Last call

Native American prayer cloths adorn a weathered tree on Black Elk Peak, South Dakota. Photo by Steve Martaindale

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I HAVE FOUR more travel stories contributed by readers (one by Leah!) that I will post here Friday. However, there’s still plenty of time for you to submit yours. Go to this link, which explains what I’m talking about, and fill out the form with your memory.

Here’s one more from me and it highlights South Dakota.

I grew up proud of my Cherokee heritage. My mother was born in Oklahoma and her mother was born there when it was Indian Territory. However, we eventually figured out that our forefathers must not have ever signed the U.S. government’s official census – known as the Dawes Rolls – and any formal claim I could make to my scant Cherokee bloodline was lost with it.

(As a side note, a woman at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee, Okla., after failing to turn up any records linked to my genealogy, instructed me thusly, “Do not let this cause you to doubt your Cherokee heritage. Many people did not trust the government and refused to sign the rolls.”)

Regardless, I never deeply explored Native American history beyond the whitewashed stories presented in school several decades ago. More realistic stories, I believe, I found in a couple of James A. Michener’s novels – “Centennial,” which was set in Colorado, and “Texas.”

Here comes the South Dakota part.

We spent summer 2014 working at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills, an anomaly in the form of a mountain range stuck in the middle of the Great Plains. Not only are the Black Hills amazingly beautiful, they are steeped in native history, most notably the Lakota tribe for more than 200 years.

We hiked up Black Elk Peak (then still listed by the name Harney Peak) and found many colorful prayer cloths placed on the holy site. We found the same thing when walking up Bear Butte near Sturgis. Now, this didn’t enlighten me tremendously, but it makes an impression.

We visited the Crazy Horse Memorial, an imposing monument with an even more impressive story, but the best thing there might be the Indian Museum of North America, where I’ve spent hours reading snippets and stories lining the walls and among displays of arts and crafts.

Following our first summer at Mount Rushmore, I picked up a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West,” by Dee Brown. Incredibly well-documented, the book lays bare the systematic destruction of native tribes across the West.

Many experiences small and not-so-small around the Black Hills have affected me and made me more attuned to the realities of Native American life even today.

Yes, not all memories from South Dakota – or anywhere – are steeped in happiness, but they are good memories, nonetheless, when they become part of our lives. Now, click over to the earlier post and submit your memory.

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