Sandhills Sandwich Town

I can still feel my wet bare feet
slippin’ on the hot summer concrete
coming home from your old swimming pool
Alliance, you are the Sandhills’ sandwich town
with country-fried-chicken hospitality
so proud to be white-skinned
churchgoing and somewhat dim
Bible school, Boy Scouts, and bigotry
the mighty Lakota Sioux falling-down drunk
in your gutters
unending arrests, subsequent suicides
four dead in the time it takes a life to begin
Jo No Leaf
Chillo Whirlwind
Arthur Gene Black Horse
Irene Blackfeather
not even Clarence Pumpkin Seed
the 250 times you locked him up
before they found him frozen stiff
in Whiteclay
so picture Chillo, at eighteen he’s kicking
the wastebasket he’s standing on
picture his bath-towel necktie
picture Gene’s thin leather belt
and Jo’s wine-stained sweatshirt
picture them dangling
in your jail cells
after they cut the bodies down
picture poor Irene coughing her lungs out
your chief cop who thought
she was just inebriated
and your doctor whose sleep
was more important than her life
then picture
the agony of nails pounded through the hands
of Jesus Christ

— David Hugh Bunnell

Between October 1970 and June 1971, four members of the Lakota tribe died or were murdered in the Alliance (Nebraska) City Jail. Angered by the town’s failure to sufficiently investigate the deaths, David Hugh Bunnell, still in his early twenties and a long way from his career as a computer magazine mogul, submitted Sandhills Sandwich Town to the annual “Poetry Day” edition of the Alliance Times-Herald. His father, then editor of the newspaper, printed the poem on October 15, 1971. “My word ignited a firestorm,” Bunnell later said. “Subscriptions were canceled and advertising pulled, and letters to the editor flooded the newsroom; at home my dad received anonymous threatening phone calls and my mom was embarrassed. I became a persona non grata.”

[Research note: David Hugh Bunnell, Good Friday on the Rez ( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017)]