Monday, October 21, 2013
Ninth Entry on a Long Journey
I looked across vast spaces hoping to see at least something moving. Instead I saw empty, slightly rolling plains and stark wasteland. This is the experience I have had the past few days driving across South Dakota and Wyoming. In its own right, the open vistas I gazed at were majestic, but in another way, they left me sad, since they reminded me of the tragic history of the Indians. These grounds had been the pastures 150 years ago of grazing buffalo. The animals to the south were already gone, systematically exterminated as part of the government's plan to subdue the Comanches, but there were a few herds left here in the north for the Indians. By 1876, most Indians of this region were already on reservations, but the remaining holdouts, mainly the Lakota Sioux under the powerful leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, had organized and unified for the purpose of preserving their culture. This though could not last. The throng of Whites from the East moved steadily westward. A confrontation occurred when the Natives refused to sell to the United States the Black Hills of South Dakota, which was rich hunting land that had been guaranteed by treaty to the Indians. Gold had been discovered there and miners began to trespass with impunity. President Grant decided it would be easier to protect the miners, whose gold would help the country rebound from the economic depression of 1873, than to honor the commitment to the Natives. He ordered the military to convince the Indians to join the reservations or face the consequences of being subdued by force. Under these circumstances, the cavalry was sent and they confronted the tribes at Little Big Horn. The humiliating loss by George Armstrong Custer there incited a furious American revenge against the Sioux which eventually totally sealed the Natives horrible fate at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.
I crossed the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee and proceeded northeast into the Badlands National Park. Fortunately the road, which had been closed for the past 15 days due to the "Shutdown", was now open. There were few tourists and I had almost the park to myself. Before me were craggy spires and gorges, tall thin pillars, sandstone toadstools, unique plants and multicolored soil beneath which holds the mother lode of ancient fossils. This was one of the most frightening primordial environments I had ever seen. Once an ancient sea and then later low lying swamps, triceratops, t-rexes, Miocene animals, and sea creature bones have been unearthed in mass, many of which are on display in the Geology Museum in nearby Rapid City.
I managed to visit Mt Rushmore, drive through the Black Hills, and eventually tour Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Again the Indian theme came to mind. While gazing at the Tower, an incredibly beautiful stone monolith, which received notoriety most recently in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I remembered I had read that it had been an important religious symbol for native cultures. Families had camped under and around it as protection from the wind and tribes had used it as a giant directional post as a wanderer's aid for countless generations. While I was there, I saw that local Native Americans had placed prayer shawls in adjacent trees at its base and had hung prayer beads next to them. It then occurred to me that calling the place "Devil's Tower," the name coined by cavalry officer and Indian fighter, Henry Dodge in the 1840's, seemed both outdated and showed a high degree of insensitivity and had even possibly a malicious agenda. As I hiked around this beautiful natural monument, I began to think of other more suitable, less threatening names like Majestic Tower or that it should even be renamed by what the natives had called it, Bear Lodge or Buffalo Horn. After all, I had visited towns where cavalry officers had been memorialized such as Custer or Sturgis, South Dakota, or Sheridan or Reno Junction, Wyoming, but not found one city or monument name given to honor the those people who had blessed the area and had lost their lives for its preservation.
I am told that such thoughts occur when a person travels alone. It is said, they have too much time to think. Tomorrow I leave for Idaho for more solitary moments.