Maco Sika, or the Badlands, were named so by the Lakota people because of their harsh, rocky environment, with high temperatures and a lack of water. By the time I arrived at the north entrance it was ninety degrees, and I was feeling blown out and spent. My National Park Pass came through in the clutch again, the Mountain Bluebird was calm and in control, and I’d regained my friend Karen from Google Maps, after passing through a dead zone of T-Mobile phone coverage in Wyoming.
Still, I wasn’t sure what direction to take once I got in the park. It all looked the same, miles of ringed buttes, bluffs, pinnacles, and hoodoos, the terrain of the underworld, forced up into the daylight.
It is small wonder that Table Mountain in the Badlands, was chosen as a site for a Ghost Dance in 1890. The Ghost Dance came about through the Paiute holy man and prophet, Jack Wilson, or Wovoka, who saw in a vision that the white men would disappear, the tribes would be reunited with the spirits of their departed ones, and their hunting grounds would be restored to them by dancing the circle dance. The Ghost Shirts that were created at the time, were thought to make those who wore them impervious to the bullets of their enemies. It was following this particular dance that the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred, as the dancers were returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
It was a hot and dusty day, and I was irritable and didn’t know which way to drive. I stopped at the Pinnacles Overlook and stared down at the jagged, banded landscape, then drove past Roberts Prairie Dog Town, seeing prairie dogs up scouting on their hindquarters, popping in and out of a small minefield of holes. It didn’t seem like I was going the right direction. I followed Sage Creek Road, and at one point seemed to have left the park. When I reached the 41, I took a left, and soon came upon a checkpoint for the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an Ogalala Sioux reservation that occupies three thousand square miles in the southeast of South Dakota. It is famous for the Wounded Knee massacre, in which over two hundred and fifty Native men, women, and children, were killed, and fifty wounded, when the 7th Calvary under Colonel James Forsyth attempted to disarm them and a rifle went off. The dead were then buried in a mass grave.
Pine Ridge is also famous for the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, when two hundred Sioux, followers of the American Indian Movement, occupied the town of Wounded Knee in an effort to draw awareness to injustices that have been committed against their people. The siege lasted for 71 days. A US Marshall was shot and paralyzed and two of the protestors were killed by gunfire. After ten weeks they surrendered their weapons, but a lot of awareness had been raised by then. Much of the population became sympathetic to their cause, although little changed.
I drove until I reached the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where a large, red sign tells the tale of what went down. Chief Big Foot, with 106 warriors and 250 women and children were camped and then surrounded by a force of 450 soldiers. They had been dancing the Ghost Dance and were on their way to Pine Ridge.
After surrendering, four Hotchkiss revolving guns were set up around the camp. When a fight broke out, sparked by a single shot, the guns were used to mow down the crowd, which resulted in a stampede. The shirts that they were wearing didn’t protect them and the Ghost Dancing largely ended with this mass slaughter.
To sit beside the sign, you would never know that something that awful had ever happened at the location. The earth heals quickly, much quicker than the hearts and minds of people. The grass was green. A shelter, roofed by pine boughs, stood nearby. I walked over and sat down on one of the benches beneath it. It was late afternoon by now. I had no idea where to stop for the night. A Sioux in a cowboy hat pulled up in a pickup, but then quickly drove on. I shut my eyes and could hear the wind blowing through the grass. Dogs were barking in the distance.
A fly began buzzing around my face. Why does there always have to be a fly, buzzing around your face when you sit outside to meditate? Some crickets were chirping and from somewhere I could hear the voices of children. I thought about the bodies beneath the earth, and what, if anything was left of them. Four cars passed in a row. A cool prairie breeze blew right in my face. The voices of the children grew louder. It sounded like they were coming through the trees.