My sister and I slipped away Thursday for a Missouri River kayak trip, on a perfect blue sky, windless day.
We launched at Washburn, N.D., with her son and his girlfriend, their first kayak trip on the big river. The current at the Washburn boat landing seemed a wee bit intimidating, but as soon as we were under way, it was clearly going to be a smooth float.
Because of the high water, there are not as many sandbars as in previous years, however, we did find a nice, little sandy beach for a break.
Although I’ve canoed and kayaked many lakes, including several trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, rivers are where my heart is happiest, and we are blessed to live on one of the finest rivers in the world, with clean water that runs in our section of the river mostly through prairie, thus does not suffer the severe effects of agricultural run-off. Right now, the water is very cold and we could only keep our feet in the water for short stretches.
Near the north border of Cross Ranch State Park, on the Nature Conservancy land, we spotted two adult bald eagles with two juveniles, right on the water’s edge, in the big cottonwoods. They just watched us float on by.
My kayak mascot, Baldy (which perches on my desk when I’m not on the water) was happy to see her kin.
Yellow warblers, spotted sandpipers, and swallows were all about. We spied on mama ducks (mallard, wood, and mergansers) with ducklings and a few Canada geese gathered with 14 goslings hugging the bank as we floated by.
We disembarked at the Sanger boat ramp, closed to boats because of the high water, thus all to ourselves (other than an extremely chatty camper at the adjacent campsite), and enjoyed cold libations. All in all, a perfect river day.
Deciding that my knees are sufficiently recovered to again ride my bicycle, I hit the trail Friday. That is the trail along one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, the Missouri. It was a gorgeous autumn day, 63 degrees, with a zephyr breeze and blue sky.
I loaded my bike into my car and headed for Steamboat Park. The cottonwoods have begun to turn lemony yellow, and the fallen ash leaves crunched under my wheels. Honking Canada geese passed by overhead.
All along the river trail, there is a series of city parks and wayside exhibits interpreting the history of the area, including keelboats and steamboats and bridges. The trail was busy with walkers, skateboarders, other cyclists, dog walkers and parents with children in strollers. Someone was playing with their dog at the sandy beach.
I was content with the knowledge that my husband was farther downstream on that same river, fishing with his pals.
The sandbar willows have turned golden and the myriad colors of autumn filled my senses.
I passed by a sign for Papa’s Pumpkin Patch, a place north of where I was that brings much delight to the area children — and the child-at-heart.
Then, I lingered at the area under the bridge where they’ve erected a statue and interpretative signs describing the historical Liberty Memorial Bridge that opened in 1922. The statue is a piece of the old bridge, demolished after the new one opened.
The day the old bridge was demolished, the roar of the explosion rumbled across town and could be heard and felt from our house.
What I contemplated as I rode along was my watershed address. We live on the edge of Jackman Coulee, which flows into the Missouri River. While I recreated, my washing machine, using this river water, was washing my clothes. The water bottle in the holder on the bike was filled with clean river water.
I also contemplated last year’s “Water is Sacred” protests that took place here. My prayer for the day is may the good Lord help us all to always remember what a gift the Missouri River is to us.
“Steamboats in Dakota Territory: Transforming the Northern Plains,” Tracy Potter. The History Press, 2017, 140 pages.
I can think of no one more qualified to enlighten readers on the history of steamboats in Dakota land than Tracy Potter, Bismarck, the author of the book “Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat.” Potter is deeply read in history and his work leading the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation steeped him in the background for this volume.
He sets the scene in his introduction and the initial chapters, describing the world of the Native Peoples as well as early explorers and trappers, who used the Missouri River for their travels. Then, the steamboats began to arrive:
“Steamboats’ speed and power transformed a region and forever affected relations between the United State and the several Indian nations of Dakota. …Steamboats provided a distinct and overt technological advantage to the American. They carried large loads — of trade goods, men, guns and cannon. They were impressive, useful and an object of considerable skepticism among the Indians.”
Prior to reading this book, I knew only the most rudimentary facts about this colorful chapter of history and its impact on the development of the area. Potter’s extensive research and the book’s bibliography are appreciated.
Potter tells the tales of Kenneth McKenzie and Grant Marsh, and of steamboats Yellow Stone, Spread Eagle, and the famous Far West, the steamboat forever linked to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He also highlights the steamboats of the Red River and Devils Lake and describes the deeply sad story of the steamboats role in the spread of smallpox.
The photographs that illustrate this volume help the reader imagine a time period when the banks of the Missouri at Bismarck and Pierre, S.D., were bustling with steamboats, their crew and passengers and the economic activity they drove.
“For the non-Indians involved with steamboats, they provided relatively rapid and generally safe transportation, commerce and communication. Steamboats stimulated the growth of cities, and as settlements increased in number and size, the boats stitched the region together. … For the twenty-first-century reader, most of all what steamboats provided were stories.”
The book is available at the Fort Lincoln Commissary, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Pick up this book, sit back, and enjoy the stories.
Crenelated landscape. That’s where we’re home from. The Bad Lands of North Dakota, where we gathered for one of Badlands Conservation Alliance‘s summer outings.
Driving there, we listened to the excellent radio segment “Natural North Dakota.” We’re members of Prairie Public Radio and partial to the vast majority of their programming, mostly listening in the car. Jim drove while I also caught up on the Washington Post and Twitter.
West of Dickinson, the grain is already ripening and pastures look bleak.
Our first glimpse of the Bad Lands was at Painted Canyon on the western side of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a tawny landscape, and I spotted a raven on a park boundary fencepost. A golden eagle soared over the Medora exit, and the resident turkey vultures circled the town.
The crunchy brown cottonwood leaves at this time of year are the evidence of continued drought and heat. Even at 9 a.m., we could feel the coming heat of the day building.
Remnants of the abattoir at Chimney Park.
Hence the “Chimney Park.”
The group gathered at Chimney Park on the western edge of Medora and headed to Camel Hump Dam, where we picked up a couple more folks. The water level in the dam is shrinking. Along the Maah Daah Hey trail, folks are participating in a MDH 50 Race. Better them than us, Jim and I agreed. We caravaned on very dusty roads to our destination.
The goldenrod on the roadsides signal that late summer is here as do the scoria lilies on the rocky outcroppings.
Here and there, the dust is in drifts on the road. We passed Twin Buttes and continued on the Westerheim Road, skirting the most rugged of the Bad Lands. There is a haze of dust on the horizon along with smoke from the big Montana fires. The roads we traveled are gravel, not as much scoria as in other areas, and the area is spider-webbed with oil pads and such. We met a semi hauling water, and the dust the rig created dwarfed our vehicle dust. ow and then, I spotted a buteo perched in the green ash trees. Near Wannagan campground, we noted a support pop-up site for the MDH 50 Race.
We entered the Bell Lake area, and the road is more near to the Little Missouri River canyon. It is very easy for the uninitiated to take a wrong turn in this area, so, as I’ve written before, do get a U.S. Forest Service grasslands map before you travel here. The temperature has already climbed to 86 degrees.
We pulled over for our conversation with Jeb Williams. Jeb belongs to the Short family and from where stood, we looked down from this vista point into the historic Short Ranch. Our topic was our mutual concern regarding the proposed bridge in this area. Jeb shared his childhood memory of driving on a twisty road no longer in use to come to visit his grandparents.
We’re all very worried that the preferred alternative would, while no longer traversing near to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of TRNP, shoot straight through this ranch, through what Jeb describes as “one of the best bottoms along the Little Missouri River,” splitting the ranch with the potential for 1,000 trucks a day during fracking activities.
Someone remembers that at a public meeting held in Medora some years ago, regarding the proposed bridge in this vicinity, now deceased Con Short said, “Hell, no.” Jeb points out that “from a true transportation sense, this preferred alternative does not accomplish transportation efficiencies.” When asked, it is pointed out to us that 95 percent of the time the local people “already” can get across the river without a bridge, and the counties are already adapted to dealing with emergency situations. Another very interesting point is that the Sanford helicopter is already available to the two counties (Billings and McKenzie) for FREE!
There was general agreement that the $15 million cost that has been quoted is likely much too low. “We just don’t need one” should be the preferred alternative. There is also great concern that eminent domain might be used. A bridge makes no sense and is not needed was the consensus.
After a lengthy discussion of the issues, it was agreed to keep talking to each other as this unfolds. The members of BCA were extremely appreciative that Jeb and Jay took the time to meet with us in that spot where it was all too clear that we need to be engaged in this issue.
Jay tells us that last week while he was fencing near where we are standing he saw 30 cow elk with calves. Bighorn sheep have also been seen nearby, and there is an eagle’s nest less than a mile from the proposed location.
An illustration of the differences in grass height with the taller grass being where the snowbank laid all winter, on the north side of the hill. Jay told us he had the worst hay crop in 52 years.
The group moved to the shade of ash trees in the bottom for a picnic.
At this point, we parted from the group, taking with us our friends Tracy and Laura, and headed to the Elkhorn Ranch. A congregation of nine magpies flew languidly across the road near the Roosevelt Creek drainage, and a thunderstorm was gathering on the western horizon. Sadly, I don’t think it left much rain in its wake.
Our friends had not been to the Elkhorn, and we were eager to show more of the area to them. But first, we checked out the nearby river crossings as our final destination was back on the east side of the Little Missouri.
Near the river, we spotted a bald eagle.
The spot of our first date all those years ago, where I taught Jim about shrikes.
One of the foundation stones for Roosevelt’s cabin, a sandstone slab.
It is time to get serious about getting to our campsite for the night, so we cross the river, a thrill for Tracy and Laura. An immature bald eagle flew down the river.
But first, we needed one more stop to show them the Elkhorn Ranchlands, a USFS parcel east of the Elkhorn Ranch. This was once the Connell — later Eberts —ranch, and a beautiful place it is, with a sweeping view of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch site.
This stone was laid as a tribute to the people who raised funds for the purchase of the Eberts Ranch. I attended the celebration unveiling this marker.
Because of the rugged Whitetail Creek drainage to our north, we followed a rather circuitous route the 30 miles to Magpie Campground (USFS), which has just reopened today, post-prairie fire. Again, if you go, do buy a Dakota Prairie Grasslands map. Word to the wise: for some reason, at this time there is no water at the Magpie campground.
Sometimes we eat gourmet foods when we camp. These were mighty fine leftovers we’d brought from home.
Chokecherry bushes near our tent.
View of the fire aftermath, from our campsite. Magpie Creek in the middle ground.
The campground was perfectly silent (there is only one other party here), and a lovely half moon rises, signaling to these weary travelers it was time to get some sleep. The only sound now was the crickets’ nighttime chirping.
After a starry night, Sunday dawned in a rather startling way, with a helicopter flyover, a crew surveying the fire.
We’re excited this morning because we are taking our friends to yet another new place for them, this time a hike to nearby Goat Pass, also known as Devil’s Pass, on the Maah Daah Hey trail. If you go to this area, do consider consulting a trail guide in addition to the grasslands map.
An enchanting orange bug we could not identify.
One could stop countless times to take photographs.
We return to the Magpie campground to relax while we wait for the agreed upon time for reconnecting with our BCA pals for the day’s program. This Spotted Towhee amused me. It was scavenging around my lawn chair. Jim caught a nap.
At the Magpie MDH trailhead, we met Oscar Knudtson and Treva Slaughter of the USFS staff. They are here to tell us about the recent Magpie Fire.
Oscar explained that the fire started next to the road just behind him, and the cause, while still under investigation, is likely human in source. He recounted all the details of this fire and told us that the fight was a real community effort in cooperation with federal agencies.
“Hat’s off to the locals.”
It burned a little less than 5,000 acres and ignited about 24 coal seams. The hand crews have dug these up and extinguished these in order to avoid future fires. Oscar told us that prairie fires knock back the junipers and sagebrush and rejuvenate the grasses in short order. A recent rain of more than an inch brought out the new green grasses in just days, and the grazing will benefit from this. What is called the “fire mosaic” is evident and “this land is adapted to fire.” A future concern will be weeds and some areas will be reseeded in the coming autumn.
If interested in more information about this particular fire, the Dakota Prairie Grasslands Facebook page will have photos, including aerial photos taken by the aforementioned helicopter, as well as maps.
The newly emerged green grass in contrast to burned sagebrush.
The day ended with everyone going their separate ways. We enjoyed hearty food at the Killdeer Buckskin Bar before our drive to Bismarck. I recommend it.
Time to get home to get cracking on our tomato harvest.
Join our annual adventure — the Summer Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour on July 18-25 — through the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River and the most pristine portion of the entire Lewis & Clark trail, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, Mont. Participants must be in good physical shape to participate. For those who do not wish to engage in the more strenuous activities, vans will be available with alternative delights, and we will all meet up for dinner.
The accommodations are perfect. Our favorite outfitter, Wayne Fairchild, and his crew move ahead of us, set up the camp, prepare the appetizers, make sure the beer is cold. On the four camping nights, two on the Missouri, two in the Bitterroots, your tent is set up before you arrive, with your preferred mattress or cot. Bring your own sleeping bag or ask Becky to provide you one at modest expense.
The food is excellent. Fresh ingredients, a cheerful and delightful kitchen crew, excellent hors d’oeuvres. For those with special food needs, Becky Cawley can make arrangements.
DAY 1, TUESDAY, July 18
Welcome to Great Falls, Mont.! Settle in, then gather in late afternoon for a welcome reception hosted by Becky and Lewis and Clark scholar Clay S. Jenkinson. Clay is with us through the entire adventure. After a quick orientation meeting with our Missouri River outfitter, we will depart for the Great Falls (named by Meriwether Lewis) at Ryan Dam on the Missouri. It’s more beautiful than you might think. At the falls enjoy an early-evening encounter with Capt. Lewis as he explains what his patron Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the journey and how what became Montana filled Lewis with such a sense of enchantment that he found it impossible to write a journal entry equal to the spirit of the place.
LODGING: La Quinta Inn Riverfront, Great Falls Montana
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY, July 19
Today our journey takes us to our launching point at the portal of the most beautiful segment of what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” First, we’ll stop at “Decision Point” at the confluence of the Marias and the Missouri Rivers. When the expedition arrived here in early June 1805, nobody was quite sure which of the two streams was the Missouri. The captains rightly chose the right branch, but everyone else, including the trailsman George Drouillard, believed the Marias was the proper stream to ascend. This is one of the great photo ops of the Lewis & Clark Trail. As with most of our stops, Clay will provide a historical but often comic riff about burdens of discovery here.
The launch of our three-day canoe adventure begins at Coal Banks Landing, east of historic Fort Benton, Mont. In the next couple of days, you will have plenty of opportunity to hike through some beautiful landscapes along the Missouri River. Some offer petroglyphs, others teepee rings on bluffs high above the river. While our guides prepare dinner, our outfitter, Wayne, will take us through the intricate Slot Canyon. In a side canyon invisible from the river, wind and water have carved a beautiful white sandstone labyrinth, full of delightful surprises, on a route just strenuous enough to prepare us all for the fabled Wendover Death March. Back at camp, set precisely where Lewis and Clark overnighted two hundred years ago, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and cold beer await, followed by an excellent meal served over tablecloths and actual dishes. As always, an informal evening discussion with Clay.
CAMPSITE: Eagle Creek
DAY 3, WEDNESDAY, July 20
Coffee at dawn, a hot camp breakfast at 8:30, and now the real adventure begins. Eagle Camp, just across from a famous igneous plug named LA Barge, is the gateway to the famous White Cliffs section of the Missouri River, accessible only by water. The buffalo are gone now, but in almost every other way you are gliding quietly through the river as Lewis & Clark witnessed it (but downhill!). Five minutes after we start the day’s float, Clay will ask you to turn your canoe around to observe the Stone Walls, painted by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer in 1833. You suddenly realize that you camped last night “in” Bodmer’s famous painting.
The rest of the day takes us past beautiful hoodoos, igneous dikes, sandstone formations in which Native Americans found spiritual messaging and other spectacular formations that led the rationalist Meriwether Lewis to speak of “scenes of visionary enchantment.” As Jefferson said of the Natural Bridge in Virginia, “it is worth a trip across the Atlantic to see this object.” After lunch under a lone cottonwood tree at the base of the famous Hole-in-the-Wall rock formation, we’ll work off our restless energy by climbing up to the summit, where you can be photographed standing in the Hole-in-the-Wall (or plummeting into the Missouri if you prefer!) This is one of the great hikes on the Lewis & Clark Trail, 40 minutes up and then 15 down. There is no way to explain the grandeur to beheld here. You have to earn it with your feet. After another leisurely float, those who wish it bob down the last mile to camp in their life jackets, feeling the gentle but inexorable tug of one of the world’s great rivers. It’s a perfect way to cool off on a hot dry afternoon and experience geomorphology at the molecular level!
In the evening, another fine meal, great conversation, and, if we are lucky, a lightning storm.
CAMPSITE: Slaughter Creek.
DAY 4, THURSDAY, July 21
Last day on the Missouri River. After breakfast and a leisurely paddle of 12 miles, we disembark at Judith Landing, where the river William Clark named for his future wife, Julia Hancock, flows sweetly into the Missouri. The American Prairie Reserve, dedicated to creating the artist George Catlin’s vast buffalo and range park in the American West, has recently purchased the PN ranch at the mouth of the Judith. Over lunch, Clay will discuss the near-extermination of the bison in the 19th century, and the painstaking work undertaken by the Smithsonian’s William Hornaday and his new friend, Theodore Roosevelt, to save and restore the species. We leave the canoe portion of the river just as it enters a wider, sagebrush zone known as “The Breaks of the Missouri.” By mid afternoon, we’ll get you to a hot shower at a historic hotel, laundry, grocery and hardware service, and time to retire your river gear as we prepare for the second half of our adventure. In the evening, live music on the hotel terrace and fine dining in the Grand Union Hotel, Montana’s oldest, built in 1882, seven years before Montana became a state. Shower as many times as you want.
LODGING: Grand Union Hotel, Ft Benton.
DAY 5, SATURDAY, July 22
This is what is known on the Chautauqua circuit as “jump day.” After breakfast in the hotel dining room, we’ll take an air-conditioned trail coach through some of the most beautiful country in western Montana. Our destination is the whimsical Lochsa Lodge, our headquarters in the Bitterroot Mountains for the last dozen years. This is Clay’s favorite resort in America — just enough frills to be satisfying, just enough of the rustic to be authentic. Great food, a wide variety of drink, the unbelievably beautiful Lochsa River five minutes by foot from your cabin, almost the platonic idea of a clear mountain stream. We often spend the late afternoon sitting in the river talking, sipping beer, trying, as always, to walk across it without tumbling in among the trout. On the coach journey, we’ll eat (and resupply) in Missoula, where there is an REI coop, and then climb over Lolo Pass into Idaho. Eat and rest well, friends. For tomorrow we make our ascent up to Wendover Ridge. For those who prefer not to undertake the Death March, we offer a satisfying alternative: a fishing weir known to Lewis & Clark, the expedition’s 12 Mile Camp, and Rocky Point Lookout, now decommissioned by the Forest Service, but available for overnight lodging next time you come to the Bitterroots.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
DAY 6, SUNDAY, July 23
This is the day of days on Clay’s Lewis and Clark Adventure Tour. When Capt. Lewis discovered that the Shoshone guide “Old Toby” had led them astray, he ordered his company to make its way to the Nez Perce Trail straight up. One of our loudest customers, years ago, was heard screaming at mile four, “Didn’t those morons understand @#!@$#@ switchbacks?!” Our 8½-mile hike uphill, (a 3,000-foot climb in elevation), is follows the expedition’s Sept. 15, 1805, ascent through slushy snow leading pack horses. Here, more than anywhere else on the nationwide LC trail, you can be sure you are walking precisely in the footsteps of America’s most famous explorers. You can make the hike at your own pace. With luck, we will be led by the infamous Chad Jones (Clay’s “tree dork”), a wilderness guide who combines Herculean stamina with a low comic routines. Nobody who has begun the Death March has ever failed to make it to the top. In a sad historical note, Russ Eagle, who briefly held the record ascent of 3:01 (what he calls “three naught one” — he’s from North Carolina), has relinquished the world record to the Iron Man master Mike Harry of Franklin, Tenn., the site of “the last great battle of the Civil War.” In spite of Clay’s drama-queen exaggerations of the Wendover DM, this day is tremendous fun, and those who make the hike are filled with the pure joy of the “strenuous life,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. Tonight’s camp, (another L&C campsite), is aptly named Snowbank. They melted snow here for drinking water. It is on this evening when our participants look around the camp circle to discover that we have become what Lewis called “the best of families.” Whatever shyness or urban tension you bring to the trip will have slipped away somewhere at mile five, and you will realize that you have discovered your soul again, and the joy of your body, the magic of the wilderness, and the esprit de corps that comes from relaxing our tightly-formed social identities. This trip changes lives. It renews lives. Just wait: you’ll see.
L&C CAMPSITE: Snowbank.
DAY 7, MONDAY, July 24
Today, we wander west on the Lolo (Nez Perce) Trail. Our transport is minivans, but we stop half a dozen times during the day to look at Lewis & Clark historic sites. We are now in the heart of the heart of the Lewis & Clark trail, in a remote, still largely inaccessible high mountain terrain with what Lewis called “range after range of impenetrable mountains in every direction.” This portion of the Rocky Mountains is heartbreakingly beautiful. Our fearless guides will take us to such LC sites as “Bears Oil and Roots,” “Indian Post Office,” “Lonesome Cove,” “the Sinque Hole” and “Smoking Place.” You will stand “in the journal entries”of the expedition’s diarists, in places no casual tourist ever visits. This is Greek Spanakopita night, after a “we cook for the crew” initiative that Clay insisted upon a few years ago, until the crew said it is just so much easier to do it themselves! After Greek salad, kabobs and spinach pie, we climb up Bald Mountain to view as beautiful a sunset as you will ever see. Later, back at camp, dessert and guitar music either by members of the outfitter crew or the kind of lame crooners we attract on this trip.
L&C CAMPSITE: Dry Camp.
DAY 8 TUESDAY July 25
Because they were explorers, Lewis and Clark could not know just when their troubles in the Bitterroot Mountains would end. When Clark and a few iron men finally punched their way through to the end of the Bitterroots, they rejoiced to see a smooth plateau in the haze to the west. They named this vista “Spirit Revival” ridge. We visit it after breakfast on the last morning of our time in the mountains. The expedition tumbled into a Nez Perce camp, exhausted, malnourished (unlike us) and frightened. The Nez Perce held a formal council to decide whether to assist the poor Anglo refugees or to kill them and get it over with. Thus began one of the best white-Indian friendships in the history of the American West (until 1877, that is). Clay will explain how a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis saved the expedition and how the remarkable Nez Perce helped the expedition fashion canoes (at Orofino, Idaho) and guided them to the Great Falls of the Columbia River.
After a final mountain lunch, we will hike down off the mountain. This time, it’s more than nine miles, but gravity is on our side for once, and at the end, we’ll be greeted by bottles of ice cold water and one of the prime swimming holes in the Lochsa River. For those who have the patience, there are thousands of huckleberry bushes along the trail.
Back at Lochsa Lodge, an evening of endless mirth, good drink and the satisfaction of having triumphed over what Lewis called “those tremendious [sic] mountains.”
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge, Powell, Idaho Meals: BLD
DAY 9, WEDNESDAY, July 26
After a lodge breakfast, you’ll meet a guest speaker, who brings new perspective to our LC adventure. Often enough, this is the great David Nicandri, occasional guest host on the “Thomas Jefferson Hour,” or Allen Pinkham, an elder of the Nez Perce Nation. This is a day of leisure and farewell. After lunch, you have the afternoon on your own, but almost everyone winds up in the magnificent Lochsa River. The day ends with a formal farewell banquet in which Clay claims that Becky tried to drown him yet again this year, that “next year” he is going to scamper up the Wendover DM like a bighorn sheep, and that no one ever quite recovers from walking off the map of the known world.
LODGING: Lochsa Lodge.
July 27 Homeward bound. After your last huckleberry breakfast at Lochsa Lodge, a 45-minute ride delivers you to the Missoula International Airport, or to your vehicle at a cooperating hotel.
Today, for the 44th or 45th time (you do the math — I was an English major), Americans woke up with a different president than the one they awakened with the day before. I’ve lived during the terms of 13 of them, about a third, depending on who’s counting. I can actually remember 12 of them; I was 5 when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower took office and 13 when he and Mamie gave the keys to the White House to John and Jackie Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961.
I don’t remember ever being as surprised at the outcome of a presidential election as I was by this one. All my friends and I, and a couple hundred million more Americans, including Hillary Clinton, expected we were electing our first woman president. As I said last fall, we got up Nov. 9 expecting to get out our finest clothes and get ready to go to a ball. Instead, we got invited to a rodeo. Hang on. It’s gonna be a long wild ride.
I want to tell you a story today because it is a good story and because it might contain a lesson for all of us. Or maybe not. But it’s a story my mother told me many years ago, and one I have not forgotten. Take from it what you will.
In early August 1934, my grandfather, Peter Boehmer, a first generation North Dakota farmer of German heritage, stood alongside a Ramsey County field one morning and saw only stubs of what looked like brown grass where a crop of wheat should have been waiting to be harvested, knowing that because of the third consecutive year of drought on the Great Plains, no wheat would be harvested from that field that fall.
Shaking his head, mumbling to himself, he headed back to the house for dinner and to read the Devils Lake Daily Journal before starting his afternoon chores. There, on the front page was a big headline: “President Roosevelt to visit Devils Lake.” He didn’t say much that afternoon or evening about that, but the next morning at breakfast, he announced to my Grandma Sophia and their brood of kids that they were to scrub up and put their best clothes on, because that afternoon they were going to see the president of the United States.
My mother, 9 years old at the time, said she gasped in surprise when he said those words. Grandpa Peter was a staunch Republican and had never spoken a kind word about FDR during the first year and a half of his first term in office. Times were hard. Farmers were tense, strained, bitter and spent a good bit of time trying to stay one step ahead of the bankers who held the mortgages on most of their farms.
This Roosevelt fellow had campaigned hard in the wheat belt, promising to bring help to this drought-stricken part of America, where the times were just as hard on the main-street merchants and the bankers as they were on farmers. It was just the beginning of the Great Depression, but no one could have imagined how many more years this Depression would last, or what kind of government programs could help them, or what kind of politician could bring those programs to their towns and fields.
Those farmers had to cuss at someone to relieve their frustration, and Roosevelt had campaigned on bringing them help. Help that had not arrived. That’s why there was much surprise around the breakfast table that morning of Aug. 7, 1934, when Grandpa said they were going to see the president. Sophia and the kids knew how the old man felt about this president.
As he stood up from the table, he said “I don’t like this fellow Roosevelt. I didn’t vote for him. But he’s the president of the United States, and by God, if he’s willing to ride a train all the way out here to North Dakota, we’re going to go see him.”
And so that afternoon, Grandma Pete and Grandma Sophia piled their brood — I believe there were six of them at that time — into their beat-up Model A and drove 40 miles on dusty roads to Devils Lake to see the president of the United States.
The newspapers of the day estimated there were 35,000 people gathered in the park in Devils Lake beside the train station, some nearly half a mile away, and my mom said she didn’t remember what he had to say because they couldn’t hear very well, but they got a glimpse of him, and they went home proudly late that afternoon knowing they had been a part of history, and they had actually seen a U.S. president.
As it turned out, what he addressed here in his North Dakota stops was the desire by North Dakotans for the U.S. government to build a dam on the mighty Missouri River, a dam big enough to create a massive lake from which canals would be built to bring water to the drought-stricken fields of North Dakota. The first mention ever of a project later to be called Garrison Diversion.
History records what he said there (he probably said much the same at every whistlestop), and here’s some of that:
“Today there is more of what you might call Government talent, experts from different departments in the Government service, fine people with good knowledge and training. They are getting the views of civilians and State employees and are trying to find a solution of this problem.
“Soon after I get back to Washington many of the studies being made this summer by engineering and agricultural officials will be completed. I expect to confer within the next few weeks with all of the experts. I shall give an opportunity to people who do not agree with their conclusions to come and be heard. As you know, I believe in action.
“On the 4th of March, 1933 (the date of FDR’s inauguration — Inauguration Day was March 4 prior to 1937) we had a parallel. It was not just one section of one State or a few sections in a few States. It was the whole of the United States. The United States was up against it. I asked the people of the United States at that time’ to have courage and faith. They did.
“Today, out here, I do not ask you to have courage and faith. You have it. You have demonstrated that through a good many years. I am asking, however, that you keep up that courage and, especially, keep up the faith.
“If it is possible for Government to improve conditions in this State, Government will do it.
“I assure you the interests of these communities are very close to my heart. I am not going to forget the day I have spent with you.
“We hope that Nature is going to open the Heavens. When I came out on the platform this morning and saw a rather dark cloud, I said to myself, “Maybe it is going to rain.” Well, it did not. All I can say is, I hope to goodness it is going to rain, good and plenty.
“My friends, I want to tell you that I am glad I came here. I want to tell you that I am not going to let up until I can give my best service to solving the problems of North Dakota.”
History also records that we got that dam, and even though it took almost 20 years to complete it, it was started during FDR’s last term in office. We take the Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakwea for granted now. Maybe FDR remembered those 35,000 people who came to Devils Lake. One thing I know for sure was my mother remembered the words of her father on that hot August day in 1934:
“I don’t like him … I didn’t vote for him … but he’s the president of the United States, and we’re going to see him.”
And if he were here today, he’d probably say “Have courage and faith.”
On Friday, as I prepared to say goodbye to my daughter, Amanda Myhre, and her traveling companion, Kaitlyn Huss, after spending the day at Sacred Stone Camp outside of Cannonball, N.D., and later at the state Capitol in Bismarck, I said, “I only wish your mother had been alive to see this day.”
Amanda’s mother, Benedicta “Bennie” Callousleg, a full-blood Lakota from the Hunkpapa Band, had been an activist with the American Indian Movement post-Wounded Knee. “She would have been so proud of you.”
When I was dating Amanda’s mother over three decades ago, Bennie had been living in a tipi at Yellow Thunder Camp, a protest site, outside of Rapid City, S.D. Bennie would have liked what had happened today — the Natives had won.
After all these years, most people have forgotten the racial tensions in South Dakota about four decades ago. In those days, AIM was considered to be a domestic terrorist organization. In fact, after every time I had gone to pick Bennie up on a date, I had received a telephone call from the United States Marshals and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to interview me. It’s tough enough to be interrogated by your date’s father. Imagine what it was like being interviewed by the feds after every date.
Now, almost four decades later, I was sending my daughter back to a protest for Native causes. I hugged Amanda. We talked about the events of the day and the sudden reversal and apparent support by the Obama Administration.
“It’s a good day to be indigenous,” Amanda said.
The Prelude: What we have here is a failure to communicate
By now, everyone who cares about the story about the Dakota Access Pipeline pretty much knows what happened on Sept. 9, 2016. Something like 5,000 people had gathered Friday at the mouth of the Cannonball River at an impromptu campsite called Sacred Stone Camp to protest the proposed plan to run the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River. Sacred Stone Camp is located just north of the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Reservation, the home of some 8,000 enrolled members.
The protesters who had come to Sacred Stone Camp represented more than 200 tribes from all over the North American continent, joined by a few non-native environmentalists, a smattering of old hippies, some independent filmmakers from New York in super-skinny jeans and ranchers who oppose the pipeline. There were also projected to be an additional 25,000 attendees at the United Tribes International Powwow just up the Missouri River in Bismarck that weekend.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had filed a federal lawsuit and were requesting an injunction to halt the pipeline. The judge’s decision on this lawsuit was due Sep. 9. Tensions and anxiety were running high.
Up until this time, North Dakota officials had been especially ham-handed in the way they had dealt with the protests. It was as if North Dakota officials had taken notes on every protest in American history over the past 60 years that had gotten out of hand, from Bull Connor to John Daley to the recent protests in Boston and other cities, and tried to apply those failed tactics in North Dakota. It was as if North Dakota officials were ready to make the same blunders that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer had made when he ignored the advice of his Indian scouts that there was a tremendous village along the Little Bighorn River. Everyone could see the potential disaster shaping up. Everyone except for those in charge of state government.
North Dakota is not especially prepared for a race riot. It is a fairly homogeneous state, generally conceded to be populated by mostly the descendants of German and Norwegian immigrants. Perhaps the closest North Dakota has ever come to a race riot occurred when a Norwegian Lutheran Church and a German Lutheran Church in a small North Dakota town mistakenly scheduled their annual potluck dinners for the same Sunday.
By any measure, this situation was a disaster waiting to happen.
In response to the growing protest, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had declared an emergency and called out the National Guard. Some thought this was an overreaction to the situation and only served to increase the tension of the situation. Then, to add flames to an already explosive situation, local SWAT teams were called up and staged, while law enforcement agencies from all over the state were asked to mobilize and provide additional support.
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a former federal prosecutor, had apparently dug out some 40-year-old intelligence reports about Taking this out-of-date intelligence to heart, Wrigley repeatedly called the protest over the pipeline “unlawful” and called on tribal leaders to halt the increasingly dangerous protests.
Local authorities matched the dangerous rhetoric of the state officials. Morton County Sheriff, Kyle Kirschmeier, called the protests more of a riot than a protest after the construction company bulldozed lands considered to be sacred burial sites the day after the tribe had publicly identified these lands in its federal lawsuit.
To destroy the evidence and the burial sites, the construction company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, ordered those sites bulldozed in an effort to destroy the evidence. They were expecting trouble and had hired a private security company to accompany the bulldozers.
When the construction workers were confronted by outraged Native protesters, the privately hired guards unleashed attack dogs and used pepper spray against this small group of protesters and in the process created a situation reminiscent of the racial strife of the early 1960s in the Deep South. The images captured by the independent media were graphic and disturbing and went viral on social media. In a more recent disturbing development, Morton County has presented criminal charges against the reporter who documented these attacks on video.
From a Native perspective, these statements from North Dakota officials demonstrated that the state of North Dakota had no intention of de-escalating the situation. There was no serious official effort to tamp down these growing racial tensions. Instead, the tensions were ramped up in with statements through an all-too-complying mainstream media.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple should be saying, “Thanks, Obama”
So this was the situation Sept. 9. It was a total formula for disaster. Perhaps the largest gathering of Natives since the days leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Greasy Grass) were located south of Bismarck. They were potentially augmented by thousands of Natives attending the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck.
Despite the indications that a spark could set off this powder keg, state governmental officials uniformly remained tone deaf. Instead of de-escalating the situation, it was intentionally heading for a showdown.
However, that spark was averted when the Obama Administration unexpectedly stepped in just minutes after this adverse court decision was issued. A joint statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior was issued to pause construction of the pipeline. As Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault noted, a public policy win is a lot stronger than a win in the courts.
The Obama Administration’s last-minute decision, coming after the defeat in federal court, extinguished the conflict, at least for the time being.
The fears of state officials that the situation would explode out of control would not happen. There would not be 5,000 Natives at Sacred Stone Camp, joined by possibly two or three times that number from the Powwow and from surrounding reservations joining the protests. There would not be a possible overreaction by the National Guard or law enforcement. There would not be any disturbing videos in the media and on social media of horrific clashes with protesters.
Dalrymple should be saying, “Thanks, Obama.” He can retire from public office without having to deal with a riot to mar his record.
What really happened?
While greeted as a victory by the protesters at Standing Rock, this decision by the Obama Administration merely kicks the can down the road. Obama, Dalrymple, and Wrigley will all be out of office when any decision is made about whether to continue construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline or whether the route should be changed. The oncoming winter will dissuade all but the most hard-core of protesters from remaining on the site of Sacred Stone Camp.
But there is another side to this story. It is the story of an evolving political awareness by North Dakota’s Native tribes and tribal governments. Just a few years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was instrumental in removing the Fighting Sioux logo as the University of North Dakota’s athletic teams. Now, Standing Rock has halted a major pipeline, at least for the time being.
Where this newfound political awareness will lead remains to be seen.
NEXT: Traveling to Sacred Stone Camp with Memories and History
Almost buried by the national media, and under-reported in the local media, is the story of a people savaged by our European ancestors and by settlers in North Dakota.
I’m sure many of you, like me, attended the old cowboy and Indian movies, where in most cases the Indian “savages” were destroyed just in time by the Cavalry or white settlers … just as the “savages,” without apparent cause or reason, were about to kill, burn, pillage and rape those white folks, who never provoked them.
That, my friends, is the fantasy world we lived in then … and the same holds true today. The Native Americans in North Dakota and South Dakota are still being preyed upon, savaged and ignored.
There is a vast difference now as opposed to back in the day. The tribes pose no threat at all to anyone. But you wouldn’t know that by the way they are still being treated today.
To simplify and condense the story, we now know that, once the Europeans arrived (hereinafter known as the whites), the tribe’s lands, game (especially buffalo) and way of life were gradually at first, and then quickly, destroyed.
America’s native peoples were demeaned, hunted down and killed. They were starved, deprived of their ancestral lands, deprived of weapons and deprived of their freedom, while the good whites claimed they “pampered and cared for them” on reservations, where the livestock had better treatment.
Even today, there is a tendency to look down upon Native Americans. Never mind that they have fought and died in wars defending this country. Never mind that there are still reservations in North Dakota where our government has tolerated living conditions for the occupants that we would not believe unless we see them.
I have never been on a reservation but have heard many sad stories from those who have. I’ve also met many individuals who lived on reservations, both in my professional capacity and as an individual.
I wandered over to watch Judge Paul Benson presiding in Federal Court in a case involving a Native who had been convicted of a serious crime. I was wearing my blue sport coat, gray slacks and tie. As I observed the proceedings a well-dressed Indian, terrifically well-groomed and wearing a great leather vest, touched me on the shoulder and said he wanted to introduce me to “a friend.”
I didn’t realize who the man was at first — not until he told me who he was. It seems he had visited with me many times over the years in municipal court. In his last visit, he said, he had a “come to Jesus moment” and had sworn off alcohol, which had been the primary cause of his many court appearances. Sober, he was a gentle giant; under the influence he was one mean dude.
Once I got over the shock of his new stage in life, we had a nice talk. Then he said, “Come on, I want you to meet my friends.” Before I could even burp, he pulled me thru the door and into the witness room, where it seemed like an entire tribe was present — a lot of men and women of Native heritage who were no fans of the federal government and the U.S. Marshals Service.
It was at this time I remembered my clothing was the same as the marshals wore … and I about dropped over. When I was introduced, I must have truly looked like a real “white man” because I think all the color had run out of my face.
Once he announced who I was, it turned into a very cordial and friendly environment, save and except for one man. My friend, whose real name was Alfred (no last name because I don’t know where he is now), grabbed this guy who had turned away from meeting me and said — in no whisper, I might add — “G*d damn you, I said I want you to meet my friend,” and spun him around.
Those two men were very large, Alfred much larger. When he’d been spun around, the other guy reached out his hand — which I took in my still-gleaming-white hand. I said to him, “Now I know how Custer felt at the Little Bighorn!” That broke the ice. He started laughing, and life was good.
This rambling introduction is to remind you that the Native Americans still need our help and support.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, formerly known as the Keystone XL line, is being built across Native lands. It is slated to go under a water supply near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. If a leak occurred, it could make it the water useless for any kind of personal use, including irrigation.
Now, what do you think the people of Fargo-Moor head would do if it was suggested that a pipeline be run through our Fargo, under the Red River and on through Moorhead? We already know how explosive the Bakken oil is, and we know the damage a leaky pipeline can cause, as it is already happening in western North Dakota. The dizzy state regulators have been imposing and then suspending fines since 2008, and still the leaks continue.
Remember Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon and Ryan? They formed an armed group to confront armed federal authorities attempting to collect the BLM grazing fees he hadn’t paid since 1993. There was a standoff — with no arrests. Their friends were all white protesters. Not until much more recently, were the Bundys arrested for continuing to allow their cattle to graze on federal lands.
The Native Americans who are now protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, are unarmed. They came to the protest site on foot and on horseback and have been entirely peaceful. As of this writing, there have been 18.
Hmm, peaceful Indian protesters arrested, while a band of heavily armed whites were not! Double standard?
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have asked the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which has issued permits for the pipeline, to reconsider the project and its effect on the Native American communities.
Concerns have been expressed about the Corps’ failure to communicate with the tribes. That is inexcusable.
Protesters from other reservations and from across the country are streaming into North Dakota to garner publicity for the plight of the tribes. You know that big oil, the ones that buy and sell some of our politicians, will fight against the people. Perhaps it’s time for the entire state to stand up with our Native American brothers and sisters who deserve a voice, deserve to be understood, and deserve to be respected.
There’s been an outcry across this nation because UND lost its Sioux sports logo! How about showing the same concern for the real Sioux — and other Native Americans — who need our help and support in North Dakota and South Dakota.
I’m just one person who hates bigotry and racism. I hope many more of you out there care as deeply as I do. The ignorance and racism surrounding our Native Americans and their concerns must stop. Amen.