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The Immensity of the Plains Is Food for the Soul

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James C. Schaap
The endless prairie.

Go ahead and try. If you can do it, you’re a better man or woman than I am. Trying to photograph the Great Plains is nigh unto impossible. The yawning country just west of us is so never-ending that it can’t be shoved into a camera, even your best one. What lies just beyond us, where the Missouri turns west, can’t be captured in a lens, even your widest. Just can’t.

After the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, any roaming Native bands not on the designated parcel they were appointed to occupy, the ground by law the government told them would be their home, those First Nations who wouldn’t sit still were officially deemed "hostiles." What led to Little Big Horn was the government's insistence that Indians had to be where white folks put them. What General George Custer was up to near Little Big Horn was creating, militarily, a giant tightening noose around bands and tribes who, like naughty kids, had run off.

The story of our immediate west during the final years of the Great Sioux Wars is, really, how white folks amassed the land once home to nomadic tribes who had for a century or more chased the buffalo that, by 1868, had already disappeared.

Great Plains
James C. Schaap

Every time I'm out there, I'm struck by the scale of things, awed by how immense the world is in the region we call, as we fly over, the Great Plains. Honestly, it seems endless when you're in it and not a native (small n). You know what I’m seeing--the kind of place you can, for three days, watch your dog run away.

But I'm dumbfounded by the fact that, often as not, the U. S. Cavalry could not find Indians. Let me boldface that, "They couldn't find them." Not because of incompetence (although some do allege that), but simply because the world out there was and is, even today, so absolutely endless.

Last week, I came home with what I thought wasn’t a bad shot, something really expansive, wide-angle lens. Not until I pulled it up on the screen did I realize that far, far away loomed one of those behemoth John Deere tractors.

The rancher might well have been dropping goodies off for his cattle. They're all in a bunch anyway, as if just now feasting. I’ve got to blow it up a dozen times just to see it because on the picture I took the cattle aren’t even ants. They’re a hair-line fracture in the broad sweep of the land.

What once was "the Great Sioux Reservation," included just about everything west of the Missouri, a mammoth spread so wide eternal that the U. S. Cavalry could ride for miles and miles and days and days and not spot a hostile. The sheer, staggering immensity is just plain impossible to photograph or imagine.

I'm not sure I buy everything Wallace Stegner says about this land in a book titled Wolf Willow, but I'm on board with most of he says: “It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones…Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.” I don't live out there, but whenever I climb its massive shoulders, oddly enough, I can't help but feel small. And that's okay. Unlikely as it sounds, the whole spread feels--to me at least--like a place to wide open, an unbounded eatery you go to when you need soul food, food for the soul. It’s a land “to mark the sparrow’s fall,” Stegner says. It’s that big.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.