On pilgrimages — past and yet to come

Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, I embarked in September on a three-week tour of a dozen national parks and monuments in the Mountain West and Plains. It was a trip that not only revealed the beauty of the land, but also the legacy of the genocide committed against the original inhabitants of that land and the richness of the culture of those who still live off it and seek to protect it. 

In Mesa Verde and Bandelier, I saw the impressive evidence of those who settled and farmed the land more than a millennium ago — the Anasazi — and, in Taos, the perseverance of today’s pueblo dwellers, making adobe the old-fashioned way and cooking their fry bread in outdoor kivas.

Mesa Verde

Making adobe at Taos — mud and straw

In Monument Valley, introduced to the rest of us by John Ford, I learned of the 1865 “Long Walk” of the Navajo from their native land in present-day Arizona to New Mexico’s Bosque Redondo…and their hard-won return. I learned, too, of the hospitality of the inhabitants of Navajoland and their ingenuity in eking out a living off tourists like me – jitney rides through the valley, fry bread tacos under a setting sun. I learned too of the history of hostility between the Navajo and Utes, of the forced resettlement of the Utes just north of the Four Corners area and their present-day battles with EPA and a Canadian-owned uranium mining company polluting their air and water.

In Monument Valley

We ate our fry bread to the beat of a drum

It was, however, only as we entered the northern plains - the dark sky hung low, the first snows in Yosemite behind us - that the sorrow of it all hit home. In Cody, Wyoming, in the superb Buffalo Bill Museum, a docent introduced us to the rich culture of the Sioux and the determined effort of our United States Government to eradicate it. I found myself reminded of my visits to Chiapas and the Zapatistas’ present-day “War against Oblivion,” the struggle of the Maya against the destruction of their maize-based culture by NAFTA, Monsanto, and a federal government so far away.

Crossing into Montana, we stopped at Little Big Horn. The obligatory stop at the obelisk on the hill where Custer and so many of his men died for our sins was followed by a rush to the gift shop. I broke away long enough to make my way up another hill to the Native American monument where the only other visitors were Native Americans and Europeans. Making my way back through the graves of fallen US cavalrymen and Cheyenne warriors, I rejoined our group in time for a refreshingly candid lecture by a retired Army officer ranger about, not just the tactics, of the battle, but, more importantly the underlying causes of the Great Sioux War or Black Hills War of 1876-77. 

It was a war precipitated by the breaking of one of so many broken treaties — the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that set aside as the Great Sioux Reservation large swaths of Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, including the Black Hills. Only a few years later, however, gold was discovered in “them thar hills,” and white settlers swarmed into the Dakotas, nearly wiping out the herds of bison that were a staple of the Lakota.

Buffalo again roam Dakota north of Wounded Knee

Although Sitting Bull, the Sioux leader at Little Big Horn, was forced to surrender at Standing Rock, North Dakota in 1881, others continued to resist their deteriorating conditions and dispossession. This gave rise to the so-called Ghost Dance movement, according to which Jesus would return as a Native American to drive out the white man. In 1890, alarmed by the spread of the “Messiah craze,” the Army decided to arrest several chiefs, including Sitting Bull, who had been living peacefully at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Agency. He was killed trying to break free and his followers fled south, seeking refuge on the Pine Ridge reservation. The Army surrounded their camp at Wounded Knee, set up four machine guns, and, on December 29, massacred nearly everyone there – man, woman, and child.

As we headed toward Rapid City, South Dakota and the Black Hills, my thoughts were crowded with this history as well as the events then unfolding at Standing Rock where thousands of Native Americans were gathering not only to resist the extension of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Lakota reservation and under the Missouri River, but more importantly to reclaim their dignity. I felt a need to do something. 

Knowing we would have a free afternoon in Rapid City, South Dakota, I thought I'd rent a car and contribute my witness to Standing Rock. But, I learned, the distance was a bit too far for an afternoon or day. What to do?

I rented the car and drove instead to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation on the Nebraska border...one of the deepest pockets of poverty in this country. There I found a tiny impoverished village and, on a windy hilltop, a boarded up, graffiti-laced Episcopal mission; a scattering of recent graves; and one long mass grave, enclosed by a chicken wire fence and marked only by a small obelisk with the names of the few identifiable victims of the massacre. 

St. John’s Mission Church

A Vietnam Vet’s grave

The mass grave at Wounded Knee

A woman from the village came by and explained the history and power of the place. Mona Lisa was her name and she was proud that she had cooked at Standing Rock earlier in the week. 

Mona Lisa

She left. And I was left…alone on the windy hilltop. I recalled a snippet of Sioux wisdom I had heard in Montana: “Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to the heart, it knows.” I listened. I knew. I began to pray…

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone….

I had the sense that Jesus was listening. That he knew my heart. I felt comforted…strengthened. In the windy silence, I remembered something long forgotten – that my great grandmother was of the Mohawk nation. I vowed I would no longer leave anything undone. I would learn the story more fully. I would tell it more clearly. And, in the days ahead, I would seek to undo all that had been done in our name as “Americans” to eradicate the history, the culture - our very memory - of the first peoples of this land. I would, begin, I vowed, at Standing Rock.

Listen to the wind. Listen to the silence. Listen to the heart.