It's not a great shot. I'm not sure that, should I be there today, I could do any better. It doesn't have the focus I'd have liked; but then I'm trying to shove ten square miles or so into the camera, asking my Olympus to do work the human eye can't fully accomplish. West River South Dakota is plain huge.
After the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, any bands of Native people not on the the ground they were appointed to, the ground the government declared to be their home, they were officially "hostiles." What led to Little Big Horn was the government's insistence that Indians had to be where white folks said they had to be. What Custer was up to was creating, militarily, a giant ever-tightening circle around bands and tribes who, like naughty kids, had run away.
In a nutshell, that's the story of West River during the final years of the Great Sioux Wars: white folks amassing land once home to nomadic Native tribes who had for a century or more, essentially, chased buffalo, which, by the way, were disappearing.
Anyway, as open as it looks and as open as it is,
often as not, cavalry troops under the direction of Civil War vets, simply couldn't find them--or, like the brass at Little Big Horn, were utterly thunderstruck at the sheer numbers of Native men, women, and children there on the banks of the river.
Every time I'm out there, I'm struck by scale, by how immense the world really is out there and elsewhere in the region we call, as we fly over, the Great Plains. Honestly, it seems endless when you're in it and not a native (small n), the kind of place where, as I've said a dozen times, for three days you can watch your dog run away in any direction.
And yet, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that, often as not, the U. S. Cavalry could not find Indians. Let me emphasize that, "They couldn't find them." Not because of their military incompetence (although some might allege that), but simply because the world out there was so absolutely endless (and I'm reaching for paradox).
Up in the right hand corner of the shot at the top of the page--you have to look good to see it--is one of those behomoth John Deere tractors. Trust me, it's there. Tell you what, I'll pull it up again so you know I'm not fibbing.
There. What you might have missed (I did!) is the fact that the rancher might well be dropping some goodies off for his cattle. They're all in a bunch anyway, as if just now feasting. Just for kicks, I tried to find out how much a John Deere like that might cost, but most places on line want you to call. On a screen, price tags loom huge, I suppose.
Look again at the top picture. Find that John Deere. The cattle are ants, a hair-line fracture in the sweep of the land.
What was "the Great Sioux Reservation," included just about everything west of the Missouri River and beyond. It was mammoth, so big that even here, where I'm tempted to say there would have been nothing at all distinguishable on the long carpet of buffalo grass, even here, the U. S. Cavalry could go for miles and miles and not find an Indian. Even here, where from any knoll whatsoever you can see for twenty or thirty miles, they were nowhere to be seen.
I just find that immensity staggering, and impossible to photograph.I'm not sure I buy everything Wallace Stegner says in Wolf Willow, but I'm on board with most of it: “It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones…Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”
I don't live out there, but whenever I'm perched aboard its massive shoulders, oddly enough I can't help but feel small.
And that's okay. Unlikely as it sounds, it feels--to me at least--like a place to pick up soul food. This morning, I'm thankful to have been there again.
|Nebraska plains, fifteen years ago. Just the second time I was out on the Plains with a camera.|