June 27th  

TOPIC: June 27th

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Date: Sat, Sep 6 2008 4:55 pm
From: dbhguru@comcast.net


June 27th of Monica's and my journey follows. I'll follow with June 28th in about a week.


June 27th,

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 culture.

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 heavy.

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 phone babble.

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 healthy grassland.
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 Kiowa.
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 its powers.
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.

Bob Leverett