Holy Spaces . . . Traveling the Missouri Breaks September, 1990

Highway 34 from Pierre to Chamberlain roughly paral­lels the Missouri River. The beauty of the drive is accentu­ated in early June owing to the spring rains which swell the Missouri River and make ver­dant the rolling hills that com­prise the Missouri breaks.

On this particular after­noon, as I return from Pierre to Sioux Falls via highway 34, I am struck by the contrast of vivid colors. The azure sky dotted with white clouds to the east and growing gray black clouds to the west provide a sharp contrast to the various hues of green that make up the grasslands along the banks and flood plain of the Missouri. The spring waters of the “Muddy Mo” are unusually blue and ap­pear clear from a distance.

As I drive the course of the river along dramatic vistas which give a panorama of the river and its various lakes, cre­ated by the several dams of the Corps of Engineers, various impressions compete for atten­tion. An obvious and some­what unique aspect of the land­scape is the lack of buildings and signs of human habitation along the banks of the Missouri itself. By virtue of restrictions from the Corps of Engineers, the river has been protected from human settlement. This fact gives rise to a sense of the timeless beauty of the Missouri and the surrounding breaks. The breaks and banks appear relatively untouched.

A second noticeable as­pect brings my focus on the river itself. Jutting from the river are white and gray pillar like protrusions, remnants of cottonwood and oak trees, which stab through the waters of the Missouri and serve as a reminder of the flooding that took place when the Corps of Engineers built the four dams in South Dakota. The tree trunks bleached by the sun serve as monuments or markers of the earlier more turbulent his­tory of the Missouri River when it had not been tamed and domesticated by the various dams. The jutting markers also serve as a memorial to the people who were relocated from the Missouri River bot­toms, primarily the Lakota people who now reside on the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Reservations. Entire villages and communities were moved as a result of damming and rechanneling the Missouri.

The drive along High­way 34 evokes contradictory feelings and thoughts. On the one hand, the stark beauty of grasslands meeting the river and the flowing and undulating Missouri breaks topography present a tranquil scene, lush pastures gently sloping to a wide and glassy river. With field glasses and careful inspec­tion one can spot antelope and deer. Various types of hawks and an occasional eagle can be seen circling for small game or fishing the Missouri. The contradiction is in knowing that such beauty and seemingly untouched wilderness are the products of efforts to protect the shoreline after the various dam projects were completed. In short, the rivr is carefully controlled as to flow depth and velocity. That which is deceiving is the apparent lack of control given the lack of human habitation.

The Missouri River is critical to South Dakota, as well as other states that depend upon it for irrigation. As I travel the river I am also reminded that it serves as a certain boundary, a demarcation of cultures, atti­tudes and values. The term “east river,” referring to the geography and people east of the Missouri River discloses a predominately farming socio­economic reality heavily popu­lated by Scandinavian, German and Bohemian settlements. Owing to the lower elevation and higher percentage of pre­cipitation, the land seems more gentle, forgiving and produc­tive. East river Indian reserva­tions tend to be “open reserva­tions” as opposed to the “closed reservations” with their distinct and definitive boundaries that characterize “west river.” The higher elevation, aridity and grasslands west of the Missouri mean ranching and a western mind set. One senses a rugged individualism born of the need for self-reliance in living west of the Missouri and coping with the hardships and uncertainty of the climate.

The river is a symbol that divides and unites. Al­though we often refer to South Dakota as “bi-cultural,” mean­ing “Indian and non-Indian,” the state is also bi-cultural in terms of east and west river distinctions. The river divides time itself; east of the river is Central time and west Mountain time zone. The river also serves as a divider of culture, economy and, to some extent, political loyalties.

The river also unites. Despite the differences, those east and west of the river rely on the Missouri for its life giv­ing water, as well as the recrea­tion that the river provides.

In many ways the Mis­souri is to South Dakota what the Mississippi is to the United States. It serves to demarcate regions, cultures and attitudes. It also divides a great land mass, serves as an important point historically, not only economi­cally and as a source of trans­portation, but also in terms of the legends and river cultures that have grown up around both of these great rivers. Both riv­ers are symbols of a certain diversity while at the same time signifying an experience in varied cultures shared by a nation and a state.

Getting out of my car and standing on one of the bluffs that overlook the Missouri, as I look to the west the dark rain clouds are separated by a small, narrow horizon with a mixture of a pink and orange sunset. Again, I am acutely aware of the contrasting color and rich­ness, not to mention the vast­ness of the landscape before me, the blue waters of the Missouri giving birth to the brown banks and lush green breaks continuing into the dis­tance and outlying horizon that appears to be a fiery band reach­ing to dark and now almost black and ominous clouds that threaten rain. Soon the oncom­ing storm will add precious water to the land and river.



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