I could not wait to get to the Black Hills of South Dakota! I didn’t know what to expect, but a part of me felt I was going home. As a boy, growing up in rural Mississippi, I was a fanatic for cowboy and Indian movies, and in just about every one of those movies, the Indians lived, hunted, and fought in the Black Hills or those hallowed grounds were at least mentioned. Unlike most other boys, I did not take up the role of John Wayne, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott; I played the part of the Indian. Although I did not have a clue where the Black Hills might be, my backyard and the woodlands bordering my grandfather’s pastures became those hills. All I knew was the Black Hills had to be a special place if Indians and buffalo lived there.
With a chicken feather tucked in a worn leather shoestring from my father’s work boot tied around my head, mud war paint smeared across my face and shirtless chest, and strips of an old sheet hanging in front and back of my shorts, I was a Sioux warrior fighting for my home. I made tipis from ragged towels and the remains of the sheet that lent itself to the loincloths, bent oak saplings into bows with line cut from my father’s spinning reel, and sharpened the points of my featherless arrows with a buck fifty Barlow pocket knife. My war cries could be heard from my parent’s little acre at the bottom of the hill to my grandfather’s front porch at the top of the hill where he grimaced with each yell, spat Redman chewing tobacco in a pint fruit jar or in grandma’s azaleas, and wiped strings of brown tobacco swill from his chin with the back of his hand. My cousins said he thought I was a bit touched in the head, but that never deterred the cry of War Eagle. Grandfather did not concern me, the great white fathers never truly understood the spirit and way of the Indian.
Over fifty years later, I finally saw the Black Hills of South Dakota. My wife and I, along with our traveling companions, reserved a campsite for five nights at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer, South Dakota, smack in the middle of the Black Hills. War Eagle had been put to rest years ago, but the urge to strip the sheet off the bed in my travel trailer and tear it into loincloths tugged at me. I struggled to keep War Eagle contained as I set up the aluminum tipi, fearing my wife and friends would be even less understanding than my grandfather if I broke into a war dance and accompanying cries and chants. I was like a child in a candy store, or on Christmas morning – my dream had finally turned to reality.
Over the following five days, we drove the main and back roads of Custer State Park watching the buffalo, long prong sheep, and prairie dogs. We relaxed at iconic Sylvan Lake surrounded by rock formations designed in heaven and tossed rocks across the lake from leather shepherd slings my buddy and I designed and made at our campsites one morning. The Iron Mountain Road drive with its hairpin turns, cut backs, and tunnels barely large enough for a modern-day vehicle to pass through gave us our first taste of mountain driving. Mount Rushmore filled our hearts with awe and pride in our American heritage built upon the wisdom and sacrifice of such visionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. From there we drove the Needles Highway made accessible only by the engineering wonders of man! The grandeur of the highway with its spiraling rock fingers reaching for the heavens, narrow tunnels, and landscapes draped in the mastery of the Maker was possibly one of the most beautiful drives we have experienced on our trip, and we have experienced many. All that, along with elk and mule deer moving through the evening shadows along the roadways, was more than most people experience in a lifetime.
It did not end there! The Crazy Horse Memorial erected almost single handed by one man and his family with no government assistance, only private funding, and the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Indians’ commitment to preserve not only their heritage through the monument, but the heritage of all mankind took the human experience to a level of healing and spirituality that humbled the heart. Walking the streets of Deadwood, a cowboy town famous for gold and the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok, the original fastest draw in the West, helped us separate the real West from the movies. From there, we gave a quick look at the little town that once every year becomes a big town – Sturgis. The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally swells the population of the town from 6800 to nearly three-quarters of a million people during every August, and as we witnessed, the preparation and the arrival of motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world begins weeks in advance.
That was more than enough to fill five days of vacation, but we did not stop there! After Sturgis, we spent time in Spearfish Canyon enjoying the scenery and the waterfalls, and on our final day, we visited Wind Cave National Park and toured the sixth largest/longest cave in the world. According to legend, Wind Cave is the birthplace of the Sioux Nation, and if you listen close, you can hear the stories of their beginning whispered from the cracks and crevices throughout the cave. Walking through underground passages cut by acidic water, I could feel the breath of the Sioux on my neck and shoulders and hear the elders speaking of birth, betrayal, and rebirth. First came the buffalo, second came the people of the hills and plains, and then their betrayal by the white man and the destruction of their way of life. There were other voices in the cave as well; voices that had every right to call for justice and revenge, but instead, spoke softly of hope, peace, and understanding for all men and nations – the way of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. That, my friends, is the mark of a great and wise people.
Contrary to what some folks back home told me, there was no shortage of things to do in the Black Hills. We did not run out of things to do; we ran out of time to do everything we wanted to do! From the base of the Black Hills to overlooks more than 6,000 feet above sea level, every turn held a new discovery and experience. Every day in the “Ȟe Sápa” (Lakota for Black Mountains) was a new beginning and new adventure. It was a place where man and spirits walked hand in hand speaking softly to one another of hope and peace. The wildlife, the rolling hills, rock formations, and prairies made it easy to see why the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, known to the white man as the Sioux, looked upon this place as sacred.
In the evenings, I sat alone in the dark listening to the hills. If you listen close, you can hear the song of the buffalo, the eagle, and the elk singing to the children of the earth, “Come to me, lay your head in my meadows, sleep under the sky God has made for all peoples, stand on the pillars of the sun, and give thanks for all you see before you.” I am thankful I had my time to gaze upon those hills and see what the boy who played with a chicken feather in his hair, War Eagle, always knew – Ȟe Sápa is a special place – a place where spirits soar – a place where a War Eagle can find peace and whoop it up (with the wife’s permission of course) and make dreams come true. It was and is a place the Indians call home. War Eagle was home.
©Jack Linton, July 28, 2017