06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

His Great Grandfather Was the Interpreter for Crazy Horse

James Willard "Heavy" Garnette is my first cousin. He is a veteran who served in the United States Navy during the Korean War and he is the great grandson of William "Billy" Garnette, an Iyeska (interpreter) for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the only interpreter the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse trusted.

Of Billy Garnette, Crazy Horse said, "He is the only one who will tell my words straight," and when it came time to speak to the authorities, Crazy Horse demanded that Billy Garnette serve as his interpreter, according to the Garnette archives.

Heavy got his nickname when he was a small boy living on the family allotment at Potato Creek. He wasn't a fat boy, but he had a moon-shaped face so his father Henry tagged him with the moniker "Heavy" and it stuck with him from then on.

Heavy's father, Henry, was also a fighter like his father before him. He and Ellen Janis, a Lakota lady from Pejuta Haka, Medicine Root (Kyle) on the Pine Ridge Reservation, lost their allotted lands when the United States decided it needed a place to practice dropping bombs from bombers at Rapid City Air Force Base (now Ellsworth). They gave the residents of "Spud" Creek, as the locals called it, just a few weeks to move off of their lands and take what little they could carry. Most of the residents were ranchers and farmers and they had little time to round up their cattle and horses, so little time that many had to leave their animals behind. The Air Force was standing by with their fingers on the trigger.

Stop and think about that. Henry Garnette and the Janis family were American citizens who happened to be living on their homeland Indian reservation as World War II started. They were told that after the war they would have their lands returned. Of course, they didn't know that when the federal government takes over anything it is a near impossibility to get it back. After the war ended Henry, Ellen Janis and other Lakota that had been evicted from their lands went to the government to get their lands back. Their lands had now been named "The Bombing Range."

Most had lost everything. Their homes had been bombed and machine gunned. The cattle and horses they could not gather before their eviction had become targets for the guns and the bombs of the U. S. Air Force. Unexploded bombs and heavy caliber bullets were buried under the earth of the lands. And when or if they got their land back, it would take years for the demolition experts to clear the land of unexploded bombs and bullets.

The fight went on for many costly years for Henry and Ellen, but they took their fight to Congress with an elected representative named E.Y. Berry in their corner and they eventually won back the right to live on their own land, unexploded bombs and all.

As a young man Heavy watched his father and his mother Grace (Giago) Garnette carry on this epic battle with the United States and never realized what great and brave parents he had. He went back to high school at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission after he returned from the Navy and earned his high school diploma. In a way Heavy and I both graduated from Holy Rosary because I passed my G.E.D. test in Sasebo, Japan and my certificate of graduation was recognized as authentic by the Jesuits at Holy Rosary.

Heavy and I drove out to Livermore, California as young Navy veterans and got jobs working for a construction company building houses. After a summer of hard work, Heavy got lonesome for the reservation and returned home. He got married and a couple of months later he was involved in a horrific automobile accident near Martin, S. D., that killed his wife and his unborn child and left him paralyzed from the waist down. The guilty party in this incident was alcohol.

I owned a Winchell's Donut franchise in Las Vegas, Nevada at the time so I brought Heavy and his brother Darrell out to Vegas and build a special walker for Heavy to use and I taught him and Darrell to be bakers. He turned out to be a terrific baker.

Heavy eventually returned to South Dakota, became a born-again-Catholic and is now a deacon in the Church. His brother Darrell fell in love and married one of my employees named Ruby, settled down and is now retired and is still living in Las Vegas.

James Willard Garnette proved to me that he had the courage of his great grandfather "Billy" and the determination of his father Henry. He survived the horrible circumstances that he said he brought upon himself and although still paralyzed, he has made himself a useful member of his church and has spent the past years working with alcoholics and other victims of automobile accidents.

When I talked to him this week he said God is his companion and inspiration and if that is what made him whole again. More power to him.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2010 Native Sun News