Thunder Butte

December 22, 2007

Winter on Thunder Butte Creek

Winters were harsh in the area and in that period. It was common for the snow to bank up to the eves of the roof. When the snow was fresh and soft, nothing moved through it. Later, when the snow had frozen solid, people and horses would walk right over the top of the largest drifts. One of the things ranchers had to watch out for was cattle walking on the roofs of the houses and barns, they would walk right up the snowdrift and on to the roof.

About this time of the year, men and boys would gather on the creek with axes and long lumber saws to cut ice. Ice would be cut into huge chunks, about 4' x 4' x 6' feet. Then, with a team of horses, the block of ice would be pulled to a spot where the men had cut out a large section of a bank, near the house.

The future ice house would have been about 30 fee wide by 60 feet deep into the hill. When it was filled with blocks of ice, the men would cover it with deep layers of hay, sod, and straw. This ice would stay solid and unchanged all year and supplied the only cooling in the heat of summer for foodstuffs like meat and milk.

Everyone took turns felling trees and chopping the trees into wood for the big pot bellied heating stove and the large cook stove. This chopping went on for hours every day all winter.

The milk cows had to be milked morning and night. They had to be supplied with hay and their barns cleaned. Horses were groomed, fed, and stalls cleaned. Milking the cows was not that much fun in winter time either. You had to make sure their tits were dried thoroughly when you finished milking otherwise the tit would freeze and that was the end of the milk cow. Actually they nearly froze while you were milking them and your hands as well. The milk came in handy though, it probably helped to keep us alive.

Another chore that kept men busy was the banking of the house. They would cut sod into chunks like large bricks and stack it around the bottom of the house. Sometimes this sod would be stacked up to the bottom of windows. The reason was to hold in heat and to prevent drafts of cold air from entering.

It took a half day for one person to just travel the eight miles to the mail box through the deep snow.

Throughout the winter a large amount of time went to feeding and watering range cattle and horses. During the cold winter the water holes and streams would freeze solid and the animals were unable to find drinking water, so the rancher, cowboys, needed to ride the water holes with an axe and cut holes so the animals could drink.

Another chore was the feeding of range animals. During periods of snow storms and heavy freezing, the grass, what little was left , would be buried beneath hard frozen snow drifts. Men would load wagons with hay, drive it out on to the prairie and spread it for the animals. Sometimes during the feeding season, there would be as many deer, antelope and wild horses feeding as the ranchers' cattle, but that could not be avoided.

A lesser preoccupation was the hunting for meat. Most every one carried a gun for the sole purpose of hunting. No pheasant, prairie chicken, beaver, porcupine, deer, or antelope was ever ignored. I suppose there were a few lesser species that came home to dinner during those times.

One nice thing about winter was that water was no longer a problem. You just took your bucket, scooped up a bucket of snow, set the bucket on the wood stove and in a few minutes you had a 1/4 bucket of water.

The more I try to think of how it was in winter, the more depressing it seems. Even finding a Christmas tree was a chore. I remember one year my Mother was all upset because one of the boys brought home a huge Black Hills spruce. She was upset because the spruce had been growing on a cliff where she would see it all the time from her kitchen window.

There was a story about one Christmas Eve when we tried to take a dinner to Joe who was working at the John Barthold ranch, but when we stopped to open the pasture gate, a car came down the road toward us until it got to almost where we were—then it just turned off and drove off across the badlands. That may have been our most exciting Christmas ever. We just went home and said our prayers.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Saturday, December 22, 2007 | (0) comments |

December 08, 2007

Who Owns Thunder Butte?

I used to wonder who owns Thunder Butte. In the back of my mind, I nursed a pipe dream that maybe the butte could be bought. Maybe it could be purchased to establish a kind of a monument to all those who have lived here – Native American and rancher – as well as all those who have lived here before. I wasn't thinking about transforming it into anything else, or building on it. I just wanted to make sure that the butte would continue to exist in much the same state as it is today.

Before I traveled out to see the butte and its environs last March, I had read on the internet one hiker's account of having taken a trip out to the butte and climbing it. He made reference to asking permission of the of the local ranchers. So, I thought the land technically belonged to one of the ranchers. Then, when I arrived and began making my own inquiries, no one was sure who owned the butte. But, the consensus among the locals I talked to was that it did belong to one of the ranchers.

Without meaning to impugn anyone, I thought it was a bit sad that Thunder Butte didn't actually belong to the Lakota. As much as we non-native folks might appreciate the butte, it is one of their holy places and one which is the regular scene of Lakota holy practices to this day. In thinking about buying the butte, one of my thoughts was about ensuring that the Lakota would always have access to it. I also thought, too, about possibly buying it only to turn around and deed it back to the reservation on which it sits. All of these thoughts I nursed in the back of my mind until last March, when I traveled to South Dakota. And, then, I promptly became consumed with finding my grandfathers' first homestead, located just northeast of Thunder Butte.

Then, one day, while reviewing the plat maps in Dupree – trying to identify which parcel of land my grandfather had owned, I noticed that Thunder Butte was marked as land belonging to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. In asked just to be sure, but yet, the butte already belongs to the Lakota. That promptly put to an end any thoughts I had ever had about buying the butte. But, I was gratified to learn that the butte already belonged to those who considered it most holy.

Last month, I had an opportunity to hear Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr. speak in Washington, D.C. The overall theme of President Shirley's talk was the need for more help for the Dineh, as the Navajo call themselves. However, one of the most poignant things that President Shirley said was that we – both native Americans and not – are brothers and have obligations to respect, value, and nourish each other. (These were not his exact words, but my interpretation of what he said.) President Shirley has got it right. We owe to each other.

I know that there are lingering tensions on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation about the division and sale of tribal lands around the turn of the last century. Some of the ranchers say that the local Lakota occasionally tell them that the land the ranchers work is their land – Lakota land – and, no doubt, they feel quite strongly about that. On the other hand, the ranchers have been on the land quite some time now. My hope is that the people who live in Thunder Butte country will eventually come to seem themselves as brothers who owe respect to each other. Also, I hope that Thunder Butte will remain available for all to visit, cherish, respect, and protect.

--Mike Crowley
Mike Crowley Saturday, December 08, 2007 | (0) comments |