History Lessons ~ South Dakota, USA

Feathers and ribbons on a wire mesh fence, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA

Catching Dreams
Ribbons and feathers for loved ones wave on the wind on the graveyard fence, Wounded Knee, SD

We drove across North Dakota on our road trip this summer: about 350 miles – almost all of them dead straight – through black dirt and green hills, and under a dark, looming sky.

It made me think about our visit to neighbouring South Dakota last year.

Granted, the landscape further south was different: hotter, drier, with more buttes and badlands. But I felt the same sense of oppressive gloom. In North Dakota, it was the weather – and the glum resignation of the young staff at the Visitor Centre when we said we weren’t stopping, but were driving through. “Su-ure. Like most people,” she responded in her Scandinavian-derived sing-song, shrugging dolefully.

In South Dakota, it was the history.

My husband and I were driving east from Cody WY, headed for Kadoka SD, where we planned to stay two nights so we could visit the South Dakota Badlands. As we sailed across the night, we realised we were bypassing Mt Rushmore. So, we decided to back-track. We looked at the map, and, instead of following a straight trip back along the same Highway 90, we traced a route south and around, through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and past historic Wounded Knee.

Landscape: cattle grazing on dry grasslands in front of mess, South Dakota, USA

Mesa on Highway 73 South
The land south of Kadoka is hot, dry and dramatic.

A fiels of sunflowers, South Dakota, USA

Sunflowers, wheat, and hay appear to be the only crops.

Male Lakota Indian road-worker in a florescent jacket with a stop sign, South Dakota, USA

Road works are everywhere, and Native Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are on the job.

White panel-siding building, Kadoka School Zone, South Dakota, USA

A Kadoka School
School’s out! The “Drug and Weapon Free Zone” sign shouldn’t really be necessary, should it?

Portrait: a Latoka woman with a stop sign, South Dakota, USA

A Lakota woman working the road crews smiles as she makes us wait –

Lanscape: A Pilot Car on a dirt road; a backhoe in the background, South Dakota, USA

Follow Me!
… and we are finally off, through the dust and heat –

Landscape: round bales of hay on a dry, ploughed field, South Dakota, USA

Golden Bales
– past ploughed fields and to the next road works.

Landscape: storage silos on the horizon, against a blue sky, South Dakota, USA

Storage Silos on the Horizon

Landscape: a rough, brush covered shelter, Wounde Knee, South Dakota, USA

Lakota Ars and Crafts, Wounded Knee
This inauspicious site is our first indication of what is supposed to be an official U.S. National Historic Landmark.

I guess every country and culture has moments that it is not proud of; Wounded Knee has seen two major cultural clashes, both of which arose out of stubbornness and resulted in loss of life.

The original battle, the Wounded Knee Massacre, took place on December 29, 1890. Causes are never simple, but the combination of: bison herds being hunted to near extinction; Sioux people being forced off their lands after dubious unfulfilled treaty agreements; the recent death of Sitting Bull, eight of his supporters and six policemen; a new Native American Ghost Dance religion that had believers thinking they were immune to bullets; over-zealous and heavy-handed Cavalry; and firearms discharged (accidentally and intentionally) at close range, resulted in a pursuit and massacre of up to 300 Lakota (mostly women and children) and the death of more than 25 soldiers, many by friendly fire.

Three days of blizzard followed, and the civilians hired to bury the dead Lakota found the bodies frozen. Even so, four infants were reportedly found alive. One of these was the child who came to be called Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird. She was handed around for some time before being adopted by Gen. Leonard Colby, whose suffragist wife, Clara Bewick Colby, was left to raise her – especially after he abandoned Clara for Zintkala’s nursemaid/governess and failed to provide adequate support for either dependent.

Lost Bird endured a short and difficult life, accepted by neither culture, and suffering from prejudice, poverty, abuse and violence before ultimately succumbing to influenza and dying on Valentine’s Day at age twenty-nine. In 1991, her body was moved from her pauper’s grave in California to the sad little graveyard at Wounded Knee. One of the young men I spoke with was an infant at the time, but his eyes grew wistful as he remembered his grandfather presiding over the ritual ceremonies conducted on that day.

Headstones in dry grass, Wounded Knee

Graveyard, Wounded Knee

Headstone for Lost Bird, Wounded Knee

Final Resting Place
Zintkala Nuni (Little Lost Bird) is finally home at Wounded Knee.

Small feather on a wire mesh fence, Wounded Knee, SD USA

Feathers on the Fence
Catching dreams and memories for loved ones…

The second Wounded Knee Incident was in 1973, when the town was occupied by members of the Oglala Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) and the American Indian Movement (AIM) and became the rallying point for an often violent protest against the corruption of a local tribal president, and the failure of the US government to fulfill treaty promises.

A round building, painted brown and green, Lakota Center, Wounded Knee, SD  USA

Lakota Center, Wounded Knee
In a round building in the middle of nowhere…

Portrait: A male Lakota (sioux nation), Wounde Knee, SD USA

Manning the Centre
… a Lakota man tried to explain the history of the centre and of his people.

The whole atmosphere was ineffably sad. Both the place and the people seemed wounded – with the scarring improperly healed. The young men I spoke to talked about the conflict of cultures and the lack of opportunities. One worked as an itinerant farm hand – when there was work to be had. He used to have six cows himself, but sold them during hard times. He told us how, the other morning, half asleep, he found a neighbouring (white) rancher’s cows on his doorstep. “For a moment, I thought I’d got lucky,” he mused dreamily. Then he woke up with a deep sigh.

It is hard to know how to respond to that kind of hopelessness.

Feeling deeply affected, we continued west and stopped at the small city of Hot Springs for lunch.

There, we learned about a whole different historical epoch. As it turns out, Hot Springs is home to a karst sinkhole formed approximately 26,000 years ago. During the last ice age, mammoths and other animals were attracted to the warm spring waters and the vegetation growing around the pond. Once in the steeply-sided pond, the animals could not escape, dying of starvation, exhaustion, or drowning.

The covered-over sink hole was discovered in 1974 when the owner of the property found what turned out to be mammoth bones on his land. The property was sold back to a trust, and The Mammoth Site was born. A climate-controlled building was constructed over what is now a working paleontological dig and a fascinating view into the plants and animals of the Pleistocene era. So far, the fossil evidence of 58 columbian mammoths and 3 woolly mammoths (all male; mostly young) have been found, along with remains of plants, giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, fish, and numerous invertebrates.

Young American man with short blond hair and glasses, with a microphone, The Mammoth Site, SD USA

Our “interpreter” was informative and amusing, as he walked us through the history of the centre and the geology of the site.

A young woman works at a small section of a fossil excavation, The Mammoth Site, SD USA

Painstaking Work
Uncovering the fossils takes patience and time – students at all levels and visiting professionals take turns working the dig.

A view of a dig with mammoth tusks and bones, with an elevated walkway behind them, The Mammoth SIte SD USA

The elevated walkway allows visitors a good view of the site and the work going on, but still keeps them out of the way.

It was a fascinating visit, and elevated our mood somewhat after the morning’s experience. Checking the maps again and realising we could drive through Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park to get to Mt Rushmore, cheered us up further.

Large male American Bison, Wind Cave National Park, SD USA

A Big Male
After their near extinction in the late 1800s, bison were saved by the American Bison Society and reintroduced to the park in 1913-1914.

Small herd of American Bison, Wind Cave National Park, SD USA

Bison Herd
Bison numbers have grown; too late, of course, for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes.

Mother and fawn White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Wind Cave National Park, SD USA

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
A mother deer with her young fawn, watches the road skittishly.

Baby burro on a roadway, Custer State Park, SD USA

Baby Burro
The now-wild burros of Custer State Park beg for food from drivers.

A Pair of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in grasslands, Custer State Park, SD USA.

A Pair of Pronghorn
Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) are now quite numerous in western states.

View through one of the tunnels on the Iron Mountain Road to the faces on Mt Rushmore, Custer State Park, SD USA

The Iron Mountain Road
This feat of engineering winds through the Black Hills and passes through three tunnels that frame a very faint Mount Rushmore in the distance.

View over pine and spruce forests, Custer State Park

Over the Woods
Pine and spruce forests, Custer State Park

View through a tunnel on the Iron Mountain Road to Mt Rushmore, SD USA

Tunnel Vision
Mount Rushmore in the distance.

View of the faces on Mt Rushmore at twilight.

Mt Rushmore

By the time we reached Mt Rushmore, the shadows had grown long, and I’d lost enthusiasm for visiting oversized carvings of powerful white men, etched into a mountain with little regard for the original residents of the Black Hills below. According to “Honor the Treaties”, a short film I came across recently, 90% of Lakota today live below the US poverty line the life expectancy of males is only 47.

Afternoon Light over the Dakota Grasslands, Highway 90, SD USA

Afternoon Light over the Dakota Grasslands 

View: Sunset over the Black Hills of South Dakota, USA

Sunset over the Black Hills

To the Future (text)Sobering thought – after a long day’s drive through the sacred hills.

Lets hope they can do better in the future.

Photos: 17August2012

  • Gabe - August 16, 2013 - 5:40 am

    A day of widely ranging emotions, with stark beautyReplyCancel

  • dietmut - August 18, 2013 - 3:33 pm

    very interesting report Ursula. Greetings, DietmutReplyCancel

  • Katy - July 9, 2014 - 1:05 pm

    My mother taught weaving on the Pine Ridge reservation during the ’70s. She was arrested and thrown in jail while trying to leave the reservation after the news reported the stand off was over. Crazy sad history there. Another terrible epoch in American history was the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Eastern Colorado, where one of my ancestors was involved in the killing of many Cheyenne women and children.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - July 10, 2014 - 1:16 am

      Your mother was clearly an amazing woman in her day, Katy! I guess that is where you get your grit. 😀
      The whole “clash of cultures/beliefs” thing is ineffably sad, isn’t it? And, we as a people don’t seem to be getting any more tolerant of difference.ReplyCancel

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