May 23, 2007
Whispers From the Past Carried on the Breeze
In an odd coincidence, Karen is the mother-in-law of a woman I work with in Washington, DC, and teaches on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Her husband, Jerry, is a photographer. We piled into a rented SUV and drove back west on State Highway 212 out of Eagle Butte before turning north on Thunder Butte Road, which is basically a well maintained gravel road. Several miles out, we turned onto a ranch road and stopped at the Veit home where we asked for permission to continue over the ranch roads on an approach to Thunder Butte from the south. We bounced along quite a bit over narrow, rutted roads—stopping every once in a while to open a ranch gate, drive through, and then close it. Finally, we hit a fence line about a fourth of a mile southeast of the butte with no gate. The rest of the way in was on foot.
The temperature was an unseasonable 80-plus degrees for late March. As we slogged by foot toward the butte, the heat really helped to drive in the point about just how dry the country looked. The area has been in a drought for several years. The prairie appears to be mostly dry earth interspersed with bits of brown scrub grass. It's hard to imagine how the ranchers hang on. With pasturage so poor, many ranchers reportedly have been paying for feed for their livestock and downsizing herds. The Ziebach County assessor later told us that even in a good year, it takes about 28 acres out here to support a single cow. With the country appearing as it did on this day, it was difficult to imagine anything living out here.
We trekked up and around toward the northeast side of Thunder Butte before we started to climb. Eileen and Karen stopped about halfway up and decided to take a break from the heat. Jerry and I continued all of the rest of the way up to the top of the butte, where we walked around a bit and surveyed the surrounding countryside. This was my first visit to the top of the butte—a place that my dad had climbed a lot as a child—and I had high hopes for what might be visible up there. While there were few man made structures visible in the distance, every once in a while you could see traces or disturbances in the prairie where a ranch road had passed or where perhaps there had been some kind of structure. I gazed off in both the northwest and northeast directions, looking for traces of former Crowley family habitations, but saw nothing.
In 1913, my grandfather had purchased land just northeast of the butte. The family moved off several years later, but I was most interested in seeing what might remain of the original Crowley family homestead. Nothing was visible from the butte. Later, the family had lived just northeast of the butte on rented or leased land. Based on the photos that remain in our family's possession, I judged that this latter ranch also was fairly close to the butte, if not directly proximate.
I guess that I was hoping to see at least the outlines in the ground of an old ranch house. The original Crowley home was a sod house. But, whether sod or a wood structure, old buildings do often leave traces in the prairie, where disturbances in the earth can continue to be visible for years. You can often make out traces where such structures stood. Still, I saw nothing.
Standing on the top of the butte, the silence of the surrounding country envelopes you. It was so amazing to think that people—my people—had once lived here. I know that it may sound odd, but standing on the top of the butte, you could almost hear whispers of these people from the past on the breeze. You could almost see them, riding about on horseback, bouncing over a ranch road in a Ford Model T, repairing the wire on a fence line, bringing back water from the well. You could almost see them, but from a contemporary perspective, it was still difficult to imagine the lives they lived—so different from the lives that we live today, and with so few of the modern amenities that we have grown up with and take for granted. Maybe this is what the Lakota mean when they talk about climbing the butte on a vision quest. Standing there all alone, surrounded by nothing but the murmuring of an occasional breeze, it is not difficult to imagine, to see and hear voices from the past.
We took a few pictures, and then Jerry and I picked our way down from the top of the butte to rejoin with Karen and Eileen below. As we walked back to the SUV, it was so difficult imagining how people lived here – not just for a morning or afternoon – but for years, sometimes for entire lives. Yet, by climbing the butte that day, I could almost see it.