(actually covers June 18-21 and August 23; reposted from here)
We went to Yellowstone. We did.
But I won’t bore you with the details of that, because they’re details you could find in any tourist guide or travel book, and that’s not what’s important here.
The point is we went searching for the Native American dream, and to understand the way this twisted world and our machinations and industry on the body of the earth have changed and corrupted and re-inspired it, and where it lies today, and a path toward hope. We came looking for a glimpse of a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, and somewhere along the way, dizzy, dirty, and overwhelmed, we lost track of it.
While we were doing things like looking for fossils of ancient, esoteric sea creatures in the rugged, rocky hills on the road to Cody (and ending up chasing horny toads instead) where the sleek, brown teeth of prehistoric squid lay sprawled across the pebbles like so many seashells, or while we were standing dangerously on the edges of cliffs at Devil’s Kitchen (or Devil’s Lunchbox as Patrick often called it) where the painted canyon below us spilled out in an overflow of pastel colors and wild, jagged formations that looked like a madman’s map of Mordor, or while we were looking at waterfalls and massive, man-made dams at the edge of Yellowstone and climbing hills we weren’t supposed to, to look down at the great crowd of students we were supposed to be watching, or while we were shivering and wrapped in sleeping bags on the icy, windy shores of this great, ocean-sized lake that appears out of nowhere in the center of the caldera that is Yellowstone and greets you like the arctic sea, while we were walking amidst the hot springs and geysers that funnel boiling water from under the earth and reek of sulfur and cover the blue sky in thick, gray steam, while we were waiting for the bison we’ve been looking for for so long to cross the roads while tourists took tens of hundreds of pictures, while we were hiking along the circumference of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and gazing in awe at its walls of yellow stone for which Yellowstone wasn’t named, while we were chasing bears and hitting antelopes and herding high schoolers…
The truth is I left Yellowstone more than a month ago. We drove down to Salt Lake City in the long, restless PM, and took a plane out the next morning, and finally returned home to Indianapolis, red-eyed and sleepless, after an eight hour layover in Denver. The journey was finished, but the story wasn’t over yet. Something was missing.
So here I am, sitting in my cool, air-conditioned apartment in West Lafayette, on the third day of classes re-starting, sipping green tea and listening to music from the stereo speakers attached to my HDTV, staring at an article about how 2,000 acres of land in the Black Hills called Pe’ Sla, an area sacred to the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arikara, and Arapahoe, is about to be auctioned off by a private owner to the highest bidder. The tribes have raised money in hopes of buying back the land once taken from them and still sacred to them, but the “property” is expected to sell for approximately eight times the value they’ve raised. The state of South Dakota will likely put a road directly through the sacred areas, and open the land for private development.
This is not the Native American dream.
On our last nights out there, in our cabins in West Yellowstone, we sat and talked in hushed tones about all the things we’d seen. The sadness. The greed. The hopelessness. The false hope. The despair. The futility. The beauty. The reaping and weeping.
We talked about Leon, the Lakota small business owner we met on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, who owns a small but popular coffee shop. He’d talked to us about his struggles on and off the reservation. His attempts to do things that weren’t designed to be done, here and elsewhere. His return to the reservation. His opening of the coffee shop. Today, he is successful. He’s writing a book. There is a glimmer of the dream.
I wonder if he knows about this auction. I wonder if he’s tried to do anything. I wonder if there’s anything he can do. (I know he can make a damn good cup of coffee.)
The stars on those nights out there were clear, but the future they foretold was not.
As I sat there, listening to my friends and compatriots on the journey, I began to wonder if we weren’t misguided from the very beginning. We came this way in search of answers, but we’ve found only scars and scar tissue and more unanswered questions. We’ve learned so many things, but we still don’t understand what they mean. We don’t understand a thing. The things we’ve learned along the way are the smoke of a distant signal fire, but where does it lead? It’s dim, and there’s a storm in the distance and a flood at our backs, but though the rain will muddy and obscure the little trail we’re on, it’s what’s needed to invigorate the earth beneath our feet. The smoke and the distant fire we see is a sign that though the path we tread may be a lonely one, there have been others on it before us, and we are not alone. We are never alone. And we need to get there, to tend the fire at the other end of this rocky path, and keep it lit, and kindle it to burn brighter for those that follow us. The people we’ve talked to are waiting for us. The dreams of so many are waiting on us.
I think maybe we were wrong — maybe I was wrong — to think that we’d find a dream of any kind out there. What we found were memories. Or maybe prayers. But maybe we needed to go out there to find the dream within us. Maybe I needed to go.
To learn what needs to be done. To learn what should not be done. To learn from the successes and failures and mistakes. To learn from the tears shed and the stories behind them. To rediscover things forgotten, but never lost. That some things we can never buy back, but some things we can change. That you can sell your soul, but never your heart.
I hope one day to return to the Black Hills and walk in Pe’ Sla, as I walked up Bear Butte, on its stony paths lined with trees with branches tied by ribbons of prayer, where no wars were ever fought and no battles ever joined, where people went for peace, and where all tribes could go to talk to the wind and the earth. I hope I can bring my children to a place that isn’t a parking lot, where we don’t need water slides to feel the rush of energy, and the stars are clear and the future is bright.
I don’t know what will happen, but I can hope.
But we know it’s not enough to keep hoping.
So we will keep working. There is a dream to be tended. Our friends are waiting.
Update: Two days after the writing of this post, the auction of Pe' Sla was cancelled by the owners for reasons they declined to make public; the sacred land remains private property, publicly listed, and its ultimate fate remains uncertain.
We awake to one of the high schooler’s handlers — I shouldn’t call them that — one of their counselors shaking our tents awake. We’re leaving soon, it seems, so we all get up and break camp and eat breakfast. Two hours later, we’re waiting around, wondering when we’re getting started. These kids move like sloths on PCP, but so did all of us at their little urchin age of testing limits, manufacturing headaches, and practicing stupidity. It’s all part of the fun. A necessary development process perfected by a million years of evolution.
After a few eons, we move out in a great caravan of cars five thousand feet long, and head to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Inside the museum, the fossilized skeletons of millions-of-years-old beasts stand in imitation of how they stood in life, delicately placed in their poses by practiced paleological hands. Most of these are the real deal, too, and only the biggest and heaviest of them are built from casts, which is mildly mind-blowing.
Then they bus us out to the dig site. The Morrison formation, they call it, where all these sauropods and therapods are being found. It’s hot as hell, and we quickly get under the tarped, tent-like “permanent structure” that houses the dig site. It’s still technically active, but no one digs here anymore, because they want to preserve the fossilized footprints and keep a snapshot of in-process unearthing intact for education and future generations. This has more to do tangentially with just geology than Native Americans, but it’s still a pretty wild mind-screw. Under our feet here are the shadows of the bones of sixty-five-plus-million-year-old creatures who once walked right here. Only the shadows of bones, I say, because what we find is mostly rock. I wonder if we will ever be found like this, in the earth and rock, and if the future generations who find us will be able to figure out what killed us and avoid the same fate. If the dinosaurs knew what was coming, would they have tried to stop it, or would they have raced headlong toward their destruction while embracing the methods of their demise, like we so often seem to do?
I give up on that thought, and we drive to the next sites, to which I can connect more.
We drive to the hot springs. Warm water bubbles up from the earth, tired and weary, but blessed with fire, after its long journey down from the mountains we just drove over, after diving for miles and miles underground through the hot rock, before finally being forced back up here, at the Smoking Waters.
This place has strong medicine, but you wouldn’t know it from the water slides and parking lots.
“Smoking Waters” is what the Shoshone people call this place. People from all over came and come to bathe in her healing springs. But eventually, like so many of the rest of us, the Shoshone had no choice but to sign away this land in a government treaty. Unlike so many of the rest of us, they foresaw the possible future — the inevitable future. It’s the same trick that the Three Affiliated tribes are learning up in the badlands: how to see everything under the sign of the almighty dollar. The Shoshone stipulated that the springs must be open and free to the public.
Today, you can bathe in the hot springs at Thermopolis for free. As long as you limit yourself to twenty minutes in the State Bath House. The private water parks? The water slides? The sprawl of parking lots and the man-made ponds? They’re just progress. They’re just capitalism and the free market, those great bastions of democracy. They’re just civilization and the way forward. And so we stand on the great steel suspension bridge over the Bighorn River, staring at the formations of travertine and the rumbling, warm river below us, and a snake of plastic twists its way through the water park in the background, beside the mountains we just came down. And the sickening feeling in my stomach is that no one else seems to notice anything wrong with this.
But we must move on. And we do — to Legend Rock.
At Legend Rock, the ancients are still as powerful as ever. This is where we’ve come to see the petroglyphs. There is nothing else here but horses that may not be horses, and may be something else. Patrick talks to the students about sacred sites, and then we venture down, to the narrow path of unkempt dirt in the shadow of the mighty red stone wall tattooed in light by the spirits on the other end of time.
Shapes of animals and humans, four-fingered and five-fingered, long-limbed and short-limbed, horned and winged, and all interconnected and intertwining are etched into the rock. The students are curious. My friends are uneasy. But I am at peace here.
The Navajos won’t even come here. The place is too powerful and too old. There is a nervousness and a creeping current in the atmosphere, but I don’t feel unwanted. A certain restlessness pervades the air and energy seeps from the cracks in the rocks, as if we stand at the intersection of two worlds or twin dimensions, and it would be all too easy to slip into a different existence. But in these pictures, I see the shapes of familiar spirits. Similar shapes adorn the walls of El Moro near Zuni. The thick presence in the wind is not unlike the feeling during the Night Dances and Shalako.
On the way back to the vehicles, the horses are still watching us, before disappearing. Our one last stop for the day is as fitting as it is ugly: a pumpjack. One of those great, steal, black beasts with its long black mechanical arm, pumping oil from the ground beneath our feet. We are supposed to learn about this, but I can only think how it looks like a pimple, or a blemish, or a blackhead.
Round and round it goes, pumping, and we can see it all go full circle. The bones of the dinosaurs and their flesh and all the organic compounds of all the plants from those hundreds of millions of years of history, compressed and bound by pressure. Their gift to us is this black tea. Our mammoth caravan of dirt-shined SUVs runs on this stuff.
The first time I gave blood, I’d forgotten to eat all day. My blood sugar must have been low. The nurse had a hard time finding a blood vessel in my arm and must have pricked me a half dozen times. Finally, she got it, and the bag began to fill with my deep, red blood, the same kind my heart pushes around my body and lets me live and breathe. When we were done, I got up and started walking to leave when my vision started to fade to black, and my legs went out from beneath my body. My head filled with storm clouds and a pressure vacuum, like in the deepest parts of space. I lay down, blacked out, and waited for life to return to me. I wonder if that’s how the earth feels.
I wonder what the ancients must think of us. Are they laughing? Are they weeping?