Thunder Butte

August 27, 2005

An Empty Land That Continues to Shape Us

Things have never been easy for people living out on South Dakota’s northwestern plains. Average rainfall is only fourteen inches a year. The land is suitable only for dry land farming or livestock grazing. Yet, the rainfall averages mask years in which the vegetation has dried up and blown away, the sheep and cattle have starved or died of thirst, and years in which people have given up and drifted away.

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.
Mike Crowley Saturday, August 27, 2005


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