In the community grasslands in the middle of the Yankton Sioux reservation there is a herd of bison. We rounded a bend on the road and there they were, grazing and wandering. The land was communal and raw, wild and ancient. The grass grew high, South Dakota wild flowers were scattered about, and prairie dogs holes, and buffalo pies. We pulled the car off to the side of the road and watched the dynamics of this semi-wild herd. It was pretty sedentary that day, moving little, chewing, grazing, shaking off flies. A couple calves played tag. Vultures flew in wide circles, out of habit I guess. I doubt a bison had died and rotted there in ages, a feast for the birds. Meat’s meat and hide is hide and bones are ground into fertilizer. Vultures get by on road kill, or carcasses left as high water recedes on the banks of the Missouri.
But the sight of the herd was so completely unexpected–this was south eastern South Dakota, fenced and farmed and fertile and fallow–and probably because it was so unexpected it was utterly disorienting. We had rounded a bend and there they were. We saw a few dozen head. Did they ever stampede? I certainly hoped so. A clap of thunder and hundreds of pounding hooves headed where not even they probably knew. Just running.
It was disorienting, like the last century and a half hadn’t happened. No Sioux Rebellion in 1862. No Little Big Horn. No Sand Creek. No Wounded Knee. The Yankton missed most of these. They’d signed a treaty early. But their young men snuck off to join the other Sioux, the Rosebud in 1862, the Lakota in 1876 . My wife had two ancestors killed at Custer’s Last Stand. Though their side was the last one standing. I wonder how many ancestors she had at Little Big Horn who weren’t killed. I have no idea.
I watched the herd. It lolled about behind a farm. A nice looking farm. We’d passed a number of farms. Some of the Yankton had done well adopting western ways. But looking at the bison–the buffalo–I got the feeling that deep down these people, these Yankton, never had lost their real selves. That herd there, hidden away from outsiders in the middle of the reservation, that was their real selves. They may have signed a treaty long, long before that put them here, along the Missouri River–we’d been driving through the bottomland, which the river had inundated only a week before–but they’d cheated, and hadn’t turned white. They’d taken our names–no more Appearance of Breath or Smoke Tallow or Waiting For the Wind–but that was all, that and language and the military and taxes and watching television. Politicians came through and promised funds for the roads which never happened (you’d swear Lewis and Clark had trod that beat up asphalt). Indian kids went to concerts in the little prairie city Yankton, an hour away. But that was all. That was just the outside. Inside, the buffalo herd beat like the heart of the tribe. Breathed for the whole people. Huddled together for warmth when the cold winds blew. After all the wars and pestilence and long hikes to desolate land the Yankton had survived.
I looked at my wife in the seat next to me. She was one of them. Her mother was Oneida but her dad had been Yankton Sioux. She, her sister and her brother were the first on either side to be born off reservation. And while she had the blood of both in her veins, the DNA of each, you can’t be both tribes, not by U.S. law. So her parents signed her up as Yankton Sioux. These were her people, this her land. Those were her buffalo. And I realized that after three decades, I barely knew her. I knew her, but not all of her. I hadn’t known about that herd. To her it was the most natural thing in the world to have a communal herd of bison. It made no sense not to have one.
I wondered what else I didn’t know about her. What secrets lie inside her. What about her is still Sioux, still a tad wild, maybe, and definitely not of the white man. Native Americans are different than you or I. It’s not just that they were here before us. It’s that not everyone wears European civilization perfectly. They don it like a nice silk suit, and get by pretty much unnoticed. But left to themselves they’d shed it all, all this western civilization, at least part of the time, and get back to their dances, their hunts, their storytelling. And their buffalo, too. A big bull bison looked my way and snorted.
Sometimes I think that the Sioux think that the white man and the black man and the Mexican man and Asian man and even a lot of the other red men will just up an disappear someday. They don’t tell us this, but they think it. And when we’re not around, they talk about it, about the dancing and the hunting, and telling their stories about the buffalo. About how we came once, from across the sea and through the tall prairie grass, an innumerable host of us, and then we disappeared and were replaced again by the vast herds of buffalo, who roam with the seasons north and south and east and west. And if you stop and listen, they’ll tell their young ones, and all is quiet, you can hear the disappeared’s spirits rustling in the wind, there, but not important. Listen…and all is silent but the wind rustling the prairie grass…and that will be us, the non-Sioux people. That’s all, just the sound of the wind.