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.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Some Siouxland history

For a while, I brought American Lit students--white students--to Pipestone National Monument for no other reason, really, than to make sure they knew at least something about a world that was here long before they were, long before any white people ever lived in what Fred Manfred originally called "Siouxland."

I don't know that my bringing them there mattered a great deal to them since history is something akin to bunk (Henry Ford) to most young people in the grip of a culture built on, and created for, financial capital. But a little day trip was fun and got us out of the classroom. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, something of the trip stuck.

Any talk of the people who lived here on this ground and the life they led might well begin with the pipestone quarry at Pipestone, Minnesota. That quarry was--and to some still is--a very, very sacred place because the stone in that quarry became and still becomes the bowls of sacred pipes used in a wide range of Native religious ritual throughout the American West. Before white people came, that site, significant to many western tribes, was on Yankton land.

The Yankton Sioux were here before we were. Their land spread from as far east as the pipestone quarry, all the way west to Pierre, SD. They were hunter/gatherers who loved the fertile ground between the Big Sioux River on the east, and the Missouri on the west, 13.5 million acres of it, in fact.

Of the several Sioux tribes, the Yanktons lived furthest east and thus were the first to meet the endless march of white folks moving with each passing month farther into the Yankton's spacious territory, a place where they had lived quite happily on a land of endless horizons.

There were villages here, villages of tipis where the Big Sioux joined the Missouri (at Sioux City), where the Vermillion intersected the Missouri (at Vermillion), at the place where Choteau Creek empties itself into the Mighty Mo (at Running Water), and elsewhere too up river (at Greenwood), and all the way up to Ft. Pierre.

Friends of ours in South Dakota have pastureland festooned with a pair of spacious tipi rings, perfectly laid river stones where, once upon a time, some Yanktons likely set up a seasonal home. Just east of where we live, at a spot where the Floyd River takes a hairpin turn, an old enthusiast said he used to find native artifacts on the bank above the flow, a place with a great view of the countryside all the way to Orange City. Undoubtedly, Yanktons were there too, which is to say, of course, here.

Already in 1858, Struck by the Ree, a Yankton Sioux band chief mythically baptized as a peacemaker by Lewis and Clark somewhere a couple hours straight west of here, spent three months negotiating the first treaty to specifically affect Native people in this region. That treaty designated a reservation for the Yankton people along the north bank of the Missouri River in Charles Mix County, Dakota Territory, where remnants still stand today. What Struck by the Ree and his people couldn't help but notice was the press of white people wanting the rich prairie country all around him.

When he returned, Struck by the Ree told his people that "the white men are coming in like maggots. It is useless to resist them. They are many more than we are. We could not hope to stop them. Many of our brave warriors would be killed, our women and children left in sorrow, and still we would not stop them. We must accept it, get the best terms we can get and try to adopt their ways."

That was 1858, four years before the the Dakota War in Minnesota. The Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer and his men were wiped out by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, didn't happen until 1876. The Wounded Knee Massacre, the last fight of the Sioux Indian Wars, didn't occur 1890. The Yanktons made their peace before anyone else.

But Struck by the Ree was adamant about one thing--his Yankton Sioux people wouldn't deed over that pipestone quarry. The deal he cut with "Washington" included the provision, at his insistence, that the pipestone quarry remain in Native hands in perpetuity.

That's why some Native people, even today, believe that white people like me wandering around the pipestone quarry is a sacrilege, and why the gift shop at the Pipestone National Monument should not be selling stupid souvineer trinkets carved from pink quartzite.

History isn't bunk, and sometimes Faulkner was right: history isn't was, but is.

There's a monument to the 1858 Treaty on a bluff above the Missouri River at Greenwood, SD, once a thriving intersection along the river, now little more than a ghost town. It's leaning slight after all these years, and it has the feel of something put here by white people, not the Yanktons themselves. But it's there, and it offers a bit of the story of the people who were here on the ground where I'm sitting now, long before we were.

Here it is, and yes, in the background is a herd of buffalo belonging to the tribe.  Looks good, doesn't it?

I don't know how much this means to anyone anymore, but I find it all quite humbling--I mean, the sense that men and women and children laughed and played and cried and worried, that in some ways there's nothing new under this sun, nothing human that's not been experienced.  

How did C. S. Lewis say it?  “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Not bad for a white man :).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And our pastor has been preaching from Joshua. Rite on?