Tragedies of car wrecks nearly hit close to home

Published August 5, 2004

RAPID CITY, S.D. – When one is a parent, a telephone ringing in the middle of the night is not a pleasant sound.

Oftentimes, I think about my children behind the wheel of an automobile and I worry. The highways are growing more dangerous, and with diversions such as cell phones and loud music, the distractions can lead to accidents.

Last week, it happened. A phone call at about 4 a.m. caused my heart to jump into my throat.

My 21-year-old daughter is a junior at the University of Minnesota and lives near the campus in Minneapolis. Anyone who has ever driven in Minneapolis-St. Paul soon realizes that the Twin Cities are extremely difficult to travel around. And I find it is very easy to get lost.

My daughter’s mother was on the phone. Sometimes, it is hard to tell when she is upset, because she keeps a very even outlook on life and seldom permits excitement in her voice.

“Marie was in a car wreck, and she is in the trauma center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul,” she said. “I tried to talk to her on the phone, but all she could say was for me to hurry and get there.”

She gave me the phone number of the hospital, and I called immediately. The nurse answering the phone in Marie’s room was calm and helpful. She explained her injuries and assured me that Marie was in pain but fine otherwise.

She put her on the phone for a minute, and Marie said, “Dad, please hurry here.” That was it.

I hung up the phone and immediately prepared to make the 12-hour drive to Minnesota. I jumped into my truck and headed east.

Thoughts of my daughter learning to ride her first tricycle, climbing aboard her first horse or sitting on my lap as we watched a movie at home all passed through my mind. As I drove, her pain became mine.

The biggest shock to me was when we walked into her room in the trauma center. The room was fairly dark, and all I could see was this small woman in a hospital bed.

Her leg had been fractured, and it was propped up and wrapped in a soft cast. Her arms, face and legs were covered with cuts from the accident that were caused mostly by the flying glass when the windows shattered as the car rolled.

I could see the pain in her face as she reached out and took my hand. I wanted to ask her what happened, but I held my tongue. I knew she would tell me when she was able.

As I write this, Marie is recovering nicely and will return to the hospital to have an operation on her fractured leg. She knows that she was a very lucky girl this time, and I thank Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) that she survived and will have no permanent injuries.

When I was the editor of a weekly newspaper, I saw story after story of young people from the different Indian reservations dying in car accidents.

We would print their obituaries in the newspaper, and I always felt bad for the parents because I grew up with so many of them on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They were classmates and friends, and to see that they lost a child was heartbreaking.

In the last two months, seven children from Pine Ridge have died in car wrecks. It seems there is always alcohol and drugs involved, and it makes me angry because the Indian nations are not doing enough to combat this growing problem.

In my daughter’s case, it was speed under bad driving conditions that caused the accident. I hope the accident will make her a better, more cautious driver.

Before he died of cancer, Oglala Sioux Tribal Councilman G. Wayne Tapio lamented the many Pine Ridge deaths from car wrecks.

He pointed toward the town of Whiteclay, Neb., where the sale of liquor is legal, and at the four miles of highway between it and the village of Pine Ridge. “If I put up a white cross for every Indian killed on that stretch of highway, it would look like a white picket fence.”

The automobile is the new steed on the Indian reservations, and some say it brings out the warrior in our youth.

I never want to hear that phone ring at 4 a.m. again, and I know that every parent in this country feels the same way.

Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was the founder and editor of the Lakota Times (now Indian Country Today) and the Lakota Journal.


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