Killdeer Mountain as a natural land feature is hardly worth commenting on in a land where the horizon is more sky than earth. The rock appears to break out of the surrounding earth like the reach of a tired hand after a stretch and yawn. The plateau is flat and even, as if a great knife had cut the top of some mountain, as a child might decapitate a flower with a stick, but where the top of this mountain is anyone’s guess.
Plains Indian tribes have been coming here for hundreds of years. An old campsite on the southwest side of Killdeer Mountain is littered with tertiary flakes of Knife River flint, hinting that the plateau has born witness to a continual cultural occupation for thousands of years.
In those long years, untold generations of young men have ascended this step to heaven to pray, to look out upon the unmarked beautiful landscape, to look through the veil of sky above and bear witness to the vast mystery of creation. And so, Killdeer Mountain became a special place, a sanctuary, a natural cathedral.
The Lak?óta call this special place Ta??á Wakut?pi, Where They Kill Deer. Their name doesn’t take away from the sacredness of the site, but it was a name that noted it was a place they came annually to hunt, and in that hunt too, offer thanksgiving.
Another nation, whose cultural occupation of the area reaches back a thousand years, the Nu’Eta (Mandan) have a cultural story of a figure in their long tradition who brought his staff down upon the mountain in retaliation and broke the single plateau into two. Broken cracked rock lay about the entire step as if in testimony to this long ago punishment.
The Lak?óta call July ?ha?p?asapa Wi, or The Month of Ripe Chokecherries. Late in this month the Lak?óta came to Ta??á Wakut?pi to hunt. It was late July 1864, when the Lak?óta men were hunting and the women were gathering chokecherries in preparation for the long winter. It was a time of year, no different than any of the thousands of ?ha?p?asapa Wi before, only this time a great cloud of dust appeared to the southeast of Killdeer. It turned out that it wasn’t a gang of bison.
General Sully knew this day as July 28. Sully brought with him a force of about 2,200 men and he was looking for a fight. His objectives were to engage and punish any hostile Sioux who partook in the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict, and to utterly destroy their food stock and camps.
The Lak?óta say that a lone warrior rode out and taunted the soldiers. Sully ordered this lone rider killed immediately and set his sharpshooters upon this task. Truly, Sully engaged in battle without parley and as though there were no other alternative. At the end of the day as many as 150 Lak?óta lie dead or dying on the field. Children who were inadvertently left behind in the wild melee were set upon and murdered to the last and their delicate scalps ripped from their precious heads.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission looked past the majesty of this step, looked beyond the site held sacred for thousands of years, and looked through the tragedy of conflict. In a series of public hearings, the ND Industrial Commission heard from landowners, historians, archaeologists, and tribal representatives. Despite overwhelming support from the public who went to the hearings, the ND Industrial Commission approved over fifty wells in the Killdeer Mountain conflict “study” area.
In a recent development, Basin Electric has requested to install a transmission line and substation in their petition ND PSC Case #: PU-11-696. This new line and substation are in response to the growing power requirements in northwestern North Dakota. Basin Electric’s plan calls for construction over two years in the Killdeer Mountain conflict “study” area beginning in 2014.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission recently held three public hearings in regard to Basin Electric’s proposal. Comments from the State Historical Society of North Dakota are lukewarm, acknowledging Basin Electric’s plan and that a future assessment of the cultural resources within the “study” area will mandate those future project.
On September 12, 2013, during the annual tribal summit hosted at United Tribes Technical College, tribal chairmen from the five tribes of North Dakota, the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (Lake Traverse Sioux Tribe), the Spirit Lake Oyate (Devil’s Lake Sioux), the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan Nation), signed a resolution opposing the disturbance of Killdeer Battlefield State Historic Site.
The politics and value of Killdeer Mountain are still up for discussion. The battle for preserving Killdeer Mountain needs more voices from Indian Country to stand in unity with the landowners, historians, and archaeologists who want to save it.
Meanwhile, people are still going to Killdeer Mountain to pray. Prayer flags testify to a quiet but sure presence; native pilgrims ascend heaven’s step to pray. Hikers ascend too, maybe not in prayer, but to appreciate the stark beauty of this natural cathedral.
Dakota Wind is a theologian by education and a public historian by trade. He has been by turns a National Park Service ranger, a state park ranger, and a college instructor. Wind maintains the history blog The First Scout.