James Giago Davies: A Lakota mother fought the law and won

The following opinion by James Giago Davies appeared in the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

The town hall in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. Photo by Teresa Fazio / Wikipedia

Ethel Giago fought the law ... and the law lost
By James Giago Davies

A quarter mile west of Maverick Junction the Fall River carves a bold, artistic groove through solid rock.

For decades people were drawn to this spot, and my family was no exception. We pulled fish from rushing water, spread picnic blankets on the rock overlooking the roar of the falls. Some people, particularly the young, dived off that overlook into a deep, inviting pool filled with warm spring water.

On a bluff above the pool there is a church, almost as if God wanted a holy place to admire some of his finest handiwork. Six miles north of that church men marveled at more of His handiwork, another intrepid stream had cut an entire mountain in half, forming Buffalo Gap, and a couple of miles east of that gap a railroad stop bearing the same name sprang up along the bend of Beaver Creek.

The stop grew into a town, and for a time Buffalo Gap was as prominent as any settlement in the Black Hills, but when the railroad finally reached Hot Springs, Buffalo Gap’s fate was sealed, and it devolved over the next half century into a haunted used-to-be-someplace with boarded up buildings and crumbling sidewalks.

But my mother, Ethel Giago, remembered the Buffalo Gap of her youth, the first Wasicu pit stop on the long Depression Era gravel road from Pine Ridge Agency to Rapid City, some fifty miles north. That was where her father bought her the only bottle of pop she would drink on any given summer, a Dr. Pepper. In 1973 her son, Jerry, bought himself a new Mustang, and he took her for a Sunday drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79, and when they pulled into Buffalo Gap, just because she wanted to see what the place looked like after all the years, she saw a white clapboard house with a for sale sign, and she made the fateful decision to move down from the soulless sprawl of Rapid City, and make sleepy Buffalo Gap her new home.

Like most South Dakota towns, dying or otherwise, Buffalo Gap had plenty of churches and bars, two escapist haunts those browbeaten by reality steadfastly frequent. But it also had a bank, a gas station, and a small country store run by Fred Degnan. He was a large, bullet-headed man, who could not bend his neck, and his wife, Dorothy, had lost her larynx to cancer, so put some device to her throat when speaking. Ethel’s kids found the oddness of these two comforting, and spent hot summer days playing with their new friends in front of Degnan’s Grocery.

One afternoon, an older woman, Mrs. Harrington, approached the children and told the other kids not to play with Ethel’s kids. “They’re bad kids,” the woman said. “Stay away from them.”

Harrington, however, was the last woman Ethel would have expected such behavior from. She had been wooing Ethel to her church since Ethel had come to town, sending silverware with every Christian letter, and now Ethel had quite a collection. After the kids told her what Mrs. Harrington had done, Ethel had a talk with her.

“I had a talk with the Law,” Mrs. Harrington told her. “And the Law says you people are drug dealers and the Law doesn’t lie!”

Ethel got Mrs. Harrington to put a face to that Law, the Custer County Sheriff’s Deputy, who patrolled Buffalo Gap, and Ethel remembered him stopping by a couple weeks earlier, to return her lap dog, because a new town ordinance said dogs could not walk around off leash. Deputy Dog talked with Ethel out by the burning barrel and as he talked he kept looking down at something on the ground.

A couple days after Ethel talked with Mrs. Harrington, the Sheriff showed up with Deputy Dog, and the deputy swore to the Sheriff he had seen drug needles by the burning barrel. Ethel dropped a package of needles on the table. “These needles?” she said. “Yep, those needles,” Deputy Dog said.

“My eight-year-old is diabetic,” Ethel told the Sheriff. “He doesn’t take two shots a day, he dies.”

Deputy Dog looked at my mother, and said, “You got me between a rock and a hard place here, ma’am.”

“You put yourself there,” she said.

The Sheriff gave a heartfelt apology, and he told Ethel she had the right to press charges, but Ethel told him, what was done was done; all she asked was that Deputy Dog go back and tell all the people he had poisoned against her family the truth. Which he did, and then he was never seen again.

In pouring rain, Mrs. Harrington came to Ethel’s front door, tearfully apologizing, and later, Ethel would give her a forgiving hug, but on that day she slammed the door in her face.

Ethel had raised a dozen breed Lakota kids, mostly on welfare and food stamps, and even though they had their issues, not one of them had ever wound up in prison. She taught them respect, and compassion, as best she could, and fifteen-year-old Lloyd was the best of the lot, full of humor and intelligence and kindhearted spirit, but there would come another Sheriff’s knock at her front door.

This time it was the Fall River County Sheriff, and beside him was the preacher from the church above the Fall River Falls, and it took a scuba diver tied to a rope to retrieve Lloyd’s body from the pool below the falls. Lloyd was a very strong swimmer, but that pool had the power to hold whatever it chose to grab, forever.

My mother would have turned 85 this February. We lost her two years back. Lloyd would have turned 53. The good people of Hot Springs blew up the falls, I hear, too dangerous. It’s closed off to the public. Both Ethel and Lloyd would have mourned the loss of those falls. Lloyd would have said, why not get rid of every car, they kill far more people? Why not level every cliff, people fall off them?

I like to think somewhere in the Great Mysterious, Ethel and Lloyd stand overlooking those pristine falls, three innocents connected in a deeply spiritual way, three innocents the hateful acts of misguided people can no longer destroy.

(James Giago Davies can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com))

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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