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The Spirits of Spirit Mound

Spirit Mound.jpeg
James Schaap
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Spirit Mound

Poor guy. To this day, I don't know what it was, but a tiny mound of flesh, a fat little chimney sat up there atop Abe's bald head. His comb-over didn't help. Whatever it was, to me, a boy in church, that strange little growth was a thing of wonder, a real curiosity.

Not unlike Spirit Mound really, save in size. Drive a couple miles north from Vermillion, and there it is, growing as if out of nowhere, towering above an endless stretches of crop land in all directions, a sweetly climbable hump of earth, a grassy bee-hive with no reason whatsoever to be there--there stands Spirit Mound as if the entire seventh grade decided to build a massive model volcano.

It is, honestly, a wonderful curiosity, as it was to the Corps of Discovery, who'd been told, one scorching August day in 1803, that there was, not far distant, a most unusual hill in the grassland, "Concluded to visit a High Hill Situated in an emence Plain three Leagues N. 20° W. from the mouth of White Stone river, this hill appear to be of a Conic form," so thus recorded Capt. Meriweather Lewis.

It was devilishly hot, and they were a long way from Oregon, but you can hardly blame Lewis and Clark for taking a day to check out the story. What they'd heard from the locals was beyond fascinating.

"Supposed to be a place of Deavels or that they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 inches high," Lewis wrote. And, after all, one of the purposes of the trip was to record every last thing they found along the way, including, to be sure, any 18-inch killer devils. The Natives claimed those odd beings to be "very watchfull and. . .armed with Sharp arrows with which they can kill at a great distance." And more:

"they are said to kill all persons who are so hardy as to attemp to approach the hill; they state the tradition informs them than many indians have suffered by these little people and among others that three Mahas Souix Ottoes and other neibghouring nations believe this fable that no consideration is suffiecient to induce them to approach this hill."

In the nine-mile hike the Corps took, Seaman, their big black dog, threw in the towel and went back to cool off. Good animal sense told him it wasn't worth the effort.

Even today, the hike up Spirit Mound is a joy. If anyone who reached the top has ever been torn up by sharp arrows, they've not recorded their bloody wounds. I've been up and down a dozen times and bear no scars.

I met a guy on the trail a couple of years ago. He was bountifully informed about Spirit Mound, told me he and his dog went up and down weekly at least. I asked him about those all those little devils with their tiny bows and arrows.

"I'm thinking some Omahas spent that hot day under a tree along the river,” he said, cracking a smile. “And I'm thinking that when they thought of those white men chasing out to the mound in all that heat, they couldn’t stop laughing. That's what I think."

Now, that’s not what you read, of course, and this man and his dog didn't put a footnote on his spin of the yarn. He might have been launching his own little arrows.

Still, Spirit Mound is a sweet curiosity, and a hike up and down is worth a morning or afternoon any time of year. If you ask me, the story of the place is only more wonder-laden if you put up a tipi in your mind and imagine a bunch of Otoes in the quiet shade somewhere along the Vermillion River, a whole band who, try as they might, just can't stop giggling.

Go ahead and visit. Just the thought of that kind of tomfoolery will make you smile, up and down.

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.
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