While winding our way home (2800 kms) from the Madison Distance Learning and Teaching Conference and our annual holiday at Sue’s Father’s cabin in Blind River Ontario, we had a few adventures, that I wanted to share in the following post.

We left Madison Wisc. enroute to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and began to notice an increasing number of motorcycles on the freeway. Suddenly it twigged and a check on the map showed we were heading straight for Sturgis SD. For those not aware, Sturgis is the town most centrally located in the continental USA and home of the world’s largest motorcycle rally. A check on the net showed the annual event was starting the day we were to arrive!  This 70th anniversary rally, was hoping to attract over 700,000 motorcycles attendees!  The event features rallys, contests, concerts (Bob Dylan appearing this year) sales, tattoos, tours and everything else related to motorcycles! By the time we were within 100 miles, the motorcycles outnumbered 4 wheeled vehicles and probably 50% of the cars and trucks were towing trailers, many with the now familiar Harley Davidson winged decal plastered on the side.

About 40 miles before Sturgis, we headed off the Freeway to visit the Pine Ridge Reserve and the famed rock carvings at Mount Rushmore. We ended by taking a scenic, but VERY windy road up through the Black Hills and the Custer State Park. The road itself was quite spectacular – very narrow, no shoulders and winding up and down the mountain-like hills for about 30 miles. What we had not expected was meeting probably 500-600 motorcycles on the trip. Nearly every curve was shared with at least one roaring Harley, leaning into the curves and each of us hoping we kept to our own side of the centre line.  I did try to make the Honda Civic roar a bit to fit in, but judging by the looks of the bikers, I wasn’t all that successful! When we finally reached the summit parking lot overlooking the presidential monument, I counted the numbers – we shared the parking space with one car and over 60 motorcycles!

During the drive and especially at the Mt Rushmore Monument we began to notice a few things about these bikers. First the majority are middle aged to seniors and most are males, though they do come in all ages and genders. There was also a near-complete absence of blacks or people of color, this is very obviously a white-man’s hobby. This was also not a meeting of all motorcyclists and their machines, as over 95% of the bikes were Milwaukee-made Harley Davidson’s. We noticed a distinct lack of dust, dirt or grime on any of these machines – they were sparkling and decked out for the rally. We also discerned that though motorcyclists may have a reputation for being rebels, their support for vets, “our fighting troops”, 911, and the great US of A abounded.  Finally, unlike Canadian’s bikers, very few of these bikers choose to wear helmets, though we saw that some who had travelled through more legislated states, had a helmet strapped on the rear. Wouldn’t you just hate to die from head injury, with your helmet protecting the rear wheel!

Our Sturgis experience ended with a drive down the main street of town. More correctly, I should say a crawl through a motorcycle traffic jam. Seems one of the essential activities of the Sturgis pilgrimage is to drive down main street, belching the bike occasionally to the approving nodes of the parade watchers- other Harley owners, now off machine, on beer and in lawn chairs.  Many of the yards were full of bike sized pup tents and the occasional sign reading- Camping $15.00 a night! The parade moved so slowly, and in 30 degree heat that I was quickly yearning for the open freeway and any opportunity to ”get outa here“. Somehow Honda Civics just don’t cut it in a Harley parade.

So we turned around and headed north to the open prairies,  and finally found a motel with a vacancy in Buffalo, South Dakota!

Scouring the map, on our way home we realized we would be heading near to the Pine River Indian Reserve. This reserve was the site of the 1890 massacre of Sioux (Lakota) by the US 7th Calvary at Wounded Knee.  We had heard about the reserve from Dee Brown’s 1970 Novel,  the HBO Movie and Buffy Ste Marie’s moving song all titled Bury My heart at Wounded Knee.

Pine Ridge is a large reserve on the open prairie with mostly grazing but small fields in production with sunflowers and corn (most leased to whites, we heard). The reserve is very poor –even by Canadian reserve standards. At least half of the housing looks abandoned and of very poor construction with many derelict mobile homes. Many of the houses were decorated with wrecked automobiles, but I don’t think we saw a single garden and few ornamental trees or flowers. One thing we did notice was missions and churches – seems more attention to souls than to economic development!

The hamlet of Wounded Knee itself is just a scattering of houses with a couple of souvenir stands, remnants of abandoned powwows and a mission “Church of God”. A museum sign pointed to a round one story, house sized building, where we stopped. We were pleasantly greeted by the single staff person and a steady drip of water leaking through the roof. We were invited to look at the posters, murals and newspaper clippings mounted on the walls.  The posters told (briefly) the story of the massacre and the pictures of the mass graves into which the 150 bodies of  women, children and warriors were  thrown, after the attack by soldiers attempting to “disarm” the native community  and suppress the “Ghost dance spiritual revival.

Particularly disturbing was the quote from the young newspaper editor L. Frank Baum, later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891:

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.[19]

Rather surprisingly, the majority of the museum artifacts and pictures documented not the original massacre, but the 1973 battle at the same site, between American Indian Movement and at least 50 US Marshalls, backed by FBI and US military. Wikipedia reports the US forcesincluded fifteen armored personnel carriers, clothing, rifles, grenade launchers, flares, and 133,000 rounds of ammunition, for a total cost, including the use of maintenance personnel from the national guard of five states and pilot and planes for aerial photographs, of over half a million dollars.”

The 3 month stand-off resulted in the death of two Sioux and some months later the death of two FBI officers (for which Lenard Peltier was convicted and still serves a life sentence in prison). The 1973 incident garnered condemnation, support, sympathetic responses and a media circus but we saw little economic prosperity as result for the residents of the Pine Ridge Reserve. We also noted posters implicating the Canadian government as well as the US in the systematic persecution of First Nations citizens.

We were glad to be able to donate to the upkeep of this rather worn “museum” and hope that when next we return to Pine Ridge both the Memorial and the lives of the residents will be improve.

Our final stops on the way home included a “back to my roots” discovery quest in Southern Saskatchewan. My Father’s grandparents immigrated in the 1890’s, like many Swedish immigrants to Northern Minnesota. At the lake this summer, I had read Pierre Burton’s The Promised LandSettling the West 1896-1914. I learned how the Canadian government had refocused their immigration recruitment to the West on Americans (many of whom were recent European immigrants). It seems that many of the English settlers (like the Barr colonists) were town’s folks and unsuited for the rigour of prairie living. The government also harboured not so latent prejudice against Hutterites, Ukrainians and others not quite up to the elite Anglo-Canadian prejudices of politicians and civil servants of the day. Thus the focus on recruiting farmers from the USA.

My Grandfather John L Anderson and wife Greta Anderson, joined the trek of Americans, who sold their farm land and headed  for the opportunity to homestead free land in Saskatchewan.  I’ve heard stories of his reluctance to leave his steam powered tractor in the USA, and inability to pay the train freight, so he decided to steam to Saskatchewan, across the open fields. Unfortunately, filling stations with coal fuel then (as now) were scarce, but after a few misadventures they arrived in South Eastern Saskatchewan.

The  family first homesteaded in 1904 near Midale, but a very tragic event, forced a move to their second homesteading venture at Fife Lake Saskatchewan in 1910. My father was born there (with a birth certificate listing the land description, rather than a town hospital) and lived there until his late teens. The town of Fife Lake is like many almost abandoned Saskatchewan rural communities. The town had moved itself from the shores of Fife Lake to locate near the railroad that arrived in 1927, but unfortunately the first paved highway missed the town by 3 kilometers. The town now boasts a single operating business – a combination hotel/restaurant/bar and three closed garages, a closed school, a number of closed general stores, a closed bank and mostly abandoned houses. After a quick tour of town, our thirst for both information and a beer drove us to the hotel and we were very pleasantly greeted by owner Gail Harness.

Upon hearing of our roots quest, Gail produced a homestead map, showing the names and locations of the first persons to homestead each quarter section in the municipality. Homesteading meant that one acquired provisional ownership of the land, which was made permanent when one “proved up “ the land by breaking and farming a specified number of acres and residing for so many months on the land. We were pleased to locate to find the sites of my Great Grandfather’s original claim, plus those of his son John and my Grandfather Alvin on the map.  Gail also produced a 1981 community history of the Big Woody area. This pioneer history noted that my Grandfather was the store manager of a general store in nearby Pumpkin Centre (no, I am not making up the name of this town). Finally, we read that my father was first enrolled in the Big Woody School at age 7 in 1922.

After an excellent steak diner at the hotel, we followed Gail’s directions to the Little Woody Cemetery and found the still cared for graves of my Great Grandparents John and Gretta Anderson. By this time the sun was setting and we headed west, but did a very brief detour to see the spit of land reaching out into Fife Lake where my father had been born and my grandfather first turned the prairie sod. They both abandoned the farm and area to homestead again in Northern Saskatchewan (“at least we can cut firewood”) during the depression and drought of the 1930’s.

Our evening ended with a stay at the (in)famous Temple Gardens Hotel and Spa. The original Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw had been one of Saskatchewan’s most popular dance halls in the 30’s. It had hosted American Prohibition gangsters and party goers from across the province, but of course was off limits to my Mother and her Baptist parents who grew up in Moose Jaw in the 1920’s. The ‘waters” were great and a nice way to spend our last evening of holidays 2010.