CODY, Wyo. -- The Creator brought everything together -- earth, water, fire
and air; "this is Crow country."
These were the words of Crow Chief Arapooish to fur trader Robert Campbell
in 1843, as spoken by Crow elder Joe Medicine Crow at a recent seminar in
"You can take fur, but don't overdo it. You can eat buffalo, but don't
overdo it. While you are here, don't hurt our land. Go now and catch the
beaver, but don't overdo it; eat buffalo, but only what you need. So long
as you do this, you are welcome in Crow country," were the words of
Medicine Crow spoke during the Plains Indian Museum Seminar at the Buffalo
Bill Historic Center. The subtitle of the seminar was "Native Land and the
People of the Great Plains." Seminar participants, scholars, lecturers,
historians and others heard story after story about how today's American
Indian makes contact with the past so that they can maintain the culture
A fusion of history and contemporary life on the Plains brought to light
why the Plains Indians so strongly protect their ancestral homeland and
sustain the culture. From the Black Hills of South Dakota to Yellowstone
and north to the Missouri River in Montana, then south into the Powder
River country of Wyoming. American Indian participants at the seminar
related stories and personal opinions about why the people are still there
and why they intent to stay and grow even stronger.
"We are the earth people," Medicine Crow said. "It is very challenging
trying to preserve our land and keep it sacred. A lot of times you abuse
our land," he said.
Medicine Crow said that non-Indians may acquire land and claim they can do
anything they want on it.
"We don't own the land; we belong to it. Father Sky is getting mad at us.
There are tornadoes and hurricanes, and it goes on and on," Medicine Crow
"While we are here we can enjoy; here we can sustain the Indian beliefs,"
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North
Dakota, like other tribes along the Missouri River, lost much of their
homeland -- including villages and allotments -- to the creation of lakes
behind a series of Missouri River dams that were part of the Flood Control
Act of 1944.
"Native lands of the Great Plains seemed to be speaking to Fort Berthold.
We are irrevocably tied to the land; physically, it is the land which
nourished us," said Marilyn Cross Hudson, of Fort Berthold.
The loss of homeland by Plains tribes meant the loss of lands rich in
nutrients for sustenance and a loss of sacred sites used for ceremonial
purposes, sites that include burial places as land was broken up to allow
non-Indians to settle and the dams that created lakes put sites permanently
Cross Hudson spoke about the lost village of Elbowoods, where she grew up.
The community was completely inundated by Lake Sakakewea in the 1950s. Many
elders today speak of that community that was rich in life, ground where
crops were grown and wildlife was abundant enough to ensure a sustained
Elbowoods was moved to where New Town, N.D. is now located. The houses were
moved across the frozen Missouri River.
FIGHTING TO PROTECT SACRED PLACES
Sustaining the culture and spiritual connection to the land takes plenty of
resilience and determination. Sacred places are harder to protect.
Bear Lodge (or Devils Tower) in Wyoming is a sacred site for the Lakota,
Cheyenne and Arapaho. Rock climbing on the tower is a major sport that
conflicts with ceremonies conducted every year in June. The National Park
Service asks for a voluntary prohibition on climbing in June, but many
climbers, guides especially, do not respect the ceremonies -- and have even
taken the issue to court when the park service asked for a complete June
A move is under way to change the name to Bear Lodge, or at least add it
for place-name recognition. All tribes, in their own languages, refer to
the monolith with similar stories as the lodge of the bear.
Bear Butte, on the north edge of the sacred Black Hills, is now a state
park, controlled by South Dakota with help from an American Indian advisory
The Black Hills are sacred to many tribes who called the area home for
centuries. The land was taken from the Lakota after it was retained by the
Treaty of 1851.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1980, ruled the Black Hills were illegally taken
from the Lakota. "A more ripe case of dishonesty may never have been seen,"
the Supreme Court stated.
Congress offered $81 million for the Black Hills. The current value is now,
accounting for compounded interest, approximately $500 million.
"Lakota people have refused the money, asserting the [Black Hills] are not
for sale. Eighty percent of the Lakota are absolute in non-receipt of
money. The government thinks the case is closed; the Indians know the case
if open," said Linea Sundstrom, archaeologist.
Sundstrom said there is always the question about how a people with the
nation's most extreme poverty refuse one-half billion dollars.
It's not about the money; the land isn't for sale, according to tribal
elders. The land was taken because those who did the taking said the
American Indian did not use the land properly. But the land provided
sustenance and a spiritual value, Sundstrom said.
"It's not about the money. I think the prevalent thought on that is that
the money will not fix what's wrong. It won't bring things back into
balance," she said.
"Also I think the Oglalas [of the Pine Ridge Reservation] and Sicangu [of the Rosebud Reservation] in particular witnessed a lot of money poured in
and gone up in smoke. It hasn't fixed the problem. I think they want to get
back into relationship with the land."
The archaeological sites referred to by Sundstrom range from stone
drawings, medicine lodge sites and campsites to other sites such as springs
and rock outcroppings that were used and are known by elders today as
sacred or ceremonial sites; or sites where something significant had taken
An area called Cave Hills in South Dakota, a circle of caves that is sacred
to the Lakota, is the site of former uranium mining. Today the tailings
continue to drain into the Grand River and eventually into the Missouri.
Work is under way to award more mining licenses for the area to explore for
oil and other materials. The tribes want a reclamation process to take
Stone drawings that elders assert are communications from the ancestors
that give instructions on how to live with the land are destroyed by chalk,
tools and graffiti.
"Religions and spirituality reference both space and time. Christianity
references place and American Indian spirituality references the past,
present and future simultaneously," Sundstrom said.
"Lands of the Indians were inherent property from time immemorial and not
given to them by human power," Cross Hudson said.