A Spiritual Geography: Native Americans, Bison and the Upper Missouri Country

In the early and middle nineteenth century, all of the tribes of the Upper Missouri Country built shrines to bison, the most numerous and most economically-important large mammal inhabiting the region stretching from the Missouri River trench to the Rocky Mountains.

The shrines indicate that Native Americans considered the Upper Missouri Country a mysterious, spiritual place worthy of reverance.

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Garrison is a monolith to man

An entire river offered up to his highness, convenience

The dam stabs the Missouri

Toasters, televisions, and microwaves urge the sacrifice

We want what we want and we want it now

Electroshock the river so it forgets its memory

Its memory is in sandbars and driftwood, in rapids and riffles, and in the flesh of sturgeon

The glow of city lights cannot hide the river from us

Its ancient voice crackles and buzzes over the wire

Stick it to the Missouri with the flip of a switch

Bear Butte

I see Bear Butte in the distance

It radiates red stone

Rock exposes its heated origins

The dormant volcano

The capitol dome of Dakota

Sacred mountain of the Lakota

A church with a conical spire

Sweat lodge confessionals at its base

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Dakota Cowboy

A High Plains drifter

A hitchhiker on gleaming white U.S. 1

An American icon with a Stetson and a Marlboro

Not a cent in his pocket and shit for brains

But he possesses a chiseled chin and a dream

Riches or bust

One more solo in an album of wind songs

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The Snake

The Missouri River resembled a long, powerful snake

It slithered and spun as it moved across the land

Its waters could strike in an instant

It killed the inattentive

But it wasn’t venomous

The Missouri killed as a python kills

Its shifting currents grabbed its victims, held them tightly, then swallowed them whole


A broom made of Bluestem is a travesty

Bluestem is meant to touch the heavens, not sweep aside our slothfulness and neglect

Turn the broom on its handle

Let it assume its rightful place as the flag of the Upper Missouri Country

The Missouri Will Flood Again

The Missouri River is going to flood again. No one knows when. But a major flood could arrive as early as this winter; or it may not occur for another ten years.

When the next big flood reaches the river valley south of Sioux City, Iowa, it is going to behave as the Missouri did during the floods of 2011 and 2019. It’s going to blow holes in the levees on either side of the valley, tear apart the Corps’ navigation channel, burrow cavernous holes in the valley floor, and throw filthy brown water down many a main street.

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Cultivating Community: Agriculture and the Upper Missouri Tribes

In the early nineteenth century, the Upper Missouri tribes, including the Maha, Ponca, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa, lived in a land of plenty. Great herds of bison roamed the northern plains, large schools of fish swam in the murky waters of the Missouri, and the grassland grew an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables. The tribes tapped all of these natural resources for food and fiber. And in order to supplement their diet of wild produce, they grew beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, watermelons, and maize.

By practicing a mixed subsistence pattern of hunting and gathering, as well as agriculture, the tribes maintained a varied, healthy diet. Such a wide range of foods also protected the tribes against disaster.

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The Loess Hills are the Missouri River turned inside out

The hills are the bed of the river hurriedly picked up and gently set down by winds long ago

The hills took form unseen under clouds of swirling silt

One day the air stilled and the sun shone sharply upon a new land Continue Reading »

A Review of “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” by Greg Grandin. Metropolitan Books. 2019. 384 pages.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis contends that the frontier, and the territorial expansion that accompanied it, defined not only American history, but also American culture and the American character.  Turner believed that the frontier had fostered innovation, democracy, pragmatism, a can-do spirit, and political moderation; and because of this, the frontier had made the Americans an exceptional people.

Greg Grandin, in The End of the Myth, begs to differ.  He argues that the frontier, and the United States’ centuries-long expansion, has been a blessing for some and a curse for everyone else.  The frontier engendered perpetual war, racial subjugation, environmental degradation, a misanthropic individualism, and notions of freedom so disconnected from basic communal concerns that social stability suffered.

The frontier also promoted the belief that there were no limits to America’s cultural expansion.  America’s values, capitalist economic model, and form of governance had universal applicability.  This misplaced idea led the United States into disastrous wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Continue Reading »

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