August 31, 2005
Water Holes and Modesty
All of the Indian kids I knew were very modest. John Iron Lightning later became a Champion Saddle Bronc rider, winning all over the country. One of the Knife boys became Faith High Schools star basketball player. I believe he carried them to the State Championship one year.
Making Amends to the Great Spirit
After this, I ran into Redbull many times on the prairie and he never failed to offer to buy my “fat dog” for soup, followed by slurping sounds and the word, “good.”
*Lakota for “Hello friend.”
August 29, 2005
Puts On His Shoes
I used to explore out along the length of Knocker Creek, which had its beginning somewhere in the ridge over the Moreau River. As I would emerge from a grove of trees at the far end of Knocker Creek, I would often see this old Indian man sitting on his pony, which had a long mane and tail. The Indian would sit hunched over, head down, slumped bareback on his pony. The horse used to take the same stance, head lowered almost to the ground, butt turned into the wind, standing almost as if in a trance. I used to sit on my horse in the trees and watch them for what seemed like hours. All this time they would remain motionless, as though in a deep reverie. After what seemed like months of watching this old man, I finally got up the nerve to approach him, only to find out that he spoke no English. Finally after a long time and trying to communicate on several different occasions, I would just ride up, raise my right hand in the friendship gesture, say "how," and spend an hour or so, just sitting with him.
Putsy, as he was known, dressed in the original Sioux clothing. He wore a buckskin shirt and trousers with long fringes on the arms and legs, and covered with intricate designs, worked in porcupine quill beads of different colors. His hair hung in long braids with a couple of eagle feathers. Putsy's face was, of course, a striking picture. He had the long Sioux features and dark brown skin wrinkled beyond belief. Putsy, of course, rode his horse bare back and his feet were covered by heavily beaded moccasins. Sometimes, he would try to explain things to me in his heavy, guttural Sioux language. But, mostly he would use sign language, with much waving of the arms and intricate hand gestures. If one was attentive, you could understand most of what he was saying. Putsy used to tell me tales about storytelling as the Indians sat in their tipis during the long rains. He told me how the Moreau Ridge, as with Fox Ridge, were the paths the Indians traversed from the mountains in the West and North through to the low country of the great Missouri.
It was only much later that I learned that Puts On His Shoes understood and spoke English very well. It turns out that he had been a scout for Custer. It is rumored that he came by his name when, after a battle, he would try on dead soldiers’ boots until he found a pair that felt good, therefore earning the name "Puts On His Shoes." It seems that Putsy had worn moccasins most of his life and, after he started wearing boots, his feet hurt and he was always looking for a pair that fit better.
I knew all about Putsy at one time, most of which I have forgotten, but I will always remember him as a kindly old man who tried to teach me the way of the Sioux. Part of that teaching was the pulling my leg that he must have enjoyed as I sat there next to him as a kid, wide eyed and all ears.
August 27, 2005
An Empty Land That Continues to Shape Us
Ziebach County has been an empty land stretching back for eons, and well before it was named as a county. The Lakota, who have lived here for many hundreds of years, have never counted their strength in their own numbers, but in their ability to live in harmony with the land, its creatures, and its spirits. Even in the heyday of small white towns like Dupree, there were never many people. In 1920, just several years after the last parcels of Cheyenne Sioux lands were opened to white settlers and a year before my father was born, there were only 3,718 people in all of Ziebach County.
People began moving away with the Great Depression. By 1940, there were only 2,875 people here. The next thirty years were like a slow trickle of water draining from a leaky bucket. People were born and died here, but many continued to seek their fortune elsewhere. By 1970, there were only 2,221 people in the county. Over the next twenty years, the county’s population remained essentially flat. In 1990, Ziebach County had about one person per square mile.
Despite the comparative emptiness of the place, Thunder Butte has lived on in my father’s memory as a place of magic and adventure, a place where the lone cowboy riding across the grassy plain is an heroic figure with abilities far beyond those of the average man. This was a place where even the creatures—ranch dogs, ponies, owls, and rattlesnakes found in the countryside—took personas and significance far beyond those that we imbue our pets with today. This was a place where the sound of the wind blowing through the grass or the breeze whispering through the branches of an isolated tree sounded like music against the silence of the prairie. Perhaps many places possess similar magic, as remembered through the eyes of ourselves, as children. On the other hand, if your life depended on knowing well the subtlest of changes taking place among the things and creatures of this secluded landscape, your memories would be sure to center on the things that really stood out, whether fantastical or merely poignant.
Somehow, living many years and thousands of miles beyond the time and place of my father’s childhood, Thunder Butte lives on for me as an exceptional and memorable place—a place both of legends and tall tales, as well as a place that has helped to shape me and my family. Although I think of it in sepia tones and grey—because those are the shades of the old photos—doing so does not subtract from colorfulness of lives lived here, or the grip that Thunder Butte has on my imagination.
Influences travel through families and time, reverberating like the wavelets that spread out in a circle from a pebble dropped in a pond. Whether for better or worse, the legacy of Thunder Butte lives on in me and my family today. I know it will help to shape my child and his view of the world. Even though he may never know the place other than through the stories of his grandfather, Thunder Butte—this still empty land—will continue to live on in the thoughts and dreams of my son and his children.