We emerge from a winding two-track prairie trail onto the banks of the Grand River, then kill the truck engine. Silence engulfs us as we continue on foot. There are no signs that point to this spot. Just yellow grass, yellow leaves and air shimmering with golden stillness on an October afternoon. And yet people know the way. They come to this blank space on the map near McLaughlin, South Dakota, to pray and remember Sitting Bull, the Lakota leader who died resisting U.S. forces on December 15, 1890. Pilgrims leave offerings at the base of a tombstone-like marker. Colorful tobacco-filled prayer bundles line a fence nearby. It’s not a grave, though—the location of Sitting Bull’s bones is a mystery, and the cabin where he lived is gone. An official state historical plaque narrates the events of the clash, but clearly some disagree with this version of his life and death: The words “hostile” and “misguided” have been scraped off the metal. For most, this is the middle of nowhere; for others, the heart of the world. My homesteading ancestors settled in the Dakotas, but I wouldn’t be here without my Hunkpapa Lakota friend Ohitika, who needed no map to guide us. We pass sweat lodge frames and a pole marking sacred grounds. I’ve heard traditional Sun Dances still happen under these cottonwoods. As I step into the slow river, Ohitika spots a soaring golden eagle. Looking up, I can almost hear an echo of drums.
Now and Then The wet-plate photo above, taken in 2016, shows Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of Sitting Bull, at the site where the Sioux chief was killed near Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Photographer: Shane Balkowitsch.