Travel Log: A Plainly Great Education

Devils Tower

(Miles Creek, Montana; Aug. 18, 2018) – Montana is on fire. Glacier National Park is burning, so Montana joins California, Idaho, and Canada in the wildfire club of 2018. These fires are sending a nasty haze all the way east to Minnesota (where I was yesterday). Today I did get some clear skies early on, but it didn’t last. Heck, at the Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (western North Dakota) you could see the smoke wafting through the canyon.

It reminds of when I was stationed on Guam back in 2004. The volcano on Anatahan (an island 400 miles north of Guam) erupted unexpectedly. A few times its ash plume blew south over Guam and turned that island paradise into a haze gray, bleak landscape. The only major difference I’m experiencing now is that wildfire smoke does not smell of sulfur!

Before I get to the plainly great education I’ve gotten on the Great Plains, a quick note on why I went west, then east, then back west. I had originally planned to be in Canada again on my way to Alaska today. That’s why I circled back east to Minnesota. I was going to head north to jump on the Alaska-Canadian highway, but just over 48 hours ago a friend of mine in Anchorage invited me to stay with him and his wife. So, today I headed back west to Montana since I’ll fly up to Anchorage in October.

Agricultural equipment is a common site if you get off the interstate and take a few county roads throughout the American heartland.  (Minnesota, Aug. 17, 2018)

The Great Plains is the breadbasket of the United States, and is, in a way, the foundation of our entire wealth and status as a super power. Without the ridiculously huge amount of food we produce in the heart of “flyover” country, we would not have the leisure to develop a snobby attitude about…well, almost everything. The amount of food we grow gives us the freedom to live in the illusion that technology is the foundation of our greatness.

Think about it. We only have the freedom to idolize technology because 2/3 of us don’t have to spend 2/3 of our lives scrabbling in the soil to ensure we don’t starve. Once you drive across this continent and see hundreds of thousands of acres growing most all of the food in our grocery stores (and much of the food in the grocery stores around the world), you realize just how…how snobbish and elitist it is to ignore flyover country because it’s just not “sophisticated” enough. I’m not putting down the coasts; I love the coasts. But there’s something to recognizing our wealth and power all boil down to millions of acres of corn and wheat and livestock and the people that toil in the earth to grow it for us.

Another item that has come to my attention, courtesy of the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center in South Dakota and (of all places) the Kensington Runestone Museum in Minnesota, is that we often butcher proper terminology for the dwelling structures of the Plains Indians.

We use “tipi” and “wigwam” interchangeably, but that is extraordinarily incorrect word usage. So, courtesy of those two museums, allow me to correct our national grammar:

“Tipi” comes from the Lakota Sioux language. “Thipi” is their word for a dwelling…and a specific type of dwelling at that. The tipi is a portable dwelling made of bison hides stretched over a frame of wood poles. The tipi was designed to be easily set up, easily broken down, and easily transported as befitting a nomadic people following bison herds.

Akta Lakota Museum and Culture Center
The Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, tells the story of the peoples of the Sioux nations.  (Chamberlain, South Dakota.  Aug. 14, 2018)

The word “wigwam” comes from the Ojibwa word “wiigiwaam,” a word that roughly translates as “house.”

Notice anything about that? “House” indicates a permanent dwelling, and indeed the Ojibwa built relatively permanent dwellings in relatively permanent villages that were set up in specific places for their summer farming and hunting or their winter camps. Their villages and wiigiwaams were intended to stay put for many months at a time.

So, don’t call a tent-like Indian dwelling a “wigwam;” it’s not. A tipi and a wigwam are two very different structures developed by different cultures.

Another item I have learned about the American Indians is a bit about how to identify the beadwork and styles of each culture. Using the Ojibwa and Sioux peoples as examples, you can differentiate items made by each culture by the content of the artwork and even how the beads are stitched onto the garment (moccasins, shirts, bags, etc.; it doesn’t matter).

The Ojibwa were a largely agricultural people, and their beadwork often shows floral designs and other shapes that evoke nature and the agricultural environment they lived in. The Sioux peoples tended to favor geometric designs. Interestingly, the Sioux peoples’ penchant for geometric designs closely parallels that of the Indians in the North American southwest.

Finally, you can even go to the stitching itself to identify a beaded object. The Sioux favored a “lazy stitch” in which five, six, or more beads would be threaded onto the thread, the thread then stitched halfway through the fabric or hide (the needle did not actually pierce through all the way), and the thread’s direction then reversed, with another five or six (or more) beads threaded.

The Ojibwa used an “overlay” stitch in which two or three beads were threaded, and then a cross stitch was used to secure the thread with the beads by overlaying it (again, though, the needle did not pierce all the way through the garment).

Both techniques are exceptionally labor-intensive. The women did the beadwork back in the day, and even in modern times we marvel at their work for good reason. Those women were true artisans and artists. Granted life moved at a slower pace centuries ago, but, still, the amount of time and patience and steady-handed skill it took for a woman to thread hundreds of thousands of tiny beads and stitch them onto a garment—while ensuring the design was accurately created—is a real feat of sartorial engineering.

I’m back in the West after my brief jaunt back to the Midwest and aborted drive to Alaska. Considering how much I’ve learned already, I am excited by what else the West has to show me. In the meantime, please don’t conflate tipis and wigwams. These people have every right to expect the rest of us to be a bit more accurate when referring to their heritage!

Dignity is a 50-foot high, stainless steel statue on a bluff above the Missouri River by Dale Lamphere. It was erected in 2016. Chamberlain, South Dakota. (Nathanael Miller, 14 Aug. 2018)

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