TOPIC: June 27th
== 1 of 1 ==
Date: Sat, Sep 6 2008 4:55 pm
June 27th of Monica's and my journey follows. I'll follow with June
28th in about a week.
Monica and I arose to a cool, crystal-clear morning – the ideal
start to a beautiful summer day - a specialty of the Great Plains.
We had a quick breakfast in a small gazebo that the motel provides
its guests. The gazebo looks out over the Missouri River, albeit a
dammed portion. The light green of the rolling hills along the
Missouri, the light blue of the sky and darker blue of the water was
an especially stimulating early morning color combination for me. It
resonated with some feeling inside that yearns for periodic
communing with prairie earth. The combination of hills, water, and
sky made me feel like I was just where I needed to be at that moment
in time. Other moods would wash over me and my preferences would
change, but at the time, all was well.
Our motel in Chamberlain, South Dakota, was a short drive from the
Saint Joseph Indian School, which Monica and I had planned to visit.
It turned out that we had both been contributors to the school for
years. We discovered that little fact a couple of years ago and each
of us had long felt a personal need to see the school first hand.
Saint Joseph’s promotion of their school and its mission is first
rate. Their mailings are compelling. One senses that they are truly
fulfilling the higher purpose that they promote in their literature.
The school administrators had certainly captured us as supporters
through the artful promotion of their mission.
On reaching the campus, we found it to be immaculate. Certainly,
from the outside, it appeared that our dollars were being well
spent. The school was closed for the summer, so we couldn’t get
tours. However, there is an Indian museum at Saint Joseph named Akta
Lakota, which we both wanted to see, and fortunately, it was open.
The museum proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. It is
simply one of the best organized museums that I have seen, and the
task has been accomplished without one dollar of federal or state
funding. Basically, the museum tells the story of the Lakota people,
and its displays are organized in a circle, symbolic of the circle
of life to which Indian peoples relate.
The explanations of historical events are presented, naturally
enough, from the Lakota perspective. The language used to describe
historical events is not inflammatory, but it is pointed and
critical. White historians have traditionally glamorized our
settlement of the West. The language used to describe the occupiers
freely employ terms like pioneer, settler, cowboy, soldier,
prospector, missionary, etc. Indians are often portrayed negatively.
At the least, they are described as being something of an
inconvenience to legitimate white settlement of western expanses and
at worst as devils. However, the Lakota recognized the advance of
white settlers for what it actually was – an invasion. Generals
like Sherman, Sheridan, Terry, Harney, and Custer led invading
armies and won battles by virtue of their superior numbers and
technology, not by moral authority.
While Lakota civilization learned to make use of some of the
technologically superior tools of white civilization, that use is
never acknowledged by the Lakota as justification for the
subjugation of the indigenous civilization of the red man and the
abrogation of treaty after treaty. Basically, the museum displays
tell the story of a once noble people who were knocked down, but not
counted out, and are only now coming to grips with what happened to
them with the loss of their culture and what they have to do to
regain their dignity in a vastly different world. They see one of
their functions in today’s world as spiritual leaders in a culture
that has forgotten the unity of all things. I expect that we’ll
return more than once to the museum, and in the interim, find ways
to support Akta Lakota as a legitimate expression of the Lakota
As Monica and I continued our trip, we cheated and got onto
Interstate 90 for a stretch. We wanted to maximize the time we could
spend in the South Dakota Badlands before moving on to our
end-of-day destination of Bear Butte. Besides, the traffic was not
At a rest stop, we took a walk around a large meadow and observed
the grasses and the birdlife. I think we had our binoculars out. A
gentleman approached us, inquiring if we were birders. The
gentleman’s daughter, a young girl with a shy disposition, had
made a showing as an amateur ornithologist and was on the fast track
as a freshman to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. While the proud
father did most of the talking, it was a pleasant exchange, and
observing the girl served to remind me that not all young people are
hopelessly addicted to fast food, video games, and endless cell
As we homed in on the South Dakota Badlands, I shared a few of my
prior experiences in the region with Monica. When I lived in South
Dakota, assigned to Ellsworth AFB, the Badlands were my second most
frequented destination. I have always found those open expanses of
grass and bare earth fascinating. Let’s take an up close and
personal look at South Dakota’s other great scenic attraction.
The Badlands National Park covers 244,000 acres in western South
Dakota, 64,144 of which is a designated wilderness area. The
badlands, as one visitor pointed out are not called the goodlands,
and for good reason. The region is a starkly beautiful, but not a
place in which to earn a living. For modern-day ecologists, it is
especially important as one of the largest protected areas of native
mixed grasslands, that zone between the tall and short grass
prairies. The Badlands combination of intensely blue sky, green to
amber grasslands, colorful buttes and sharp spires, and intimidating
alkali flats presented early visitors with a nightmare to cross.
Some thought they had entered a surface extension of hell. The clay
and ash-based soils can be extremely slippery. In the pioneer era,
when wet, wagons would bog down, and the water was seldom potable.
As a geological phenomena, the Badlands are relatively young.
Erosion of the surrounding terrain began only 500,000 years ago.
Evidence suggests the rate of erosion of Badlands formations is on
the order of an inch per year. That is fast and sufficient to reduce
the Badlands to level plains in another 500,000 years. The oldest
formation in the Badlands is Pierre Shale, which dates to between 69
and 75 million years. The youngest layers of sediment date to about
30 million years ago and include volcanic ash.
The climate of the Badlands is relatively severe. The average
January temperature is around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but it has been
as low as 40 degrees below zero. July is hottest with an average
temperature of 74 degrees and with all time highs between 110 and
115 degrees. The period of hot weather lasts about two and a half
months – three at most. Nights are often very cool. Annual
precipitation is slightly under 20 inches – sufficient for a
The only negative to the Badlands is that the convenient corridor
available for brief public visitation can get a little crowded in
mid-summer. However, if one takes the time to leave the pavement and
short spur trails, the magic of the Badlands quickly manifests
itself. For brief periods, one can experience an almost profound
silence. More frequently, the air is alive with the sounds of
prairie birds, a prairie dog town, and if one is lucky, the sounds
from a herd of bison. If one spends more time wandering the prairie,
the eternal winds of the grasslands leave an audible imprint on the
consciousness. Unfortunately, time was not on our side, so with only
the briefest encounter, we left the Badlands, vowing to return when
we could fully experience the elements.
From the Badlands, we continued westward toward Rapid City, passing
through mixed and short grass prairie. I knew that to the south were
the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations – testaments to a shameful
era of colonial expansion. I knew that to the northwest lay my old
home Ellsworth AFB, surrounded by decommissioned Minuteman Missile
silos. There was also the little community of Boxelder, which had
been my South Dakota home of record when I was a citizen of the
state. For me it was familiar territory and I felt a sense of pride.
I knew what to anticipate.
Soon there would appear on the distant horizon an irregular, dark
blue line, the signature of the venerable Black Hills. I knew their
profile well. In short order, I spotted 7,242-foot Harney Peak and
just south of there, the sharp spires of the Needles. I also knew to
expect a bright speck when the light was just right – Mount
Rushmore, famous to most, infamous to me, a desecration of a
beautiful mountain that was sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and
However, we would not visit the southern Black Hills on this trip -
no Custer State Park, Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, or Joe Dollar Gulch.
Those gems would be bypassed. We were headed for another
destination, a mountain lying just east of the town of Sturgis. Our
end-of-day destination was 4,426-foot Bear Butte, a small volcanic
remnant thrusting its inviting form 1,250 feet above its base. Like
Pipestone, Bear Butte is a sacred Indian site.
Geologically, Bear Butte is a lacolith, an igneous intrusion thrust
upward into sedimentary layers. The sedimentary overburden was
softer and eroded away, leaving the volcanic remains similar to what
one sees at Devils Tower in Wyoming. Bear Butte was declared a state
park in 1961. It is a national natural landmark. Deference to the
wishes of Native peoples has kept the development to a minimum and
tastefully presented in the visitor’s center.
Monica had especially wanted to climb Bear Butte and then camp near
its base for at least one night. Though she had not seen it, the
mountain had special meaning for her. In August of 2006 Chief Arvol
Looking Horse had offered a prayer from the summit of the Butte
calling for blessings on our marriage. The action by Chief Looking
Horse bestowed on us a singularly distinctive honor. Neither of us
will ever forget it, and as a consequence, I think that Monica felt
that the least we could do in return was to visit the Butte and pay
our respects to Lakota elders who had walked the path, prayed, held
vision quests, and done ceremony. I agreed. We would express our
gratitude to the mountain and through simple ceremony acknowledge
the distinguished Native persons who had visited the mountain in
centuries past and today. Dignitaries from the past included famous
chiefs like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Spotted Tail -
all Lakota greats.
Bear Butte is also sacred to the Northern Cheyenne. Sweet Medicine,
the Northern Cheyenne law give, is said to have received the
medicine bundle of four arrows from spirits who live on Bear Butte.
Crazy Horse held vision quests on Bear Butte in 1857 and again in
1871. There has never been a break in the attention given the
mountain by Native peoples. Today the mountain is adorned with
prayer ties that are hung from trees and shrubs.
Climbing Bear Butte is guaranteed to be a memorable experience,
whether the objective is exercise, a pleasure hike, an ecological
survey, a spiritual experience, or a combination of these. Although
small as mountains go, Bear Butte has an imposing appearance. The
trail to the summit is steep, but not dangerously so. The mountain
has elevated pitches to its sides that are cluttered in volcanic
debris. The rugged outcroppings make the climb feel like one is on a
much larger mountain. An old ponderosa pine forest survives on the
lower slopes and even the sharper talus slopes higher up. Trees
cling precariously to life in nooks and crannies. Their gnarly forms
impart a feeling of both forest antiquity and austerity of climate.
From the Butte’s steep sides, we looked down upon the rolling
green of the prairie as it gave way to the dark blue of the
venerable Black Hills. We were viewing one sacred site from another.
A small herd of bison grazed peacefully at the base of Bear Butte,
lending to the ambience.
As we gained altitude, it looked as though we could make the summit,
but alas, on that day I was good for only 2/3rds of the 1000-foot
elevation gain over the steep trail that had been heated by a hot
sun. I suggested we let caution prevail and Monica agreed that we
should turn around shy of the summit. We would return another day to
finish the job. So we stopped, performed a ceremony as we had
planned, thanking the spirits of the mountain and the ancestors who
had sought spiritual refuge on the Butte and had gained wisdom from
Before leaving the subject of our trek, I feel compelled to point
out that were a person led blindfolded up Bear Butte on a day of
heavy visitation, one might pass a dozen and a half Native Americans
without knowing it. But whites in groups of two or more would be
recognized from their incessant babble, mostly about nothing. I felt
a deep sense of embarrassment as we passed white after white without
observing even one who seem captivated by the mountain, its
geological history, its cultural history, its sacredness to Native
Americans, or even the extraordinary scenery constantly calling to
the appreciative eye to be scanned, to be savored, to be pondered.
The shallowness of the general public is a sign of the times, I
guess, but I was left with a sense that when it comes to the natural
world and where humans fit it, the majority of European Americans
just don’t get it and never will. Bear Butte is a natural
cathedral. It is every bit as sacred as the most elegant of white
churches. In fact, I’ll take Bear Butte in the batting of an eye.
At the visitor’s center, I met a park custodian who turned out to
be a retired Lieutenant Colonel who was stationed at Ellsworth AFB
more recently. He had also been stationed at Minot AFB. We had much
to discuss and as we talked I felt a resurgence of the sense of
pride I had often experienced when in the active Air Force.
The scenes from Bear Butte were most memorable. We continued to feel
its pull and resonate with the aura it emits. We were not inclined
to want to leave its powerful energy field for the artificial
surroundings of a motel. We noticed a sign alerting us to a nearby
campground on a small lake a short distance from the Butte’s
southwestern base and in full view of the great bear – a site
replete with sights and sounds of the prairie.
We checked out the campground, searching for a site with the
backdrop of the Butte. I didn’t feel all that well, but I knew
Monica really wanted to sleep under the stars, so I agreed and we
settled on a camping spot and set up camp.
The Black Hills served as our window to the west. Bear Butte stood
over us to the northeast. The lake was immediately to our south and
the mosquitoes were everywhere, but not as bothersome as what we
were willing to experience in the Northeast. The evening was calm
and we heated up soup and had a light dinner.
As night fell, a prairie wind arose and we were treated to the sound
of the wind as it blew steadily through the cool night. Our tent
flapped constantly. The experience reminded me of my first night in
South Dakota in the Air Force when I slept in a metal building that
creaked with every gust of wind. The experienced was repeated my
second night and then the third. Nightly winds became the norm. I
learned to like the sound and appreciated its cooling effect in the
summer and its power to hold insects at bay.
Throughout the evening I found myself having to get up an relieve
bladder pressure. Out from the tent, the night sky was brilliant. I
had forgotten how beautiful a starry night can be when there are no
close by, artificial polluting light sources and the air is dry.
Although the altitude was only 3,200 feet, that is 3,200 fewer feet
of atmosphere for the stars to shine through. It was a great end to
a great day.