Thursday, October 20, 2011

One Day My Sense of Place Changed

A view of the On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village overlooking the Missouri River.
One Day My Sense Of Place Changed
A Look At A Major Historical Site
By Dakota Wind
MANDAN, N.D. - When I was growing up on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation I heard many of the negative typical commentary about General Custer.  I’d see t-shirts at the pow-wow stands of Yellow Hair with an arrow through this hat, with words like “Custer was Siouxed,” or variants of the theme of giving Custer an arrow shirt.  T-shirts like that can still be found on the pow-wow circuit throughout Indian Country, and whenever I see one, I can’t help but smirk and nod my head at the truth of it. 

Growing up in Fort Yates, there wasn’t much choice by way of food in town, either at the grocery store or in the commodity box.  Often enough, my grandparents and many people would drive to Bismarck or Mobridge to buy groceries for the week.  When we’d drive to Bismarck, we use to have to drive through Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  That’s back when ND HWY 1806 went through the park. 

When I was elementary school, I remember visiting the park twice, once in fourth grade and again in middle school.  This was before the reconstructed Custer House and other buildings that followed.  The only things I recall as as a little boy were the earthlodges of the On-A-Slant Mandan Indian village.  I recall how immense the earthlodges were and how they smelled like an old cellar.  There was no guide to tell us anything more about the history, archaeology, or culture of the park.  There was no ranger to monitor or secure the earthlodges or the blockhouses.  My earliest impression of the site wasn’t just the earthlodges’ size but the smell.  People, the general public, used them as restrooms.

When I was in high school, the Custer House, Granary, Commissary, and Central Barracks were being constructed.  I’d sit in the backseat and look out the window, sometimes I’d have my headphones on and I’d almost always be listening to Def Leppard, but when my grandparents were speaking, I’d be listening to them.  When we’d drive through the park, sometimes my grandmother would tell me about General Custer and how he’d taken an Indian woman, a Cheyenne maiden, how the soldiers took Indian women and had their way with them.  Sometimes my grandmother would even talk about her great-grandfather, one of Custer’s own men.  My grandfather never spoke of Custer or mentioned the soldiers, but I could tell by the set of his hands on the steering wheel as he gripped it, it provoked him. 

In high school, I joined the basketball team and sometimes we’d drive through Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park on the way to or from a game.   The coach was also an assistant in the school’s “Indian Club.”  He definitely had an opinion about the fort reconstructions and openly shared it with the team.  I felt ashamed that one of the soldiers was my ancestor and I heard a lot of things about the character of General Custer. 

One fall day, the history teacher, a burned-out recovering hippie of a woman with weary eyes and a tired cracked monotone voice to match (we called her “Beanie”) took the class on a tour of the reconstructed Custer House.  We were guided by a man portraying one of the General’s strikers.  He told us all about the virtues of General Custer, but we had our own opinion – at least I did – and I we quietly stepped through the house.  It was one-sided and uninviting.  Nothing the reenactor could say or do could make me or the class interested because what he said didn’t affect in any way our established opinion of General Custer. 

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt felt a sense of place about Fort Abraham Lincoln and General Custer, and he did something about it.  He signed the Fort Abraham Lincoln Act, deeding the old Fort Abraham Lincoln to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.  What’s Roosevelt’s connection? 

In 1877, Colonel Nelson Miles led the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Bearpaw Mountain at the end of the Nez Perce Campaign.  On Oct. 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to Colonel Miles.  Miles was ordered to bring the Nez Perce to Fort Abraham Lincoln for internment, which he did and when he delivered the Nez Perce to Bismarck, ND, he took the first train to St. Paul, MN, to meet with Gen. Terry.  The colonel was promoted to Brigadier General. 

Brig. Gen. Miles went on to capture Geronimo and was promoted to Major.  Maj. Gen. Miles had a bit part to play in the events that led to Sitting Bull’s death.  Miles believed that the Lakota should have been firmly under control of the US Military not the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Miles personally led the invasion of Cuba in the Spanish-American War of 1898.  Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, popularly known as the Rough Riders, in the Kettle and San Juan charges. 

Aside from President Roosevelt’s contemporary relationship with Gen. Miles, Roosevelt was aware of General Custer’s association with the site, and the fact that Fort Abraham Lincoln was also a prison camp for the Nez Perce (only ten days; ten Nez Perce died during that time) and for the Grasshopper Band of the Northern Cheyenne in the winter of 1877-1878. 

President Roosevelt signed the Fort Abraham Lincoln Act to preserve and protect the history and culture of the site. 

My first experience of working at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park visited me in the form of an elderly Mandan Indian woman.  She was dying of cancer and had asked one of her relatives, her children and grand children, to step forward to continue a native presence in the On-A-Slant Mandan Indian village.  When none came forward, she reached out and asked me.  But it isn’t as simple as that.  

She greeted me in Hidatsa in passing one day.  A few days went by, then she asked who I was (when a native elder asks that kind of question, it implies asking who I descend from, who my people are, and what my traditional name is).  Time passed and one day she called me “grandson” and asked me if I would work her ancestral village.  I said yes. 

The Mandan Indian people lived at this village, only they knew it as Watchman’s Village (it was later named the On-A-Slant Village by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s), and they lived there from about 1550 to 1781.  The Mandan Chief Four Bears’ father Good Boy called that village home.  The Mandan Chief Shehek Shote, White Wolf (called Sheheke or White Coyote by some) knew this village as his first home. 

In 1781, the Mandan were struck by an epidemic of smallpox.  They left their deceased loved ones in the lodges and abandoned the village in a move north to Knife River.  They never forgot where they came from.  There are still people at rest in the On-A-Slant Mandan Indian village. 

The Mandan, the Nu’Eta, have a sense of place about Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  Its home and its sacred. 

I had to learn more about Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park if I was going to work there, to make it matter to me, to establish my own sense of place. 

For the Lakota, there is the phrase, “My home is where I set my lodge.  One pole rests at the mouth of the Heart River…”  In 1803, the Hunkpapa Lakota and the Yanktonai Dakota engaged the Assiniboine and Mandan for control of this contested area and won in the Battle of Heart River.  For the Lakota, one pole of the lodge of the Teton lies in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  For the Lakota, despite the connection the site holds with General Custer, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is home. 

For the Hunkpapa Lakota, there was a skirmish within the boundaries of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, a “Wood Cutter Fight.”  For the Lakota, battlefields are respected and honored because that’s where people died defending their way of life, their territory, even if they were the enemy.  For the Lakota, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is a memorial. 

In the fall of 1874, Lieutenant Tom Custer captured the Lakota war chief Rain-In-The-Face and imprisoned him in the Fort Lincoln guard house.  Two years before his arrest, Rain-In-The-Face conducted a successful horse-stealing raid on the Arikara at the Infantry Post.  He was arrested for killing surveyors on the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873.  Rain-In-The-Face might have been arrested and detained at Fort Abraham Lincoln but he was released in the dead of night in the late winter of 1874-75.  Rain-In-The-Face never spoke a word against Fort Abraham Lincoln and the only animosity he held was for Lieutenant Tom Custer. 

In May of 1875, General Custer hosted a ten-day celebration at Fort Abraham Lincoln in honor of the peace treaty he witnessed between the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota and Lakota Indians.  At that very same celebration, General Custer heard testimony of the Indians about the mistreatment they were dealt at the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Agents, and carefully recorded it.  In the fall of 1875, General Custer travelled east where in the spring of 1876, he testified to Congress on behalf of the American Indians and their plight, testified against President Grant and against the Secretary of the BIA.  He was arrested.  General Terry pressured President Grant to release him.  General Terry ordered General Custer to “use any means necessary” on the Centennial Campaign, the Little Bighorn campaign. 

The Lakota of the nineteenth century might not have liked the ideology of Manifest Destiny that gripped the United States, nor the fact that General Custer led his men in the field after he hosted them at his fort, but its history, and the Lakota respect what happened.  Sitting Bull himself offered that he would not speak ill against the dead, the enemy, out of respect. 

When I began my first summer at Fort Abraham Lincoln, it was with mixed feelings.  I’ve since learned all that I’ve written above, reader, and more.  My sense of place changed. 

I believe that history should be preserved, protected, promoted even, and I believe that it must and should be shared.  The history of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is a story about Indians, Indians fighting Indians, Indians fighting soldiers, a story about Dakota Territory, its what you might call an all American story. 

Reader, you may already have a sense of place about Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park or a sense of place of near you, you may not.  In the very least, I hope that I give you a moment to consider something about it.   

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