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.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The story of Crow Butte

There were horses. Stolen horses. That’s what’s at the heart of this delightful old western myth recorded more than a century ago by Dr. Anna Robinson Cross. 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 uncommon 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, by prowess in battle, not by good, clean farmland with razor-like corn rows. They fought. Hard. For keeps.

For just about everyone, horses were 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 didn’t. As valuable as they were, stolen goods slowed the Crows down so they decided to break up the band and send some warriors on with the booty, while others stayed behind to slow down the horse-hungry Sioux hotly after them. That rear force scaled Crow Butte, a 300-foot high miniature mountain in western Nebraska, and armed themselves to hold off the Lakota.

T’was a noble effort, but it left the rear guard subject to the sad deprivations of a siege. For a time, the fighting ceased but the suffering of those who scaled the butte certainly did not. It grew, grew monstrously. Time passed—without food, without water.

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 guys—would keep up their music, their singing, their drumming, as if nothing had changed. Their staying behind was something of a suicide mission--their songs, death songs.

And so 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, kept it up until they had no strength to sing, no strength for life itself.

And not, at this point, the story, as told by Anna Robinson Cross, ascends into the miraculous.

When finally the music died, the Sioux, down below, noted billowing clouds in the form of huge, sky-sized birds descend carefully to the top of the butte, then slowly lift, as if messengers from heaven had floated to earth to take those aged warriors home to happier places. That’s what they witnessed, or claimed to.

So struck were they by those huge, bird-like clouds that the Sioux determined right then and there never again to fight the Crows.

That's how the story goes, as told by white pioneers like Dr. Cross. Truth be told, that version of the story is only one of many given to explain the name given Crow Butte, that famous western Nebraska landmark.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably pure myth. After all, history records no such peace alliance, and it's painfully clear that the Sioux and Crow fought again. And again. And again.

But Dr. Cross’s version of the story of Crow Butte is worth retelling, as most myths are. They tend to show us for what we are--myth makers. We like our stories to carry meaning and hope. We like our stories to say what we wish them too because they can then drive us to hate and despair or joy and love. Even when they fail to bring us where we'd much rather go, they stay with us because they’re our stories.

I sincerely doubt any Lakota or Crow people told that particular Crow Butte story, but white folks did, including all those billowing clouds and the miraculous messengers from above.

Down here beneath the butte, and elsewhere, hope springs eternal.

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