The Heart of Everything That Is

Notes from Lakota Country

The warning was clear and hard to miss: a rectangular yellow sign, posted on the barbed wire fence running alongside the gravel roadway of Tribal Route 2. A triangle at the top of the sign depicted a cannonball exploding into pieces. Below it read:


The Area Beyond This Sign Was Used For Military Purposes in Past Years

For Your Safety Do Not Disturb Unknown Objects

They Could Accidentally Explode

Considering myself duly warned, I spread the barbed wire apart, slipped between the rusted lines, and headed into the lonesome reaches of the southern Badlands.

After the endless flatness of the Great Plains, the Badlands comes as a surprise. Sharp, crenellated cliffs of beige, rose, and orange suddenly spring out of the green prairie grasses. Pinnacles and spires twist and fold into wafer-thin ridges, like a meringue made from dust and clay. Hoodoos carve edges into an otherwise seamless sky. It’s as if the land had undergone a kind geologic acid bath, erosion peeling away the earth’s outer layers to reveal ancient sediments.

Where do people fit in our picture of wild nature? The question can’t be understood without the stories of the people who lived here before Columbus stumbled upon “so-called America.”

The Badlands is a waterless place. Cottonwoods cluster near ravines that are dry most of the year, while here and there a bushy cedar or two sit in the swales. The main river is called the White, and it runs the color of skim milk. I wouldn’t drink it if you paid me. The Lakota (also known as the Sioux) call the area Mako Sica, which either means “land bad” or “eroded land,” depending upon who’s doing the translating. The first Europeans to the area, French trappers, took up the name. Les mauvaises terres a traverser, they called it – “bad lands to traverse.”

The (seeming) barrenness of this (apparently) empty wasteland was one of the reasons why, in 1942, the US military decided the area would make a perfect bombing range. The Army – evidently unconcerned about the obligations of treaty promises – summarily snatched some 340,000 acres of land that belonged to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The 107 families who lived in the area were given two weeks to evacuate their homes and farms. A few held out, and were given a second two-week warning. Then the bombers started their training flights. They used old cars and yellow-painted oil drums as targets.

artwork depicting a bison hunt from horseback on a wide plainBuffalo Painting by Alfred Jjacob Miller / Walters Art Museum

A few old timers on the Pine Ridge Reservation still remember how the windows in their homes were blown out by the blast waves. They also recall, with a mix of pride and resentment, how nearly a thousand Oglala men signed up for the war. Even as the US military was using their homeland as a practice run for Dresden, Sioux were serving as US Navy code talkers in the Pacific or as US Army scouts in Europe, slithering up close to the Nazi lines. (The name Sioux, by the way, is an abbreviation of a mashup of French and Chippewa, Nadouessioux, which means “little snakes.”)

The Lakota, of course, are no strangers to betrayal and insults. But even in a history pockmarked with offenses – after the massacres and broken treaties and the carving of four US presidents’ white faces into the sacred Black Hills, which the Lakota sometimes refer to as Wahmunka Oganunka Inchante, “The Heart of Everything That Is” – the seizure of the Badlands for use as a bombing range was an especially sharp fuck-you. The issue still hasn’t been resolved. In 1968, the Badlands, including the area inside the Lakota reservation, became a national monument and, in 1976, by act of Congress, a national park. The Southern Unit of Badlands National Park is federal property sitting on Lakota land.

I hiked through the mixed-grass prairie toward a long sandstone formation – just an afternoon reconnaissance to see how far I could wend my way into the arid labyrinth. To the west lay the big mesa of Cuny Table. Somewhere beyond that was Stronghold Table, where the last Ghost Dance occurred and where, after the horror at Wounded Knee in 1890, a force of 27 Lakota warriors successfully held off the US Seventh Cavalry. Whites and other outsiders are prohibited from visiting Stronghold Table; only Lakota go there.

Following the contours of the prairie, I climbed up a draw that appeared to slip through the earth’s fortifications. No luck. The way was blocked by a wall of gray chalk. I had no clue how to penetrate the maze. Figuring out such a landscape, I imagined, would take a lifetime of study.

Story enlarges scenery, a way of putting “home” back into the science of ecology.

I had gone to Lakota country to explore the most emotionally fraught issue surrounding the modern, Western idea of wilderness. Where exactly do people fit in our mental picture of wild nature? How can we live with the land in some measure of harmony? How have we done it better (and done it worse) in the past? These questions cannot be understood – they cannot even be approached – without the stories of the people who lived here first, before Columbus stumbled on “so-called America,” as one Lakota woman I met on Pine Ridge said.

The dispossession of the Indigenous peoples is the original sin of the United States. The disgrace is so often forgotten perhaps because it’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the atrocity. In the space of just a few generations disease wiped millions of people off the map, obliterating entire cultures. The survivors fought as best they could, but inevitably found themselves surrounded by the new settlers. The nations that survived were relegated to the least desirable places (like, for example, the Badlands). Countless others disappeared forever. Today in the United States, Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the population, and their cultures – despite leftover place names and the motifs that some of us decorate our homes with – exist at the far margins of the public mind.

The wrong was repeated during the creation of the United States’ much-celebrated parks. “America’s Best Idea” is founded on taking land from people, then rubbing out their history. I don’t mean that in some polemical, hand-waving way, pressing the uncontestable point that all of this country is somehow conquered territory. I mean the National Park Service (or its preceding agencies) sometimes actually seized the land.

The list is long. Land grabs occurred in the Northern Rockies, where the park service excluded the Shoshone from Yellowstone; and in the Northwest, where Coast Salish names were replaced with English ones, so that a peak long known as “Tahoma” was rechristened Mount Rainier; and around the Great Lakes, where the stories of the Ojibwa who had lived there for centuries weren’t included in the “official history” of Apostle Islands National Park. The Blackfeet’s removal from what is now Glacier National Park is one of the best-known examples of Native American dispossession that occurred in the course of making a nature preserve. For decades, park rangers aggressively enforced a ban against Blackfeet hunting and fishing in their traditional territory, despite the Blackfeet’s complaint that the policy violated their treaty rights. During a 1915 visit to Washington, DC, a Blackfeet delegation asked Stephen Mather, the founding director of the park service, to at least keep Blackfeet place-names in the park. A negotiator named Tail-Feathers-Coming-Over-The-Hill said the whites used “foolish names of no meaning whatsoever.” Mather accepted the Blackfeet’s demand. Then he went ahead and used white names on the maps anyway.

Such facts eat at the wilderness ideal like acid. Among all of the critiques of wilderness, the sharpest is the one that faults the Romantics for imagining that the wild could be a place out of time, thereby erasing the people who lived there. “The myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin,’ uninhabited land had always been especially cruel to the Indians who had once called that land home,” William Cronon wrote in his landmark essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” In the two decades since that article was written, advances in archaeology and paleobiology have given new weight to the criticism. It turns out that humans had spread over just about every part of the hemisphere before Europeans showed up, and that wherever they went they shaped the landscape in fundamental ways. The wilderness that Europeans believed they discovered was, in fact, a human construction.


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The new revelations about the Americas before Columbus and the consequences of the contact between the “Old World” and the “New World” have fueled the intellectual debunking of wilderness. “This Edenic world was largely an inadvertent European creation,” Charles Mann writes in 1491, his book about the scale and scope of the pre-Columbian societies. “At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush.” In his book The Once and Future World, environmental journalist J. B. McKinnon writes: “To accept that native cultures had the numbers, the knowledge, and power to transform entire continents lays waste to the widely treasured ideal of wilderness.”

But must it, I wondered? Perhaps there is a middle way, some path that can reconcile the hope that we invest in wild places with the horrors of history. Can we craft a wilderness ideal that is deepened – rather than demolished – by historical awareness?

That’s my hope. By instinct and by education I’m more a historian than a naturalist. Whenever I come to a new place – especially if my intent is to hike for days in a big loop and sleep under the stars, as I like to do – I make it a point to learn something about the first peoples who lived there. I’ve never felt that this diminishes the spirit of the wild. Quite the opposite, actually. Any bit of knowledge deepens my feeling of intimacy with the land, however appropriated that intimacy might be.

In learning how people once thrived in a place, I understand better how the land works. To discover that the original inhabitants caught salmon and made their clothes from cedar bark, to know that they were duck trappers and rice gatherers, to learn how they drove herds of bison off the same cliff for thousands of years, or lit huge fires to construct vast savannahs, or pruned riverside grasses to harvest straight fibers – such knowledge of native economy makes a landscape legible. Story enlarges scenery. It’s a way of putting “home” back into the science of ecology.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. The line is even truer when it comes to history. One of the burdens of an historical education is that one lives crowded among a litany of miseries. When we restore memory to the landscape, then, we make the wilderness less innocent. The romantic bubble is popped.

All for the best, I say. To put the wild into historical context is to evolve from scenery, to landscape, to arrive finally at place.

Romantics like John Muir, so eager for enchantment and escape, made the view into two-dimensional scenery. As we now know, their ideas of the pristine proved unhelpful. Then the ecologists, using the insights of science, turned those flat scenes into full-bodied landscapes. The anthropological explorer can go even deeper by adding the dimension of human experience. Land becomes a palimpsest, stories layered on top of stories, open to multiple readings. To be aware of history transforms a landscape into a place. Which is to say, a site full of memories.

The first memories of America, I am convinced, are still speaking. They have important things to say if we are prepared to listen.

Jason Mark is editor of Sierra Magazine. This essay is adapted from his book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.

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