United Tribes NewsKilldeer Mountain
Febuary 19 2014
Killdeer Mountain Conflict 150 Years Later
By Dakota Goodhouse
BISMARCK – Killdeer Mountain is hardly a mountain, but it is a beautiful and majestic plateau nonetheless as it rises gently above the prairie steppe. In summer, native plants and flowers dot the hillside and emerge from the cracks of shattered sandstone. Short and medium indigenous grasses sway in a wind that has been present since creation.
The song of coyotes hauntingly fills the air on a gentle midsummer’s eve. The trees – a mix of ash and cottonwood – grow in clusters, but it’s the cottonwoods that sway and shush the world. Crickets take up their hum in the twilight where the cicadas left-off during the day. Aeries of golden eagles and hawks remind the meadowlarks and rabbits to keep a wary eye on the skies.
Killdeer Mountain is a sacred site of story, where young men went to pray. The summit receives yet those who still pray in the ways of their ancestors, but also hikers or naturalists, historians, archaeologists, biologists and paleontologists.
The Lakĥóta call this site “Taĥčá Wakútepi,” Where They Kill Deer, but it was more than just a place to hunt. Young Lakĥóta and Dakĥóta men would ascend the hill for prayer and reflection in the ceremony called Haŋbléčiye, or Crying For A Vision. They would mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually prepare far in advance for this pilgrimage – the site for their quest determined long in advance. Their stay generally lasted four days on the hill or mountain, standing, kneeling or sitting while they prayed day and night to humble themselves before the Creator. Killdeer was and still is a special place for prayer and reflection.
The site known today as Killdeer Battlefield, northwest of Killdeer, ND, is known primarily for the conflict that occurred on June 28, 1864. On that day, General Alfred Sully led a command of 2,200 soldiers in the last days of his Punitive Sioux Expedition, a military campaign organized in retaliation for the Minnesota-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The village of Lakota and Dakota that Sully attacked had little or nothing to do with the 1862 conflict. The Teton and Yanktonai who were present were previous allies who had fought under Colonel Leavenworth’s command in the Arikara War of 1823.
Sully’s brutal assault continued into the evening and night with a hail of cannon volley. Children who were inadvertently left behind in the rain of fire were rounded up, scalped and killed.
At the summit of Killdeer Mountain is a deep fissure, an open cave. Some call this cave “Medicine Hole.” Into this cave some of the Lakĥóta and Dakĥóta people fled when Sully began his unwarranted assault. Oral tradition has it that those who fled into the cave wound their way through the labyrinth and came out west of the mountain.
New Method of War
Sully was operating according to “total war theory,” where aggressors see little difference between combatants and civilians. This meant the capture and imprisonment of innocent women and children, if they weren’t killed outright on the battlefield, and the wholesale destruction of supplies, possessions, property and resources. In the Civil War going on at the same time in the east, Union armies employed this tactic with success, affecting the outcome of that war. Total war was the military’s approach during the punitive campaigns in Dakota Territory in 1863 and 1864. Killdeer should be seen in the context of the Union’s Civil War military strategy. It should be preserved and interpreted for its tragic history and the graves should be protected of those still buried there.
The up-tick in western North Dakota oil development brings a modern assault on the Killdeer site. In January 2013, the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved over 50 wells on public and private land that fall within the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield study area. Notwithstanding the rights of private land owners, there is a need to defend against another tragedy.
Upcoming this year, 150 years after the conflict, there is important work for those who believe in preserving as much of the natural, cultural and historical integrity of the site as possible. On June 28, 2014, the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and Lakĥóta and Dakĥóta representatives will gather in a public forum in Killdeer, ND, and talk about the conflict, the site and preservation .
Here are two things you can and should do: Attend the public forum and planned commemoration in Killdeer on Saturday, June 28; and visit the North Dakota Industrial Commission online and watch for public meetings and hearings and plan to attend those. It is particularly important that Native People are seen and Native voices heard.
Dakota Goodhouse is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is an instructor at United Tribes Technical College.
Visit the Killdeer Mountain Alliance on FaceBook for current news and updates.
United Tribes News
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