A full rack of baby back ribs, with beans and slaw, will cost you twenty bucks at Buffalo Chip Saloon and Bar, Cave Creek, AZ. Sounds reasonable, even inviting. But seriously, who'd want to eat anything served up at a saloon named by way of ruminant manure?
Then again, if you know anything about the Plains, you know darn well that buffalo chips were, once upon a time, pearls of great price. Hard as it is to imagine today, most white settlers--as well as their Native neighbors--used happily what thirty million bison plentifully left behind in their wanderings. Lots of kids, all kinds of hyphenated Americans, grew up on victuals cooked over buffalo chips. Some people claim a buffalo-chip fire created food that needed no pepper. I wouldn't know.
In a land so bare naked as the plains, if you wanted to survive you simply had to make do. If you had nothing but a potbelly stove in the middle of your world, and if there were no trees to speak of as far as the eye could see, you sent the kids out after buffalo chips. Voila! fill up a sack and you've taken care of two of life's necessities: fuel and food--well, at least you can cook.
Such useful manure added to pioneer folklore. Real estate chiselers liked to say the plains were a fine place to live because "the wind draws the water and the cows cut the wood." All I know is it had to be tough for my own Dutch-American ancestors out here because where cleanliness is next to Godliness, bringing manure right into the house must have seemed nothing less than sin.
So I'm out tramping around Ponca country last week when I come up on gravestone with a comical name. I'm not Ponca or Omaha or Yankton Sioux, and I'll admit that once in a while I can't help smile at Native names. I know a couple whose daughter-in-law is named "Kills a Hundred." She told me her proud Sioux name had a definite downside because it limited her professional choices. She couldn't be a doctor, she said. "Imagine you're a patient, and all of a sudden the intercom says, 'Calling Dr. Kills a Hundred.'" She's right.
The gravestone I bumped last week into belonged to someone identified as an "Indian chief of the Ponca Tribe," a man named, well, "Buffalo Chip." Cemeteries don't do much joking around, but when I saw "Buffalo Chip" on that stone, I had to smile. I'm not one to talk; after all, I'm named after a sheep. But "Buffalo Chip" is a whole different handle.
But there's more to a story than a character's name. According to this stone, Buffalo Chip probably died a Christian--there's a supplicant at the foot of a cross cut into the granite, and the words "Rock of Ages" in a banner beneath the image.
What's more, the date of his death, "June 13, 1906" and his age, "80 years" and the fact that he's here beside the Missouri River means a whole lot of his story can be known because he had to be among those Poncas the government considered hostiles, even though they never lifted a finger against the cavalry. Washington determined the Ponca's future would be in Indian Territory. End of story.
Some Poncas, Standing Bear among them, refused. His great American story is a saga for another time.
But history tells us that, like Standing Bear, Buffalo Chip, "Indian Chief of the Poncas," refused to leave his homeland, the very broad shoulders of the Missouri River. It tells us that, with Standing Bear, he walked twice, back and forth, between northern Oklahoma and northern Nebraska, through weather that took a terrible toll in death and suffering on his people, who were determined only to be free and live here in the place where the elders rested.
When the cavalry insisted they return, once again, to Indian Country, Buffalo Chip looked the law in the eyes and flat out told them no. This Buffalo Chip, with no malice or rancor, simply told the soldiers they'd have to shoot him right then and there because he and his people were not going back.
You can't help but smile when you know the whole story of Buffalo Chip. After all, here he is, beneath an aging gang of cedars. Here he is, more than a century later, at home.
May he rest in peace.