He switched out his Oxfords for his combat boots in order to make it up the muddy road that led to his home on the Wind River Reservation. It was a clear spring morning in 1952 and Mark Soldier Wolf made his way though the Wyoming fields and farmland, which lay green under the blue spring sky.
Just back from Korea, Soldier Wolf was still dressed in his Marine greens when he spotted his grandmother.
“She had a buckskin dress on, and on the dress she had elk teeth,” said Mark Soldier Wolf. “She was wearing cuffs, beaded cuffs to show her rank.”
Soldier Wolf’s 101-year-old grandmother, Pretty Nose, was a veteran herself and her red, black and white beaded cuffs meant she was an Arapaho war chief. She had fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn, in which the Arapaho, Lakota and Northern Cheyenne defeated George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry in a stunning battle.
“When she saw me coming across the field, she started to sing a war song,” said Soldier Wolf. “It was really something when she sang that song. It didn’t sadden me, just put more strength into me and I wished I could have just stayed there with that song.” (Click on this highlighted text to hear Soldier Wolf sing the song)
Today the field where Soldier Wolf and his grandmother came face to face as warriors and veterans is gone, replaced by grounds so polluted with the tailings from a former uranium mill that the federal government must monitor it. Soldier Wolf’s log home is gone, as are his livestock. The land where he grew up is dominated now by a white water tower with the company name “Chemtrade.”
While many Korean War veterans returned home to receive benefits such as job placement and home loans from the Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, Mark Soldier Wolf came back to Wyoming only to be treated like a second-class citizen, a man whose land and home could be taken from him, even if by legal means.
“I fought for this Uncle Sam and his red, white and blue,” said Soldier Wolf, 83.
And then, he believes, Uncle Sam kicked him out of his home, polluted his land and left him with war nightmares and the daily insult of looking at an industrial site where his family used to be.
About a mile from his former home is the house Soldier Wolf built when he was ordered off his land, a structure cobbled together out of materials as diverse as telephone poles and stolen sheetrock. Last summer, he sat at his big dining room table and took a pull from a bottle of water.
“The world’s mean,” he said as the plastic bottle crushed quietly in his old hands. “It’s mean everywhere. It gets meaner and meaner, especially now.”
The big man was dressed in jeans and a red and blue Tattersall-patterned shirt unbuttoned down to his chest.
“Sometimes I get to thinking about Korea and I have these spooks come about me,” said Soldier Wolf as he closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I start marching around in my bed.”
Soldier Wolf demonstrated: His head snapped left, then right and he swung his arms back and forth in a mock military march as he sat at the table.
“Het! Het! Your left! Your left! Count cadence! COUNT!” shouted Soldier Wolf. Then he stopped. His eyes slowly opened and he found himself back home. “Here I wake myself up counting cadence.”
“It’s just awful,” said his wife, Florita Soldier Wolf. “He falls off the bed, he comes for me, and then he don’t come out of it for 15 or 20 minutes. That war really did something to him.”
In 1948 Mark Soldier Wolf was drafted into the Marine Corps. He left the Wind River Reservation and was shipped to Colorado, then California, Hawaii, Midway, Guam, the Philippines, Japan and finally Korea, to serve directly under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
He was given one green box of ammunition each day — 250 rounds — to carry. Sometimes, if he was scared, he’d take a second box.
He often marched through the night stepping over bodies, his pathway occasionally lit by exploding shells and flares. He slept in old bomb craters and tried to keep his feet dry.
“Sometimes you’d get so cold you’d cut the jacket off a dead Korean so you could cover up some more,” said Soldier Wolf. “You can see a lot of terrible things I won’t mention now. Kids. Women. Girls. It was terrible.”
Soldier Wolf found shelter in a shallow crater with four other Marines one night. They heard someone running in the dark and a cry for help. “So we holler: ‘Over this way, over this way.’ ”
Bullets flew and suddenly the stranger running through the night came diving over the edge of the crater. His rifle butt hit Soldier Wolf in the head, denting his helmet and bursting his eardrum. After nearly four years in the battlefield, a fluke injury ended Soldier Wolf’s military career and he was shipped home, deaf in one ear and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or “spooks,” as Soldier Wolf calls the night terrors.
“After we got married and settled down, he got worse,” said Florita Soldier Wolf. “Got to drinking. Came home whenever. Kids going to school and he come home drunk again. That was our year after we got married. He got into that.”
Mark Soldier Wolf closed his eyes, bowed his head and interlaced his fingers. Florita adjusted her oxygen tubes and took a breath, her tank pumping away in another room. A fan hummed in the corner while a wall-mount air conditioning unit worked to combat the summer heat.
“But I stayed with him. I helped him,” continued Florita. “Pretty soon it started working out. He don’t drink or smoke anymore. I just had to understand him, so that was that. Now we can celebrate our 60 years.”
“Sixty years of marriage,” said Mark. “No divorces. Just married.”
“Same man, same life,” added Florita.
On July 1, 1957, five years after Soldier Wolf returned from Korea, a representative of Fremont Minerals, Inc., sent a letter to Wind River superintendent Arthur N. Arntson.
“Our company, Fremont Minerals, Inc. is interested in purchasing Indian land for the purpose of erecting a uranium concentrating mill,” the letter said. “Scott Dewey is the owner of a portion of our contemplated site and on our behalf has approached other owners,” it continued. “They have indicated their desire to sell their land.”
According to heir lists and legal documents, Scott Dewey, Mark Soldier Wolf’s father, owned 40 of 200 acres on Indian allotments wanted by Fremont Minerals. The other 160 acres were owned by relatives such as Soldier Wolf, who inherited his acreage when his mother died. The extended family had been there for generations, raising horses, cattle, grains and oats.
By the end of August 1957, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had effectively approved the sale of the Indian acreage to Fremont Minerals. By September, documents show, all heirs to the land, including Soldier Wolf and his wife, had signed their names to consent to sale forms. Their share: $580. Almost all the deeds were notarized by a BIA realty officer and witnessed by Scott Dewey.
But the veracity of those documents is still disputed by Soldier Wolf to this day. He has no memory of signing them. And the sales were made with incredible haste. Nearly every landowner involved lacked the education or legal representation to make an informed decision on the sale. Soldier Wolf, for instance, despite his years in the Army, couldn’t read well enough to understand the papers, he said, recalling that he was told to vacate his property or face jail time by local law enforcement in the winter of 1957. Other family members were forced to quickly find new homes either on the reservation or somewhere else so the new mill could be built.
A review and reconstruction of hundreds of records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives, United States Geological Survey, Department of Interior and Fremont County show that from July to December 1957, 200 acres of land were transferred from Native American ownership to non-Native, corporate hands on the Wind River Reservation for the purpose of building a uranium milling plant.
And while Fremont Minerals paid a total of $17,186 for the land and the BIA documented that the check had been deposited, no record of payment to land owners has ever been located despite several Freedom of Information Act requests for documentation.
This is not uncommon in Indian country.
“In some cases the records were never created, in some cases they were created and destroyed, in some cases they were simply lost,” said Donald Wharton, a senior attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Denver. “The United States did nothing to keep the records they were obliged to keep.”
The lack of records can make any assertion hard to prove or disprove, leaving many legal cases for Native Americans to languish in court.
In 2009, for instance, the federal government settled the largest class-action lawsuit in the nation’s history over missing records of Indian people. In Cobell v. Salazar, defendants asked the federal government to account for assets dating back to the late 1800s. It estimated that the government mismanaged nearly $150 billion in Indian money and eventually paid out $3.4 billion in damages.
Soldier Wolf is in a similar situation, said Matthew Kelley, an attorney with Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz, in Washington D.C.
In the case of Mark Soldier Wolf’s trust accounts, Kelley said, as well as his family’s, they may actually exist someplace that the federal government couldn’t find.
“Experience has taught people that record keeping in Indian country has been rather haphazard,” he said. “Particularly in the 20th century and particularly dealing with land issues.”
Soldier Wolf isn’t the only Native veteran treated in a less-than-honorable manner after service.
During World War I, Native veterans oftentimes returned home from overseas to find their land sold. This was accomplished through competency commissions, a form of kangaroo court in which Native Americans were found to be “competent” to own land. In other words, their allotments held in trust could be taken out of trust. Once the Native American was deemed the owner of the land, he could then be taxed. In most cases, those landowners lost their land after failing to pay said taxes.
“One of the ways they could declare Indian men competent was if they joined the military,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. “So World War I occurs, veterans coming back from the war had been declared competent, and their land had been changed from trust status to fee status.”
When many returned from war, they found that they had lost their land because of nonpayment of taxes.
“I think maybe that was the most egregious incident relative to serving in the military that you could possibly do to someone,” said Stainbrook. “It’s just appalling.”
By 1963, the Fremont Minerals/Susquehanna Western uranium mill was no longer producing yellow cake — prices dropped, and supply was getting harder to find. When the company departed, it left behind approximately 1.8 million cubic yards of radioactive waste called “tailings.” Those tailings sat out in the open from 1963 to 1988, exposed to rainfall, snow accumulation, wind dispersal, and ultimately, were driven down into the ground and the area’s water table, destroying the areas water source.
The site became a designated Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project (UMTRA) after the passage of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act in the late ’70s, which meant the Department of Energy would have to monitor the area for the foreseeable future and manage the hazards posed by the site.
In 1988, those 1.8 million cubic yards of tailings were removed to a secure storage location in the Gas Hills and residents were told that in 100 years all the contaminants in the area would be washed away through natural processes.
However, in 2010, flooding on the reservation caused massive spikes of contaminants in some of the monitoring wells maintained by the Department of Energy, leading many tribal and community officials to question whether or not uranium contamination would actually disappear within the 100-year time period. Officials with the department declined to comment on the current status of the site.
Today a few short buildings and industrial water tanks are all that mark the land that once belonged to Mark Soldier Wolf and then Fremont Minerals. The company Chemtrade purchased the land for around $95,0000 and now produces sulfuric acid, according to one company representative.
Mark Soldier Wolf stared out the window as the day came to an end. A mile off, the white water tower with the words “Chemtrade” painted in blue letters, stood out against the darkening sky.
“You kill somebody, you need to pay something back in spirit, or you pray for that enemy that you killed,” said Soldier Wolf. “That’s the Indian way. White people don’t think that way, you know.”
He unscrewed the cap from a bottle of water and took a sip, then folded his hands and closed his eyes.
“I don’t believe in the America I used to when I was young,” said Soldier Wolf. “I got two worlds: white-man world and Indian world. I depended on the white-man world to work with our Indian world and work together to bring justice to the American Indian, but the white man’s already taken advantage of that.”
Soldier Wolf often thinks about the old days, he thinks about the water rendereduseless by uranium contamination, and he thinks about his neighbors and his children and grandchildren and what kind of future they’ll have here on this part of the Wind River Reservation.
“A lot of times when I think about them, I just stop and pause a while and pray for them,” said Soldier Wolf. “I say: Grandpa, I still need your help and guidance and strength to do the things I wanted to do. Tell my people they’re safe with you, Grandpa. Tell ’em I’m still trying to get something straight here.” ◆