiary,” said Starkey, who added that many felt he shouldn’t be locked up in that way, after being brutally ganged in Rapid City, and that incarceration should have been according to his medical situation. “Just another death by oppression,” said Starkey. He said “I know the humility he had, the love, the size of his heart. He didn’t think of himself.”

    “I know he grew up in this oppression with a foot on his neck. He did the best he could. I knew what he was,” he said.

    After Leighton’s funeral, Starkey and the others “regrouped and armed themselves.” Now a more dangerous game, in December 1986, huffing paint, which Starkey said was “my job” he went to a huffer house to trade booze for paint. In a skirmish in which he felt disrespected as a War Lord, he shot and killed a man.

    “That’s another ghost I live with,” he said. He Spent 7 ½ years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls

    After his 1994 release, Starkey said he threw away his black clothes, as he was ‘trying to heal and not hurt anybody anymore.’ He became a ‘cog in the machine’ working adrift, floating until 1996 when he learned about the Northern Tribal Arts Show in Sioux Falls.

    After this show, which inspired new work from him, he started learning about “Lakol Wicohan” “Friendly Lifeways”. He began learning of his identity and was ‘inspired out of his trauma” by his cousin Francis Yellow, who taught him that his shadow self was his medicine, “Human beings are made up of seven parts,” Yellow told him. “Remember your shadow, all those things you don’t like about yourself. It’s all sacred, to be respected: the good and bad together,” Yellow told him. He learned from Yellow that the wasicu idea of “pureness, goodness and holiness” devalues, shuns and denigrates’ half of life, the bad.

    Not only a filmmaker, Starkey is known as a leading contemporary Northern Plains Artist.

    Learning that his power and identity were formed from his past ‘shadow’ actions, Starkey reconnected with Warren and his Rapid City Family. He said it was good to reconnect and not be ‘in exile in Sioux Falls.’

    Then Leighton’s brother, Warren Rich, also killed himself, at the age of 40 (1964-2004).

    Described in the film by those who knew him as a good dad who always told his nephews to “stay out of trouble and stay in school”, whom Starkey said was “Bigger than life – our Jesse James, Billy the Kid, our Crazy Horse. Just like them, nobody wanted to run with him when he was alive. It’s safe now that he’s dead.”

    He expressed his admiration for Warren’s mind by saying, ‘Warren was politically savvy enough to know what to do.” He tagged the Berlin Wall Memorial to the dead in Rapid City Park.

    In the film he described “the wasicu disease that Western Europe brought to these shores,” and that ‘this is an occupation, which too will pass.”

    The second half of the film carries the theme of healing, and ceremony. It introduces Jerry Clown, who with his Grandpa Clown, are direct descendents of Crazy Horse; through his sister Julia Iron Cedar Clown. In the film Clown also emphasizes this shamanistic death-rebirth theme through his personal, horrendous story of sexual abuse in ceremony by a trusted medicine person.

    Clown, a Mniconjou, from Dupree, He said he was always embarrassed about his last name until he understood through dreams where his family name came from. His Grandpa Clown was a great heyoka medicine man. “He was a man for the people who gave all he had. He helped the people all his life,” said Clown.

    After himself getting sick, he learned he had a rare disease. He was sent to the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, and all his family came down. They put him on chemo, and steroids and he then developed diabetes. On the road to UNM hospital his sisters and “auntie”, Carole Little Wounded, a Principal at St. Francis Indian School, prayed for him, laid a cigarette down and said she would Sun Dance for him.

    Just that fast he said he started to get better. He got off oxygen and his improvement was astounding. Then he started thinking of Sun Dancing and praying himself. Little Wounded in the film said Clown didn’t want his sickness to take his hope away and make him afraid. She helped him prepare and placed him up on Bear Butte for his hanblecha ceremony (crying for a vision). Clown said his ancestors came to him and asked him what he wanted to do, that they were ready to take him, ‘to take away the pain forever, it’s okay you’ve been through a lot,’ “I want to live, to try, I just ask for help. Thank you for letting me live this long,” he told them in his vision. Clown said, although he was scared, he’d never seen spirits in his life, they all came while he was on the hill to shake his hand and said they’d help.

    Clown wanting to make his family and people proud, went to this man’s house for an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony, his first. He then said he’d never forget the pain he felt after it. “As I lay there in sweat that man abused his rights, my trust. I was powerless,” he said. He said he thought Indians were only molested in Catholic Church, not in our own ceremonies. At first he though it was a bad dream. He prayed to Tukashila for help and asked, “Why me? I’ve been sick enough. This doesn’t happen in sweat lodges, why me?” He said he knew that ‘this way of praying is good’ that he was not supposed to feel shame. “There are good people out there and I found them,” he said.

    Since this happened to him Clown began the journey of traveling to universities, elementary schools, colleges all over the U.S. as a speaker, doing Crazy Horse workshops, and sharing his story; one of courageous healing. He shared that some people were being abused in ceremonies, their hope taken away. “There are sick-minded medicine people misusing their gift,” he said. “Young boys killed themselves over this, walked away totally from this way of praying. This way of life is beautiful, not like this,” he said in the film adding, “I carry the message that we can heal ourselves, as Lakota, working together.”

    Clown found a lot of victim’s of this man’s abuse and has been in contact with them to encourage them not to give up. “We’re still fighting the case in the courts today,” he said. When he heard Starkey was doing his film, initially he wasn’t ready to speak about his experience but eventually he decided he had to be in it, and also became co-producer with Starkey, and Hunes.

    “It was part of my own personal healing, to speak out,” he said.

    Clown, who now lives in Wisconsin with his family, dances at Green Grass. “Inside those prayer sticks by the tree- there’s a whole Universe in there,” he said. He has been traveling and showing the film all year. He showed it to great success at the U.S. Probation Conference in St. Paul recently.

    Near the end of the film, Starkey with his sister Jackie visits the family graveyard. At his grandfather’s grave, Horse with the Horn, one of the first families in White Horse, the original settlers of the early reservation period.

    Starkey, now living in Porcupine, was on parole until November of last year. Gesturing across the landscape, he says that as a mobile people, pre-reservation, a 6 state area is the Lakota homeland.

    “I love our land, the sweep of it.” His sister, Jackie hopes to build on the allotted land she grew up on. The cabin is no longer standing but she said they had horses, a barn, chickens, root cellar, food planted. “There was game, fish. This is where I was always happy.”

    Though harboring no illusions abut how life is in White Horse today, after years of feeling ‘under occupation’ in Sioux Falls, he’d much rather live here on the land of his relatives to “just be where I can make my art and sell on the internet and in the galleries.”

    Now learning Sun Dance songs, being a relative not ‘addicted to drama’ he said coming from a misplaced, misspent youth, he ‘likes peace.’ Facing the camera Starkey says, “I am learning a friendly lifeway- healing, mending and growing.”

    “Riding with Ghosts” is dedicated to Leighton, Warren and Ransom Rich. Passenger Productions in association with Oyate Underground of Minnehaha A documentary produced by: James Starkey, Joe Hubers and Jerry Clown, Directed by Joe Hubers and James Starkey, Director of Photography – Joe Hubers, with soundtrack artists: Annie Humphrey, Matt Fockler, Soulcrate Music, and Wister Dean with additional lyrics by James Starkey.

    Cast: Marletta Pacheco, nephew, Jesse Rich, Carmela Rich, baby Leighton Warren Rich, Joe Rich, Rowena Ryan, Lakota (the dog), Francis Yellow, Delwin Fiddler Jr., Jerry Clown, Carole Rave, Jackie Dunn, Daysha Marrow, and more – A Lakota Nation documentary

    For more information visit:

    (Reprinted courtesy of the Dakota Lakota Journal Newspaper.)

    NATN Article#: 8115

    "Be good, be kind, help each other."
    "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

    --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)

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