Where the Buffalo Roam…

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-5-28-23-pm

This post is dedicated to my beloved sister Julie, a visionary artist who is transforming the cityscape of her adopted, but beloved, home of Mankato, Minnesota.

 

To Give Thanks to the spirit of an animal which gave its life to support one’s own,  this sacred act practiced by indigenous peoples around the globe, perhaps once practiced even by my ancestors, the indigenous Europeans –  perhaps we can add this to our Thanksgiving rituals and traditions?  Perhaps, one might speculate, this lesson was imparted to those beleaguered pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving? We can Give Thanks to both the Creator and the Creation.

For the Dakota people, whose ancestors called home the land of my homestead for millennia before my ancestors claimed it as their homestead, how elevated must have been their Thanks Giving to the spirit of the Buffalo?  It is so well-known that Tatanka supplied them their food, their clothing, and their shelter.   To consume the buffalo, to dress in the skins of the buffalo, to dwell within a tipi made of buffalo hides – how does one adequately honor such a Creature that sustains you, clothes you, and shelter’s you?  By taking it within yourself, by giving yourself a second skin with its skin, by dwelling within its protection, do you not become this Creature?  And perhaps they did, acclimatizing, adapting themselves to the prairies, just as the Buffalo did.

About 25 miles, as the crow flies and as the eagle soars, from the farm where I grew up on the Minnesota prairie, a land now draped with the unending tapestry of the row crops of agriculture that feeds the mouths of millions, a land once populated by native grasses and native peoples, and where once the Buffalo roamed, about 25 miles away is Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota.

Near the site of this park, in 1862, 38 Dakota people were hanged in the aftermath of what once called the Sioux Uprising, and now, out of greater consciousness, “Sioux” being a derogatory name for the Dakota people, is called the “Dakota War”. It was primarily fought in New Ulm, Minnesota, where I attended high school.   It was a war spawned out of rising tensions between the Dakota and the European settlers, stemming from limited food and supplies reaching the Dakota as was promised in various treaties.  As the Dakota were starving, one trader, insensitive to their plight, and in their presence, uttered the fateful words, “Let them eat grass.”  He was the one of the first fatalities of the war, later found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth.  It has not been recorded whether this was Native grasses or European grasses, but, in any case,  he did not enjoy a “Happy Thanksgiving”. His words are considered one of the primary causes that incited the “uprising”.

At the conclusion of the war, hundreds of Indian prisoners were tried by a military commission.  303 were condemned to death. Their death sentences were commuted by President Abraham Lincoln for all but the 38, who were executed in Mankato on December 26, 1862.  The day after Christmas Day.   Their hanging has the distinction of being the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

In 2012, on the 150-year anniversary of the execution, Mankato hosted a Memorial and Dedication of Reconciliation Park, calling for healing and forgiveness of this 150 year-old wound.  The park features this sculpture of a Buffalo, this most potent symbol of the life that this prairie creature bestowed upon these warriors of the plains.

img_6323-2
As of this summer, directly behind this statue of a bull buffalo, one can now find, as part of a larger mural, this painting of a buffalo cow and her calf:

img_6325-1

The mural is found on the wall that protects the city of Mankato from the flooding of the Minnesota River.  The mural is almost 500 feet long.  It was the brain child and labor of love of my sister Julie.  Julie conceived its vision, and fought for it through various governmental bodies and organizations, including city, county, and the Civil Core of Engineers.

 

The flood wall, while protecting the city, also was a scar on the face of the city, obscuring its once magnificent view of the river itself.  Julie’s vision was to depict the river on the wall, to reconnect the city with its flowing roots.  She ultimately won approval and headed up a team of artists who brought her vision into reality.  The painting is called “The Mni Mural”.  “Mni” is Dakota for “water”.   The mural extends from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west.   Here are more picture of the mural, from  west to east:

img_6328 img_6329 img_6129 img_6116 img_6117  img_6325-1

Julie’s concerns extend far beyond the confines of her adoptive city’s limits and the surface of this wall.  As it turns out, the agricultural runoff from farms in Minnesota  contribute to the ever-growing “dead zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each year.  Which contributes to the creation of the “red tides” in Florida, which directly affects other members of our family.  Her inspiration for the mural was in part to raise consciousness about this ever-growing problem.   As it turns out, in my work with environmental groups several year ago, I also sought to stem this tide of agricultural pollutants that made their way to the gulf.  So, in our own ways, we have fought the same battle, which begins on the doorstep of the farmhouse where we were raised.

It is so interesting to me that this parallels our sibling relationship.  As we were growing up in a large and troubled farm family, Julie and I were always there for each other.  Safe havens for each other.  Though, credit must be given to Julie, being my older sister, it was her large and encompassing heart that first saved me.

Several miles up river from Julie’s mural is Minneopa State Park. About a year ago a small herd of Buffalo were released on a restored prairie on this flood plain of the Minnesota River.  I visited this herd for the first time today.  Here are some pictures:

img_9292

img_0382

img_1118

Once again, this is about 25 miles as the crow flies and as the eagle soars from the farm where Julie and I grew up.  Close enough to consider it as part of our stomping grounds. And, as it happens, a Bald Eagle did fly over as I was communing with the Buffalo.

One other small anecdote – years ago when I was in my late teens, at home from college, several members of my family were driving from New Ulm to Mankato and, very near this park, we saw this large “thing” running along side the road.  I pulled over to see what it was.  It was a wild turkey.  I ran along side of it for some yards, so astonished to see it.  It was the first one I had ever seen in my life.  They were not here when I was growing up, but they were in the process of returning.  And now they are abundant throughout southern Minnesota.  Even on Thanksgiving Day.

Restoration happens.

But not without consciousness and not without effort.

Several years ago I read a book that had a significant impact upon me, entitled: “Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie.”  One of the salient points of the book is that we have replaced about 45 million Buffalo, that were adapted to the scarce water of the Great Plains and were an integral part of that ecosystem, we have replaced those Buffalo with about 45 million cattle that are not adapted to the aridness of the great plains and instead destroy the native ecosystem.

Watching the Buffalo at the state park today, I observed various groups of people come and go, always eager to see the Buffalo, always excited, but frequently wondering why the Buffalo were just “sitting there”, not doing anything.   Buffalo are ruminants. They feed and then chew their cud.  Resting there in the desiccated remnants of prairie grasses and flowers, they were embodiments of the prairie earth itself.  Massive bodies, impervious to the weather, at home in their ecosystem.  Adapted to their environment.  Adapted to their place on the Earth.

More and more, it seems that humanity must adapt itself to the Earth. We have had centuries of humankind, seeking to improve its odds of survival, adapting the Earth to meet its perceived needs.  Now, if we are to survive, we must adopt a different strategy.  It is we that must adapt ourselves and our activities to the needs of the Earth. Siblings of humankind, we must work in concert to save each other and save the Earth.

 

 

Spirit of Restoration

IMG_2010

The American Bison, to my knowledge, was the first animal in the United States whose numbers were purposefully sought to be restored.  I took these pictures in Iowa at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge that restored the tall grass prairie, bison, and elk to a significant patch of the Iowa landscape.   Visiting the refuge figures into my own personal restoration, my Medicine Walk to the South, and my observance of the Earth’s high holy day, the Summer Solstice.

 

IMG_2016

This land had originally been purchased from farmers by a power company that planned to build a nuclear power plant on it.  How utterly fantastic that those plans were scrapped and the land subsequently dedicated to its present purpose – the restoration of an ecosystem that was all but obliterated from the face of the earth, the tall grass prairie.  Pre-white settlement, the land that is now Iowa was about 85% prairie and was part of an ecosystem that has been called the “American Serengeti”.  Today, 1/10th of 1% of Iowa is prairie, and the animals that evolved to thrive there are long gone.  But this refuge, that now has over 8,000 acres, has sought to restore a piece of what once was.

 

IMG_1999

To see buffalo, (while they’re not technically buffalo, to my mind this name  much better connotes the animal’s wooly head and shaggy mane than ‘bison’ does), I could have visited buffalo ranches  in Minnesota or taken a trip to one of the Dakotas.  But to travel to Iowa, of all places, to see these animals restored to some of the best and most costly farmland in the world, this resonated with me deeply. For two reasons. One,  I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, on what once was the wide open prairie. So I have a kinship with this land and, even as a young boy,  I frequently dreamt about, and felt, what the land once was.   Second, I have been going through my own restoration process.   So to visit such a recent and ambitious restoration undertaking in a land not so far removed from my homeland, well this struck a chord.

When I entered the refuge for the first time, these gentlemen greeted me:

 

IMG_2009

 

 

This one in the picture below, which limped across the road, I later found out had been struck by lightning last fall. The bolt entered his shoulder and traveled to the ground through his leg.  He is a survivor.  It brought to mind my Stormwalk post from a couple of days ago.

IMG_2014

 

I had four close encounters with the buffalo herd.  Which was exceedingly fortunate, for they so readily disappear in landscape…So I feel inspired to add the buffalo to the South position in my personal medicine wheel.

IMG_2054

 

A Variegated Fritillary butterfly on a purple cone flower….
IMG_2026

 

A wild rose – I did a simple communion ritual using a rose petal ~ a communion wafer never tasted so fragrant!
IMG_2030

 

Bindweed…
IMG_2058

 

 

 

A storm moved in across the prairie Sunday morning…
IMG_2069
I saw the elk only once, from a distance, and this was as I was leaving the refuge for the last time, as the rain fell:

IMG_2070

The refuge is a couple of hundred miles and practically due south from “Bdote”, which, as I mentioned in a previous post, is my point of departure for my medicine walk to the sacred directions.

For those who have read my posts, this trip on the Summer Solstice marked the culmination of Zenith Arc, my Sunrise Sadhana and journey to the solstice. It also marks the beginning of my Walk Through the Wheel of the Seasons ~ doing medicine walks to the sacred directions on the holy days of the Earth.

To observe the solstice, in addition to making this pilgrimage, I watched the sun rise in the east, I meditated under the sun at its zenith in “the Grail pose”, and watched the sun set in the west.   So I took in the energy of the day as best as possible, observing and participating in the three key moments of the earth’s relationship with the sun: sunrise, zenith, sunset.

There are countless details I could share about my brief journey, but one last one:   When I awoke this morning, sat up in my sleeping bag and looked out through the screen door of my  tent, there, across a broad valley, was the sun rising in the east.  I had no idea when I pitched my tent the day before that it would be perfectly oriented toward the rising of the sun.  So this morning (Sunday) my sunrise vigil continued, from the comfort of my sleeping bag.