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Is the pen mightier than big money?

Last March, Indian Country Today published an editorial I wrote entitled, "Do we have a responsibility for our relatives?" In it I described the Grasslands of the upper Midwest, their beauty, their species, and how this is where my ancestors lived for thousands of years.

It was a song of love to the Grasslands. It came from looking at and living with the Grasslands for more than 50 years. My perceptions also came from walking on, touching and breathing their different scents in the changing seasons, by feeling the scorching heat and the bone-numbing cold, and by knowing that my ancestors, the Lakota people, also knew these things.

Lakota people knew the grasslands for a lot longer than the mere 100-plus years that the grasslands have been trampled on by cows, plowed under by settlers, dug into by miners and drilled by oil companies. For millennia, Lakota people lived on the Grasslands as the Pte Oyate, the Buffalo People, living in balance with the animals, birds, fishes and plants. Prairie fires, started by booming thunderbolts, would pass through, cleansing and rejuvenating the soil. The ever moving herds of buffalo, deer, antelope and elk fertilized the new growth as they deftly picked blades of the unconquerable grasses in an age-old cycle planned and executed by a Great Mystery.

Quietly and cleverly the two-legged hunters watched, waiting to strike at the right moment so their own herds of people could also continue the cycle of balance between predator and prey. Until the ones who didn't understand arrived from all the different directions.

Now, there is only a small portion left. It is that portion: 2.3 percent in North Dakota, 1.7 percent in South Dakota, and one percent in Wyoming, that is called National Grasslands, managed by the United States Forest Service. Of those small portions, only one percent of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands contains a small resemblance to what existed only a little over 100 years ago. When that is gone, there will be no other place in the United States that can claim to be the same. As it is now, there are many species absent from these areas, species that once thrived in the Grasslands.

My love song, hopefully not a requiem, to the Grasslands, asked people to write to their senators and congressmen urging them to save this unique ecosystem from any more destruction. It was read by a congressional aide who showed it to his boss. Two weeks from that editorial's publication, Mark LeBeau, an aide to Congressman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., sent me an e-mail. I almost deleted it except that it had the word Grasslands in the subject heading. Mark wrote to tell me that his boss would sponsor a bill to protect the Grasslands as a wilderness area.

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Since that time, we have worked on the Great Plains Historic Grasslands Wilderness Area Bill, which became House Resolution No. 5489. It asks for a complete restoration of all the National Grasslands in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota is the largest and one of the most fragile and beautiful. But it also has oil underneath all that beauty. The Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota is the only one left with tall grass prairie. Tall grasses were common even into the early 1900s but now are only found in the small North Dakota Sheyenne National Grasslands along with their oak savannas. The Cedar River National Grasslands, also in North Dakota, was the site of the last large buffalo hunt. It is also within the Standing Rock Reservation, so it should be under the control of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but it is not. Who better would know how to take care of their historic homelands?

South Dakota's three grasslands - the Grand River, Fort Pierre and Buffalo Gap - also were homes to buffalo, wolves, cougars and even a bear or two. A few coyotes, deer, prairie dogs, antelope and bobcats can still be found in these areas. But ranchers don't like prairie dogs and their cattle are allowed to graze in the grasslands destroying ever more plant species, which in turn negatively affect the lives of certain insects, birds and other mammals. Poor cows, they also destroy riparian areas, fouling their own water sources. The Thunder Basin Grassland in Wyoming is probably the most threatened as it is completely opened to leasing for not just cattle but for coal mining as well.

When a bill such as this that will save a very unique and historic land area comes to Congress, there should be no question as to whether it will be approved. Logic would dictate that it should just be a matter of time before the rational, ethical thing is done. But H.R. 5489 is not going to be easy to pass. There's too much big money involved.

Congressman Pallone has been joined by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, in sponsoring this bill. Are these three going to be enough to save the last grasslands in the United States? Wouldn't it be better if all the members of Congress were to sign on as co-sponsors to save these last, small, unique pieces of North America from total destruction? Please write and fax your letter to your congressional representatives and senators asking them to cosponsor H.R. 5489, the Great Plains Grasslands Wilderness Act. Maybe the pen will be mightier than big money.

Charmaine White Face, Zumila Wobaga, a member of the Oglala Lakota band of the Tetuwin Oceti Sakowin, is an author, and grandmother. E-mail may be sent to cwhiteface@aol.com or mail sent to PO Box 140, Manderson, S.D. 57756.