My post of Indian voting rights in Jackson County last Wednesday leads to a discussion of taxation, county consolidation, UFOs (really!), economic development, and, ultimately, Bill Dithmer’s response to Spike with this soulful story of Eagles Nest Butte. I yield the floor, with minor editing, to Mr. Dithmer, because, like much of what Bill Dithmer says, it’s a heck of a story:
I don’t know if this will help anbody or not, but for me it has to be said. From the time I was very small I looked at the lands that we lived on or near in a different way from most of the people around me. It was never fueled by what could be done with those lands but the health of the land itself and how it was being treated by the people that walked on it. From the beginning it was about a feeling that I would get when I came to one of these places, and then as I got older it was a realization that it was a sense of inner peace. There are many places like that on the Pine Ridge. I’m going to tell you about just one, Eagles Nest Butte.
The first time I climed the butte under my own power was when I was six years old. Our little one-room school at Plainview, a mile east of our house, always took a field trip in the late spring to Eagles Nest. Until about fifteen years ago I averaged one climb a year, sometimes more then one. It was always a surprise to me that while everyone enjoyed where they were, nobody seemed to understand that what they were standing on was a part of both physical and natural history. It was just an outing to them. At the time I didn’t understand that I was seeking answers to questions that I still didn’t know how to ask.Before you can begin to get a grasp of my inner workings, it might help to have a physical description of the Nest.
It isn’t big, roughly three hundred feet high and mayby a mile from one end at the bottom to the other. But other than its sister to the south Buzzard Butte, it is the tallest piece of ground around for miles.
When you drive around the base, you begin to see things that look out of place. First, while the south side is mostly dirt, the north face has that same dirt but also shows the very edge of the badlands and something unique, pumice. That’s right, there are big old pumice boulders all over the north side.
It is the top that grabs most people’s attention. There was a fire lookout up there that stayed pretty much in one piece. You would see twenty kids going both directions on those steep steps.
That tower was at the pinnacle and to the north was the biggest stretch of open ground. If you walk to the east you will find a vision pit, to the west you will find trees with, now, thousands of ribbons and little bags of tobacco tied to their branches. I could lie here and say that I felt the spirit of those that came before me, but that wasn’t the case at all. It was something completely different from that.
The butte holds many memories for me. One of those involves a friend and his Cub. I got a call one morning when I was in my early twenties by a man who will remain nameless. He wanted me to fly with him for a couple of hours before the air started heating up in the summer heat.
He put it down in front of the house and we first headed south along Pass Creek to the high hills that are north east Bennett County. Then he turned to the west and headed towards Buzzard. We never flew very high and by the time we went around the west corner of Buzzard Butte we were less the 500 feet off the ground. When we approached the Nest, he got below the rim and we made a slow circle around it. We had just gone by the tower when he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Do you think there is room to land this thing up there?”
I have landed with him in some pretty short spaces but not that short. We made our approach from the northeast, by the rag on the tower it was just right to head into. There was good uphill run to land and not a lot of space. We hit a little hard but not bad and he was grabbing as much dirt as his brakes could hold and finally we stopped.
It wasn’t until we got out that I realized we had run out of room at the same time, working the oversized tires just barely between two rocks. We picked the tail up and pulled it back turned it around, and I held on while he got back in, started the motor and held the brakes. It was then that I started to understand the predicament we were in, a real short runway.
There is nothing more exciting than the feeling of a plane that just doesn’t have enough speed to lift off in the space it has. We dropped off the north side about sixty feet before we hit the bottom of the air pocket and started back up. It was a year before I could make myself get back in a little plane.
In all I’ve spent four nights on the top of the butte. Two of those times were timed with a full moon, one was a foggy but warm night, and then there was this one.
There were four of us. We had spent the afternoon fishing at the dam north of the house and had planned to camp there. We had just stopped fishing to eat when the conversation started on the Nest some fifteen miles away. All of us had been there before but for some reason none of us could could stop talking about it. It was then that someone had the idea that we should repack the ATVs and camp on Eagles Nest Butte, and so it began.
We put all the camping suplies in the back of my six wheeler and headed west. It was late spring and there was an energy in the renewal that happens every year at that time. It took us a while to get there and we were climbing the old rutted-out jeep trail as the sun was going over the west rim.
First we got camp set up and cooked some burgers on the Coleman and started looking around. The vision pit had seen recent use and there was a new tarp covering it, but nothing else had changed. The tower was no longer climb safe but it was sure handy to hang things on. It wasn’t until it started getting dark that we realized there was just a sliver of a moon already going down. That is when the magic that is Eagles Nest started.
When you are on the top, you can see town lights all over. Kadoka to the north, Martin to the south, Wanblee just to the north a few miles and Belvidere east of Kadoka. There were dozens of farm lights in every direction and you could see cars on 44, 73, the Norris–Long Valley road, and part of the Corn Creek road going north. We talked about what it would have looked like a thousand years before.
When complete darkness came we were already “in the mood,” so when the Milky Way started to show it was special. It hung down and reminded us how it got its name.
There was zero humidity, and the night air had a chill, but the stars were putting on a show. For about six hours we set and talked. It wasn’t our normal conversation but talk about where we were and the people that came before us. At one point someone said they could look down and see stars. I know it was only an optional illusion but it seemed real.
It was that night that I finally found what had been so elusive in my head. It was that night that I realized that I had the same feeling when I was on Pass Creek, down in one of the badland basins, setting on one of the other buttes, or fishing on the Big and Little White rivers. It wasn’t spiritual, but it was a peace of mind. It’s as if the conflicts of the day would disappear while I was at any of those places. It was tranquility.
If you have a good imagination, you can feel the peoples that were here a thousand years before us. You know they used the Nest for the safety of the people, and for the same use as the tower was for.
Spike, “Only A Few Can Hear The Drums” [a song Dithmer wrote] is about those places and feelings. You can take a hundred people to the same place, but very few will feel the connection to the past.
While I understand the dire need for commercialization on the Pine Ridge, I find my heart and my mind at odds with one another. My mind says there must be tourism to start the process of rebuilding the tribe. But my heart refuses to accept the encroachment of more civilization on the places I love. I’m sure there are many elders that feel the same way.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to build the future without killing a little of the past along the way. It will take a clear mind for the ones that will be making those decisions. Right now there should be a sign on every road onto the Pine Ridge. It should read the same on both sides. “FAILURE TO ADMINISTRATE.” There has been a bunch of that going on for far too long on both sides of the line.
Maybe some of these places should be left as they were meant to be, without the problems of those that would come there. It will be a fine line that must be walked to protect some of these natural monuments, but doing nothing isn’t even an option.
For most people these places are just a name on a map. For a few like me they are much more than that. The argument between my heart and my mind continues.
The Blindman [Bill Dithmer, comment, Dakota Free Press, 2015.12.29]
Read about the Lakota origin of the butte’s name, Wanbli Hohpi, here.