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In the Lands of the Pte Oyate

Sun, Sep 24th, 2000
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Monday, September 25, 2000

Sunlight shimmering, my wife Connie and I wrestle with the wind as we set up our campsite. Howling out of Nebraska, the stiffly blowing southern gale threatens to rip the ground cloth from our hands while we fumble with hammers and stakes and the furiously flapping tarpaulin. A nearby tent, its owners conspicuously absent, lies overturned, a twisted jumble of canvas and tent poles weighed down by an unknown heap of internal paraphernalia and whipping madly in the breeze like some tumbled-up ground hugging flag.

Exasperated, I give in. After all, this late August day in the Badlands has been a hot one. Not just hot but dry too, exceedingly so, just like the seemingly endless procession of days just before it. Holding our unruly blue tarp in place literally by the "seat of my pants," I dream of cold beers and visually survey our surroundings.

The soil is parched and cracked. Sparse vegetation, a mixture of shorter prairie grasses and other plants adapted to more arid conditions, is sun burnt and scorched golden brown. Lonely, widely scattered small pockets of trees alone seem vigorous, life-filled and green. One careless spark, a single stray ember would ignite nearby dried plants in an instant, unleashing, even on a day far less blustery than this, a fast moving searing circle of flame racing ever outward to blanket and blacken this sun-baked, desiccated land. An open campfire, no matter how well contained, will be out of the question tonight.

To the east, at a distance of perhaps 1000 yards meanders Sage Creek, now just a broken series of muddy puddles and pools of unmoving silt-laden water. This natural gash in the grassland, with sheer dirt-sided banks in some places nearly 30 feet tall, snakes away to disappear both northward and southward. Farther out, maybe a half-mile beyond Sage Creeks shores, lays a sizeable rounded top knob, the first in a wave-like procession of similar hills stretching away to wall off the horizon. Slowly moving chocolate brown spots strewn here and there at the base of these buttes finally register in my brain, living, breathing beings that can only be Bison.

Rejuvenated, I point out our distant giant neighbors to Connie and grudgingly rejoin in her labor. The far-off buttes and their Bison, the American Buffalo to some, beckon us and speeds me along with my work. Our tent, apparently more wind-worthy then that of our missing human companions, is buckling and bending but eventually standing defiantly in the face of the still blustery winds. Camp now pitched as securely as possible, and eager to begin our long awaited hike to the hills, the two of us nevertheless both instinctively freeze in the instant following our turning around to leave.

There, not more than 20 yards away stands a Bison, a big bull no less, 2000 pounds of bovine-like muscle and bone nonchalantly cropping the dry vegetation to a level just barely exceeding that of the ground. Knowing Bison can be dangerous, Connie and I make no sudden movements and just stand there dazzled by the animals size as well as his silent, undetected approach. We watch quietly but the bull simply ignores us, although given our position downwind I am certain he knows we are near, then he gradually plods off contentedly grazing along the way.

The bulls unexpected obstruction now gone, Connie and I can finally set out and we follow a well-worn Buffalo Trail through the grass toward the far away hills. On the other side of Sage Creek we pass through a sizeable Prairie Dog Town, the shrill barks of its resident rodents ringing in our ears. The fragrance of Penny Royal, its dried stems and leaves crushed by our steps, fills the air. Soon we branch off, tracing yet another winding Bison Track to its apex atop the nearest butte. Although this peak is relatively flat and wide, the wind feels strong enough to blow us right over the edge. We sit down to steady ourselves, catch our breath and enjoy the view.

Our campground, a flat bowl of land within Sage Creeks horseshoe bend, spreads to the west far below us. Our tent remains upright still defying the whistling wind, with our gleaming red jeep standing unmoving close beside. Three or four additional tents and their attendant vehicles have now cropped up there as well. Turning away, we gaze upon 64,000 acres of short grass prairie, scattered tree islands and hills stretching away uninterrupted toward the Lakota stronghold known to all as Pine Ridge. Bison, some alone and others in groups of two or three, fan out across the landscape, their trails crisscross the terrain and I imagine that 200 years ago everything looked much the same. Then for just one brief fleeting moment, when I glance back at the campground again, I think that I see the circle of tepees and the horses of the Pte Oyate, "the Buffalo People," instead.

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