Stay with me.
The cemetery I wanted to revisit sits high above the mouth of the Niobrara River. I knew ahead of time that neither the grave of Standing Bear (the first Native man or woman the white man's court declared human), nor his son's (who wanted his remains to be returned to the land of his ancestors and prompted the Ponca's long walk) are marked.
No matter. You stand up there above the rivers, and you just know they're there, where they both wanted so badly to be.
Ancient ritual and customs festoon Native cemeteries with things for the dead to enjoy in the life hereafter, all kinds of things. Even so, the figurine up front here--actually behind the stone--is Roman Catholic. But then syncretism is far less a sin among Native people than it was or is to the white folks in black robes who brought the Book.
Beyond (see it?) is the river and its abundant hills.
If you turned west that morning, buffalo roamed. I'm not making this up.
If I'd simply spent an hour or so wandering that graveyard, I'd have already seen enough to make the long trip west worthwhile; but I'd only just arrived. One stone I wanted to revisit, a place where thirteen years ago some proud ritual must have taken place, attended, I'd guess, by hundreds. Must have been a drum or two, some singing, some Ponca, some Pawnee. Still, the inscription begins "Our Father in Heaven."
Stories haunt the place, as they do in any cemetery.
Back down the hill, I found Buffalo Chip. Couldn't help but smile at the poor guy's name. It took me a couple of days to trace down his story, even though lots of his life stories are there in the space between dates of his birth and death.
The Missouri River is "braided" between Springfield and the dam at Pickstown, SD, so the old river looks at least something akin what it did before being drawn and quartered by the Army Corps of Engineers. You can't turn back the clock, but seeing it here, from Ponca State Park, is both blessing and revelation, a reminder of how things looked when Lewis and Clark came up and back, it's big shoulders powdered that morning with fresh snow.
Back in town, I stopped for a sign along the highway.
Three brothers from rural Niobrara, Nebraska, died together in June of 1969, when an Australian aircraft carrier collided with an American destroyer, cutting that destroyer in half and sending 74 American sailors to their deaths, including these three Sage brothers from right here, rural Nebraska.
Can't help but pause. Ages 22, 21, and 19.
Up there on the ridge, two makeshift, snow-covered memorials right at the precipice remember deaths I couldn't help thinking were suicides.
Not so far up the road, I stopped at a pioneer cemetery, same date, 1880, as the Ponca graveyard.
Once upon a time a colony of Dutch Reformed, my tribe, put down roots and left a graveyard--no Buffalo Chips or Standing Bears; nothing but Boschmas and Wynias and Talsmas.
I ate an Indian taco at Ft. Randall Casino, got back in the car and went west across the river to the the old fort cemetery, where there are more stories--like this one: the Dezaires, an American family: a mixed blood Army scout and translator married to an African-American woman, both buried here, beside their child. Someone somewhere, maybe, has the names written in a family tree. I hope so.
And this one, Lawrence Nugent, who died in July of 1871. The roll just outside the gate attributes his death to suicide. Stand there some time and you just can't help asking why.
And then I turned east and went home. I know, I know--the whole thing sounds like a dance with death, but it wasn't. Not at all. It was a great day. Really was. I learned a lot. Really did.
That Siouxland dance macabre was an exercise not so much in death as in life. “Stories make us more alive," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "more human, more courageous, more loving.”
I hope that's true.