• Kelly Fitzpatrick
  • Growing up at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, 1980........(c)2011 kelly...
Growing up at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, 1980........(c)2011 kelly fitzpatrick

 (print (c) Adrian Larvie)


Before my soul shifted, before I learned how to grow up and relax into who I was becoming, I forced change on the world around me. I wanted relief from my floating anger and pain that was willing to land anywhere. So I decided to go to South Dakota.


Instead of a suitcase like other travelers at Washington National Airport, I have a soft old green backpack with a straw African fan tied to one shoulder strap. My straw hat with the foot wide brim, the one I bought a lifetime ago at the beach in Naples Italy, hangs off the other strap. My sleeping bag is rolled up and tied underneath my pack. My hair is already in practical braids and covered in a beautiful bright blue bandana, all ready for the hot prairie winds I have heard about. My batiked skirt and halter top are a dusty pink, and I have flat black Chinese slippers on my tiny feet. 


I still feel like an outsider, even at the busy airport where none of us are doing anything more than passing through.


As I wait for my flight, I grab some of my black licorice from  outside pocket of my pack, the licorice I was supposed to save for takeoffs and landings, and slowly pull a piece apart, stretching it from my teeth till it snaps apart. in an uncomfortable metal chair, one in a long empty row of uncomfortable metal chairs attached to each other. I look around at the other people and watch them for a long while, chewing my licorice till my jaw aches.


I enjoy being ignored.


I am waiting to take a flight out to Rapid City, South Dakota, and then find a way out to the Black Hills International Survival Gathering. I am an anti-nuclear activist hoping to find my serenity out there, and my people. It is September 1980, I am 23 years old and I am already worn out.  My passion has always yearned for a better world, and for years in the late 1970’s I was a reactionary and almost-manic activist, personally insulted by injustices all around me. I have an offended, Irish fight-weary heart.


I am late. I am in a hurry to go far out into the country to slow down and rest. The other activists, from around the world and from many different movements, have already been there a week already. There is another week left but I could not get off work for the whole two weeks. I help run the University Art Department as administrative assistant to the Chair, but it is not that they can’t do without me; it is because we already had our vacation time for the whole month of August when the school shut down.   I am lucky to take off during the busiest week of the whole school year. I think the school administrators, the dean and the University president are all hoping I will just go away and never come back.


 I was the whistleblower last year who, the night before the pope came to visit the campus on his first visit to the United States, filed suit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, demanding a safety and security inspection of the campus research reactor.  I got publically slammed on the front page of every newspaper in the world. I hated that I had become internationally infamous for a short while. All i wanted now was to be invisible. But that’s a whole other story for another time.


I pull out my sketchbook and oil crayons, and I let rhythmic dry waves of color flow out of my old, familiar oil pastel crayons. My crayons are in stubby, broken pieces, well used and well loved. My fingertips become smudged with mixings of many intense colors as I rub the oil crayons into the paper in different places.  I probably have a streak of color somewhere on my face by now, too, as usual.  The tinge of depressed paranoia lifts for a few moments and I find relief in my drawing. I am no longer overwhelmed and I get lost in the joy. Drawing, drawing drawing…..


I feel my hope push my spirit bigger and bigger till I soar far above my small self in the airport. I am soaring in color... Drawing….drawing…..drawing….. The spirit of ochre heaviness and bindings of sepia discouragement are peeled off of me, color by color, and no longer have any effect on me. I am whole, joyful, healed, and alive as I draw.  I've always been naturally filled with curiosity to the point of nosiness and I love being filled with love and joy.


South Dakota is where I want to recharge my natural passion. Now I want to spend time with others who think like me, be one of many instead of alone and in over my head.  I can sometimes handle change well because I know I can fool myself with the illusion I am in control of it. Or I can surrender to it and ride the wave.


I have always wanted a spiritual path that would make a difference. I want to be about love, not anger.  I want to fill the emptied cup of my spirit until it overflows around me,  spreading the kind of change that  is healing.


My smile is relaxed by the time my flight is called and I run for the gate.




In South Dakota, I hitchhike from Rapid City to the prairie encampment. Technically, I guess it is hitchhiking but it is a ride with a carful other Survival Gathering activists who have come back into town to shower at Rapid City’s Y. It only counts as hitchhiking because I don’t know these folks.


I squeeze into the back seat of the dark red little car, and even though I know they just showered, they smell like they are still wearing their traveling sweat and have weeks of dust ground into their hardened bare feet.  I stare at a bead of sweat forming on the sunburnt shoulder of the scarecrow guy I am crushed up against next to the back door. His stringy hair flings off the bead of sweat and I hope I am not wearing it now. He is loud and he yells back and forth to someone up front.  I don’t want to listen to their gossipy chatter and my mind races ahead.


We ride through flat land, up down long wavy hills toward a rounded ridge of pale yellow grass. As we crest the hill, I am stunned to see miles and miles of tents and tarps assembled around the very top edges of a round grassy bowl that stretches miles forever and back.


The car stops before it gets to the edge where two men stand guard. Prying myself out of the collection of bodies in the tiny cramped car, feeling freed, I grab my pack and barely remember to say thanks. I walk alone up to the pair of check-in security men who wait at the lane leading down from our edge of the prairie bowl.


Far below, to the far other side of the bowl, I see an enormously wide, tall stage where the rock stars and politicians perform. There are more than ten thousand people camped out. No pets are allowed, so I see no dogs, and no wild animal would find any safe place to hide out here. The bowl is so huge and the prairie so filled with grass and sky that, from where I am standing, the people who are everywhere from edges of the bowl into the deep center are as tiny as grasshoppers hiding among blades of grass.


I stand aside and watch as the men wave the car through since the inhabitants already have their passes. The Security people are Lakota, not ‘Sioux’ which whites labeled them generations ago. They are also AIM Security - American Indian Movement.  It was only about five or seven years ago that AIM and the FBI had a shootout at Wounded Knee, which is not really too far from here, and both FBI agents and AIM members died. A Lakota woman named Anna Mae was murdered and everyone says it was the FBI who killed her and framed AIM. I look at these AIM warriors and decide I better open my pack before they tell me to.


I am wearing my pink colored hard contact lenses over my blue eyes.  The effect on other people is often unsettling because the color of my eyes is now an iridescent shimmery violet, exactly like butterfly wings I am told.  I pull my purple sunglasses from an outside pocket of my pack and I hide my eyes the best I can. I open the top flap of my pack and they move things around to look inside, to check what I am bringing in.


The men are very tall, very quiet, with dark tans, dark eyes and long dark braids. They ask me short, intense questions while they look right into me. My body feels tense, and I start sweating even more, not just because the sun is high in the sky. I breathe very quietly and stand very still, like I am about to fly off.


I answer them, without looking back directly, which would be rude to them: No I have no drugs, no weed, and no alcohol. No, I have no weapons.  No, I will not fight. Yes, I will obey all directions from AIM Security. No, no nudity.  No, I will not do anything illegal because it is assumed the FBI is here. Yes, I know I am just here as a guest of AIM, a guest on this land.  And, Yes, because I am a woman I WILL keep my shirt on.


One man is very stern. He narrows his eyes and juts his chin out at me as he says in a low-voiced, lilting accent, ‘You know,  if you break any of these rules, AIM Security will throw you out right away. You will have to find your own way back to town. UnderSTAND?’


I nod, ‘yes’.


I pass through very slowly, almost as if I expect them to call me back to say they have decided I can’t go in.  I walk downhill, watching my feet. When the men are far behind me, I stop to take a shoe off so I can walk barefoot in the grass when the lane disappears, but when I put my foot down to take off my other shoe, I discover my pale skin is too soft for the sharp grass and I am embarrassed to see how out of place my red toenail polish looks out here. I put my shoe back on.


I walk down the lane, down the hill and begin to look all around some more. Somehow, with all the people here, I immediately run into someone I know and it is my close friend, my hitchhiking partner, Tom Zeender.


Tom and I always get rides easily because he looks so young, tall and smiley that everyone thinks they know him, that he must be a teenage countryboy just going down the road a bit even though he's a college kid. Everyone always likes Tom, and I learn from listening to him how to let people relax into you so that they tell you their most amazing and secret stories. When we hit the road together, I always put my hair up in my farmer hat that has the Harley biker logo on it.  I always keep quiet till we get in the car that stops, after we check it out with our internal radar. This way, I am mistaken at first for another young guy and we don’t get the rides who are just looking for women and all the crap that goes with that kind of trip. 


Once I took my big Yashika camera with me on a trip and when I zipped up my arctic jacket over it, it poofed  way out front in a way that made Tom laugh, and for the rest of that hitchhiking trip he kept calling me a fake name in a fake country drawl: ‘Martha, oh Martha… Ah didn’t know you was sooooo preeeeeg-nant!’


I am glad Tom is here. We’ve never been interested in being anything more than brother and sister to each other.  Even though I had heard he was hitchhiking all the way out here from DC, I am still excited to find he really got here.  We’ve hitchhiked up and down the east coast on short weekend road trips for years, with our packs full of whole baked sweet potatoes that we eat like bananas and rounds of cornbread that had been baked in my cast iron skillet, and he is family to me. 


Tom is sweaty because he has been working hard and he asks if I have an extra bandanna. We sit down on the grass and I open my pack. I give him a heavy white scarf from the bottom of my pack. 


As he covers his head, tying it tightly in the back, Tom tells me, "AIM is a large part of the sponsoring Black Hills Alliance. Everyone is intimidated by them because they do not even pretend to be pacifists like many of the other activists here."


He gives me a necklace from his own pack and I put it on. It is a felt-backed span of shimmery blue-  black white-tipped feathers hanging down on a black silk cord that ties gently around my neck, resting lightly on my chest, covering my heart with a feeling that I am never really alone.


Tom says, "I bought it from some Natives here who made it. The feathers are from some kind of water bird. I forgot what kind, but it is a bird that is very special to their tribe."


I put my sunglasses away and take a round button off of my pack. It has blue mountains drawn behind a quote from a Native Elder. I love this button and wish i had another that i could keep for myself. I give it to Tom and he pins it on his own pack. He tells me a lot of the gossip from the week before. 


He says, "I got out here early and helped the Natives build the stage and then the AIM sleeping house that has a long tilted roof and no sides, with poles laid on the ground to divide the women’s section from the men’s. The traditional Native carpenters were offended when the group of radical lesbian carpenters also took their shirts off when the Native men did.  They had all been working on the AIM sleeping house, and it was too hot and tempers grew hotter. WOOOO-hooo! A lot of yelling and violent breast-baring erupted into a huge fight between the two groups of carpenters! The women would not put their shirts back on and so AIM physically threw them out!  The whole contingent of radical lesbians got mad and left with their carpenters!"


This happened before the Survival Gathering began so most people didn’t even hear of it, but Tom there and witnessed it.  My friends from the Farm commune in Summertown Tennessee later confirmed this story. Their own carpenters silently watched the situation. The Farm carpenters, with their intense psychic intuition, their waist-length hair, and their long ZZ Top beards, stood in a  half-circle behind the AIM warriors,  with their thick arms crossed like Back-up (as if AIM ever needed Back-up).


Tom stands up. "I gotta get back to work where I am volunteering to cook for the campsite I eat at."


I am restless and want to walk. We say ‘bye for now’ and I leave Tom. I began walking along the top of the ridge, looking all around.


My soul begins to expand to the far horizon. I stretch. I can breathe and breathe deeply, filling my lungs with windy air that feels like it has blown in from hundreds of  miles of prairie just to help me breathe deeply.  I do not care about the fighting. I just want to see as much as I possibly can and I want to feel connected.  I walk and walk, feel myself calming deeply in my body, feel myself relax until I am exhausted. 


I look at all that is going on down below me and I am in awe of everyone and everything I see, little pup tents, huge canvas Army tents, campfires surrounded with people eating. I am alone on the part of the high ridge where I stand. I am dry and thirsty and need water.


A gust of hot prairie wind blows a pink contact lens out of my right eye and I am half-blinded.


I just can’t believe this!   I squat down and angrily yank my thick bifocal glasses out of my pack. I carefully put the remaining left contact lens into my contact lens case, putting it deep into my pack.  As if I will ever find the other one again! I put on my old-man style horn-rimmed glasses, the pale pink ones that are dark on the top of the lenses and fade to clear so I can read out of the bottom. My glasses look very modern English Punk - it is a couple years before real American Punk rock - and after I had bought them I saw someone else wearing a pair just like mine on the cover of  Rolling Stone Magazine. I can see clearly now and I guess that’s what really matters.


I realize that the droning story-telling on stage has finished up. Music begins, loud rock music pounding from the gigantic two story tall speakers next to the stage, magnetically pulling us all forward' including me. Everyone in sight drifts forward into the music. I pull my grey striped Mexican shawl out of my pack and place it down on the grass in front of the stage. I sit on my heels, feet tucked under me, and I put on my hat, hoping I don’t get burnt. Small groups of people come over and sit all around.  


Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man stand right next to me, tan slacks, ironed crease, black dress socks and light brown loafers. When he sits down, right on the grass, I glance at the guy because I realize we are the only ones sitting alone. I hope he doesn’t try to talk to me since I don’t want anyone bugging me and I am not interested.


I realize he is a famous TV star, and he’s not paying attention to me after all. He is singing along as if we are at an Up With People red white and blue bellbottomed fa-so-la-ti-DOH Sing-along.  He has blond hair, a self-conscious air, a big smile like he’s a real nice guy, and I can’t remember if he was Starsky or if he was Hutch.  Or that California tv motorcycle cop.


After the song ends, Bonnie and Jackson are still up above us on the stage. They start singing another song. I stand up, roll up my shawl, and tuck it under my arm. I grab my pack and move on very, very slowly, feeling drained. The sun has melted me and I really need water now.


Farther away, I see a pump-water sink and barrel at the Rainbow People encampment and I go over. I stomp and stomp on the pedal and I pump sunheated water over my hands and I drink. I take off my healing bracelet from India, the one made of twisted copper, brass and steel with little brass elephant heads on each end. The elephants kiss where the bracelet ends meet. The three metals are supposed to pull out toxins from the body and pull clogged energies out of the spirit, and it was given to me by one of my first boyfriends who is now long gone.  I carefully place it next to my glasses, around the faucet of the sink so it does not fall.


I wash my bare arms all the way up to my shoulders, feeling warm coolness as water quickly evaporates off my skin. I put my face in my hands and I cover my face with handful after handful of water.  I let the water drip down and as I lift my face to the bright sky, I close my eyes, happy. I put my glasses back on and, without thought, I leave my favorite bracelet behind on the pump-water sink.  


Later, many hours later, I suddenly remember my bracelet and return for it, running, breathless, pissed off.  It should be long gone. Surprised and embarrassed, I find my bracelet still there, not taken by any of the hundred or so people who used the sink after me.  I put it back on, and years and years later it will still be my favorite bracelet.


I find my campsite with the young people I know who rode out here from DC in a cramped yellow school bus that broke down on the way.  If I had come out a week earlier, I would have come out on the school bus with them. They do have a seat on the bus for me for when it is time to go back home to DC. They brought out my large art board and stack of my acid-free art paper, slid in between a seat and the metal inside wall of the bus.


There is a lot of weird, childish arguing among all the people in our campsite. Turns out they have been feeding a guy who wears nothing but a white bed sheet and says he is a Jesus freak from California so they think they have to feed him like a stray cat.  He has blue eyes and thick, white-blond hair that he wears past his shoulders like a blond blue-eyed Jesus painting. If his eyes weren’t so full of vacant craziness and entitlement, he could be an ok-looking guy, except for that weirdo sheet. 


He tries to move into some girl’s tent without asking, looking for free sex that he doesn’t get. He gets yelled at and so he moves over to the fire and tells everyone we can only eat salad, not the big pot of stew made on our campfire out of food everybody else contributed.  We don’t have any salad. At dusk, when he brings out some weed and begins to share it at nightfall, some people at our campsite smoke along with him and the others get mad that the whole campsite is at risk of being kicked out because of it. I know Jesus and he’s no Jesus that I know.


I really wish I could easily join another campsite. 


Now I happen to know that my friends on the other side of the bowl, who were from one of the large communes, are living in one of their own big rock and roll star -style busses, also have weed on site, but they are sharing it only with some of the real rock stars in the other big dark-windowed tour busses. 


One of our mutual friends is an AIM lobbyist named Wally Feather. He's Pine Ridge Lakota. A couple of times when he took trips to DC to speak with Senators, I helped him get a room at the Jesuit Seminary next door to my house.  I remember Wally laughing when he saw me on my roller skates after one of our meetings planning a big protest rally in DC. This was long before skates became common and I was the only around on skates. We’ve been buddies ever since, and after his wife in South Dakota had their fifth child and was ill, and Wally couldn’t get home quickly, I found some activists to pay the Seminary his long distance charges on the Seminary phone since they didn’t want to pay for his phone calls. I couldn’t believe they wanted me to hassle Wally about the money when they knew he didn’t have it.


I happen to know that the only real income he makes is from drag racing cars on the rez, which wouldn’t set well with all the environmental activists here who have never had to try to support a family on a poor reservation where there are no real jobs for hundreds of miles. Wally’s real job is lobbying senators and congressional representatives on behalf of AIM, fighting the United States of America for federal restitution for the Lakota, The People, and protecting what little is left in the land, including the uranium and the water deep in the nearby Black Hills, which doesn’t pay his family bills.


These issues are why AIM invited us all out to the Survival Gathering. Anyway, my friends from the big commune bus say Wally is around here somewhere, in charge of AIM Security.


But our campsite doesn’t have that kind of juice, that kind of power. So I hate that the Jesus freak weed was hidden from AIM in our campsite, putting us all at risk for being kicked out.


That night, after the arguing in our camp winds down into a fog of dissension, and people fade off into a sleeping stupor, I lie down in my sleeping bag.  I do not put up a tent.


I do not sleep at all because I am so sensitive that I can feel their feelings all night until I feel raw raw raw.  I decide I do not want to be around when the Jesus freak weed rides the prairie wind and AIM finally shows up to kick us all out. So, I get up in the middle of the night and drag my heavy sleeping bag far away and I feel freer and freer. 


After a long walk in the black darkness, I find myself moving away from all the campsites till I no longer feel the sleeping dreaming chatter from all of the bodies in all of the campsites all around the bowl.


I am alone and peaceful in the empty bottom of the huge prairie bowl where there is no one else.  A drizzle spits from the sky. I lie down and put my bag inside the enormous garbage bag I brought in case of rain, pulling the edges of both up to my chin. I remember I was once told that i do not camp like the Girl Scout I used to be, that I camp like a homeless person. I listen to a quiet so still that I know there are no insects, no animals anywhere around this deep and silent vortex.  They all must be miles away, far outside of the prairie bowl, and far, far away from all the sleeping bodies.  


 I take off my glasses and finally I sleep.


Hours later, I awaken to see a blurry group of huge men shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle lean over me with stars and clouds mixing in the wet sky above them. Startled, I try to wake up, shocked that I am lying on the ground, surrounded. 


Over and over, through my stunned drowsiness, I finally awaken to hear my name over and over, as if in a dream, as soft as the rain: “kelly……………..kelly…………....kelly………….…..kelly………....kelly……….…wake up….”


I am very upset trying to sit up and find my glasses, realizing I am surrounded, not dreaming, and somehow, in spite of the fact that there are thousands of sleeping people, they somehow know my name.  I realize I am being woken up by AIM Security. I figure I am in BIG trouble but don’t know yet what I have done wrong.


Then I finally hear:  “kelly…………….kelly……………wake up…………IT’S RAINING.”


I realize the voice I hear is my buddy, Wally Feather.


I do not know why Wally makes AIM security rounds in the middle of the night.  I do not know how they found me in total darkness with x-ray Lakota night vision. I do not know why they are waking me up. Maybe they just really don’t want me to sleep in the rain. They silently motion for me to follow them across the grass. 


I stumble up to my feet and find that the elastic ankles of my black sweat pants are stuck up near my knees, and my calves are numb and tingly. I am chilled now that I am out of my warm bag. I push my wool-socked feet into my Chinese slippers. My braids are a mess. My glasses are still lost in the bottom of my bag, so I cannot see more than their dark outlines like hulking bison as the big men slowly escort me, herding me far across the prairie bowl. 


 I hurry up to follow, feeling weird because I am dragging my heavy sleeping bag in its wet garbage bag. I have no idea where we are going.


We eventually arrive at the AIM sleeping house. They motion for me to squeeze in with my bag along the edge, inside the Native women’s sleeping area. I quietly lay my bag alongside a pine pole on top of the cedar-chipped-covered ground. Rain sprinkles inches away from my face. I am now dry again inside my sleeping bag. I feel no chattering feelings here and I hear no crowded thoughts. 


 I soften into the earth and melt away into the darkness of a peaceful deep sleep.


The next morning I accidently sleep way too late and again I wake up surprised to discover I am being watched as I sleep. The women silently watch me, surprised to discover me sleeping among them.  We never speak.


I pick up my heavy wet sleeping bag and walk away, dragging it behind me.




"We are a spirit, we are a natural part of the earth, and all of our ancestors, all of our relations who have gone to the spirit world, they are here with us. That's power. They will help us. They will help us to see if we are willing to look. We are not separated from them because there's no place to go -- we stay here.  This is our place: the earth. This is our mother: we will not go away from our mother. And no matter what they ever do to us, no matter how they ever strike at us, we must never become reactionary. The one thing that has always bothered me about revolution, every time I have seen the revolutionary, is they have reacted out of hatred for the oppressor. We must do this for the love of our people. No matter what they ever do to us, we must always act for the love of our people and the earth. We must not react out of hatred against those who have no sense.”

 – John Trudell (c) 1980, Black Hills International Survival Gathering,                                                                                                     speaking to 12,000 activists camped out on the prairie.



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