Sometimes, I’m pretty thick in the head. I mean, I had no idea that Lakota and Cheyenne riders weren’t invited to participate or weren’t, in fact, participating in the annual buffalo roundup.
It didn’t occur to me that Native Americans would even have to ask. I read Tim Giago’s recent column about all the reasons Natives should participate, but that was the least of my personal ruminations on the matter.
How did it happen that white men, who worked so hard to wipe out 60 million buffalo and who belatedly helped recover herd numbers in the last century, should now be the controlling influence on who gets to ride in the roundup?
It smacks of the kind of benevolent corruption and racism that we like to think we don’t have in South Dakota: But we do have it. Tim Giago knows it and he works to penetrate it — not by confrontation, but by patience and long-suffering.
Donovin Sprague also works hard to engender understanding and improve race relations. Donovin is a well-known Lakota cultural expert and the grandson of a Lakota man, Fred Dupree, who had the foresight to rescue buffalo in the first place. Google it. Donovin has spent a good part of his life trying to keep himself and his people from the kind of marginalization that happens to people who lose wars to a more powerful society.
Somehow, we’ve allowed our common consciousness about our shared buffalo to be seized and held by a small group of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks employees and appointed commissioners who have absolute veto power over who rides with the last of the great buffalo herds. Roll it around in your mind for a bit. Feels absurd, doesn’t it?
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People have to apply to ride in the roundup, and the original riders from the tribes who invented buffalo roundups can’t get a ticket. Plains Indians, riding Pueblo horses taken from the Spanish and sold to the Apaches, figured out how to use horses and rifles to conquer the Plains. But, they can’t ride in the roundup.
Giago rightly points out that a big part of our tourism schtick centers on Indian lore, history, culture and cultural practices. We appropriate and exploit Lakota and Cheyenne cultures with big teary eyes and a longing look, yearning for a past we’d like others to embrace while failing to recognize or honor either the realities of that past or the absurdities of the present. We have real live Native Americans, not cigar store wooden statues, who want to participate.
Aside from how absurd this must look to outsiders, the craziness of the situation is in stark contrast to our vague and unanchored self-talk about improving relationships with tribes who we exclude from the buffalo roundup. Sure, we want to get along better them. No, you can’t come to play with the buffalo. We don’t need no actual meaningful participation in our roundup. Those seats at the front of this bus are already taken.
No wonder civil rights in this country remain so elusive. We look at the present and the past through a prism so muddied with our own prejudice that we can’t see the plain truth in front of our faces.
Let’s let the tribes pick 20 riders for the roundup. The state can pick 30. The riders can train together and get to know each other. Cowboys and Indians can come together to do something meaningful and really entertain the tourists and maybe raise the bar for real civil rights all our sakes.