Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Sioux County History III--visitors from afar


Sioux County, Iowa, is bordered to the west by the Big Sioux River, but otherwise its streams and tributaries don't amount to much, except in late spring, when just about every waterway in the county gets really unruly.  The bison who once roamed the entire region much preferred short grass to the tall-grass prairie that once was here, so the neighborhood where I live wasn't the kind of prime hunting ground the Sioux loved.  The truth is, there wasn't much of a reason for the nomadic Lakota to come here really--not much water, not many buffalo; so the Dutch who settled here, the first white occupants on the land, didn't deal with Native Americans as frequently as did their cousins out west in the Dakota Territory a decade or so later.

But according to Charlie Dyke, there were these moments of brittle contact--and they were, for the Dutchmen, always trying.  He remembers the Van Oort family, four miles south of Orange City, who were suddenly descended upon by an entire encampment of Lakota--men, women, children, dogs, ponies, even their elderly.  The whole bunch set up camp on their land in a slough that almost certainly is now long gone.  One night, a calf wandered over to where the Lakota put down stakes, less fearful, I suppose, than its immigrant owners.  

Maybe he should have been more fearful, because a few deft sweeps of the axe and that calf was supper--and more.  It seems the Van Oorts knew somehow what had happened--that calf had been theirs, after all.  But they raised no protest, simply stayed locked up in their house, scared to death of their strangely attired guests.  Imagine what that must have been like, these immigrant Hollanders, who knew not a word of English, suddenly beset by an entire band of horsebacked Lakota in eagle feathers and paint, in beads and breech cloth, whole families in colorful processional.  In Holland, they'd never ever seen any one without wooden shoes, for pity sake; and here they were visited upon by a whole gang of colorful naked heathens.  They stayed home, the door shut.  

For a while, at least.  Then, when it was clear that the Lakota band had no necessary hunger for scalps, the Van Oort boys could control their own curiosity no more and wandered over.  One of them offered their visitors a plug of chewing tobacco, and when a Lakota woman didn't chew it but ate it, swallowed a chunk whole, they stifled giggles.  

Not much later, the boys quite happily smoked a pipe with their guests, and all was well.

The truth is, Charlie Dyke says, the Van Oort family was relieved when, one day, they Lakota broke camp and, as unexpectedly as they'd come, simply departed.

"Van Oort said that they did not mind the loss of the calf so much, for they thought that they got off easy," Dyke writes.  And then this:  "They took into consideration the land that they were on once belonged to the Indians, and the calf was but a small remuneration."

Somehow it does my heart good to know that those immigrant Hollanders at least knew a bargain when they saw one.  And at least they understood the bigger story.  At least that.

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