When I first lived in the upper Great Plains, I did so as a freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I still remember the day when my parents’ car pulled away and I was standing by my dorm wondering why I had decided to move almost 800 miles from my home in Montana. While I would miss my parents and friends, I began to miss the mountains almost immediately.
I felt like Beret, the female protagonist in Giants in the Earth who left her home in Norway and moved to Dakota Territory. The vast grasslands and harsh climate nearly drove her mad. When I would look outward, I would think, “There’s nothing to see.” Flat land seemed to stretch everywhere and yet nowhere. Corn fields and soy beans.
Almost 15 years later, I moved back to the Dakotas, this time as a professor in a small Lutheran college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Once again, I found myself reading Giants in the Earth, wondering if I would go insane from looking at “nothing.” The prairie winds blew hot air all summer long, and in the winter I found it difficult to ski or be outdoors because as soon as it snowed the snow was blown into crusted ice piles.
Then, bit by bit, we became acquainted with new friends whose love for the prairie challenged my notion that it was "full of nothing." My husband and I began to walk the prairie landscapes with our friends Janet and Ross, who is an environmental biologist and knows the names of every plant, bird, and tree.
I learned about the mating dances of prairie chickens, about the oak stands in Beaver Creek Nature area, and how to listen to the multiple calls of cardinals. Naming the multiplicity and buzzing life forms on the Dakota prairies drew me into what I now see as a change of view. “Nothing” has become “something.” And that something has slowly become a perspective on the Dakotas that has me calling this landscape "home." It’s a different home than the mountains. But it's home.
My eyesight has changed — thanks also to my friend Sheila. She’s an artist whose recent works feature the upper Great Plains. I have several of her paintings in our house, including two large prairie landscapes in my home office. When I write or prepare for teaching, I need to have “space” — openness where ideas can move around, where I can take a deep breath.
Since the actual office space isn’t very large, I find that her paintings create that space for me. The painting right above my computer is my favorite of hers. Large boulders are in the foreground of a prairie horizon. Two tree trunks frame the view through which I look into a receding horizon. I have always thought it was late summer or early fall when the ground is browned by the sun and the sky is dotted by a few white clouds. I always want to enter that place, sit on one of the rocks, and look into the spacious expanse of prairie. The view begs one to take ample time, time that is as plentiful and full as the panorama. When my life gets full of too much — iPods, voicemails, emails — then I come to this view to redesign my life, to change my surroundings.
Sheila’s views have become my spiritual lens for a geographical restructuring and transformation of my life. I hope that while on sabbatical I can find more views, and maybe even offer to others what Sheila has offered me.
Who we are is where we are. Or at least where we have been and where we are going. I think about time: When? How long? I have been thinking a lot about the boundaries, borders, situations, dimensions, and locations of our lives. When and where are interrelated. When and where is a complicated plot between local and global, then and now, over and under. What are the maps that we take through these journeys? What does it mean to map the human genome? What are the cartographies of our culture? What are the maps that bypass the “underground” places? Recently, I drove to such a place.
It’s true that you “have to see it to believe it.” Or in other words, to step into this place is to step into the stories it tells. A few months ago, I drove to the golf course in Canton, South Dakota. Between the third and fourth hole on the Hiawatha Golf Club is a small cemetery with the bodies of those who had been kept as inmates in the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.
I’ve read a lot about this place, but still had not been to the site. It’s not easy to find. Surrounded by a split rail fence is a large grave marker with the names of dozens of American Indians who died at the asylum. There are 121 bodies buried in the graveyard — in the middle of a golf course — on the outskirts of Canton, which is the seat of Lincoln county. In 1899, a local U.S. senator, Richard Pettigrew, brought the federal funds to start this institution. A large historic district in Sioux Falls is named after Pettigrew. When the newly developing field of eugenics was coming of age, many people in the United States believed that one way to rid the country of “troublesome Indians” was to claim that they were “insane” and could be sent to the asylum. Hundreds of American Indians from around the U.S. were sent to the Canton asylum.
The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was intended to be a hospital dedicated solely to the “mental illness problem” among Native Americans. What it became was a kind of warehouse for storing “problem” Indians. When the asylum was visited in its later years, the following was noted in a report from Minnesota Public Radio: “The Indian affairs commissioner under President Roosevelt called reports of the asylum reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools.”
More information about the asylum’s operations came from the writings of Dr. Samuel Silk, the clinical director of the country’s premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C. He wrote that children were abused; adults were secluded in isolation for years. The asylum did not even meet minimum standards of care.
On the fairway between the third and fourth holes on this golf course, I wondered how my ancestors (Norwegian Lutherans) could live nearby and not know what happened to all these people at the asylum. “Good Norwegian Lutherans.” A “good South Dakota senator.” A history that is painful, ominous, and only 30 miles or so from where I live.
Where do I walk today, in these times that I don’t want to know about? That I turn a blind eye to? Shame won’t do me any good. But a guilt that is confessed, that motivates me to tell this story might help me to do something about all of those whose lives are hidden, not made visible, covered by those in power who don’t want to know. Maybe this wound on the South Dakota landscape can somehow become an anchorage — a reminder of where we are, who has lived here, and most importantly, the suffering of those who went before and whose stories need to be told. I’m learning a lot about the stories that this prairie landscape is telling me.
Ann Milliken Pederson is a professor of Religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran in America. She loves to walk with her dogs in the country, hear stories about middle school band students her husband teaches, and read mysteries.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.