One Glorious Stolen Day Before the Snow Flies

Knowing that winter cannot be far off, I stole a whole day out of my life last week and ventured to Sitting Bull's cabin on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was more or less just minding his own business at a lonely homesite a long way from Fort Yates when Standing Rock Indian agent James McLaughlin decided to have him arrested in mid-December 1890. McLaughlin regarded Sitting Bull as a thorn in his side, an impediment to assimilation, an aging hero of the Resistance whose very existence might inspire other Hunkpapa Lakota to hold out against the conquest of their lands and way of life.

McLaughlin authorized Sitting Bull's arrest by a squad of "metal breasts," i.e., a large force of Indian policemen backed up (at a distance) by white soldiers in case things go out of hand. The dawn arrest was bungled, the inevitable skirmish ensued, and the great Lakota seer was shot in the back of the head at point blank range. Thus died ignominiously and entirely unnecessarily one of the great figures in Dakota (and North Dakota) history. His role in life, forced upon him by iron historical circumstance, was to defend his people and his homeland from those who came to take it away for their own purposes. Among other things, he was one of the masterminds of the stunning Lakota and Cheyenne victory at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. By the time Agent McLaughlin decided to eliminate him fourteen years later, Sitting Bull was really not much more than a harmless old man trying to live out his last years as far away from white people as possible.

Last year I learned the hard way that it is impossible to reach the cabin site after the snow flies. So I drove first to McLaughlin, South Dakota, and then on back roads to the turnoff, after which you bounce and jolt along to the cabin site through roads so rutted that your head caroms off the roof of the car with some regularity. It's precisely the kind of road that should lead to Sitting Bull's cabin: not for the faint of heart, not for all seasons, rugged enough to make you remember it's a pilgrimage not a casual jaunt.

I've been to the cabin site maybe five times, all in the last few years. It's one of the most beautiful places on the Great Plains, on the north bank of the Grand River, across from some rugged river hills, nestled in a broad grass valley inhabited only by cattle (and ghosts). You have to want to go there. The quiet at the site is so complete that for a few minutes you almost cannot believe that such a place can still exist in our bustling noisy world. As I sat where the cabin once stood, I heard a lone late-season meadowlark sing its perfect little song. Unfortunately, I do not speak its language, so I could not learn what it had to teach.

The cabin is long gone. What remains are a small fenced enclosure with a marker (for others killed in the skirmish), a big metal SD historical sign, and such reverence objects as pilgrims choose to leave at the site. There are always a few medicine bundles of bright cloth tied to the fence, which encloses a twenty by thirty foot patch of sacred ground. The medicine bundles usually contain small quantities of tobacco. Once I found a beaten up copy of the Bible there. Often there are small pieces of animal bone, or metal rings, or beads.

The historical sign was written long ago by South Dakota white historians, before the American Indian Movement (AIM), before the Indian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. The phraseology of the sign has a somewhat condescending feel to it (it is usually the victors who write history), so a few "rasp and file revisionists" have done some careful editing of the raised metal text. Where the white historians described Sitting Bull as a "clever prophet," the Lakota (or pro-Lakota) "editors" have filed away the arguably belittling adjective "clever." The original writer summed things up by calling Sitting Bull "misguided." That word has been more or less obliterated by those who do not share that view.

Vandalism or not, I am filled with admiration for what the revisionists have done at the site. They could have torn down the sign altogether. They could have shot it full of holes, or thrown paint or blood on it, or spray-painted expletives across the full text. Instead, with considerable care and precision they have filed off the most Eurocentric phrases on the sign, but left the bulk of the historical inscription in place. You can still make out the words they have removed—probably that was purposeful—but at the same time you have been made aware that the dominant culture's interpretation of this important historical moment is no longer acceptable, at least to the individuals who spent several hours working the revision with hand tools. It is clear that they had strong feelings about what was offensive in the original language, but they have engaged in an act of historic dialogue rather than mere outrage. That's precisely what we most need as we think about North Dakota history in a new, holistic, fully contextualized, and nuanced way.

If I were teaching a course on the history of the American West, I would ask my students to find out what they could about who wrote the original text for the sign, where, and especially when, and then to think hard about the revisions—especially how they simultaneously preserve and yet re-write the original text. Then I'd have them find other historic markers on the Great Plains, particularly those concerned with cultural conflicts, and think about ways in which they might be re-read and re-written in light of what we now know about the complexities of our history.

The Grand River meanders along just south of the cabin site. Like the Heart River or the Little Missouri, it is a grasslands river, here and there graced with stands of cottonwood trees. About a quarter mile downstream on my side of the river I saw what I thought was the perfect cottonwood, tall and very old, standing a little apart from the rest, with a triangular array of golden yellow leaves high up, shimmering in the fall sun, golden, yellow, slightly orange, some still green, all brilliant and the whole effect simply magnificent. I ventured over to the base of the great tree. It almost certainly was not there in 1890, but it sprang up within living memory of those dark and bloody days on the northern plains.

As I lay on my back on the grass, hands cupped behind my head, deep in the grass, almost buried in the grass, listening to the breeze dance in the brittle cottonwood choir above me, soaking up the last squibs of the summer sun, I thought about the coming of winter to the northern plains. It is coming, like it or not. The trees will soon be bare. Many of the dirt trails that I love most in North Dakota will soon be closed for the winter.

But for the moment I was just a lazing creature in the tall grass, toasting in the afternoon sun, in one of the least industrialized places of America, on a carpe diem journey into the middle of nowhere.

This is what we must conserve.