Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder is a writer based in northern New England whose work explores the human relationship to place. Her essays have been featured in Crannóg Magazine, Inhabiting the Anthropocene, and EcoTheo Review. Her forthcoming book is Rebirth: Mothering Through Ecological Collapse.
Russel Albert Daniels (Diné and Ho-Chunk descent) is a documentary photographer based in Utah whose work stands in the currents of art, reportage, and decolonization. Daniels aims to bring visibility to Native American and underserved communities. His projects explore identity, sense of place, and history.
On the wind-sculpted dunes of Nebraska’s Sandhills, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder considers the collision of prophecies that occurred over the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, forever altering the landscape; and how places shape—and are shaped by—human language and intent.
MOUNTAINS WILL ALWAYS grate down to dust if you pull hard and long enough on the trailing thread of time. I am standing atop one such was-mountain. That is to say, I’m standing atop a sand dune whose fine grains have nestled into the cracks of my leather boots. Below and beyond my feet are dunes that stretch and roll for nearly twenty thousand square miles. They have the Pleistocene glaciers to thank for their being—flowing bodies of ice and stone, some a third of a mile thick, that pressed and dragged their way through the Rocky Mountains, leaving behind deep valleys, lateral moraines, an ocean of sand and silt where there once was rock. An illusion of absence.
But this sand was something. It had a destiny.
The Sandhills prairie of Nebraska is the largest sand dune system in the Western Hemisphere and the largest intact temperate grassland in the world. The dunes are children of the Rocky Mountains, built of cliff faces and crags that rose in the west before they were whittled away by eons. The meandering work of braided waters carried the sand here, and the curating breath of ancient winds sculpted it into sloping hills, some twenty miles long and four hundred feet high. Mountain became sand, became dune, and, at last, became prairie, as the bunchgrasses and forbs took root and stabilized this undulating sea. And this prairie is so much more than sand.
Over thousands of years, an ecological system, a diverse community of life, has woven the sand’s destiny into a lived, ongoing present. The bunchgrasses—perennial warm season grasses that grow in tufts with roots that can extend five feet into the soil, and that are masters at conserving water—anchored the wind-shifted dunes. Little bluestem. June grass. Prairie sand reed. Across the uplands, valleys, and wetlands, diverse plant communities formed in the shapes of meadows and marshes. Woodlands found a home alongside the Niobrara River and its tributary streams. The greater prairie chicken and the badger, the white pelican and the largemouth bass, the prairie dog and the burrowing owl, found homes here too. Which is another way of saying that the bare, blowing sand became a web of microcosms, a knitted community of life; in places stark, in others lush; at times brutal, at others sublime.
The land thrummed and thrived. Its heartbeat: bison hoof. Its lifeblood: flame. Every four to five years, lightning sent blankets of fire out over the grasses. These fires spun, crept, and howled like freight trains. In spring and early summer, herds of bison congregated in the wake of wildfire, grazing down the new grass as they moved great distances across the land, leaving the deep roots intact, making space for wildflowers, and helping sustain the land’s diversity.
The Sandhills, a place that early white visitors would call “a great desert” where “settlements cannot be made,” was, of course, not empty of people at all. People have been here for at least ten thousand years. Ancestors of the Pawnee and Arikara inhabited these hills a thousand years ago. The Ponca, Comanche, Cheyenne, Dakota, Arapaho, and Plains Apache peoples lived, farmed, hunted, competed for territory, or migrated into and out of these hills at various times in the ensuing centuries.
Prairies are ecosystems that evolved with people, that came to meet their own fullness and their own agency in relationship to people. Plains peoples would set some of the fires themselves, for when the litter was cleared and the energy stored in last season’s grasses was released back into the soil, when the encroaching trees withered, the land restored itself and the grazers came back to feed on the bright sustenance that returned.
Grassland ecosystems in the continental United States have not known any significant stretch of time without the active participation of human beings. People are an integral part of the life cycle of prairies, still. But because we have, by and large, now stripped the land of the conditions that once sustained grassland ecosystems—bison, fire, human understanding of the interplay of these forces on the landscape—the way we interact with prairies determines not only their condition, but often their very existence. Only where prairies are carefully and actively managed by people do they thrive in all of their biodiversity.
The fact that humans have been a part of prairies since there has been such a thing on this continent calls into question a widespread assumption about the word wilderness.
WILDERNESS: (1a) a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings; (1b) an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community; (2) an empty or pathless area or region; (3) a part of a garden devoted to wild growth.
Standing atop this dune, I’m wondering whether this word describes any of what I am seeing. The world over, humans have been participating in complex, cohesive ecosystems for millennia, their activities often serving peak biodiversity rather than working against it.
How our philosophical and spiritual separation from those systems has come about is deeply complex in its own right. But a key part of that separation can be glimpsed in the recent etymological evolution of this word. Wilderness in nineteenth-century American discourse—a concept with roots in both scripture and the Enlightenment—was something to be conquered and controlled. Manifest Destiny sought the taming of the wild.
After the pursuit of the American frontier came to a close in the late 1800s, the influence of Romanticism and Transcendentalism helped to shift the American attitude toward wilderness from one of conquering to one of preserving, a shift that is apparent, three-quarters of a century later, in the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In both of these definitions “wilderness” designates humans as apart. In its contemporary usage, the concept of wilderness spawns distance from the very thing it attempts to affirm.
Every time I return here to the Niobrara Valley Preserve—a fifty-six-thousand-acre Nature Conservancy preserve that runs along the northern edge of the Sandhills prairie and twenty-five miles of the Niobrara River, a highly biodiverse landscape that is carefully and consistently managed by people—I struggle to overcome this distance. I arrive at a moment where I scramble to cross an invisible threshold. I venture only so far before the land becomes distant and unknowable. It is a struggle, I am realizing, to unlearn.
ALL THE WAY from Ainsworth to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, my husband, our daughter, and I drive headfirst into the gaping maw of an unrelenting wind. The sky is a cheery blue, which gives the unsettling impression that this wind is not merely foreshadowing bad weather, but has some driving and unknowable intent of its own. I’m almost relieved when we emerge over the top of a hill and see the storm that hangs heavy in the northwest, hovering above the Sandhills like a boot about to come down on an unsuspecting ant. We push onward. It’s a strange sensation to be snug within the controlled atmosphere of our rental car as, just outside the window, the grackles beat their wings helplessly before being flung backwards, as if flicked by an invisible hand. Hardly any of the cattle we see are standing upright. The newly born calves are pressing themselves into the grass or are huddled against the leeward side of their mothers. We pass by a child’s red swing that has lost track of its gravity. Its braided yellow ropes hold steady in two lines perfectly parallel to the ground, the plastic seat bobbing like a kite in midair.
It’s hard not to feel some trepidation.
I’ve brought my daughter and husband to this place for the first time. Aspen is nineteen months old today, the same age I was when my parents and I lived on the Preserve, where my dad was researching the relationship between fire, bison, and native plant communities. It’s my third return in four years. I’m eager for Aspen to experience this landscape, excited to witness how she interacts with it, for her to meet this place for its own sake, but also wondering if bringing her here will give me some insight into how I made a relationship to this place when I was here, all those years ago.
We park the car at a trailhead, aptly named “Nature Trail,” and venture out into the vortex. The path begins a good hundred feet above the Niobrara River, out on the open plain. Exposed. The gusts are so strong, some reaching sixty miles per hour, that Aspen can’t walk. I carry her. She keeps her head down, nuzzled against my neck. By the time we descend down into a riparian forest of bur oak trees, sheltered by the southern canyon wall of the river valley, she has fallen asleep.
I try not to be disappointed that she doesn’t stir when we stop to see the site where my family’s trailer home once stood, straddling the line where the forest opens to a prairie meadow. This solitary human dwelling, several miles from the one-room Preserve office, nearly an hour’s drive from the nearest town, was our home for just under two years, or seven turns of the prairie season. The structure is now gone, apart from a few scraps of wood stuck in the crook of an oak tree and an old electrical box.
Several years ago, I stood on this very site alone. That was the first time I’d been back to this landscape since I was a toddler. A thirty-year interval. During that visit, I collected sunflowers and arranged them into a woven pocket of cordgrass and said a prayer, wishing for a child.
I resist the temptation to wake Aspen up to see the tributary creek that I used to splash in. I had imagined this very moment: how I would help her reach down through the canyon-in-miniature, just a foot deep, carved into the sand by water that emerges from a seep in the Ogallala Aquifer, trickling its way to the river; I would place Aspen’s hands in the water, the way I’ve imagined my mother did with me, my toddler hands cupped inside hers. Aspen is still asleep when we come alongside the Niobrara River, whose surface color palette is shimmering and shifting through a series of pastels as the sun begins to set and the clouds race overhead. She sleeps until we’re almost back to the car. I finally accept the fact that, for today, her experience of this landscape is wind and wind alone.
That night, I dream of a family of foxes. The young boy fox is peering at the ground and taking careful steps through moonlit snow. He is trying to find the body of his father. While he searches, ancestors arrive from the sky in dark trails of smoke, like falling stars. They rise from the snow as shadows and silently walk to the boy’s house—or maybe it’s my house—where they form two lines out from the back door, so that when the boy—or maybe it’s me—climbs up the porch steps, preparing to enter his home and face his grief, he will first pass through a threshold of lineage and care.
The next morning I pull the curtain back in our hotel room in Ainsworth to see that the wind is still blowing. Snow is in the air. Truly, the gusts are so relentless that the fine flakes seem to never find the ground. Snow makes visible the subtleties of the circling, twisting shape of this wind, like dye cast into a whirlpool. Through this churning snow, one sees that the wind is a script, or maybe it is the scribe, rendering a language that swipes and pummels and tries to fold the trees.
This wind unsettles me. Pulls up my moorings. Later this morning we will return to the Preserve and attempt to walk in the shelter of the Niobrara River’s north canyon wall. The wind will prove too much. This time it will turn us back.
I can’t help wanting to decipher a meaning or a message in this tempest. Raised between Nebraska and Oklahoma, I learned something everyone on the Great Plains knows, long before I called myself a writer: the weather is conducive to metaphor.
For weeks after our trip there’s an unruly current in my mind. As I begin to learn more about the bison who roamed these hills, the Indigenous peoples who lived in the Sandhills for millennia, and the pioneers who came to this land with their dreams, their plows, and their cattle, the wind keeps whistling in my ears, sending my thoughts scattering like tumbleweeds.
Some families who settled here would abandon their sod homes after a blistering drought withered their crops or a blizzard sent their cattle drifting with the biting snow until they were lost in the frozen white. They would board a train, never to be seen again. But more would come. By the late 1800s, those first whispers of progress and prosperity that had blown in through the Massachusetts Bay Colony—the invocation of a city upon a hill—grew into a gale that swept across the plains and came at last to reach into these vast hills.
AN ESTIMATED thirty to sixty million bison roamed the plains of North America when talk of a transcontinental railroad began in the 1830s and ’40s, though their numbers were already beginning to decline. As Asa Whitney was penning his pleading address to Congress, A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific—“Will you, then, allow me to take these wildernesses, wastelands … and build this great highway for nations?”—European hunters were pursuing bison for their hides and tongues, which fetched a fine profit. By midcentury, two hundred thousand bison were being slaughtered annually for trade. But as the continent was transected with steel, it would be the railroad that would seal the fate of this creature who had been roaming the wide prairie lands for millennia.
President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, just as the Civil War was necessitating the efficient movement of troops and as Americans were clamoring to head west in search of riches. The first spike was driven in Omaha in 1863. With that, the Union Pacific Railroad began its trek west, set into the ground by eight thousand immigrant laborers from Italy, Ireland, and Germany. The same year, ten thousand Chinese immigrants began building the Central Pacific Railroad east from Sacramento. The two lines met at Promontory Summit in Utah, six grueling years later.
Two notable things about the Pacific Railway Act:
One, it set up the Union and Central Pacific Railroads as corporations with sweeping powers and little governmental oversight. The Union Pacific Railroad initially received twelve million acres of land (an acreage which would grow with the act’s amendment two years later) and $27 million in government bonds.
Two, the act allowed for the termination of any and all “Indian titles” to lands that lay in the railroad’s path. By the end of the war, the United States had ratified nearly four hundred treaties with Plains Indians. The vast majority would be broken as the Gold Rush, Manifest Destiny, and the railroad broke across the land, cresting and crashing like waves. As John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “The Seer”: “I hear the tread of pioneers / Of nations yet to be. / The first low wash of waves, that soon / Shall roll a human sea.”
Prophetic words such as these were at work on the burgeoning consciousness of a young and hungry nation. “Manifest destiny,” a phrase coined in 1845, put new words to a long-held belief that (white) Americans had a God-given right to colonize the nation. “At least since the founding of Plymouth Plantation, English settlers had seen the colonization of North America as a sacred project commanded by God—the redemption of the garden from the wilderness,” writes Louis S. Warren in God’s Red Son.
It’s clear that the need to conquer the American West was at least as much a religious end as it was a political and economic one. (Such boundaries are easily, perhaps necessarily, blurred.) But it’s difficult to say how many individuals held on to Manifest Destiny as an explicitly religious doctrine. Certainly, there were plenty who were vehemently opposed both to the idea of a divine justification for colonization and to westward expansion on moral and religious grounds. But what held true in the dominant mindset through these evolutions and articulations of belief—even amongst many of those who did not follow Christian doctrine—was the fervent conviction that America did have a destiny and that the conquest of the land had been divinely preordained. For many, expansion became synonymous with what it was to be American. In an 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick J. Turner said, “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West.”
Manifest Destiny, a prophecy of a nation bolstered and sustained by Divine will, gave as clear a direction as a swinging sign, with a painted hand pointing west. Politicians, railroad tycoons, and the military set out in that fateful direction. Millions of others would follow them.
PROPHECY: (n) The inspired declaration of divine will and purpose. PROPHESY (v) To predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge.
What is it to speak the will of God? To shape divine intent into words and set those words out into the world? To then follow those words across a continent?
Prophecies do not exist in a vacuum. They do not beam down from a detached creator. They are deeply rooted in the present: utterances modern to their time. Protestant Christian sects in America prophesied that they had a unique and critical role to play in the Second Coming of Christ. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the idea that God was working through Americans to bring about his promised Kingdom on Earth led believers to see that the millennium was already underway and gave them a sense of agency as they tamed the country’s wilderness into a paradise made up of fertile farmland and an increasingly perfect, Christian democratic society. After the Civil War, optimism about the ability of society to be perfected faltered. Evangelicals began to perceive society as degrading inevitably and shifted their thinking toward the belief that Jesus could return at any moment to usher believers through Judgment Day as a prelude to his thousand years of righteous reign.
The Evangelical Christian prophecies of nineteenth-century America were not just predictions of a distant future; they were a prescribed way, a map, for a people to move from their specific, present circumstances into that preordained moment ahead. They offered agency to those who followed them.
What keeps drawing me closer into this history is that these prophecies—these God-granted predictions that run like golden whispers, or dark threads, through the history of the Great Plains in the nineteenth century—for all their divine certainty, manifested in human contradiction. They became sticky things as they passed from human lips to human ears. They gave new homelands to uprooted settlers, who then uprooted the people and nonhuman beings who had long called those lands home. They justified immense violences in exchange for a promised future of peace. None of this robbed the prophecies of their power.
Here is what I want to say about the prophecy of Manifest Destiny: the words took on their own unstoppable momentum. In all of their manifestations, the promises of a God who smiled down on America buzzed in the ears of millions.
I want to say that human speech—seemingly small escapes of breath from our mouths—can become like a storm. The written word—a few drops of ink from our pens—can spill like a flood.
CENTRAL TO THE FULFILLMENT of God’s promised land was the cultivation of the Great Plains into an agricultural paradise. Thus, the need to remove Indigenous peoples from the land was paramount. The Homestead Act of 1862—no coincidence that it passed the same year as the Pacific Railway Act—accelerated plains settlement by offering men over the age of twenty-one 160 acres of “public land” in the West for a minimal filing fee and with the requirement that they cultivate their allotment and stay for five years. As railroad construction began, land-hungry settlers journeyed along the Oregon Trail staking their claims.
General William Tecumseh Sherman commanded the territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies after the Civil War. His priorities were to protect railroad construction and oversee the United States’ engagement in the Indian Wars. Violent conflict with Native Americans had become increasingly distasteful to the American public. After the Civil War, assimilation and “civilization” became the preferred method for dealing with the “Indian problem.” Assimilation meant that tribes were to be removed onto reservations administered by government agents; children would be sent to boarding schools; Christian missionaries would be stationed on reservations to save souls; languages, ceremonies, and rituals would be stamped out.
The bison were key to these projects, as they remained the primary physical, cultural, and financial sustenance of Plains peoples in a rapidly changing world where participating in a currency-based economy was increasingly necessary for survival. The buffalo’s presence had become ever more critical to these diverse peoples, who, since European contact, had seen the death of upwards of 90 percent of their kin; the occupation of their lands, villages, farms, and hunting grounds; and the imposition of a behemoth government that, in the name of nation building, had no qualms about starving them into cooperation. Though never explicitly ordered, the US military began a project to exterminate the buffalo in order to force Native Americans onto reservations and open the land to farmers and the railroads.
By the late 1860s, the railroad had divided the bison into two herds: one in the north and one in the south. The army was well aware that it didn’t have the resources to kill all of the bison, but hides were still worth good money, and when the depression of 1873 hit, thousands of private citizens took up the hunt. The railroad was the means to this end. Thousands of men boarded westbound trains, armed with .50-caliber rifles. They would strip the bison of their hides and tongues and leave the rest to rot. So many bison were slaughtered, so quickly, that the market flooded and the price of hides dropped. More had to be killed if a hunter wanted to make the same profit. Bison skulls were collected into mounds six men high.
Did those hunting parties believe they were doing God’s work? Did they set out to transform a wilderness into a garden? I doubt it. But whether they were out for anything other than money, they were part of a greater design. I think of all those men boarding trains with their guns, that dispersed buzz of destiny sharpening into the crack of a rifle, the buckling knees of a bison; of the culmination of ideas and dreams held within the promise of the West, forces made visible in animals become remains.
“There came a day like destiny,” wrote N. Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain, a poetic and mythic history of his own Kiowa people; “in every direction, as far as the eye could see, carrion lay out in the land.”
The railroad became a prophecy embodied. The path into a fated future was written across the land, laid down in the hand-driven spikes and steel beams that bisected the country. Manifest Destiny glinted like gold in the prairie sun.
This is what keeps haunting me about those whispers of Providence: they set in motion a force of human will that still sweeps relentlessly up the plains. We might shut our eyes or our doors, but those winds blow, heading to their destination once set free.
The southern herd of bison was gone by 1875. The northern herd vanished a decade later. By 1889, fewer than a thousand bison were left in all of North America.
Carcasses lay strewn across the plains.
The wolf population skyrocketed.
Predators were everywhere.
IT’S EARLY APRIL, before the wildflowers. (Come May and June: prickly poppy, wild begonia, prairie rose.) But even without the bursts of color, the land hums. A two-note chord bowed across a fiddle. A vibration in your chest. The hills hold steady your gaze.
Driving over rough Sandhills terrain with the Nature Conservancy’s Amanda Hefner, we come to a small grouping of bison standing a dozen yards away. The Preserve manages two herds of bison across thousands of acres. Ahead of us, four stand halfway up one of the sloping, sparsely vegetated hills streaked with the auburn of little bluestem and the pale green of sedge. It’s the beginning of calving season and the cows are either carrying their calves in swollen bellies or standing protectively alongside their newly born. Bison calves come into the world well adapted: able to walk shortly after birth and wrapped in auburn coats the color of red clay or, more accurately, the color of little bluestem in the spring, a camouflage adaptation to help them blend into the grass when predators are near. A matriarchal society, bison are in small family groups at this time of year, the cows directing their movements. The bulls tend to be solitary until the rut (mating season). The two oldest bulls in this pasture have abandoned that ritual and have retreated to the woodlands that flank the Niobrara River to live out their days in quiet hermitage.
Even from this relatively close distance, the bison look like shadows that have peeled themselves upright from the hillsides. By that I don’t mean to say that they look two-dimensional. I mean that they give off an effect of such utter belonging that my mind jumps to disbelief. I vacillate between two extremes: inclined to either read their embodied presence as a trick of the light, or to reach for the transcendent and the mystical. If the grass had a visible soul it would be shaped like a buffalo: head draped below a thick shoulder, up-curved horns, inkwell eyes. If the little bluestem could speak a word, it would sound like a snort, a tail flick, the dusty drama of a good wallow. That they are, indeed, manifestations of the grass is not entirely untrue. Bison and grass have shared a long evolutionary journey. Ancestors of the North American bison (Bison bison) have been on this continent for more than one hundred thousand years. They have been since the grass was.
But this is what else my mind says as I watch the bison: Here I am, human; there they are, wilderness. I struggle to reach across the divide between myself and them. The distance seems to distort and stretch further the harder I try.
Why am I trying at all? Because there is a question rooting in me, tangling in my gut, that I am afraid to ask. Afraid, because I feel the legacy of those prophecies at work in me and they still whisper of destiny. I feel—almost physically—the dualism, the separation, the belief in wilderness and, with it, the belief that I cannot possibly be part of it.
The question I have carried here to ask the bison: Is it possible? Is there a part of me that remembers, that can learn again how to walk these hills, how to walk anywhere, without being apart? Can I—can we—return to wholeness?
I see these bison and I am longing to hear a forgotten voice. I am longing to belong. I am longing for clear direction on a forgotten path. I want to be that child again. But this is the only coherent thought I can muster, as I attempt to grope across this void: I am a cascade of interrupted histories.
I have a sense of these interruptions—of the legacies that built the distance between me and this land. I can catch their scent on the prairie wind. My great-great-great-grandfather was a settler, a poor and struggling farmer who was pushed out of Switzerland, having become a burden to the government, and settled in eastern Nebraska, three hundred miles from the Preserve, where he set out into the tall grasses with a steel plow. He was a believing man. God’s voice was in his ears. His were a people in need of a home, and the government gave them the chance to build one from the land. He married and had children and buried his dead. He wrote letters to family members back in Switzerland whom he would never see again. He loved the land, perhaps, in part, for the way he was able to transform it.
From father to son, from father to son, a family made a home on the plains. Until my own father was born in a city that had grown up in place of the grass. But my father could still hear that two-note chord, a song in the grass. He heard it clearest of all on the Niobrara. My mom heard it, too, after we moved there. I have to imagine I heard it, with a mind too free back then to have heard anything else. Was my family’s time here a return? A remembering? An atonement?
The bison were once severed from this Sandhills landscape, part of that drive to conquer wilderness. And, after more than a century of absence from these prairies, they were brought back to this place, part of the drive to restore wilderness. It wasn’t until 1985, two years before I was born and three years before my family arrived here to live on this Preserve, that the bison returned.
For a brief moment, I am reaching across the divide between me and them as a thought beams in their direction: “Interrupted histories are what you and I have in common.”
How strange: a connection built of severing.
EARLY DEVELOPERS and investors quickly realized that the railroad needed to make money in order to survive. Making money meant, in part, building a customer base in the form of frontier towns and selling the free land that the government had granted the railroad to settlers for a profit. The Union Pacific Railroad created a land department in 1867. Land agents were hired to find individuals to purchase the land and, ultimately, create settlements along the track that would keep the railroad in business. Agents traveled across the country distributing pamphlets and land guides. Ads were printed in thousands of newspapers and a half dozen languages, not just across North America, but across Europe as well.
The Union Pacific Railroad was granted nearly five million acres in Nebraska alone, almost a tenth of the state’s land. During the decade of the 1870s, the railroad sold nearly two million acres to would-be private landholders. Buyers could pay cash or could enter into a credit plan with the land departments. The railroads then charged them to transport themselves, their families, and their building materials out west. If farmers succeeded in growing cash crops, the railroads often overcharged them to ship them east. From 1870 to 1880, Nebraska’s population increased from 122,993 to 452,402 people.
But more than the railroad’s influence over individual settlers was its power to decide the fate of entire towns and communities. Towns entered into what were essentially bidding wars, each trying to persuade the railroad corporations to lay rail through their town. The towns and counties were then expected to pass bonds to help fund that stretch of tracks. This was a boon to the places that the railroad did, indeed, come through. But it spelled disaster for the communities that were passed by. As the publisher of the Beatrice Express newspaper lamented on June 24, 1871:
[R]ailroad corporations have the power, and exercise it without stint, to ruin towns and counties and to build others up…. We are placed in competition with other localities by the present system of bargaining for railroads, and we must either go in and win or suffer death.
Thus, the railroads became a kind of divining rod: their presence a prediction of the success or failure of a pioneer town. To settlers, it was well understood that railroads and growth were part of the same project.
As Dan O’Brien writes in Great Plains Bison, in the four decades after the passage of the Homestead and Railroad Acts, “eighty million acres would be transformed from one functioning, sustainable ecosystem to many thousands of nonsensical political units operated by men with little experience in land management and almost no real knowledge of the Great Plains.” Some of them had fled conflict and starvation in Europe. Some were swindlers. Some had families with hungry children. All of them were uprooted people, all of them carried some form of a dream that might be fulfilled amongst those endless grasslands. This land, acquired so easily, was no doubt taken without true consideration of the true price paid for it: the genocide and displacement of the Indigenous peoples. The extermination of the bison. The plummet of biodiversity. Before 1880, reservation lands had spanned 138 million acres. New policies stripped all but 48 million acres. That virtually no one involved in the settlement of the plains understood what was in the best interest of the land and its ecological systems is evident in how quickly the integrity of the land itself was lost.
The wind would come to carry away the topsoil several generations later.
Of the five hundred million acres granted in the Homestead Act, the vast majority went not to small farmers but to speculators, cattle owners, miners, loggers, and railroads. Frederick Turner again: “The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people—to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.”
It is difficult to ignore three words in this statement: Institutions. Winning. Progress. Here, then, is another important aspect of the prophetic voices that powered the drive West: they promoted projects of business that served political ends and that placed wealth into the hands of the few. The prophetic voices of white America served those who stood to gain money and power. Manifest Destiny grew into a corporate dream.
WOVOKA, A NORTHERN PAIUTE, or Numu, man was born in 1856 near Walker River in Nevada, the son of a shaman. When he was three years old, Walker River was occupied by white settlers. By 1875, the settlements of Virginia City and Gold Hill had a combined population of twenty-five thousand residents, and the largest and deepest mining discovery in the history of the United States, the Comstock Lode, was churning forth silver. A railroad came in 1881, connecting what had become the Walker River Reservation to the transcontinental railroad in Reno. By this time, the ranchers, too, had arrived with their cattle, who set about overgrazing the delicate desert ecosystem of the Great Basin. Drastic changes to the landscape made it virtually impossible for Paiutes to continue their traditional practices of hunting and gathering. In order not to starve, Paiutes had to earn money via wage labor. From the age of eight, Wovoka worked on the ranch of the Wilson family.
As an adult, Wovoka, who was also called Jack Wilson, was well known by Paiutes and whites alike for his ability to control the weather. He is said to have lit his pipe with the sun and to have been able to walk through the rain without getting wet. In the mid- to late 1880s, he began to go into trances, sometimes for a day or two at a time. Afterwards, he would report extraordinary visions: traveling to heaven through the Milky Way. “It was a strange story but hard to dismiss, for when he awoke he had ice in his hand,” writes Louis Warren.
In 1889, Wovoka had a vision that would change the course of his life. God gave him the Ghost Dance, alongside a uniquely Indigenous millenarian prophecy: the promise of the imminent arrival of heaven on Earth, the return of the buffalo, and the exodus of the white man. The Ghost Dance was a communal ceremony, an expression of unity, and a reassertion of Indian identity that crossed ethnic and linguistic lines, spanning diverse Indigenous cultures.
The Dance swept across the country in 1889–1890, traveling, in large part, along the railroad from the Great Basin to the Great Plains. Here, it took hold in South Dakota among the Lakota, whose latest agreement with the government, granting the United States nine million additional acres of their dwindling tribal lands, had been forced upon them by threat, bribery, violence, and finally, outright theft. Following this loss, Congress slashed beef rations. That year saw a harsh winter and drought; the Lakota were starving. The buffalo gone, the people in desperation, the Ghost Dance arrived at a critical moment.
In his teachings, Wovoka advised his followers not to steal, to tell the truth, keep the peace, and love one another. He advised them to work for the white man, as, for many communities, earning money had become the only way for their families to survive. And, like any religion, it was not monolithic. It made room for both traditional beliefs and ceremonies, as well as Christianity, and in this way enabled complex and diverse experiences and interpretations amongst followers as together they awaited the arrival of a newly restored Earth. The prophecy was also intended to “help Indians … who sought futures both modern and traditional, prosperity and health in modern pursuits, and vibrant, enduring Indian culture,” writes Warren. The Ghost Dance prophecy was, in part, a lifeline into and through an uncertain future. Critically, “it promised believers a means to persist as Indians while surviving conquest and the reservation era.”
Much to the surprise and chagrin of whites, especially those seeking to assert control on reservations, the Ghost Dance was able to spread as rapidly as it did because of the very systems the US government was putting into place to bring about its own utopian vision. The railroad permitted Wovoka’s followers to travel and sit directly at his feet, hear the prophecy firsthand, and bring the message back to their own tribal communities. Those who were educated in boarding schools could write down his teachings in English and communicate the gospel through the newspapers and letters sent through the US postal service. Ghost Dance leaders argued for their American right to freedom of religion.
Many Americans became obsessed with the spread of the Ghost Dance, which was increasingly viewed as a rejection of assimilation and therefore a threat to white dominance and the path towards America’s own prophetic destiny. Writes Warren: “The real ‘Messiah Craze’ of 1890 was the fixation of Americans on Indian dancing and their relentless compulsion to stop it, and the root of that craze was this American passion for assimilation, which was, after all, every bit as millennial a notion as the Second Coming itself. What more utopian a dream could there be for a rapidly globalizing society riven by fractures of race, culture, and class?”
In December of 1890, tensions were mounting in and around the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The military, having already wrongly—or conveniently—conflated the Ghost Dance with their paranoid fear of an imminent, violent revolt amongst Native peoples, grew increasingly alarmed at the prevalence of the Dance and the hundreds of participants it would often draw. Deliberate misinformation from Indian agents and police had fueled rumors that the dance was a preparation for war among the Lakota. That Ghost Dances were, again and again, nonviolent, even in the face of repeated afflictions of violence by whites upon tribal communities, made no difference.
The winds are blowing. Can you hear anything but wailing?
The tension came to a head in December of 1890. Ghost Dance leader Chief Spotted Elk of the Minneconju, a subdivision of the Lakota, was on his way to the Cheyenne River Agency to collect rations when he learned that Sitting Bull—the famous Lakota chief who had defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn and had come to embrace the Ghost Dance—had been killed by Indian police as they attempted to arrest him. Fearing for his people’s safety, Spotted Elk fled with his followers toward the Badlands at Pine Ridge. Messengers who met them along the way convinced Spotted Elk to come into the Pine Ridge Agency to surrender in an effort to maintain an increasingly tenuous peace with the army. En route to the Agency, Spotted Elk grew very ill and decided it would be safer to be escorted by the Seventh Cavalry than to try and avoid them. On December 28, Spotted Elk and his people were forced to make camp along a dry ravine that emptied into Wounded Knee Creek, alongside 470 heavily armed cavalry soldiers. In the morning, the soldiers, who were ordered to disarm the Minneconjou before bringing them to the Agency, confiscated a total of thirty-eight guns, many of them old and practically useless. But, convinced there were more guns, the soldiers began frisking the men one at a time, until they came to a deaf man who did not want to part with his weapon. When his gun mistakenly discharged into the air, the army opened fire and continued shooting for nearly an hour. After the ravine was still and silent, the army hunted down those who had fled. Though the exact number is lost to history, it is believed that the United States Army massacred as many as three hundred men, women, and children that day.
The winds are blowing. Can you hear anything but wailing?
It is not for me to say much more about the prophet Wovoka. I will only point out that, here, two prophecies collided. A prophecy of colonization, expansion, and progress that justified violence, destruction, and murder attempted to snuff out a vision of balance and relationship with the land, one that understood the rightful place of the now-extinguished bison.
It is telling, perhaps, that the Ghost Dance was rendered in a circle of conjoined hands. The railroad was built in a straight line, fixed on its destination, just over that western horizon.
THINKING ABOUT PROPHECY has me thinking about the shapes of words: about what layers of meaning are possible when we speak, or make sounds, and about what we might be able to connect to when we do. What is it to shape the numinous voice of the land into human sounds, into something so contained as a word?
From my bookshelf, I pull out a black notebook, a planner, with a piece of paper taped to the front cover that reads in permanent marker, Chelsea’s First Year: Notes, 1988. (Though 1988 was, in truth, my second year.) I wonder if I might find something within this book that could tell me more about my family’s time on the Preserve, which was so elusive to my young memory. I flip through the months, beginning with December and moving backwards, glancing at my mom’s notations on various toddler milestones. An entry on June 30 catches my eye. In my mom’s handwriting, in blue pen: “Chelsea calls water wadlēe—sounds to me like bubbling water, a babbling brook.”
Though at first it seems unremarkable, I find myself paused on this entry for a few minutes. I finally realize it’s because there is something tangible, almost tasteable, in this memory of a sound.
Maybe it’s because I can recreate this sound with my own lips and feel the phonetic shape of it. In a sense, I can bring it here with me into the present moment. I’m always reaching back to my family’s time on the Preserve, trying to remember. In my mind’s eye, I try to recreate, as scenes or as still images, the stories I’ve heard my parents tell. But I lack the visual data, and at best I only conjure blurred approximations. In recreating this sound, I can recreate a very small piece of my life there. Something I said thirty-four years ago, I can say again. And I can say it with my own voice, the same one as back then. Wadlēe. It’s like an auditory link through the decades. Verbal time travel. It feels both a little silly and a little eerie.
“Sounds to me like bubbling water, a babbling brook.” We lived alongside a tributary creek a few hundred yards from the Niobrara River. Did my mom hear a babbling brook in my pronunciation of “water” because there was always one babbling behind our home? Or might I have shaped the word “water” based on my lived experience of the particular water I associated the word with? Whether neither or both are true, I like to think of the Niobrara River being quietly at work on my early experiences of speaking and on my mom’s early experiences as a mother listening carefully to what her child was saying. Even if I’ve forgotten the way I heard the river in my young mind, I like to think that the landscape can shape our words.
IN WINTER, a bison will stand atop the dunes, fully exposed to the elements. Here in the higher places, the wind is most likely to clear the snow and reveal the grass beneath. Sustenance. A single bison can eat four or five tons of dry grass per winter.
In spring and summer, two hundred thirty species of migratory birds arrive from the sky in a staggered descent of wings. Upland sandpiper, red-eyed vireo, ovenbird. The Great Plains has historically hosted the world’s densest concentration of breeding ducks. Waterfowl fly the central flyway, stopping among the Sandhills wetlands and lakes to breed before making their way to overwintering grounds in the south. Female wood ducks carry what ornithologists call “migration traditions” with them as they ride the currents. Tailwinds are also tale-winds.
The grasslands of the Sandhills are also fuel. Historically, the wildfires came every four to six years. Wind helped steer the flame, carried it through the hills to do its cleansing work.
The dunes of the Sandhills, as we know, were shaped by wind. For centuries at a time throughout their long lives, these hills have been mobile. Thus, the wetlands that draw the wood duck, the hill atop which the bison stands, the pattern and movement of the fires—all are pathways predetermined by wind. Sculpted, terrestrial maps into the future.
This, then, is another question that a wind-shaped world raises: in what voices does the land prophesize?
THE SANDHILLS ARE ranching country. The landscape is sparsely populated, and people often know each other on a first-name basis for a fifty-mile radius. Most towns and counties trace the rail lines that were built westward across the dunes. The vast majority of land (97 percent) is under private ownership, much of it stewarded by multigenerational ranchers who manage ranges that span anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 acres.
Here, then, is something unexpected: This vast prairie ecosystem, making up one-third of the state of Nebraska, is 80 percent intact, making it the second-largest intact grassland in the world, and the largest intact temperate grassland in the world. Unlike the tallgrass prairies that once spanned 170 million acres across America but have since been almost entirely lost, the Sandhills have, by and large, been spared the plow and are still considered virgin prairie.
This prairie supports seven hundred native plant species, four hundred species of bird, fifty-five species of mammal, seventy-five species of fish, and twenty-seven species of reptile and amphibian. And more than half a million head of cattle.
This is not to say that efforts to convert the grasslands to cropland have not been made. Every few decades since the 1870s, the land has endured the plow, particularly along the flats by the Niobrara River. Whether incentivized by measures like the Kinkaid Act, high grain prices, new irrigation technologies, or tax laws, people have, again and again, tried to make a go here as farmers. But the soil is sandy and poor. Organic material tends to leach away as soon as the stabilizing native vegetation is cleared.
ACCORDING TO a 2022 study, grasslands are the most threatened and least protected biome on the planet. Only seven grassland regions in the world were found to remain relatively intact at large scales. The only one larger than the Sandhills is the Emin Valley of Tian Shan in Kazakhstan.
Grasslands perform essential ecosystem services—providing migration pathways, serving as carbon sinks, and acting as repositories for biodiversity.
With the bison gone from the Sandhills, cattle have taken on the role of grazing disturbance that prairies need, albeit with some limitations for the health of the grass. Nonetheless, the landscape provides checks and balances. Of course, not every range management strategy treats the land with the utmost respect, but ranchers have had to learn how to keep the grasslands relatively healthy so they can keep their cattle well fed and make their living. Grazing rotations, the season, knowing when to let the land rest, understanding how plant composition changes from valley to upland to marsh—all of it matters to the Sandhills rancher.
Still, the list of human-related threats to this landscape is significant: grazing systems that continue to shift native plant communities; the introduction of non-native grasses and legumes; the alteration of rivers and streams; wetland loss; and fire suppression, which has permitted the invasion of eastern red cedars.
Fire is grasslands’ long-standing cure to forestation. Whereas grasses contain the majority of their biomass belowground and easily survive the sweep of flame, young trees do not. But once trees like cedars have time to get established, they become much harder to clear, with flame or otherwise. After a number of deadly and catastrophic fires in the West around the turn of the nineteenth century, smoke spotted on the horizon became cause for dread. With white settlement, land management came to include fire suppression. The dominant mindset in the Sandhills today is that wildfire will strip away vegetation and return the dunes to a mobile state—one of the range manager’s greatest fears. But following extreme drought conditions and the worst wildfire year on state record in 2012, the Fairfield Creek Wildfire burned through nearly thirty thousand acres of the Niobrara Valley Preserve. The recovery of the dunes was studied: burned areas returned to the same level of vegetation as unburned areas, and dune stability was maintained, suggesting that the greater risk to the Sandhills’ integrity in the near future is not that the dunes will revert to sand, but that they will transform into a red cedar forest.
Because the Sandhills ecosystem now relies on people—to keep the trees at bay, to graze cattle, and, ideally, to set fires—it will likely be the very fact of human presence that will ensure the survival of this grassland.
What is at stake in this fact?
Let’s return to the word “wilderness,” which came into more common usage in part because we needed to articulate what we had destroyed. “Wilderness” was a word that evoked the negative space, the loss; that defined the shape of 1,091 bison—all that were left, according to a 1889 census—before they at last became federally protected in 1894. After the damage we had inflicted, designated areas of “wilderness”—Yellowstone National Park, for one, where some of these survivors found refuge—set us apart from what we should no longer touch. These places set out to preserve what remained.
But in truth, prairie landscapes have coexisted with people for millennia. Today, in the remaining tallgrass prairies, six feet of topsoil; in the upland prairies of the Sandhills, almost four hundred species of birds; in the wetlands, sedge meadows, and prairies of the central Platte River Valley, five hundred documented plant species—all alongside human presence and participation. Let me say it again, as it’s an unusual concept in mainstream twenty-first-century America: prairies can remain at their prairie-est, and humans can reach towards their fullest humanity, when they are in relationship with each other.
But here we must be careful. The Sandhills endures in spite of a fraught history, not because of it. That the ecosystem is intact and looked after does not circumvent historical reckoning, nor does it undo past harm.
We live in a modern age that is still riding that incoming tide of progress and prosperity, that still believes we are headed toward a golden future, despite the endless evidence that this vision is a mirage. We live in a time where millions of acres of land are being converted to crop and biofuel production. Conversion increases carbon emissions: most of it happens on increasingly marginal soil with increasingly low returns on yields, and in areas of high biodiversity. Found one study: “Continued agricultural extensification under current practices cannot sustainably shoulder the burden of scaling society’s food, fiber, and fuel production systems without compromising the planet’s supply of ecosystem services.” Found another: once plowed, the transformation of a grassland is permanent.
When a prairie is plowed, its fertility disappears and carbon is released into the atmosphere. The globe warms a bit more. In other words: the land breathes, we breathe.
ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, thirty thousand bison live in public or private herds and four hundred thousand are raised as livestock. The population has rebounded enough to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Though they are not quite the same as they once were: crossbreeding with cattle has left trace amounts of domestic cow DNA in every individual bison; herds face genetic bottlenecking because their breeding numbers were so low for so long. They are now more prone to succumbing to disease and bacteria.
In addition to restoring bison, the Nature Conservancy has returned fire to the landscape of the Preserve. The staff conduct prescribed burns to control eastern red cedar invasion and restore the grasses. They have started to lead workshops and trainings with Sandhills ranchers to educate them about incorporating fire into their land management regimes.
The rancher mentality is that the land is to be worked. Working the land doesn’t have to mean diminishing it, nor does it preclude a deeper relationship to place. For now, with these human presences, the Sandhills still sing.
WHAT ARE THE PROPHETIC voices we need today? What utterances should we heed?
When my family arrived on the Sandhills in 1987, the land was in some ways very much the same as it was a thousand years prior. Which is not to say it was static and which is not to say that it was pristine. The Sandhills landscape formed over the last thirty-eight million years. Ancient streams deposited hundreds of feet of sand, gravel, and clay to create the Ogallala Formation. Miocene and Pliocene geological events formed the Ogallala Aquifer—the groundwater supply that is critical to the existence of Sandhills ecosystems and to the endurance of human presence on the landscape. These geologic forces set the stage, laid down the literal foundation, for the human histories that would play out in conversation with this place. It is only when we’ve failed to keep the lines of communication open, when we’ve shut out the land-voices, that we’ve done the most damage.
I’m imagining a new definition of “wilderness”:
Wilderness (n): A word that is eroded by the hush of prairie grasses like the wind erodes the mountains. A word that is undone, unspooled as soon as one sets foot on a North American prairie.
(1) W … I … (little bluestem) … L … (cordgrass) … D … E … R … (Indian grass) … NESS … (big bluestem) … sssss … shhhhh …
(2) shhh … there is no such thing.
“A WORD HAS POWER in and of itself,” writes N. Scott Momaday. “It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred.”
In ancient Greek, pneuma meant both “breath” and “divine breath of inspiration.” The Latin word spiritus, or “breathe,” is also the root word for “spirit.”
Husshhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh, can you hear the voice of the wind? In what direction is it telling you to go?
LET’S START AGAIN:
All the way from Ainsworth to the Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska, my husband, our daughter, and I drive headfirst into the gaping maw of an unrelenting wind.
This time, I move beyond the car, beyond the nature trail. I shift my perspective beyond the human experience, beyond human expectation.
I venture out again into that world of wind. Where else might it take me? What else might it have to say?
It’s 36 degrees. The wind is blowing the clouds from the face of the sun and the land is shining. It’s our last morning in the Sandhills, but I still feel I haven’t yet greeted the land properly. It strikes me that the only way to respectfully do so is through immersion. We park next to the Norden Bridge and I walk alone down to the Niobrara River. A block of ice nearly as tall as me is sitting on the sandy bank, left behind from the latest movement of spring floes down the river. To my right, the south canyon wall rises, the chalky-rose sandstone of the Valentine Formation visible, topped with a smattering of pitch pine trees bowing slightly toward the water. I remove my shoes, my coat, and, with some hesitancy, the rest of my clothes. The wind carries the warmth from my body with a casual ease; a child blowing out a birthday candle. Shivering, I step into the water. Breath flees my body. When my head goes under, I feel as if I’ll be undone by cold. But the sensation settles, and after a moment I emerge for air, rising to stand on numb feet. Doused.
The wind courses around the river bend, brushing the valley wall, catching the treetops.
I start to turn my body away. But then I turn to face it instead. And with a shaking breath, I breathe it in.
Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.
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