I’m covered in sweat and my heart has given out. This is a holy place. You can hear it in the whispers of the rocks. Signs of prayer line the path to the top. Bear butte speaks for itself.
We head to the Black Hills.
We head to the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee where Indian blood was spilled for no reason at all. We flash past it without seeing anything, because there is nothing here. We turn around and find ourselves confronted with a sign, red as blood, with bone-white lettering, informing us we stand where 146 men, women, and children died. For no reason at all (though it doesn’t say that). And there is nothing here. It describes to us Chief Big Foot lying sick with pneumonia in his tent, with a white flag hoisted up top. It tells us how the Indians were told to surrender their weapons. The blood-red sign informs us of how a medicine man proceeded through the camp, inciting “the braves” to fight. It educates us of how “a shot was fired” and a battle ensued. It lectures us on how the surviving Indians “stampeded” into the valley and “persuit” by the cavalry “resulted” in the deaths of women and children. We have become very learned by reading it. Because there is nothing else here.
We proceed to the tribal college here, past Pine Ridge, to Oglala Lakota College. They have a little museum and an audio tour. We listen to it. This oral history tells us a different story from the blood-red sign. There is a picture of buffalo skulls as high as ten houses. “Every dead buffalo is one less Indian” said General Sherman, so they had to be exterminated. Ways of life change, but sometimes they are shattered. We learn that more than just people were killed at Wounded Knee. Like the blood-red sign said, the Lakota were told to surrender their weapons. A single rifle was found in the hands of Black Coyote, a deaf-mute, and the warnings that he did not understand went unheeded. “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaps and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with my eyes young,” says Black Elk. “And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
We learn in this way how history is made.
And so we tumble onward to the heart of the badlands. The national park starts with a bang and we see why the badlands are called the badlands. Rock rises from the ground in great pillars and slabs and buttes. Stone white whales have beached themselves in this prairie land, sucked up all the water, and turned it into a desert. This is a maze of sunken earth. You can see erosion at work here. The land has fallen away leaving these bulwarks of granite behind. We stop here and get out.
I amble on a path that’s all walkway and no desert and looks like it doesn’t go anywhere, so I turn around and enter the Castle trail. The Castle trail isn’t really a trail. It’s more like just a window into the stomach of this tremendous callous of half-carved land that opens up into a no-man’s-land of fractured clay and rock and cracks. Look up into the sky and see where the land used to be before the wind and rain stomped it down over the course of a hundred million years. Close your eyes and commune with the rocks.
Walking forward, something leaps and lands. Kneel down and examine it. A tiny channel of river and mud in this all this riven dryness. In it, a tiny toad, brown and spotted. There is life here. There is always life.
The sun sets and we drive out through these painted gorges of granite and grass. Back at the hotel, the night twists into colors of flesh and stars and hazy dreams of what we saw and everything we imagined. Sleeps comes like a semi-truck and hits us.
Sloan Scholar, Statistics