Sunday, February 19, 2017

Buffalo Hunters

Urgent notice: the militarized police and their allied agencies are maneuvering to raid the camps at Standing Rock as soon as Feb. 20. Please contact your representatives immediately. Demand that they launch an investigation into the police abuse of peaceful water protectors (protesters) at the camps. 

For excellent updates, visit Lakota People's Law Project and, form there, root around the other allied sites. Please act now.

                                              Buffalo skulls being sold for fertilizer, ca 1870

"These men (the buffalo hunters) have done more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary. Send them powder and lead if you will, but for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization."
                                                                                   General Philip H. Sheridan

Time is a funny thing. The words of "Fightin' Phil" Sheridan are almost 150 years old, but they were only 80-something years old when I was born (you do the math, please). So, since Sheridan's words aren't a whole lot older than I am and since I don't feel old at all (!), they still seem timely to me now. At any rate, I couldn't help recalling them when I drove through Baker, Montana last week on my way back to Standing Rock and was met on the outskirts of town with this site…

It’s a big pile of scrap metal and it looked to all the world--or at least to all of my world--like that iconic old picture of buffalo skulls stacked up on the windy plains awaiting shipment to somewhere elsewhere than there. I did a quick mental calculation, standing a cowboy up on top of the scrap pile in my mind's eye, and I figured they were exactly the same height, give or take a few centimeters. Adding to the serendipity of their size, appearance and location, the pile of buffalo bones and the pile of scrap metal were both the result of painstaking gatherings by settlers who were trying to make a few bucks off of the last economic failure on these very plains. Talk about photogenic metaphors.

Baker is a typical windswept Eastern Montana town that is so close to the North Dakota border that it tilts that way. In fact it sits on the very western edge of the Bakkan fracking fields where the oil that would run through the DAPL pipeline will come from if the pipeline is completed. It also sits near Sandstone Creek, which flows into O'Fallon Creek, which in turn flows into the Yellowstone River just below the mouth of Powder River. This puts Baker smack in the middle of the Lakota peoples' beloved Powder River hunting grounds, the grounds they fought so hard and so often to save. The People had been coming here to hunt the buffalo since the most ancient times, and in fact it was only 100 miles further down road on Highway 12, on the very eastern fringe of the Bakkan fracking fields (between Hettinger, North Dakota and Lemmon, South Dakota) that I came across the motherlode of western metaphors; Hiddenwood Cliff, the last stand of the North American Bison.

Hiddenwood Cliff, North Dakota

It’s a hotspot, Baker is, of western history, even as the rusty metaphor it is now.

As you might be able to tell by now, I read a lot of western history, particularly about the collision between the original caretakers of the Land and my people, the Pilgrims, which I certainly am, which means that, combined with my being a lifelong "environmentalist"[i] I am the definition of "conflicted". My great-grandfather, for instance, was a sergeant in the 9th Kansas Volunteer Calvary stationed at Fort Halleck, Wyoming, where he participated in some of the first military actions against the People, along the Platte and the Overland Trail. What he was doing in Kansas in 1862 in order to join that volunteer Calvary I do not know yet. But, due to the fact that my family tends to breed late, I grew up knowing his son, my grandpa, who had a wealth of western life experiences of his own. My mother, for her part, was the unofficial family historian, and so she passed down to me an oral history from a time most children of pilgrims have forgotten, and one of them is that my grandpa resembled his father in looks, temperament and occupation (farmer).

So I read a lot of western history, trying to figure out what the hell a piece of me was doing fighting the People off of their intact ecosystems so that gold could be dug out of their mountains and railroads wrapped around their plains, and now this Black Snake[ii]! It's not a guilty conscience, really, although I probably deserve one. I just want to get it right.

Most of this western history is admittedly from the Pilgrims' point of view, but it’s good for filling one’s head with facts worth pondering. Like about the settlers, who came in after the buffalo hunters collected the bones left behind to sell for fertilizer back east. They’d stack the bones in great proprietary heaps until they could haul them off to the nearest train terminal to complete the very last cash transactions in wild buffalo parts that the world may very well ever see again. They'd get from $2 to $10 a ton (yes, that's a ton) not enough to get rich on like some of the buffalo hunters did (they’d get $2 to $5 a hide), but enough to pay for groceries when your crops failed yet again in this land that was meant to grow buffalo, not cash. These kinds of facts create a rich back story for an environmentalist with a western family history like myself because, if you’re the type of environmentalist to give such facts their own head, they bend you right back to the Land, where the People have always been, and where every good environmentalist always wanted to be in the first place, before these facts of pilgrims were written down and began darting around in our heads. Serendipity, often called Faith, gets you there eventually, although this long bend back to the Land is not so much an arc as it is a jagged lighting strike, since the facts you need to wade through are often disturbing and sometimes contradictory. 

So here’s some more. After the Civil War, General Grant simultaneously downsized the army and appointed his favorite war hero, Phil Sheridan, to head the vast Department of the Missouri, which included the Great Plains and all the "Indian wars" occurring within its bounds. Since his Department was vast and his resources few, Sheridan settled on a version of guerrilla warfare known as “terrorism” to fulfill his mission. He attacked the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa in their winter camps, destroying their supplies and killing them indiscriminately when they resisted, and also when they didn't. George Armstrong Custer, another Civil War hero, perpetrated his infamous Battle of the Washita, an unprovoked massacre against the Cheyenne, during Sheridan’s campaign. There were many others.

The Sappa Creek Massacre in 1875, which occurred in what is now Kansas, mimicked the Sheridan model for getting as much “bang” out of your limited war bucks as you could by targeting the helpless. It was perpetrated on another peaceful Cheyenne village by a volunteer crew of buffalo hunters, under the nominal guidance of Lt. Austin Henly of the Sixth Calvary. Women and small children were shot and burned in their lodges and then thrown onto bonfires that the buffalo hunters had made of the village’s possessions. Imagine that, parents, and now imagine Lonesome Charlie Reynolds, the buffalo hunter who led Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 and then died with him at Little Big Horn in ‘76. Imagine Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, two other buffalo hunters that the truncated school books containing the iconic photos of buffalo skulls have held up to us as folk heroes through all these years. It’s a funny thing, time is.

If you squint your eyes out there at Hiddenwood Cliff (above), you could almost believe the buffalo roaming free again, just like you want them to. But of course they're cows, and after Sappa Creek the Cheyenne were terrified of buffalo hunters, not because they were killing off the buffalo but because they would do such things, and then get away with them.

Now take a look at the picture below.

Photo courtesy of: Joe Plouff

It’s what you see every night at the Standing Rock. Dozens of high-powered spotlights surrounding the camps for miles, aimed in the camps’ direction, waiting. And in the daytime you see this:

Modern Buffalo Hunters

For everyone reading this who's still not sure what fascism looks like, I've posted this photo for the third time, because I think it’s worth repeating. This is Last Child Camp, where tipis were being erected to avoid the high water that everyone agrees will come. Over sixty peaceful protesters were arrested off of this hill, many (if not most) were hauled away in unheated vehicles to places as far away as Fargo, ND where, after being arraigned on trumped-up charges, they were released, some in the middle of the night, some in their underwear, in sub-freezing weather.

The extermination of the buffalo was really just a military tactic, like spraying Agent Orange on the jungles of Vietnam to defoliate them so the natives could be more easily killed. After the buffalo were gone, the tribes had no choices left. They were forced ignonimously, at gunpoint, to live within the bounds of their designated reservations, which were really concentration camps where the People, especially their children and old ones, were at the mercy of corrupt entrepreneurs known as "agents" who literally stole the food and clothing out from under them, and they died like flies.

It was then that the People became sitting ducks for another novel military tactic of intimidation and genocide. The army would surround the camps of the now-helpless People on some trumped-up charge or other, and wait, a few days, a few weeks, and then the troops would descend upon them and massacre them. Wounded Knee is one example of this. There were others. Will there be more?

What's stopping these militarized police forces, this cancer upon our Land, from shooting into our villages with live ammunition? In the case of Standing Rock, public scrutiny is the only thing in its way. Which begs the question: What's to stop them from shooting you for peacefully disagreeing with Trumpian policies in the near future where no media scrutiny is occurring? For a clue, remember that Wall Street still operates under the same rules of engagement as Sheridan and Custer did. "Death to the weak, power to the powerful", and even though they make a point of turning a dainty head away from its unpleasant causes and effects, the name for this legal piracy hasn't changed,. It’s still called a "killing".

Portable Windmill at Sacred Stone Camp

We certainly have the technological know-how by now to avoid black snakes like DAPL. Don't let anyone tell you different, because time is a funny, fast-moving thing, a fluid thing, just like floods. Just wait a while, and you'll see that, although it’s tough right now and gonna get a lot tougher, there’s much cause for hope, because, our facts, our beloved facts, are finally turning us back to where we always should have been, to where we never should have left, back to the Land.

A Veteran for Peace 

 Sunset at Sacred Stone

Weasel Tracks at Oceti Sakowin next to the Cannonball River
Still intact, holding steady

[i] See post "On Being Called an Environmentalist

[ii] The Dakota Access Pipeline as prophesied in Lakota tradition.

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