Ta??a Wakut?pi: Where They Killed Deer

Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota is hardly a mountain, but a majestic plateau that is an important place in Native American ceremony and history.

I put this together to raise some awareness about the Killdeer Mountain site. I'm not a mover or a shaker in matters like these, just someone who knows only a little about the the backstory of a cultural and historical site.

Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota is hardly a mountain, but it is a beautiful and majestic plateau as it rises gently above the steppe of the Northern Great Plains. In the summer, native plants and flowers dot the hillside and grow in the cracks of shattered sandstone. Short and middle indigenous grasses sway in a wind that has been present since creation.

The song of coyotes hauntingly fills the air on a gentle midsummer’s eve. The trees, a mix of ash and cottonwood grow in clusters, but it’s the cottonwood trees which sway and shush the world. Crickets take up their hum in the twilight where the cicadas left off theirs in sunlight.

Aeries of golden eagles and hawks remind the meadowlarks and rabbits to keep a wary eye on the skies. One golden eagle circles lazily above me and I take it as a good sign, my prayers will be carried, and I pause a moment to remember my grandparents.

At the very top of the plateau is a cave, an entrance into the heart of grandmother earth. Medicine Hole. Since the days of warriors and legend the Nu’Eta (Mandan) have called the mountain Bah-eesh, the Mountain That Sings. By day, like a great inhalation, the wind rushes into the deep embrace of the earth and at night like a long sigh the wind comes out with a whistle, and if one listens carefully, the song of the earth.

The breathing earth. The singing earth. To the Lakota what has breath has spirit, and the earth is a living breathing being, a grandmother. It is a reminder that we human beings belong to the earth. The earth doesn’t belong to people. In the Lakota language, Lahkol’iya, the earth is called Mako??, grandmother. And she is honored as such.

At dusk, when the sun’s fire has gone below the far horizon, true night no longer arrives. The moon no longer spreads her ebon robe over the land, and her embrace becomes a memory. In the distance are oil rigs. One can literally hear the fires of industry and human ingenuity humming across the land. The unnatural firelight smothers the land in perpetual gloomy twilight.

The site known today as the Killdeer Battlefield near Killdeer, North Dakota, is known primarily for the conflict which occurred on June 28, 1864. On that day, General Sully led a command of 4,000 soldiers in the last days of his Punitive Sioux Campaign in retaliation for the U.S-Dakota War of 1862. The village of Lakota and Dakota which Sully attacked had little to nothing to do with the 1862 conflict. The Teton and Yanktonai who were present had actually fought under Colonel Leavenworth’s command in the Arikara War of 1823.

General Sully’s assault continued into the evening and night with a hail of cannon volley.

Killdeer is designated a North Dakota State Historical Site and is valued for its contribution to the story of the state. The signage on site reflects the value the state has placed on the conflict. While there is nothing wrong with valuing, protecting, and interpreting the site as a battlefield, the story of the site as a hunting place, the story of the site as a spiritual place goes largely untold, and maybe that’s how it should be. But these are different days and the site should be preserved for more than the tragedy that occurred there.

The site was maintained by the North Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation at one time and shows it. Like Whitestone Hill, old picnic tables and a weathered playground await visitors. It’s an odd sight and it’s something that wouldn’t be seen at places like Gettysburg. A visit to a battlefield should be for reflection, not recreation.

Killdeer, or Ta??a Wakut?pi, was more than just a place where they killed deer. Young Lakota and Dakota men would ascend the hill for prayer and reflection in the ceremony called Ha?bl??iy?, Crying For A Vision. They would mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually prepare far in advance for their spiritual pilgrimage. The site for their quest also determined long in advance. Their quests generally lasted four days on the hill or mountain, standing, kneeling or sitting while they prayed through cold rain, blistering heat, and desperate thirst to humble themselves before the creator. Killdeer was and still is a special place for prayer and reflection.

For the Lakota, ceremonies began a long time ago. “Ceremonies are forever,” says Cedric Goodhouse, an Uncapa Lakota on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, “We live a life, and all the negative statistics associated with that, are the direct result of having a void of our spirituality, being denied a right to practice where and when our ceremonies are done, appropriately.”

The Nu’Eta (Mandan Indians) have the tradition that the bison entered into the world from Medicine Hole.

They also have the tradition that the mountain was once solid and unbroken stone until the son of Foolish One was killed. The spirits who were present at the death of Foolish One’s son entered the mountain. When Foolish One took up the lifeless body of his son, he smote the mountain with his staff and clove it in two leaving the two parts broken and cracked as we know it today.

Medicine Hole is where some of the Lakota and Dakota people fled into when Sulley began his unwarranted assault. The story goes that some of the people wound their way through the labyrinth and came out west of the mountain. It’s possible. A landslide, however, now marks the western exit.

Medicine Hole splits into three passages. In 1973, a spelunker named Earle Dodge, determined that one passage went west for about 120 feet, another was too narrow for exploration, and a third went east about 120 feet. Another spelunker made a descent of 80 feet before extreme cold made the exploration difficult to continue.

The following day after Sully’s assault, his command destroyed all that was left behind, even the dogs, of which over 3,000 were put to sleep. Children who were left behind in the hastily abandoned camp were killed.

Sully executed total war theory. Up to the Battle of Antietam, the Confederate States of America were winning the Civil War. The Union needed to win and subscribed to the total war theory of treating the civilians of the enemy as enemies. This meant the capture and imprisonment of innocent women and children, if they weren’t killed outright on the battlefield.

The success of the Union in the Civil War is directly related to the success of total war theory as demonstrated in the Punitive Campaigns of 1863 and 1864. If the site should be protected and preserved for its tragic history, then it must be argued that Killdeer holds a key to the victory of the union and must be protected.

In the summer of 1998, Isaac Dog Eagle officiated the Releasing Of The Souls ceremony at the Killdeer conflict site. The following year, he conducted the Wiping Of Tears ceremony to facilitate the healing process of people who lost family in the conflict.

Several private landowners and ranchers in and around Killdeer Mountain, many of them non-Native but who have fostered a relationship with the land and want to preserve the site for its natural history, are gathering to protect the site. A group of interested individuals are coordinating efforts to enlighten oil industry officials, and hopefully preserve the integrity of a natural site worth saving for its aesthetics as it is for the cultural traditions surrounding it.

There will be a meeting about the preservation of Killdeer Mountain and drilling there on January 24, 2013 before the North Dakota State Industrial Commission. The meeting at the state capital is open to the public. For more information, read this press release.

This piece originally appeared at TheFirstScout.blogspot.com and was reprinted with permission.