Big Sky Country – South Dakota
In the western states of South-Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, prairie grasslands between the popular natural reserves like Badlands, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower and Mt Rushmore formed the stage for one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the American West…
When I left Denver yesterday morning, the snowy mountaintops of the Rocky Mountains slowly faded in my rear-view mirror, disappearing in the smouldering atmosphere. For hours, I drove past circle shaped grain fields and windswept villages, where car wrecks seem to be standard garden furniture, through the west of Nebraska towards South-Dakota. Five o’clock in the afternoon: “Welcome to the Oglala Sioux Nation”, a colourful sign near the state border reads. I now find myself in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wooden cabins with peeling paint and crooked mobile homes form the centre of the eponymous administrative capital of the reserve. Behind that first line of buildings, I see the prairie for the first time, that mythical, seemingly endless grasslands cleaved by channels and canyons of pale sandstone, where, until the second half of the nineteenth century, the bison herds trotted by the thousands, providing the countless prairie-Indian tribes with hides and meat.
When the smoke had cleared at Wounded Knee Creek, at least 175 people were killed
My goal is a short visit to the cemetery of Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, a group of Lakota families was massacred by a unit of the famous 7th Cavalry Regiment after a misunderstanding with a deaf Indian about handing over his weapon. Chief Bigfoot was on his way to the agency in Pine Ridge with his people after the murder of the charismatic leader Sitting Bull, to lay down their weapons and register for ration, like all Lakota were summoned to do. When on that ice-cold December morning the smoke had cleared at Wounded Knee Creek, at least 175 people were killed, among which 25 soldiers.
Wounded Knee was supposed to be a sad place, and I tried to prepare myself for that behind the wheel. And it was. But not necessarily because of the austerity of the rectangular mass grave, that is located in a small cemetery for veterans on the same hill where the soldiers had set up their Hotchkiss canons and fired at the Indians.
The welcome was even sadder. When I get out of my car on the parking lot, I am immediately approached by two young Indians. Jesse is the name of the one who does the talking. Whether I was willing to donate; the tribe wanted to redecorate the visitor’s centre, a round building on the other side that had clearly not been used for years, to open it again to the public. Then, a heavy Lakota-woman jumps up from the stand where she was making jewels, coming our way. “Go away!”, she says, waving her arms. “ You two are drunk all day!”, and she mumbles that it is a shame the boys bother tourist with lies like that. The guys immediately walk away. “Lack of respect. They are simply begging. Jesse has been coming here since he was two years old”, she tells me, while going back to her work of decorating a bracelet with coloured, bent needles of a porcupine. We talk a little about her craft and how it helps her make ends meet, and how hard it is to find work and stay away from alcohol and drugs on the Pine Ridge Reserve.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, mighty seven clans of the Lakota-Indians, also called Sioux, dominated the grasslands of the then Dakota, Montana and Nebraska Territories. Everything in the lives of the Prairie-Indians revolved about the hunt. The Lakota had pushed the other nomad tribes, the Crow, Arapaho, Kiowa, Shoshone and Cheyenne more or less to the edges of the Plains, but sometimes bloody clashes broke out when tribes crossed each other’s paths on their way to new hunting grounds. By the mid-nineteenth century, the dominance of the Lakota over the prairie was totalitarian.
When in 1804-06 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with their Corps of Discovery, were on assignment for President Jefferson exploring the catchment area of the Missouri and the Rockies – the immense Louisiana-territory that Jefferson had bought from Napoleon – very few tribes had been in contact with white folk. Only trappers had been there, mostly French or English beaver hunters that used the skills and knowledge of the Indians to set up a lucrative fur trade. The Lewis and Clark expedition, armed to the teeth, had a mission to find a trade route via the waterways to the Pacific Ocean and to include the tribes in the continental trade operation to commercially eliminate the English. Sacajawea joined the group, a young Shoshone, married to a French trapper that was part of the expedition. Sacajawea carried her new-born on her back at all times. Her presence and that of her child, as well as her knowledge of some Indian languages, made it possible for Lewis and Clark to convince the tribes on their way that they were only passing through peacefully, getting them a lot of goodwill and possibly even saving their lives. They survived the expedition and rough passing of the Rocky Mountains only with the help and food of the Nez Perce Indians.
The Lewis and Clark expedition had a mission to find a trade route to the Pacific Ocean
Until the of the 1860s, when rumour had it gold had been found in the Black Hills, an isolated mountain range in the utmost West of South-Dakota. The Black Hills had always been a favourite hunting grounds for the Lakota and a spiritual place. Now, all European homesteaders wanted to go there. Eagerly helped by the railway companies, the American Congress did everything to get them there. There would be a railway to Rapid City, the rapidly growing city at the foot of the Black Hills. To make this happen, they first had to solve the ‘Lakota-problem’, which had to be renegotiated again and again. As the bison disappeared from the prairie – by white overhunting -, the tribes were increasingly dependent on aid from Washington for their survival. After the Great Sioux War, the Lakota were left only with a patchwork of reserves, where survival was only possible thanks to the rations being handed out by the American Army. Chief Big Foot’s clan never reached the agency in December 1890.
At eight o’clock the next morning, Richard Sherman is waiting on the parking lot of the small visitor’s centre at Cedar Butte, in the southern part of Badlands National Park. It’s already hot. A fierce wind is tugging the American and Oglala Sioux Nation flags. This part of the park is collectively managed by Pine Ridge and the National Park Service.
Richard lives on the reserve and is often asked to share his knowledge with “visitors and curious journalists”. His facial features reveal Indian blood, but his curly hair is strikingly light brown. His mother is Minneconjou (a Lakota-clan), but he doesn’t share anything about his father’s roots. Wearing jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, the lively seventy-year-old walks ahead. We walk through a dried-out riverbed into an incredibly beautiful canyon. Erratically eroded sandstone walls tower over us eighty meters above. “Look, a turtle.” He leans forward, picks up a rock and points to the characteristic ridge pattern of a turtle’s shield. “The Badlands are filled with fossils like this. Did you know the largest turtle fossil ever was found in South-Dakota? More than three meters long.”
“The Indian perspective? I have my perspective; other Indians have their own”
“You like hiking?” Richard asks. “I want to show you my favourite sit-down tree.” We climb an extremely steep path, sweating, holding ourselves to branches and twigs. We reach a grassy plateau where pine trees offer some shade. In a distance, a bighorn sheep flees away through the bushes. “The Lakota came to hunt here back in the days. Some still gather here every year around the solstice to perform the Sun Dance, a three-day and three-night ritual where they only drink water and don’t eat, to summon visions.” We cross the grass plateau and reach Richard’s favourite tree on the other side. At our feet, there’s a labyrinth of Badlands as far as I can see. “This was the Last Stronghold’, Richard says, musing. He points to the spot where the last Lakota had taken refuge just before the drama at Wounded Knee took place, a little south of here. “Those table mountains have been named after the families that live there. Plenty Star Table, Blind Man Table.. This is the last semi-wilderness of our tribe.” The place clearly means something to him. When I ask him how the natives themselves look to the history of the Indian wars, he responds laconically and short. “The Indian perspective? I have my perspective; other Indians have their own.”
Maybe the internal division was the curse that sealed the fate of the Indians, and more specifically of the Lakota. Chiefs had never been successful in getting a whole tribe line up behind them to fight the common enemy, at most some hundreds of warriors from their own clan. And still, the youngster rode out at any moment, against the will of the elders, to steal horses, not rarely resulting in skirmishes and death.
After an hour and a half of climbing a path of boulders and gravel, I stare straight into two nostrils, both half a meter in diameter. They are part of the granite head of the most famous Lakota, Crazy Horse, skilfully hewn in a rock in the middle of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse Memorial, that will be 172 metres high, will depict the warrior on his horse pointing east, to the hunting grounds his people had to leave behind. It is, as it’s only financed with private donations, a long-term project. It should be finished in the thirties of this century.
Crazy Horse was an influential Lakota warrior during the Indian Wars
Crazy Horse Memorial is basically sticking up two fat fingers to Mount Rushmore, a few kilometres further on. The four presidential heads in the mountain mainly draw patriotic, not very broad-minded, white visitors. It was hard to count the ‘Make America Great Again’-t-shirts and hats.
Crazy Horse is only climbable once a year. The first weekend of June, hikers are allowed to walk up to his arm during a hiking event that draws almost 10.000 people. Crazy Horse was an influential Lakota warrior during the Indian Wars. Not a chief, but someone we would nowadays call captain of an elite force. During the Great Sioux War, however, he had built such a reputation that all his tribe members respected him, possibly making him the only one, intended or not, that got anywhere close to uniting all Lakota.
Little Big Horn
Crazy Horse had earned most of his stripes during the battle at the Little Bighorn River at the end of June 1876. His speedy counterattack made sure 5 out of the 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, were crushed. Custer was a handsome looking officer, a veteran from the Civil War that had received the status of a hero in the press, something he was eager to cultivate. It took until the fifties of the last century before the definitively lost his status of pop idol. Because he had attacked too soon with exhausted horses, underestimated the number of enemies (he thought there were 500, they ended up being more than 7000) and had scattered his military forces too much, he didn’t stand a chance. 268 soldiers lost their lives.
Yes. The government took away even this
She joins me on a ride over a panorama road past spots with memorial stones along the way, where we get out and where she, with a lot of dramatic gestures, explains about the crucial hostilities that led to Custer’s fatal end. “Custer’s luck ran out there”, she says, pointing towards Last Stand Hill in the distance. She’s talking about the famous ‘luck’ that was always Custer’s share according to the press during his previous campaigns. And the Crow? They were on the same side as the Americans. As was usual during those times, scouts were recruited among the Crow and Arikara. Rose doesn’t regret that. “The Crow thought that the Americans were a unique opportunity to defeat our nemesis, the Sioux.” On Last Stand Hill there are a few gravestones, red instead of white, dedicated to the Cheyenne victims of the battle. “The Cheyenne do not want to talk about this battle. The government never rectified what was done to them, all those deportations and massacres.”
Big Sky Country
In the Crow-reserve, the interstate 90 floats like a bleak ribbon on a rocking ocean of green. Thanks to their horses, once introduced by the Spaniards, the prairie-Indians were capable of covering up to fifty miles per day on this terrain. I travel ten times that speed in 2018, but I cannot and will not shake that feeling of never-ending, sublime emptiness under the enormous skydome. I see some scattered Pronghorns grazing along the route. I also see horses on the hill in the distance, mane in the wind. They no doubt belong to a ranch, but still…. The monotonous thrumming of my wheels on the concrete slabs of the highway becomes John Dunbar’s Theme from the soundtrack of Dances With Wolves. My fantasy goes a little wild and I see the gigantic bison herds – tatonka in Lakota – thundering ahead of me on the prairie. Montana’s motto is big sky country. Very true.
The monotonous thrumming of my wheels on the concrete slabs of the highway becomes John Dunbar’s Theme from the soundtrack of Dances With Wolves
It takes me almost two days to reach the last reserve of my road trip, Wind River in Wyoming. From Little Big Horn, I first drive west towards the city of Billings, on the shore of the Yellowstone River, and then south until Red Lodge, a pleasant western town at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, that hasn’t been touched by mass tourism yet. The next day I drive on the high Beartooth Highway over the mountains, and take a left onto the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. This road follows the flight route of the friendly Nez Perce Indians when they were hunted in 1877 by Major-General Howard, 17 years after they had helped the Lewis’ and Clark’s expedition over those same Rockies. The route passes the tourist town of Cody and then turns south.
In Wind River, I visit the first St. Stephen’s Mission, a Jesuits mission, but nowadays a parish for the Arapaho-Indians, who were forced to share this reserve with their nemesis, the Shoshone. An elderly white woman runs the store and it’s kind of a museum about the parish’ work for the Indian community (a lot of photographs of arts and crafts and classes of children). One sign with a special title draws my attention: “Declaration of the Northern Arapaho Nation”. It’s an open letter by the local entrepreneurs’ office to the inhabitants. “The Nation does not tolerate alcohol and drugs any longer. Families are ruined, our culture crippled”, it reads. What follows are statistics: 9 times as many murders than average in Montana, 8 times as many deaths by liver diseases, and then the average age of death: 51. “We cannot wait for salvation from the outside. We have to solve this ourselves”, the entrepreneurs conclude.
“White cattle farmers lease land from the Nation. Arapaho and Shoshone don’t farm”
This hits me like a hammer. “It is really bad”, the woman behind the counter affirms, because “our government has never kept the treaties they made with the Arapaho and Shoshone.” Where do people find work around here, I ask. “In the city (Riverton, red), on oil drilling installations or in the casino.” And all the fields with cows I came across on my way here? “White cattle farmers lease land from the Nation. Arapaho and Shoshone don’t farm.”
I step outside into the dry heat for my last visit: Sacajawea’s grave in Fort Washakie. The capital of the reserve was named after a respected Shoshone chief, and is nothing but a windy town at the foot of the formidable Wind River Mountains. Gusts of wind lash the plastic flowers that bring colour to the sober graves of the Indians, mostly covered with a cross. I see names like Washakie, but also Saint Clair returns a few times. Sacajawea’s gravestone is larger than the rest, but simple. A text panel explains the importance of her participation to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The young mother was Lewis’ and Clark’s interpreter and guide, and the key to their success.
Behind a half-decayed school building, I spot a bronze statue of a young Indian woman
Behind a half-decayed school building, I spot a bronze statue of a young Indian woman. The statue dates back to the sixties and was dedicated to Sacajawea. She smiles softly and holds a sand dollar between thumb and index finger. That way she could show Chief Washakie upon return that she really had been to the Pacific Ocean. She looks gorgeous.
The statue touches me. Sacajawea was an angel of peace who convinced the local tribes of the good intentions of the white men. How could everything turn south in the decades that followed? Their betrayal, the murders and slaughters, the pointless battles, the starvation, all the humiliation. I am startled of this feeling and here, in this spot, I am no longer in control of my emotions. I walk towards my car in tears. Plastic flowers fly over the parking lot. The unwavering prairie wind blows away the truth. The earth weeps.