There are nine Indian reservations in South Dakota. My plan was to head up to North Dakota, driving though as many of them as I could, but it was late by the time I left Pine Ridge, and my attempts to find a campground, for the first time in almost two weeks, had come up short. In the town of Martin, I gave up and checked into a hotel, getting a sub sandwich and bag of Doritos at a gas station across the street. Having to pay a hundred dollars for the room made me anxious, not sure what I’d find for camping the further east I got. If I had to start paying for hotels every night, the gig would soon be up.
In the morning I drove through the Rosebud Reservation, home of the Sicangu Lakota, known as the Burnt Thigh People, which may have come from an incident in the past where they were forced to flee a wildfire. It was created in 1889 and the total land area is near 2,000 square miles. I stopped outside the office of the law enforcement and later passed the Tribal Ranch. On a grass hill were three crosses on a hill, above them a sign for the Rosebud Christian Center. Continuing on, I passed a road marker dedicated to the Brule Chief, Spotted Tail.
At Mission, I took the 83 north to the 90 east, then got on the 47 north, crossing the Missouri River to drive though the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations. A sign of an old woman holding the worlds in her hands implored Protect Unci Maka, or Grandmother Earth. It was an hour to the capital of South Dakota, Pierre, from there. The land was flat and the sky as blue as can be. Clouds drifted slowly across the windshield like white buffalo. Nothing else moved, just the car and the clouds. All else was the same as it ever had been.
In Pierre I just drove past the capital building and continued on the 14 to the 63 north. At Eagle Butte the headquarters of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, there were a few murals, one of a hoop dancer, another of an old chief. An eagle and feather were painted on the drive-through side of the Dairy Queen.
The goal that day was to make it to Sitting Bull’s grave on the Standing Rock Reservation. I was racing towards on the 63, going ninety miles an hour, just thinking to myself how I’d been flying over the land, when I was pulled over, for the first time on the trip, by a Tribal Police Officer. He could’ve nailed me, but when he heard of my interest in Sitting Bull, let me go with just a warning. I’d been lucky so far, almost every day, in almost every circumstance. That doesn’t happen very often. Maybe my karma was finally starting to level off.
The 63 turned into the 20 and I took that to the 12. At the Grand River Resort and Casino, I took a right on the 1806. It was a good thing Google Maps was working. Karen told me where to go, like a spirit guide, and I just followed. There are two burial sites for Sitting Bull, the one I was visiting now, at Mobridge, and one at Fort Yates. The one I was visiting now was on extremely green grassland, overlooking the Missouri River. There was a memorial to Sacagewa there as well, along with a map of the area.
A grave marker describes how his death came about from his involvement in the Ghost Dance Movement. It lists some of the notable events in his life and tells how his burial site was moved to the present location in 1953. Beyond that, is a bust of his head and shoulders with his Lakota name, Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull, and the years of his birth and death, 1831-1890.
If Sitting Bull is not the most famous Indian Chief in America, he is certainly in the top five. This is due to his prominence as both a visionary and leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux and his involvement in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
When many of the tribes were turning to the reservations, Standing Bull and his followers, stubbornly stuck to their old ways, eventually seeking asylum in Canada for four years. Decimated and starving, they were eventually forced into surrender and placed on Standing Rock Reservation. In a paradoxical turn, he later went on to befriend Annie Oakley and became a featured attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, selling his photo and autograph for good money.
In his last days, word spread that Sitting Bull was getting involved in the Ghost Dance, and tribal police were sent out to see he didn’t cause trouble. A struggle broke out, and he was shot in the head and chest.
The sun was low on the horizon by now, a white circle, with white clouds fanning out from it, over miles of green, green prairie grass that were stirring in the wind. I sat down on the hood of the Mountain Bluebird and faced the monument. In that moment the wind picked up and began pushing at my back.
Where do we come from and where do we go? We know so much, but not the answer to that question. We have ideas. We make up stories. We build churches and sit around campfires, looking up into the night sky, but we don’t know where we come from, and we don’t know where we go. I knew I’d come from Pine Ridge that morning, that much I did know, but I had no idea where I’d even pull over and sleep that night. What would happen the day I laid down and didn’t get up? Where would I go then?
A car was coming towards me. The driver and passenger looked like they were up to something. A thousand crickets began to chirp like a death rattle. It felt like it was time to move on.