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The Empty Quarter

I’ve written about this subject before (Wide Open Spaces, Jan 2013) but it is never far from my mind because I not only live in what has been derisively called the Empty Quarter, I have introduced hundreds of travelers to it’s amazing vastness, and I might add, it is a never-ending fascination.

For one thing, the luxury of space is rare on our shrinking planet. But geography is in the eye of the beholder. I happen to find the thick pine forests of the Black Hills of South Dakota – my home – very friendly and comforting.

Yet I personally know people, particularly Native Americans, who begin to feel claustrophobic after only a day or so of visiting the area, and flee back to the limitless prairies to our immediate east, which just happens to be where all the reservations of South Dakota are located.

Technically, the Black Hills were a part of a huge area of previously unwanted land (unwanted by Euro-Americans) set aside by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Historically, the tribes named in the treaty regarded Paha Sapa (Hills that are Black) as sacred and wouldn’t desecrate them by living here. This does not mean, however, that the geologic anomaly rising over seven thousand feet above the surrounding plains was either unwanted or neglected. Bands of Lakotas had made pilgrimages to sacred sites in the Black Hills, including Bear Butte in the foothills, to make offerings of thanks for centuries, as had the Cheyenne before them, and countless other tribes before them, stretching back thousands of years.

Unfortunately, it took only the discovery gold (and the broadcasting of the discovery by one George Armstrong Custer) to destroy the idyllic lifestyle the Natives had achieved by the middle of the 19th century. Notwithstanding the promises made in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Hills were overrun by gold-crazed squatters in a matter of months. By 1877 the treaty was abrogated by the US Congress (which had no authority to do so, as it turned out) and the Natives were soon banished to reservations a fraction of the original size guaranteed by the treaty “for as long as the grass shall grow and the waters flow.”

Ironically, the Natives had always known there was gold in Paha Sapa. But having a different value system, they could not comprehend another culture placing a very different value on this worthless yellow stuff. (After all, it was too soft to make weapons out of. Too soft to make utensils. What good was it?) It is yet another example of cultural differences between peoples dramatically impacting the course of history. In justifying the treaty violation, the United States cited the obvious: that the Indians weren’t even using the land! But as my father-in-law wisely stated seventy years after the fact, “because your neighbor is not using his ox, does that give you the right to steal if from him?”

Despite the rapid settlement of the Black Hills, fueled by a gold rush, the surrounding plains were settled far less quickly. For a number of reasons, many relating to the difficulties of making a living off such “unproductive” land as the treeless plains, the majority of the area was settled late and sparsely. And because of this, today’s harried city dwellers can still get a glimpse of what the explorers and pioneers first saw and experienced beginning two hundred years ago. When you think about it, that’s really quite a gift.

This appreciation of space was extolled in a South Dakota Magazine article by Fraser Harrison (a Brit, no less) who suggests that the overcrowding of our planet in the 21st century means that our geography is now small-scale, even claustrophobic. The wide open plains revered by the original inhabitants (and somewhat ambivalently embraced by the subsequent settlers of the West) can seem overwhelming to modern-day city dwellers at first. Nevertheless, the draw to such unfamiliar sensations is irresistible, and once experienced, a powerful influence.

These are the people who travel with us.

If you are of like mind, join us this summer and experience what Fraser Harrison described as “Feel[ing] as if my own capacities – for thinking, for feeling, for loving – have been enlarged in proportion with the topography.”   (South Dakota Magazine, Sept/Oct 2014)

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