WASHINGTON – John F. Kennedy may have inspired ideals that people everywhere still try to live by, but his younger brother was arguably the greater idealist. And Robert F. Kennedy was never more worthy of that fame than when visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota.
A first visit had moved him deeply to do something as a U.S. senator from New York. He made a second stop on his 1968 campaign, en route to the California primary that would have consolidated his momentum as the next Democratic presidential nominee, had he lived.
His widow, Ethel Kennedy, and a son, Max, came to Pine Ridge May 16, 40 years to the day after RFK’s 1968 appearance. They were campaigning for the current Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama.
More to the point May 16, RFK’s commitment to Indian country began with Ethel Kennedy and their children. LaDonna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity and a self-described “Comanche girl from Cotton County Oklahoma,” when she first went to Washington, went there as the bride of a newly elected senator, the late Fred Harris. The first house they rented was right around the corner from Hickory Hill, the RFK family lair in McLean, Va. In an interview for the archives of the Coalition of Indian-Controlled School Boards, Harris related the domestic beginnings of a historic commitment that now spans three generations: when Harris paid her visits, the Kennedy children would ask if she lived in a tipi. Harris was all graciousness to the kids, but told Ethel Kennedy they ought to grow up to know Indians better. The Kennedys agreed, and that’s how Bobby Kennedy Jr. came to be with his father at Pine Ridge May 16, 1968.
Max, another of those inquiring children at Hickory Hill, wasn’t the only one choking up May 16 as he reflected on his father’s engagement with Indian country. Richard Brown, a teacher with the Pine Ridge Early Head Start program, was only 4 years old in 1968, but he could remember RFK through his own parents, Garfield and Zona Brown.
“My mother and all of them talked about when Robert F. Kennedy came to Pine Ridge. … My mother and all of them were impressed and grateful that he came, that he gave acknowledgment to Lakota people and their concerns.”
His late father, a veteran of Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge, Kasserine Pass in North Africa and the Italian theater of operations in World War II, always told his son to pay attention to politics and to vote. “The right to vote is part of what I fought for over there,” not for himself but for all Lakotas.
The fight paid off for RFK in 1968. Word on Pine Ridge still has it that Kennedy, in the California time zone that runs an hour or two behind South Dakota, learned on the evening of the June 4 California primary that he had won 99 percent of the Indian vote in South Dakota’s primary on the same day. “So we’re still looking for that one who didn’t vote for him,” Brown said, ignoring the arithmetic of percentages for the sake of a good laugh, 40 years later.
Chick Big Crow, founder of the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge, thought Ethel and Max Kennedy were great, but not like 1968 was great. “All the pomp and circumstance of Robert F. Kennedy coming to Pine Ridge. All the reservation was there. And all the elders were there in full regalia. We all got to go down. I was in high school then, and we all went down.” The occasion had a big impact on her, she said.
“You just knew you were in the presence of greatness. Even though you were in the back of the hall, you knew this was greatness.”
A week later, she was staying with her late aunt, Ivy Ruff, and cousins in Oregon. She took in another RFK speech in advance of the state’s May 28 primary.
Then, just after the midnight hour of June 5, he was dead at an assassin’s hand. Later that same morning, June 5, her aunt called up the stairs. Big Crow can still hear her exact words across the years.
“‘Girls, girls. Get up. Robert F. Kennedy has been killed.’ And we got up and all flew down the stairs. And when we got to the bottom we were all in tears. And when we got to the TV we were all in silence. It couldn’t happen again.” Not after JFK. Not to the same family.
They didn’t have telephones in her Pine Ridge home in those days. But when she talked to her brothers and others later, “it was mainly disbelief, and disappointment I think.”
And something more: “The hope was dashed for Native people, for Indians back then. … It seemed like some of the hope went away.”
But in the fullness of time, some returned. The high schooler who knew greatness in RFK raised the greatest girls basketball player in state history, also a sterling ambassador for Pine Ridge and the Lakota before her untimely death in a traffic accident. When the sorely needed recreational center named for her opened its doors in 1993, one of its first visitors was Bobby Kennedy, now the full-grown Robert F. Kennedy Jr.