Of all the things the wind-swept plains of South Dakota have to offer, Custer Park may not be the most spectacular, but it is definitely the place you wouldn’t want to miss if for no other reason then for this - buffalo!
We took a trip to Custer State Park from Rapid City. A well-known sign (famous for pictures – note that we didn’t even think of going there) reads “Custer State Park is a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again” and this statement was true for us. We did wear old clothes, were unworried, and felt perfectly sane (which not always is the case). We came there because we have been in Dakota for a few days and we have seen just one bison: at the gate to the Badlands National Park, on our way out. Its majesty impressed us, and we were craving for more. In Custer State Park a close encounter with this beautiful animal is almost guaranteed as the park is home to 1,300 bison, one of the largest public, free-roaming herds. By “close” I mean safe distance, of course. The bison may seem very sweet, but are dangerous and can run up to 40 mph. Visitors can see roaming bison also near Bear Butte and the Wind Cave, but we decided to trek through the park for its scenic views and pristine trails. Early pioneers and ranchers created its trails and back country roads, and we were excited to explore them (though a little worried about the safety on the road - driving there can be tricky even if you don't go near the Needles).
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre wilderness located in the southern part of the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, which Indigenous peoples consider sacred. The hills are named for their dark appearance from the distance (due to ponderosa pine). National Geographic's guidebook calls them "a geologic wonder" and the area that is hard to visit "without sensing a world of mystery and spirit". Custer presents its visitors with beautiful scenery but also plays an important role in the preservation of wildlife. Over the past 100 years this park has reintroduced into the preserve: elk, pronghorn antelope, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and bison. If you’re looking for an up close personal experience of wildlife, head off-road and keep exploring. Or visit Wildlife Loop Road, as we did.
It is not far away from here that the legendary “Red Racetrack” invites you on a special tour. Lakota Sioux believed that it encircled the entire Black Hills – and it was the site of the “Great Race” between humans and buffalo. As written in a local bulletin, the story is associated with the origins of several traditional practices of the Sioux.
The Great Race is a story of a race for power of one animal (human) over the other (buffalo) that took place on the edge of Black Hills, in a place called Buffalo Gap. In the Lakota’s legend, humans have an incomprehensible advantage to choose four birds to run in the race for them, all four birds against slim and fast female buffalo. The bird that wins the race appears to be a common magpie, respected and never eaten by humans since then. This victory gives humans the power over buffalo.
It’s quite impossible to visit Dakota, and especially the Black Hills and Custer State Park, and not to think “Lakota” or "Dakota" most of the time. Both tribes are the two major divisions of the modern Sioux (based on language divisions). Lakota means "allies, friends or those who are united." Dakota comes from the words “Da” meaning "considered" and “Koda” - "friend." Their rich culture still lives there not only within the reservations, museums, stores, and cultural centers, but also in the landscape itself.
For Dakota and Lakota everything is a part of the Great Spirit - Wakan Tanka, the ancient spirit that encompasses sun, sky and winds. Before Christianity came to convert them, this sacred or divine spirit was understood as a mysterious way and presence of sacred entities, but also the holy aspect of all things. The voice of the Great Spirit may be heard not only in the wind.
The Great Spirit Prayer
Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.
~ translated by Chief Yellow Lark
Out of this same Spirit emerges the White Buffalo (Tatanka Ska) – a holy woman from one of the legends that comes to Lakota Sioux in a human and rare white bison form to teach them living prayer, Mother Earth, the value of women, children, and buffalo. Side note: white buffalo exist, but they are one in 10 million.
To the Lakota the buffalo (the largest mammal in North America) is a symbol of the divine, because it sustained all life and as such must have been a gift from the Great Spirit. In today’s American culture it symbolizes strength, generosity, abundance, and freedom, but to the Lakota it was more. “Tatanka” were the givers of all life: food, clothes, shelters, weapons, pots, utensils, etc. Because of this a bison skull was present in sacred Lakota rituals, where it reminded people of an ability to be generous, to give to those in need, to sacrifice oneself for others. This is also the most highly respected way of living for a nomadic Lakota people, who never cared more for their possessions than for being close to the bison and sharing with others. Buffalo is seen as a relative and each sacrifice (killing) of an animal was honored as a blessing from the Tatanka Oyate.
The 19-mile long Wildlife Loop Road (about 45 minutes of drive) indeed appeared to be our best chance to see bison. It is hard to believe but before 1900 between 30 and 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains. By 1900 there were less that one thousand left. Since then, thanks to restoration efforts, this number increased up to 11 thousand. We’ve caught the King of the Plains in a beautiful, scenic setting, when he was crossing the road slowly with family and friends to rest in a tall grassy pasture. We divided ourselves into two teams: one stayed in the vehicle and the other remained about 100 yards away from the herd. Peaceful back roads, pine-speckled hills, and a group of bison: these views give you an immense sense of freedom and joy regardless of the option you choose. “May you get caught in many buffalo jams” proclaims a local advert, and we were blessed to get caught twice.
We stopped at French Creek Natural area for a short hike. Dispersed camping is allowed there and it looked like people were using the opportunity to stay in the wild as we saw a small tent on the way to the creek. This is a 12 mile (one way) trail that forces you to cross multiple creek. Hence the “moderate to strenuous” description. A large part of this trail isn’t even marked, but on the way to the creek we noticed the definite marks of buffalo crossing, and we felt the need to discuss a strategy (which could be summed up in two words: “just run”). After that, I became a little oversensitive to the sound of crickets. When a large grasshopper landed on my arm, I jumped.
From the top of the rock near the water, I attempted a conversation with the French Creek (in French). Or rather, a monologue consisting of a few phrases remembered from my time at college and a few trips to France. I expressed delight and gratitude. And I wondered how different our life would be if in every language we would only speak those few words: “Thank you”, “Wonderful”, “Beautiful view”, “I am very grateful”. Would our life be simpler? Would our experience adjust? Would something that we are unable to name still exist in the same way for us? I need to speak with a linguist! Does language create or guide our experience? Does our ability to name what we experience make us really conscious of it?...
In every language we have one additional life, as Goethe once said. My life in French feels so light and uncomplicated: “Salut!”, “Tres bien”, “Merci”, “Au Revoir”. The French Creek didn't say back much, and we both seemed to be well aligned.
* Since we’re now going deeper into the winter season here in New England, it may be good to know that in spite of Dakota snow being as deep as in Massachusetts, you can still enter Custer State Park in the winter season, and snowshoe hike to beat the winter blues. During December the Visitor Center prepares the Festival of Trees to put you in a Christmas mood.
Or if you want to go deeper into the spirit of Christmas, read the words of Black Elk, a holy man, traditional healer, and visionary of the Oglala Lakota Sioux from the Black Hills of South Dakota (but also a Catholic teacher and preacher):
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
~ Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
Before leaving Custer Park, we look around – this vast and unique wild space, rolling hills and grasslands with the grass moved by the wind, in all four directions of our dream. A good moment to pray.
Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you - the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.
You have set the powers of the four quarters of the earth to cross each other. You have made me cross the good road and road of difficulties, and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.
~ Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
*Source of the prayers: Akta Lakota Musemum & Cultural Center Website
I never underestimate an opportunity and a joy of visiting new places. Gratitude comes naturally as our reality is so rich. I hope that my images reveal something of this richness, in a meaningful way.