My son Arjun got a job counting birds out at Pipestone for the summer. Despite a small size, the land possesses slices of rare tall grass prairie. Prairie bird migration was the thesis subject of Arjun's boss, Sarah Rehme, a quiet Midwestern woman in her mid twenties. She's a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, creating a census of songbird populations at three Western parks, to see if there's anything that can be done to reverse their decline.
Sarah hired three teams of youngsters to make counts at three locations. She'll spend her summer in her white pickup driving between them, training and supervising. Part of the work involves setting mist nets. Birds are caught, studied, and released. Blood is collected, isotopes can reveal where the birds have been and what they've eaten. Sarah also created a system of 'data points' throughout the park, where she and Arjun are to watch and count birds. These data points were fed into GPS linked maps. Each bird sighting became a little red pin on a Google map.
As Sarah was impatient to get her team in gear, I collected my son at the end of his spring term from College of the Atlantic in Maine, on a Friday. By Sunday night we were in Eden Prairie, a suburb west of Minneapolis.
Eden Prairie, so named by early settlers because of its rich soils, and beautiful terrain, was made wealthy in the 1990's by info-tech companies. Beneath the clutter of man's architecture, the earth still is beautiful.
Grass flows from this place. You sense the rise in the earth where the prairie is and feel the memory of forests around it. Prairie Center Road circles the original grassland. Instead of wagons, imagine K-Marts, boutiques, Marriot hotels, and Chinese restaurants. Eden Prairie today is a big mall, filled with cars and shoppers.
In the old book, Eve was Judaism's first attempt at a Goddess. The Bible took her on with reluctance. She is after all guilty of spoiling a pretty good deal. Mary the mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalene, depending on your beliefs, have some attributes of the original Eve. As Goddess she was a provider. and at Eden Prairie one sensed the power of Eve, and the power of her Earth.
Eve gave life. Crops, game, water, minerals, lumber, forests, birds to look at, birds to eat. The land was poetry. This itself spelled danger. I explained it to Arjun, "Not everything that nature makes is on offer." Indeed this was the abstract lesson contained with the story of Eve. Some fruits are not for Man.
The ancient Greek goddesses Hera, Athena, Demeter, and Artemis all contributed to the modern boiled-down Eve. Male gods were in the ascendancy; language and metals made it possible to sail abroad and raid other cultures for their wealth. Men ruled. Women stayed home. Zeus replaced the Muse, (same sound), and dallied with her granddaughters.
We spent the night in Mankato, and the following morning headed along straight highways past green farms, towards the little town of Sleepy Eye.
"Ish-Tak-Ha-Ba", Sleepy Eye, the Dakota chief after whom this town is named, had a lazy eye with a drooping lid.
I felt an instantaneous connection when I read about Chief Sleepy Eye because as a boy my own left eye had geen affected by a difficult birth. Our neighbor, a local Swedish dairyman whom we called Farmer Johnson, in turn nick-named me "Blinky-Eye".
Farmer Johnson was exactly the sort of man that worked the prairies of Minnesota. He labored hard, lived long, said little. As a boy he lost his whole family in a barn-fire. The father went in, the mother after him, then his only brother, then the barn collapsed.
"That same day I milked the cows," Farmer told me. He was a teenage boy, alone without any family in rural America.
Sleepy Eye town recently received a huge share of media attention. A thirteen year-old native Sioux with a cancerous tumor in his chest, had refused court ordered chemotherapy and fled with his mother. The police looked everywhere for the couple, but they'd split, and headed to Mexico. The mom was in favor of traditional medicine.
But then for some reason, they decided to come back.
Arjun and I stopped for coffee at Dan's Bakery. Pickup trucks were parked outside. Sleepy Eye is one of those places that must have had incredible wealth during the bread basket days. The buildings along the main street are brick-faced and simple, but the mansions just outside of town are palatial.
The waitress was an slim woman with black fillings around her front teeth. She was a heavy smoker. I pitched her a question about the recent media attention, and asked if news reporters had been in buying coffee.
She sidled up and lowered her voice.
"I'm not one to gossip," she said. "But if you really want to know, I'll tell ya," and grabbed a chair.
"The boy is a real sweetie. The mother's nice too! Don't get me wrong."
She made comfy for a long chat.
"I mean . . . I don't share her religion. She found some native healer. It breaks your heart when you think about it. The whole state was out last night trying to hunt them down. Cops all over. They gave up and came back. The poor kid is probably going onto the drip today. We're all praying he makes it."
Arjun and I had a look around. There were old baking tins and flour containers and old hand-cranked egg beaters, There was a map on the wall. It showed the place where the defeated Dakota Sioux were detained after the 1862 uprising. A circle of tents, each tent numbered, barbed wire, sentry posts. In 1862 Sleepy Eye was a prison camp.
Our waitress called it a 'Historic Map of the Sleepy Eye". I wondered if she knew what it depicted.
We drank up. We had a deadline to meet in Pipestone so we headed on.
The drive was uneventful, except for a cloudburst outside of Florence. We missed our turn, and were about to enter South Dakota when we wheeled back.
Out of the mist loomed a horizon of towers that spun in the wind. A wind farm, just north of Pipestone sprouted approximately 800 three-bladed wind generators with 275 foot diameter turbines that spun on the horizon. The sheer size of the project made one dizzy.
We were early so we went on to look at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was an unbroken horizon of farm equipment, rusting in the rain. And a valley of sub-prime housing, rotting, 90% vacant, a sea of homes in default, so large that it circled the horizon.
Then on the way back I spotted my first bison. There stood in the rain near exit 400, off Route 90. About forty of them, looking too fenced in to ever dig up any prairie earth. I imagined hearing the roar of their hooves and feeling queasy as the landscape moved.
Suzlon was an Indian company. Not Native American Indian but India Indian. They even held a Hindu puja ceremony in 2005 when they finished building the plant, which is a mammoth white metal fabrication just south of Pipestone. I drove out to look at the place. Finished rotors sat outside. They looked like over-sized white eagle feathers.
Eleven stories of Federally subsidized housing. Arjun got equipped with badge, signed a lease, and promised to be careful who he brought in at night.
Sarah, Arjun's boss was there, and so was Cassie, his teammate on the bird project. I remember reading that wind projects in California were dubbed "Condor Cuisinarts" by critics who found carcasses below some of the early structures. It's perhaps too easy to dismiss wind power as an alternative to foreign oil.
I decided not to stress Sarah by asking her how many of her meadowlarks met an end at the edge of the Suzlon blades. Her task was to study songbirds at the National Monument. We drove to the park, a small place, with a beautiful stream running through it, and cumbersome attempts to rejuvenate wild tall grass prairie. We smelled smoke. One of the park rangers had just completed a 'burn' of other 'invasives'.
The four of us set out to explore the park, and I snapped pictures of the three young people as they set out to try and rescue songbirds from forces so powerful it seemed hopeless. Our footsteps took us to the perimeter of Pipestone Monument within minutes. We stayed to the path. The grass seemed truly precious. At the waterfall, which cascades down through quarries of red rock, I was reminded of Longfellow's poem "Hiawatha". This was the same waterfall that had moved Longfellow.
The stream was bounded by small rock outcroppings, previously quarried by the tribes of this area centuries ago. There were enigmatic faces left in the rock. They seemed accidentally discovered in the rock, but once seen, tweaked with a hammer blow here or there, then left on purpose. Once a being show's its face, you never do anything to diminish it. Human, or animal, they respected whatever they saw, and quarried elsewhere.
Inside the National Park's building a number of Native American employees were carving Calumet peace-pipes from the red pipestone. I chatted briefly with them. I overheard one of the park officials saying "If they don't get their paperwork in on time they won't be having any Sundance."
One of the carvers was doing bead-work that day. His name was Solomon. He was Sioux, and was going to college. I asked him about the God Raven. Raven is common to all the North American tribes.
"Have you been dreaming of Raven?" he asked. "Did you get guidance from him?"
Pipestone is sacred land. Every Native American tribe has the right to mine pipestone here. The mines are tiny, ten feet by four feet, a few feet deep. No power tools are allowed. The veins of red stone extend throughout the area, and some of the wealthy businessmen in town harvest huge quantities at other locations, using all the latest power equipment.
The calumet pipes were the instruments of peace recognized by all tribes, east and west. The land was sacred. The stone was sacred. Thanks had to be given for taking the stone. Offerings had to be made.
On the return trip to Minneapolis, I stopped again at Dan's in Sleepy-Eye. An older lady was serving coffee. I avoided talk about the young boy. Instead we chatted about the selling out of small farms.
I helped myself to two more of their delicious donuts and settled in.
She began to talk. "We all had a hundred and fifty or two hundred acres. Never more than that. Now you can't survive off that. They're all selling out. Every one. South Minnesota is boarded up. I really don't know what people are going to do.
"The retirement home here's filled with beaten farmers. I went over for Reminiscences Night last Thursday. It was amazing how we used to live here. No refrigeration. We kept our milk in pails at the bottom of our wells. And we wrapped our meat in cotton cloth and buried it in our grain."
I asked if I could take a picture of the old map on the wall. "I don't see why not," she said a little nervously.
"Hey if you're interested in history, just go down that street. You won't regret it. Go until you see the church. Then go inside," she said.
I went as directed. The road crossed the tracks, and the local grain co-operative was right there, just like the one in Mankato, the bigger town nearby. The tall grain elevator was magnificent, stark, cathedral-like, a spire erected to the corn Goddess. Yet I wondered what rituals governed the transport of grain in and out of these structures.
Whose culture was this?
Is it American? What is an American?
In Mexico, where the Spanish were consistently brutal and cruel to the Central and South American natives, the Europeans interbred and had children. So the cultures hybridized, the European and Native American myths mixed. Cruelty made them one. Some parts of Mexico are much the same as they were centuries ago, some are similar to old Spain, but most are something truly unique, a fusion. You go into a church, there's Christ, there's St. John, but the saints are borrowed from Mixtec, Maya, or Aztec mythology. The local cultures lives on amidst the economy of the invading race.
The Yucatan peninsula holds a vital Mayan population. The language has changed, but lives on. The native peoples have adapted. Suffering is ubiquitous, but seems to be worse in lands where one culture fights to isolate itself from another.
North America has lived the path of segregation. We've not integrated. We inherited an Anglo-Saxon paranoia about 'peoples beyond the pale'. We've created ghettos and slums, like the ones in pre-Nazi Europe. We've fought off Natives, persecuted Black Americans. We've confined the Sioux and the Mohawks to bars, gambling casinos and reservations, and resisted mixing our culture with theirs.
What are we defending ourselves from?
On the TV at Dan's Coffee Shop a local version of the show "The Price is Right" aired without anyone listening. The glib affectations of the overfed announcer and the false glee of those that won a car, or a set of movie passes, or a backyard barbecue set, played to deaf ears. The old men chucked their cards around and took no notice. And the waitress was telling me about the old days on the prairie.
Wait, we're a culture of architecture. Why?
Cathedrals, skyscrapers. Always trying to be tall, or taller. But now our churches are only relatively tall. Every town has a cell tower. The most important buildings in a European cultured town are tall, always. The clock tower in Waterbury CT was tall, near where I grew up, modeled after towers in Sienna Italy. So were the churches. The most important buildings in New York were the twin towers, but when they came down that left the Empire State.
Height and size, that's one thing. Chicago downtown. Communication antennae. The bridge on a tour ship that dwarfs a Caribbean island. A bigger particle collider is better than small one. A bigger airplane more comfortable, a bigger car makes the trip seem smaller.
A bigger house, a bigger dining room. A bigger pension, a bigger place to shop.
Bigger is better. Do we question?
Wait . . . we're always in a hurry. We want to shorten the time for every task, and lengthen the time for every pleasure. "Get it done faster" . . "Takes no time at all" . . . "Save time" . . . "Time is money."
What is wrong with time I wondered. What is wrong with walking, as opposed to running, or taking a fast car, or a fast airplane? Does someone who rushes through life actually get more done?
Why can't we conduct our politics in the street? Why can't we worship on a mountain or in a desolate valley? Why do we seem to require a building in every instance? Judaism and Christianity had their sacred places, but then temples got built and those then became more sacred than the events that led to them.
All empires have slaves. Even in Mexico, when Mayan culture entered a final decline, and pyramids for sacrifices were built, slavery was rampant. The militaristic death throws of a dying culture brought slaves back from other lands to toil, and to be sacrificed on the pyramid steps of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Tikal.
Is culture the precious vestige of old buildings which have lasted hundreds or thousands of years, or is it something more perishable than a feather, a poem, a story, a sense of visual structure, or memory, even a word?
A review of cemeteries and monuments in North America will reveal that what is often written on stones are often the most blatant lies in print today. Could we have a fear of the past? Are we trying to forget our ancestors by putting stones on top of them?
An American truly of this land, doesn't care about writing on a stone. He has the message written in his heart. He remembers. His ancestors are better remembered, without books, and without stones to carve on. Their stories are told, not written. He's not rushed to tell these stories, but can recite them for days.
The only quarrying that Native Americans ever did was to make stone bowls, and peace pipes. What a shame that our world leaders can't come together, make some pipes, eat, and share some smoke. I imagine Bush or Obama reaching into their pouches to load a bowl with sacred tobacco.
I helped myself to a second cup. My waitress friend brought out a scrapbook that had belonged to her father. There were pictures of her family riding the tractor. Cows, corn, the local farm fair.
Archaic European culture has some similarities to Native America. With the invention of written language, and metals, it is possible to declare war. The men stop farming, and instead take from farmers. You conquer with the sword and make it legal with the pen. That's Empire. Europe just got to the idea first. Part of Empire means ditching the older Gods of the Earth, the Moon, and the Harvest, in favor of Gods of War and Metal, and the Sun.
An empire uses the written word to take the place of the spoken. The word is sacred, only if it is written. Writing becomes power. The book becomes more sacred than the direct experience of reality itself.
We're word worshipers. Christianity and Judaism both claim that the Word is God. By extension we've made the written word our authority. Words are written or printed on paper. And paper needs a home, to protect it. So we build libraries, and limit their access. We base our politics between the covers of recorded laws, and acts, and deeds.
Christ was supposed to have had one go at writing his thoughts, but he obscured what he wrote. He's remembered for what he said and did. In yoga, thought is considered most powerful, because thought begets speech, which begets action. Thoughts are the headwaters of words and deeds.
But our myths claim the beginning was the written word. Life begins with one certificate and ends with another. Christ's life, a life of example, was torn away from him by a book.
And so I say with confidence that America was created by a culture of Empire. What we call America is but the outskirts of a fiction we're all struggling to maintain. Rome is gone, Washington now's a bankrupt copy. To become American, we must again realize our own humanity, instead of trying to school our children to continue Empire building. We must live like Christ or the Buddha, instead of being content to know that there are books about them.
And so with a wink to the grain elevators in Sleepy Eye, I finished my journey through Ish-Tak-Ha-Ba's town by driving the three remaining blocks to St. Mary's Catholic Church.
What a century Ish-Tak-Ha-Ba saw! He was born Sisseton (from 'Sissetowan', Sioux, a Dakota word meaning 'he who loves water') in the year 1780. He became chief of his tribe at age forty-four. In 1851, after most of his land had already been taken illegally, he negotiated a treaty that retained a ten mile strip either side of the Upper Minnesota, and deeded the rest of territory to the US Government. In 1857 he was asked to relocate his camp of remaining Sioux to the north side of Sleepy Eye Lake. In 1860 he died, probably heart broken, nine years after the treaty had been signed.
More is better. Brands produced included Cream, Apple Blossom, Snowflake, Chief, and Cyclone. The mill ran constantly six days a week. The railroad depot was built in 1902. Painter N.C. Wyeth illustrated the outside of Cream of Wheat cartons with his painting "Where the Mail goes, Cream of Wheat Goes."
A scant year before the Wright Brothers made their first flight, the remains of Ish-Tak-Ha-Ba were relocated to downtown Sleepy Eye. Chief Red Eagle, in whose teepee Ish-Tak-Ha-Ba had died, agreed to take the town elders to the place of the old chief's burial.
According to a local document which is available online:
A park was dedicated to the chief in the center of the new prosperous Sleepy Eye town. A fifty foot tall granite obelisk marked Sleepy Eye's final place of rest.
In January 1932 Lake Sleepy Eye went dry. The remnants of the Sisseton Sioux scattered and remain so to this day. Water tables everywhere were declining. The country was in a drought and a great depression.
In July 1994 a eight foot tall bronze sculpture of Sleepy Eye was unveiled beneath the fifty foot tall granite monument, just beneath the four hundred foot tall grain elevators. The sculpture was modeled by a Native American Sisseton Dakota named JoAnn Bird. It was decorated with a plaque that reads:
"Ish-tak-ha-ba, Sleepy Eye, Always a Friend of the Whites. Died 1860"
Two years after Ish-tak-ha-ba's death, the remaining Sioux rebelled against the whites up and down the Minnesota River. Dakotas and settlers were killed alike. Over one thousand Dakota rebels were imprisoned in jails throughout Minnesota. 303 were sentenced to hang but President Lincoln commuted the sentences of 275. The rest swung from ropes in Mankato. .
St. Mary's did not disappoint. It's as big as many Gothic structures in Europe.
Back in Pipestone, the Native Americans still place tiny offerings wrapped in red cloth into the branches of the trees above the sacred quarries of stone.
One would not even think them a sacred places. You just have to know. The offerings, small bundles of tobacco, and herbs, are placed in red cloth. They hang inconspicuously from twigs. They catch the breeze. Raven listens.
And so I entered Sleepy Eye Church of St. Mary's. It was patterned after Chartres Cathedral, built at huge expense, built during the bread-basket days, in the middle of the American great plains. It was built of brick that had been fired with an entire forest of trees, held together with mortar made by roasting limestone for weeks. Again, more trees.
It was a sacred place. The altar looked like a forest. The columns seemed like trunks of giant oaks.
I went inside St. Mary's and prayed to Raven. I prayed for the young boy with the tumor.
I prayed he'd grow tall and become Chief of Sleepy Eye.