Land of Fire: The Upper Missouri Country in the Nineteenth Century

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Indian fire and the Upper Missouri Country were synonymous. Fire was as much a part of the region’s landscape as bison, big bluestem, and wide-open spaces. Every European and European-American who spent any length of time in the region, especially before the era of agricultural settlement, saw multiple fires during their stay.

The reason for the ubiquitous presence of fire across the Upper Missouri had to do with the many uses the Indians put to it. They employed fire to enhance wildlife habitat and foster the growth of forage plants. They also used it as a weapon of war, a means of communication, an aid to hunting, a resource conservation tool, a method of pest control, and an instrument for the improvement of mobility. Continue Reading »


I rise, fall, eddy, surge, dip, and roll.

I am a ballet of water and sand.

The Missouri carries me in clouds.

My feet never set.

My arms outstretched.

I grasp onto boulders, cobbles, and gravel.

My hold weakens.

Muscles strain against the press of water.

I lean forward and slip into the river’s current.

I am jostled back and forth.

There is no stopping this dance.

Everything is here, at this moment, swirling together.

“The Prairies are All on Fire”: Indians, Fire, and Forage Across the Upper Missouri Country

The Upper Missouri Country encompassed all of the lands within the Missouri River drainage basin that lay north and northwest of the Platte-Missouri River confluence. The environment of this region differed in significant ways from that of the Lower Missouri watershed.

For example, the Upper Missouri Country experienced unpredictable, violent weather. Between April and August each year, cyclonic thunderstorms, accompanied by hail, tornadoes, and drenching rains, frequently struck the region. And in some years, biting cold and blizzards began as early as October and did not end until the following May.

There was only one constant in the weather, and that was the wind. It never seemed to subside.

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A Spiritual Geography: Indians, 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.

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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

Red stone reveals 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 on his head and a Marlboro in his mouth.

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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