In my last visit to South Dakota, I found Father Dillon to be pretty much the same man I had always known. He was his usual quiet and unexcitable self, given to understatement but slower now in what he did. I wondered if the shooting two years before had affected his pace. It would have slowed mine if it had happened to me.
I remembered him as virtually imperturbable, and it was this characteristic—a flat, unemotional response to most any situation of no matter what importance—that I found so exasperating. I had worked closely with him for a few months on a housing program on the Rosebud Reservation years before, and though I had long since become accustomed to his ways, still, I remembered that no matter what the crisis, there was never the hint of passion or emotion in his voice.
Now, as we sat in Pine Ridge, his new Indian placement, he talked about the violence at Rapid City two years earlier, an event that resulted in the death of another priest. I knew he would want to talk about it, and I wanted to hear the story. First, he described the hospital in detail. He was brought to the emergency room by ambulance and was waiting to be wheeled into surgery. He had been shot with a small caliber revolver, a .22, he said. The extent of the damage was unknown. There was fear the colon had been punctured, and the threat of infection was real. What was known was that he had lost a lot of blood, and he was quite weak. Still, he asked to be allowed to make a long-distance phone call, and he called the family of the priest who had died, Father Mellon. When he got the priest’s sister he told her as gently as he could that her brother was dead and that he himself had been wounded and was about to be taken to the operating room. He seemed puzzled and somewhat amused at her response, which was this: “Father, you don’t sound very excited considering what has just happened.”
“Well, I guess that’s just how it is,” and then he told the lady he just had to go because they wanted him in surgery. He said there was a tone in her voice that suggested that she didn’t quite believe him. I was certain he gave her the news in a voice no more emotional than the one I was hearing now, retold two years later. I could well understand the woman’s disbelief, if indeed it was coolness under pressure he was demonstrating. It may have been something else. But how could one have been shot and still not be excited?
I smiled with him when he told me of this little incident, but I smiled for a different reason. My first thought was how typical but how incredible it all had to sound to the stranger who might just as well be receiving a call from a sales clerk at Sears telling her that her new dress is in. I knew from similar experiences just how unsettling his manner could be. After all, when a person—and I am thinking of myself now—is upset or even happy about something and the response is almost nonexistent, you get the feeling the emotion you’re expressing, no matter how fumblingly you’re saying it, is of no consequence to the other person. This would depress or anger me—or both. For that woman whose brother had died a couple of hours before, this contact with Father Dillon had to be especially confusing and difficult to understand or believe, when you consider that these events were practically taking place at that very moment she was getting the sad news.
Father Dillon spoke of the actual shooting in even greater detail, and seemingly with some relief, as if he didn’t often get a chance to talk about it. The rectory in Rapid City was a considerable distance from the church, high on a hill overlooking a housing development for Indians on one side and an interstate that led into the Black Hills on the other. From the interstate one could easily see the church and the outbuildings, including the rectory. Break-ins were not unheard of prior to this one, I knew. Father Mellon had complained of losing a radio and a tape recorder and money and was plenty annoyed about it. Quietly, the two priests arranged to have secure locks installed on the doors and bars on the basement windows. It was gradually becoming a small fortress, and both men regretted having to resort to these precautions. At Pine Ridge, Father Dillon’s new assignment, the security precautions were even more extensive, bars on everything, but this time there was no apologizing for what was clearly necessary. Part of the way things have to be done to operate effectively, he said.
I remember Father Mellon, the one time I met him, looking very gray as if he were ill. I even recall mentioning this to Father Dillon, but he said he looked to him much like he always looked. I knew, though, from what Father Dillon had told me that his partner, a younger man, had suffered several heart attacks in recent years, and so when I learned of his death and the circumstances surrounding it, I wasn’t all that surprised. He had been working up gradually to that big MI, obvious to me that one time I met him years earlier.
On my trip out to Pine Ridge this time I had as I usually did a car rental from Rapid City, and Father Dillon told me upon arrival on the reservation that I must, for the safety of the car, pull into their locked garage. I knew when I left Rapid City that it was best not to tell the car rental people I was headed for Pine Ridge, or for that matter, to Rosebud Reservation. I knew business people in Rapid viewed the reservation areas as combat zones and places to be avoided. They wouldn’t have liked to know their equipment was going where it was going, and of course I didn’t tell them.
This visit had to have been at least my 10th time in South Dakota since I lived there in the mid-’60s.Though I was no stranger to how things were done and not done in the state, I still made stupid mistakes from time to time. One earlier visit in Rapid City at the height of the Indian-white trouble, staying with Father Dillon at the rectory hall, I happened one evening into a cowboy bar along the strip in downtown Rapid to have a beer. I was alone and didn’t have much cash and asked the barkeep if I could cash a check for $10.The check was drawn on a Boston bank where I then lived, and the man across the bar from me wanted more information and a little identification. I told him I was staying with my good friend Father Dillon at his rectory and that Father Dillon would vouch for me and for my check. The man smiled and cashed the check and that was that. Later, however, I told the story to Father Dillon. He also smiled and then told me that particular bar had suffered extensive damage from radical Indians when they went on rampage in downtown Rapid a few months before.
“I’m surprised something wasn’t said to you,” he said quietly. Clearly that was an understatement, I thought later. He went on to explain how a lot of the Indians involved in that rampage were camped out at his rectory and that his name was widely connected to the “Indian uprising,” as some people liked to call it at that time. While he wasn’t thought exactly to be responsible for the trashing of the bars and other businesses, he was considered sympathetic to the Indian point of view. Why else, it was argued, would he allow the Indian activists the run of his place? Few cared to notice that the Indians just moved in and took over his rectory.
“Father Mellon is buried out at the federal cemetery near Stur-gis. He always said that’s where he wanted to be,” Father Dillon told me next.
I asked him about the youths responsible for the break-in. I wondered what they were like aside from being young and hostile.
“Well, the one who did the actual shooting was arrested here in Pine Ridge on another charge. There was some delay before he was brought back to Rapid City.”
The white community, I had heard, was fairly upset with Father Dillon because he was quoted at length in the Rapid City Journal as not being particularly angry about what had happened to him. Had he said only this much, the readers might well have understood his point of view and said, “That’s about all you can expect of the Indian priest” (meaning the one who serves the Indian community). But he didn’t stop there. He went on and I wasn’t surprised. He said, “People should not be more zealous in seeing justice done in this case than in trying to eliminate the mistreatment and degradation against people every day that can cause young people like this to become so angry and violent.” He said he and Father Mellon knew they might someday pay the price for the mistreatment many (Indians) have endured.
Privately, from the distance of several years after the attack, my friend spoke of the hatred—especially from one of the youths. The other, he said, was less sure of what he wanted to do, or even if he wished to be there at all.
“But this one particular kid kept saying to me and Mellon (he often referred to Father Mellon only as Mellon),’You want me to shoot you?’ He kept saying it over and over again. What do you say to such a question? I mean, the answer is just too obvious, and so as calmly and rationally as I could, and quietly too, I explained to him that they got everything we had including what little cash there was—I wish there was more—so why make matters worse? I thought I had him convinced and then Mellon was down on the floor and clearly he was in trouble—maybe even dying. His breathing was difficult and this kid with the gun was getting rattled, more rattled, I should say. They were both upset by this time, but this one kid with the gun he’d got me on the bed lying face down and they were ready to leave and he kept saying, ‘You want me to shoot you?’ and I’m trying to explain to him how it wouldn’t be in his interest to do this, not to mention mine. I don’t know, Ray, maybe he didn’t like what I had to say. He didn’t like my answer because on his way out the door, and almost as an afterthought, he shoots me in the ass.”
Father Dillon manages a weak smile as if it is amusing to be shot in the ass, or at least to say it the way he did. He knows as I do that there is nothing amusing about being shot anyplace, much less in the ass, no matter how small the caliber of the gun.
I can’t help thinking, though, as he questions himself over and over again about what happened, as I know he must, and what he said or should have said but didn’t, that maybe what he had to say wasn’t so much the problem as how he said it. Maybe it was that clipped, bled-dry style and emotionless delivery of his that ultimately got him shot in the ass. It was the most human thing in the world to be frightened silly in a situation such as this one, and to show it was no weakness. Clearly Father Dillon had to be frightened, but I suspect—hell no, I don’t suspect, I know—he was as rational with that young Indian as he was an hour later with Father Mellon’s sister when he had to tell her that her brother had just died in a robbery at the rectory. As I see it, therein might have been the problem. Father Mellon didn’t get shot, and even if he hadn’t become so sick and died, I doubt if he would have been shot. The man being threatened was Father Dillon. The young man with the gun might well have wanted to see him sweat, have him beg for his life as you used to see the bad guys do in the movies when a gun was pointed at them. But Father Dillon wasn’t supposed to be the bad guy by any reasonable standards, except what was happening there didn’t fit into anything that might be called reasonable, nor had the young man been told that he ought to respect this particular priest because he had helped Indians almost all of his life. The priest, in the eyes of this Indian, was just another white man.
“I can see Mellon is gone, at least he wasn’t moving, and I don’t know if I can move and there is all this wetness on my backside. It didn’t hurt much as I felt what I knew must be blood. I crawled to the living room and the phone but they had torn it out of the wall so I crawled across the parking lot to the church and my office. Must have taken me a half hour and it was dark and I kept thinking of the horror of it all and how much worse it could get if somebody, perhaps somebody who had been drinking, came over the top of the hill fast like they like to do all the time and run me over. I had an awful time getting in my office but I did manage it finally and I called the police and told them what happened.”
Told them very rationally and calmly, I thought.
“The ambulance was here in no time.”
The details were still very fresh in his mind, that was evident, and I know most of what happened would remain with him for as long as he lived. But I’ve come to believe it is that cold, fierce hatred in the young man with the gun that will haunt Father Dillon when all else is somewhat fuzzy. He is a person who had never done either youth any harm, and for that matter they might have been helped a time or two at his door. And yet this man with a reputation as a helper of the Indian people was shot in the back and left to die with Father Mellon unaided in heart failure, alone and without assistance of any kind. To understand the depth of such hatred is the challenge to Father Dillon, I know. At the same time, the implications of it all have to be very frightening and terribly depressing. It is as if he is reduced by this simple deed to little more than just another Indian-hating, white Rapid Citian, and he has tried, and he supposes the boy has to know by now as well, to be so much more than this. All his years of service to the Indian community—and he clearly views his mission as one of service—seems to be for nothing. He is the enemy, and I know this depresses him, though it is never spoken between us and never will be, I am sure.
What complicated the aftermath of the incident is that the youth who did the shooting was the son of a well-known Indian activist in South Dakota, a man who had been prominent in the American Indian movement activities of a decade before. This man said of Father Dillon, “I’ve known Father Dillon for many years, and he has spent a lifetime helping Indians.” He went on to say, however, that there was a double standard of justice in South Dakota.
“My 11-year-old niece,” he said,”was killed by a drunken driver who is white, four days after Father Mellon’s death. They didn’t even charge the driver with manslaughter. They just charged him with drunken driving.”
He said this by way of explanation or justification for his son’s behavior and that the boy had a serious drinking problem; he would plead not guilty by reason of mental illness. He hinted that New York attorney William Kunstler would help in the defense.
“So where are they now?” I asked Father Dillon.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said. “I heard one is at Sioux Falls at the state penitentiary and the other is out, paroled or whatever happens, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear both were out by now. Besides, I think I heard the fellow who was at Sioux Falls was there on another charge, not the one connected to what happened to me.”
He says all of this with no rancor, no bitterness, that I can detect. He says it evenly, calmly and without emotion as he says most things, all things maybe. I got the impression that if he had his way, this is what he would want to have happened, to have both youths free. It is as if he were saying there is no point in punishing them more. Their lives were punishment enough. But he never said that part. I did.