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.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

From the Homestead Monument (2)--Our myth-making

There were horses. Stolen horses. That’s what’s important in this delightful old western myth recorded by Dr. Anna Robinson Cross in Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences a century ago. There were horses, and the Crows had them and Sioux didn't, and the Sioux wanted them. Badly. Badly enough to fight.

But then, truth be told, fighting wasn’t rare among those two warring tribes. The Lakota were not fond of the Crows, and the feelings were bloody reciprocal. Warriors from both tribes created and maintained their places in society, in part, by showing courage, prowess in battle, not spelling bees or the orderliness of the corn fields.  They fought.  Hard.  For keeps.

And this time there were horses, money in the bank. In both tribes, if you were rich, you had horses; if you had horses, you were rich. Everyone wanted horses.

This time the Crows had them, the Lakota did not. As valuable as they were, the stolen goods slowed the Crows down so they decided to break up the band and send some warriors back with the booty, while others stayed behind to slow down the horse-hungry Sioux. That rear force scaled Crow Butte, a 300-foot high miniature mountain in western Nebraska, and armed themselves to hold off the Lakota. 

'Twas a noble effort that made the rear guard subject, sadly, to the deprivations of a siege. For a time, the fighting ceased, but the suffering of those who scaled the butte certainly did not.

They were safe but so dangerously isolated that they determined the younger warriors would descend in the dark of night and hopefully escape--which they did. Meanwhile, those who remained--the old ones--kept up their music, their singing, as if nothing had changed. What was left was, to be sure, something of a suicide mission.

The story goes that those older ones sang themselves, quite literally, to death. Without food or water, their strength dissipated, but they kept up the drumming and the singing, a subterfuge of course.

And now the story ascends into the miraculous. When finally the music died, the Sioux, down below, saw billowing clouds in the form of huge, sky-sized birds descend onto the top of the butte, then slowly lift, as if messengers from the heavens had floated to earth to take those aged warriors home. 

So struck were they by the phenomenon that the Sioux determined right then and there never again to fight the Crows again.

That's the story, told by white pioneers like Dr. Cross.

Probably pure myth. 

History records no such peace alliance, and it's painfully clear that the Sioux and Crow fought again. And again. And again.

But it's a story worth retelling, as most myths are, really, because they tend to show us for what we are--myth makers. We like our stories to carry meaning and appeal. We like our stories to say what we wish them too because they can drive us to hate and despair when they fail to bring us where we'd much rather go.

It's unlikely any Native people ever told the Crow Butte story, but white folks did. 

Hope springs eternal.  

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