The Standing Rock Indian Reservation is the sixth largest reservation in the United States and straddles North and South Dakota. It is 3,500 square miles and supports a population of roughly 8,000 people. The Sioux had been a nomadic tribe of hunters and gatherers and once they were put onto reservations, expected to give up their traditional ways and adopt European lifestyles and mannerisms that held no appeal. The Great Sioux Reservation, that at one time spanned across most of South Dakota kept getting broken down into smaller reservations, to keep the occupants isolated.
In 2016, the Standing Rock Reservation got a lot of media attention when three to four thousand activists, which included members of three hundred recognized tribes, descended on the Sacred Stone Camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was threatening the primary water source for the reservation. Protesters chained themselves to machinery to stop the work from taking place and police responded with pepper spray and attack dogs.
Later in the year, 2,000 US Military Veterans arrived to help shield the protesters from the police. The protest had earned a lot of support. Eventually, some concessions were made but the pipeline was completed regardless.
After leaving Sitting Bulls grave, I drove into Fort Yates and visited his original burial site. There were a few plaques telling his life story, including one that had a picture of him with his family. Another showed him standing with Buffalo Bill. I drove past murals of a chief in a headdress and a white buffalo, and then reached the Standing Rock monument, beside the Missouri River. It is a rock that is purported to once have been a woman or child who was turned to stone, and is regarded as sacred, with great healing properties.
The sun had already set by now and I had no idea where I’d sleep that night. The plan was to travel to Bismark, so I just drove in that direction, north on the 1806. I thought I might search for a campsite when I got to the capital, but instead just happened to pass one along the way, the Sugarloaf Bottoms, just outside of Fort Rice.
A full yellow moon had just risen, and it felt like a magical night. There were only two RVs at the site. By now it was fully dark, but then the moon, white and phosphorescent, rose up over the trees like a lantern. I hurried to throw my tent up, and then went off to look for a fee box. It was ten dollars, no reservation required.
It was freezing cold that night. Wolves howled in the distance. A flock of geese flew overhead. Somewhere an owl started to hoot. I lay on my side, exhausted, but still scheming. Before the sun rose, I leapt up and got on the road, driving all the way to Bismark in the dark. There, I visited the United Tribes Technical College, which had hosted a powwow a few weeks earlier. If things had worked out differently, that may have been my first destination. The sun still hadn’t risen. I drove in and drove out.
It was only when I got back on the highway, heading west on the 94 towards Jamestown that the sun made its first appearance of the day. It looked like it was rising up out of the yellow stripes on the road ahead of me. I would make a stop in Jamestown but had bigger fish to fry that day.
My father had been a preacher and I’d grown up as a nomad. Our greatest period of stability had been four years in a small farm town in North Dakota, Ellendale. Four years isn’t long, but I’d attended school there from the middle of seventh grade to the middle of eleventh grade, in this town of only two thousand people. Those are influential years and the people and places from that time had become part of my personal mythology.
The only reason I pulled over in Jamestown was to visit the biggest buffalo in the world. It is twenty-six feet tall, weighs eighty tons, and stands at the end of Louis L’ Amour Lane, named after the great western novelist from North Dakota. Whenever we drove past the buffalo as kids, someone would have to shout and point it out.
The buffalo was there, looking rather shapeless, but imposing, nonetheless. All around it and leading up to it was Frontier Village, a model Old West Town, with wagons, a saloon, a sheriff’s office, dentist office, trading post, and the Pioneer Church. They also had the Louis L’ Amour Writing Shack, but it was closed. I walked up and down the little Main Street, amped up and almost shaking in my shoes.
Then it was time to go visit another little prairie town, one that had only existed in foggy memories and dreams for the past forty years, full of pieces of the past, maybe nothing more than that. It was time to find out.