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.

Native Americans saw the hills first.

The towering dunes stood hundreds of feet above the flat expanse of the river valley – barren, yellow, and dry.

The hills were masterpieces of the world’s most unassuming sculptors.

Like all newborns, the loess was naked and vulnerable. But the birds and the breezes came to the rescue, carrying seeds that eventually blanketed the loess in little bluestem, buffalo grass, and yucca.

The Yankton placed their dead on scaffolds atop the hills. After the flesh had fallen from the bones, they buried the bones in the soil.

When white settlers arrived at the juncture of the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers, they tore into the hills, unaware of the land’s origins and certain that what they were doing was right.

What did the Yankton make of the settlers, who were oblivious to the purposes of the ancient sculptors? The Native Americans knew that only the dead went into the loess, the living rode atop it until one day they too sank into it.

Although modernity has battered the hills, remnants remain of the old landscape. I try to hold onto those places.

In late summer, as the sun sets in a clear sky, the hills look so inviting. That’s when I think I understand why the Yankton buried their dead where they did.

The thick grass covering the hills, and the soft contours of the loess, makes me want to lie down.

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 »

The Corps Hasn’t Taken the Threat of Flooding Along the Missouri Seriously

Every snowstorm and every rain event that occurs in the Missouri Basin between now and spring will increase the odds that the Missouri River will flood in 2020.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs recently stated that the Missouri Basin can expect a wetter-than-normal winter. In addition, the soils in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains are either saturated or nearing saturation. Fuchs fears that all the moisture presently lying atop the land, stored beneath it, or yet to accumulate on it, will lie in wait till the spring thaw. And if that thaw comes in a hurry, like it did in March, 2019, then the Missouri will leap out of its banks again, with potentially catastrophic consequences for those living in the valley south of Sioux City. Continue Reading »

A Review of “Napalm: An American Biography,” by Robert M. Neer. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013. 352 pages.

Napalm.  The word conjures up images of light, fire, and death. But not just any death; rather, one accompanied by intense heat, melting flesh, and unimaginable pain.

Robert M. Neer’s Napalm chronicles the history of one of the world’s most fearsome weapons from its inception in World War II to its present status as a global pariah.

The story begins in the early 1940’s at Harvard University, in the laboratory of Professor Louis Fieser.  The chemist, and his Harvard colleagues, created a new incendiary device that burned extremely hot, resisted flame retardants, could be safely stored and transported, and possessed a gelatinous texture that facilitated its spread over a wide area. Continue Reading »

Road Warriors: The North Vietnamese Army and the Collapse of South Vietnam

Although North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Peace Accords in January, 1973, he and his colleagues on the North Vietnamese Politburo remained committed to toppling the Saigon regime. Evidence of Hanoi’s intentions toward South Vietnam were not hard to discern – they were easily visible across the South Vietnamese landscape. Continue Reading »

A Review of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Harvard University Press. 2016. 384 pages.

Nothing Ever Dies is a good book, but a difficult read.  It is a difficult read for three reasons.  First, the subject matter, it’s about war and war is never pretty.  Second, the prose, it’s dense, sometimes dry, and repetitive.  Third, the book’s organization, it’s all over the place.

Nothing Ever Dies is a book that requires deep concentration, discipline, and a willingness to slog through the tangled organization and plodding academic language to arrive at its ideas.  But those ideas are worth the effort.

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A Review. “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer. Alfred A. Knopf. 592 pages.

George Packer’s Our Man is occasionally insightful, at times gossipy, and nearly always disturbing.

Packer argues that Holbrooke’s diplomatic accomplishments stemmed, in part, from his personal failings as father, friend, and husband.  In other words, the traits that made Holbrooke so unlikable to so many –  his ambition, arrogance, personal insecurity, self-absorption, deceitfulness, and shameless self-promotion – also made it possible for him to attain institutional stature and power.  He then used his influence to do good, bringing peace to the Balkans, establishing an American cultural center in Berlin, and ensuring that the United States paid its overdue financial obligations to the U.N.  According to Packer, only someone as shady and shifty as Holbrooke could have successfully negotiated a peace deal among the murderous warlords of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia.  And it was Holbrooke’s idealism, which was the ying to his narcissistic yang, that put the cultural center in the German capital and saved the U.N. from financial ruin and irrelevance. Continue Reading »

A Butiful Plain: The Oacoma Bottom, the Missouri River, and the Legacy of Lewis and Clark

[This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of “We Proceeded On.”]

“…the first comers in a land can, by their individual efforts, do far more to channel out the course in which its history is to run than can those who come after them….”  Theodore Roosevelt, July 4, 1886, Dickinson, Dakota Territory.[1]

On the morning of Sunday, September 16, 1804, after having travelled a little over a mile upstream from the previous night’s camp, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the men aboard the keelboat and two pirogues, landed on the west bank of the Missouri River at a place later known as the Oacoma Bottom (west of today’s Chamberlain, South Dakota).  The exploring party spent the next two days at this location, drying clothing and equipment, observing flora and fauna, and hunting bison and deer.  The men had such a wonderful time at this Missouri River bottom that they referred to it in the journals as “Pleasant Camp.” Continue Reading »

An August Day on the Missouri

Strands of moss twisting in the current

Big-lipped carp greedily sucking in dead mayflies in the foam

Layers of gravel in a steep cutbank – laid down by a forgotten deluge

A mule deer mother and her yearling atop a high ridgeline, ears up and alert

Osprey screeching above the cliffs, bound for downriver

Deep water pushes heavily against a bluff, turns back on itself, and slips away

Water-worn stones reveal the implacable past

Pelicans riding thermals, so high their white undersides resemble distant jetliners

Silence, then a breeze, and the sound of sheets being removed from a bed, it’s the leaves

Silver flashes in amongst the cottonwoods

A brown spider walks across my bare foot, a butterfly lands on my chest

Wind coming up, temperature cooling down, time for dinner

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