We had left Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park and headed east. Our destination was the Black Hills and South Dakota. Another and perhaps the most important episode in Romy’s journey back to the childhood memories of “Die Söhne der grossen Bärin”.
The first destination was the town of Cody in Wyoming, named after William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. The route to this town in the Wild West was a special one. The rock formations were again so different from Yellowstone. Red in colour and subject to erosion, the most beautiful shapes had been created. Soon we drove out of the valley and, as if we hadn’t seen enough changes in the landscape over the past few days, we now felt like we were in a new western movie with Clint Eastwood. Everywhere we look, cattle were grazing in pastures and horses were waiting to be saddled to leave the ranch. The land of leather boots and cowboy hats.
In Cody, we visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which consists of five museums. We found the Plains Indian Museum about the culture, traditions and fate of the natives, their history and present and the Buffalo Bill museum about the life of Mr Cody himself particularly impressive.
Buffalo Bill was born in 1846. He served the U.S. Army as a scout during the Indian wars receiving a Medal of Honor. Cody had gained a reputation as a skilled hunter. To solve the “Indian problem” in 1869 the U.S. Army came up with the idea to kill as many buffalo as possible. Because where there are no buffalos there would be no Indians. Cody and other men from all over the country killed thousands of buffalo a day.
In 1883 he founded his colourful Wild West show, which came to be known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, evolved into an international succes story. By the turn of the twentieth century, William F. Cody was arguably the most famous American in the world. No one symbolized the West for Americans and Europeans better than Buffalo Bill.
Though in his younger days, Bill Cody had fought against American Indians, he always spoke of his opponents with great respect. Later he also advocated for the rights of American Indians. In his Wild West Show, Cody often cast American Indian performers in central roles. To this day, the reasoning and results of these choices remain debated. Nevertheless it was very interesting for us, to learn more about the life of this controversal and special man.
We drove from Cody towards the town of Billings, the largest town in Montana with a population of 100,000. Not long after we had left Cody behind, a warning appeared in our display that the oil level had risen. We stopped the car along the highway and did a quick oil check. The oil level was indeed a centimetre above the line indicating ‘max’ on the dipstick. Using our iOverlander app, we drove to an auto garage in Billings that directed us to Diamond Automotive. Will, the super nice owner, suggested we could spend the night in his car park. The next morning, he had time to look at it.
Will introduced us to Sascha the next morning, a Russian employee who has accumulated a lot of experience in Europe with European cars. So Sascha’s knowledge could not be faulted. Rather, it was his knowledge of the English language. Communication was somewhat difficult, but eventually, with extra help from our good friend and Mercedes expert David in Germany, we figured it could be a problem with the particulate filter. Then Will checked by phone with a fellow garage just to be sure and came back asking if we had recently changed oil? Euh, yes four weeks ago on Vancouver Island we had had the oil changed. According to Will, it could be that they had added too much oil, so he suggested changing the oil again. It sounded like the simplest solution to start with. We would continue to monitor the situation and thanked Will for taking good care of it!
So after a second oil change, we drove the same day to the Little Bighorn Battlefield where the last great battle between Native Americans and Euro-Americans took place in 1876. It became a victory, albeit the last one, for the Natives led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, where Colonel Custer and 270 soldiers ofthe 7th Cavalry were killed. For Americans, he is the hero commemorated here. Romy had read many books about it and then to arrive at the place where it took place is a special moment. In the coming days, we would visit more such places including the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse Monument.
Just before the sun went down, we found a spot for the day at a free campground in Custer National Forest. For a long time, campfires were prohibited due to forest fires. Since the fire danger had been turned back to ‘Moderate’, we could finally enjoy the giant starry sky again with the comfort of a fire.
On our way to the Black Hills, we came across Devil’s Tower. Out of nowhere, this colossus rises up to 260 metres into the sky and can be seen from as far as 10 kilometres away. What we also saw were large plumes of smoke clearly from forest fires. After we passed the park entrance, it turned out that in this area, they burn off grass and small wood on the ground in a controlled manner to prevent real forest fires. We hiked around the basalt of Mato Tipila (Bears Lodge), as the Native Americans call the Tower. For them this rock has been and still is a sacred site.
We headed for the Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse was one of the most important warriors belonging to the Lakota tribe and participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn, among others. Construction of the memorial had been started in 1948 by Boston-born Korczak Ziolkowski at the invitation of Chief Henry Standing Bear. This Sioux leader wanted “the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too”. Korczak himself died in 1982 and since then his wife, children and grandchildren have continued the work. This huge design might take another 50 years to be completed. If completed as designed, the memorial will become the world’s second tallest statue.
Crazy Horse sitting on a horse, is carved out of the mountain. To give an idea of how huge this monument is – it took forty years to only finish the head. Now they are working on its arm. Eventually, it will be 171 metres high and 195 metres wide. An estimated 1000 people could stand atop Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm. The Memorial is financed by admissions and contributions and does not accept federal or state funding.
It is a well-known fact that Crazy Horse refused to have his picture or likeness taken. Crazy Horse lived under the assumption that by taking a picture a part of his soul would be taken and his life would be shortened. The likeness that Korczak Ziolkowski created for the memorial was developed by descriptions from survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse.
However, this project is about more than just a monument. There is also a North-American Indian Museum and North- American Indian University which will help preserve Natives’ culture and traditions for future generations.
The Crazy Horse monument is the Native American answer to another American monument that has graced the mountains of the Black Hills since 1942, Mount Rushmore. This monument where four ex-presidents of America are carved out of the rock is immensely popular with Americans. Here one stands face to face with Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. The four presidents were chosen to represent the nation’s birth, growth, development and preservation, respectively. These four heads were made in 14 years, which also indicates the difference in dimensions between the two monuments; the heads themselves are about 18 metres long, the entire monument is 62 metres wide.
Mount Rushmore has also been a site of continued controversy since its conception. The area was named Sioux territory by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and is still very important for these people. The monument is a painful reminder of broken treaties and a history of mistreatment.
The Black Hills totally surprised us in the positive, what a beautiful environment. For many generations of Sioux, the “Paha Sapa” were and are a spiritual place, “the heart of everything that is”. A place of spirits and sacred mountains. And we could well relate to that.
Custer State Park borders the southern part of the Black Hills and is known for its abundance of wildlife. The large herds of bison that from time to time can block the road here are particularly special. Every year at the end of September, the traditional “buffalo roundup” takes place, where all bison are herded together. Then the animals are counted, vaccinated, branded and partly sorted out for sale. The park adjusts the size of the herd to the respective food supply, on average there are about 1400 animals. Unfortunately, we were about 3 weeks too late to experience this event live.
The 18-mile Wild Loop Road allowed us to enjoy the scenery and animals. We saw bisons, mule deer, prairie dogs and pronghorns during the drive. It seemed like a safari through Africa. Just before we were to leave the park, several bighorn sheep crossed in front of us. The large and crooked horns impressed us!
From Custer State Park, the next destination was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. We chose to drive via the Badlands. The Badlands are a bizarre landscape phenomenon, especially if you have driven through the forested mountains of the Black Hills just before. Less than 30 kilometres further on, there is hardly any vegetation to be seen, everything appears desert-like, almost as if on another planet. The earth is grey and brown, desolate and yet fascinating with all the hills, pinnacles and tuff mountains.
The area is huge, it is divided into several parts, one of which is the Badlands National Park, but we only touched it. In another part is the second largest reservation in the USA, the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Sioux live. Once they received a huge area including the Black Hills in a treaty. But after gold was found there in 1877, no white man was interested in this treaty and they were left with the barren land of the Badlands. It is one of the poorest areas in the USA, poverty and alcohol lead to a life expectancy of only 52 years.
We crossed the small town of Porcupine and reached Wounded Knee shortly after sunset. There is not much to see, a large sign with the history of this sad event and a monument remind us of this place, which was the scene of the last resistance of the Natives against the whites. On 29 December 1890, more than 250 unarmed Sioux men, women and children were killed here, the mass grave is in the local cemetery.
Each year Native people come to this place to honor the dead. The ceremony has attracted more participants each year and riders and their horses live with the cold weather, as well as the lack of food and water, as they retrace the path that their family members took to Wounded Knee. They carry with them a white flag to symbolize their hope for world peace, and to honor and remember the victims.
We left South Dakota and drove on to Nebraska, where we parked the car at a petrol station with a truck stop in Chadron and had a quick dinner at the Chinese restaurant next door. After a quiet night, a warm shower and a few hours of internet, we left Chadron at noon and drove to Fort Robinson State Park.
From this fort, built in 1874, the campaign against the Sioux was organised to drive them out of the Black Hills. On 5 September 1877, Crazy Horse was murdered here while he was at the fort for negotiations. We were once again “ouf of season” and everything was already closed. We walked a little through the grounds and read the purely “white” view of the events at the end of the 19th century on the various information boards. It was almost cynical to read about “hostile Indians”, “Indian Campaigns” and the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were “a great asset in the fight against the Indians”.
This is where our journey along the sites of the struggle of the proud Sioux against white supremacy ended.