Development Disturbs Significant Cultural Site
Killdeer Mountain: Sacred Site, Battle Field
By Dakota Wind
KILLDEER, N.D. – Killdeer Mountain as a natural land feature is hardly worth commenting on in a land where the view is more sky than earth. The rock appears to break out of the surrounding earth like the reach of a tired hand after a long yawn. The plateau is flat and even, as if a great knife had cut the top of some mountain, as a child might decapitate a flower with a stick, but where the top of this mountain is, is anyone’s guess.
Plains Indian tribes have been coming here for ages. An old campsite on the south west side of Killdeer Mountain is littered with tertiary flakes of Knife River flint, evidence that the plateau has born witness to a continual cultural occupation for thousands of years.
In those long years, untold generations of young men have ascended this step to heaven to pray, to look out upon the unmarked beautiful landscape, to look through the veil of sky above and bear witness to the vast mystery of creation. And so, Killdeer Mountain became a special place, a sanctuary, a natural cathedral.
The Lakȟóta call this special place Taȟčá Wakutėpi, Where They Kill Deer. Their name doesn’t take away from the sacredness of the site, but it was a name that notes it is a place they came to annually to hunt, and in that hunt too, offer thanksgiving.
At the top of Killdeer Mountain is a cave that descends over a hundred feet. Lakota oral tradition holds that some of the people escaped General Sully's assault by climbing down and then navigating through the series of caves and emerging west of the plateau. The cave is called Medicine Hole.
Another nation, whose cultural occupation of the area reaches back a thousand years, the Nu’Eta (Mandan), have a cultural story of a figure in their long tradition who brought his staff down upon the mountain in retaliation and broke the single plateau into two. Broken cracked rock lay about the entire step as if in testimony to this long ago punishment.
The Lakȟóta call July Čhaŋpȟasapa Wi, or The Month Of Ripe Chokecherries. Late in this month, in the year the Lakota call in the Long Soldier winter count First Fight With White Men, the Lakȟóta came to Taȟčá Wakutėpi to hunt. It was late July, 1864, when the Lakȟóta men were hunting and the women were gathering chokecherries in preparation for the long winter. It was a time of year, no different than any of the thousands of Čhaŋpȟasapa Wi before, only this time a great cloud of dust appeared to the south east of Killdeer. It turned out that it wasn’t a gange of bison.
General Sully knew this day as July 28, and he brought with him a force of about 2,200 men and he was looking for a fight. His objectives were to engage and punish any hostile Sioux who partook in the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict, and to utterly destroy their food stock and camps.
The Lakȟóta say that a lone warrior rode out and taunted the soldiers. Sully ordered this lone rider killed immediately and set his sharpshooters upon this task. Truly, Sully engaged in battle without parley as though there were no other alternative. At the end of the day, as many as 150 Lakȟóta lie dead or dying on the field. Children who were inadvertently left behind in the wild melee were set upon and murdered to the last, their delicate scalps carved from their precious heads.
A map outlining the oil wells, some on private, some on state owned lots, on which the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission looked past the majesty of this step, looked beyond the site held sacred for thousands of years, and looked through the tragedy of conflict. In a series of public hearings, the ND Industrial Commission heard from landowners, historians, archaeologists, and tribal representatives. Despite overwhelming support from the public who went to the hearings, the ND Industrial Commission approved over fifty wells in the Killdeer Mountain conflict “study” area.
In a recent development, Basin Electric has requested to install a transmission line and substation in their petition ND PSC Case #: PU-11-696. This new line and substation are in response to the growing power requirements in northwestern North Dakota. Basin Electric’s plan calls for construction over two years in the Killdeer Mountain conflict “study” area beginning in 2014.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission recently held three public hearings in regard to Basin Electric’s proposal. Comments from the State Historical Society of North Dakota are luke-warm, acknowledging Basin Electric’s plan and that a future assessment of the cultural resources within the “study” area will mandate future projects.
A map of Basin Electric's proposal.
On September 12, 2013, during the annual tribal summit hosted at United Tribes Technical College, tribal chairmen from the five tribes of North Dakota, the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (Lake Traverse Sioux Tribe), the Spirit Lake Oyate (Devil’s Lake Sioux), the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan Nation), signed a resolution opposing the disturbance of Killdeer Battlefield State Historic Site.
The politics and value of Killdeer Mountain are still up for discussion. The battle for preserving Killdeer Mountain needs more voices from Indian Country to stand in unity with the landowners, historians, and archaeologists who want to save it.
Meanwhile, people are still going to Killdeer Mountain to pray. Prayer flags testify to a quiet but sure presence; native pilgrims ascend heaven’s step to pray. Hikers ascend too, maybe not in prayer, but to appreciate the stark beauty of this natural cathedral.