We know we live in the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy consisting of stars, gas, and dust, and will admit that we are only a very small part of it, but it is difficult to picture unless you get far enough away from the city lights to actually see a white band of it overhead, very much like a celestial river or highway, lined with glistening jewels.
That was the situation. I was walking up the driveway of the Niobrara State Park, trying to get a cell phone signal, when I happened to look up and see the Milky Way. It was a revelation. Is there life out there? A better question would be this — where is there not life?
My mind was jumping, through space and down the road, and I barely slept. By now my pillow was as flat as a dollar bill. There was a reservation only twenty minutes away, the Santee Sioux Reservation. Before daylight I was up, breaking down camp. To get to the town of Santee, I took the 540 north until I reached the river.
The Santee Sioux Reservation was created in 1863 and has a population of nearly 900. At one point in its history, the land was allotted to individual members of the tribe, with some of it reserved for agencies, schools, and a mission. I parked by a boat landing when I got to Santee and set out on a path that ran through the recreation park, signs along the way telling tales from the tribe’s history.
My idea was to make a walking meditation out of it. I’d gotten pretty loose with my practice, now counting breaths as quicky as one does when they’re trying to hold their breath. The greater point was to stay aware, which isn’t that hard when traveling, everything is new and interesting, seen through eyes that are open wider than usual.
One sign showed members of the tribe ice-fishing with bows and arrows, strings attached to the arrows. There were pictures of the school building, Davis Hall, one of a dining room, another of the students, their hair cut to regulation length, dressed in western clothes. There were tall trees on both sides of the path and a tyranny of insect sounds. Dragon flies hovered in mid-air before zipping off at light speed. Now, there in front of me, was the frame for a sweat lodge, a place for purification ceremonies.
A white dog with a red collar came bounding up, but then got spooked and ran in the other direction. A few steps later and there was a white dandelion, ready to scatter a thousand seeds like paratroopers. I walked and looked intently at everything that crossed my path.
Here came the white dog again. It stood on the top of a crest and looked intently at me. What was it seeing?
Returning to highway 12, I passed the Ohiya Casino and Resort. There was the skeleton of a large tipi out front and paintings on the side and back of Indians hunting buffalo on horseback. I stayed on the 12, passing Sioux City from a distance, and then arriving at the Winnebago Reservation. Also known as the Ho-Chunk people, the land was ceded to the Winnebago by the Omaha Nation, when it became clear that the land that they’d been placed on earlier was not fit to sustain them.
I was pleasantly surprised to happen across the Ho-Chunk Sculpture Garden when I rolled into town, with twelve sculptures in a circle, meant to represent the twelve clans of the tribe; those who are above, the thunder, warrior, eagle, pigeon, and those who are below, the bear, buffalo, deer, wolf, elk, fish, water spirit, and snake. Each clan was entrusted with a duty that was vital to the survival of the tribe. A thirteenth statue stood nearby, that of a holy man, lifting a pipe to the sky, beneath the wings of an eagle.
When my father was in college, he got interested in poetry and wrote a poem that won him a prize and the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the Poet Laureat of Nebraska at the time, John G. Neidhardt. This is the same Neihardt who collaborated with the Sioux medicine man, Black Elk, a cousin of Crazy Horse, on the book Black Elk Speaks.
This book describes a vision that Black Elk had as a youth. The vision includes elements that are foundational to the Native’s beliefs about the spiritual world; twelve horses, three for each direction, six grandfathers, each imparting a magical gift, a tree of life, two roads that cross, the red one being the good one, the black one meaning death and destruction. The vision is detailed to the point where some critics have questioned where Black Elk’s account ends, and Neidhart’s poetic fancy begins.
From the Winnebago Reservation, I saw that I was only a half-hour from the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site, so I drove there, following the 9 south until it became the 16. The Neihardt Center is in Bancroft, Nebraska, at the place where he once lived and worked. I was dismayed that it was closed, due to COVID. That had been a risk the whole trip so far, but it hadn’t impacted me as badly as it might have. So far, I’d driven through over twenty reservations and visited a number of parks and tourist attractions. A year earlier, the whole world had been locked down for everyone.
Since I couldn’t get into the visitor center or study, I walked around in the yard out back. There were statues of Neihardt sitting on a rock, and Black Elk next to him, with his hands raised to the sky. A circular garden recreates the intersection of the red road and the black road in life. Where they meet is sacred ground. I stood on it and looked up into the sky. A lot of things had changed since their time, but not the sun. It was still up there, a bright ring of fire, casting its rays in every direction.