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The Children's Blizzard Part 3: The Indigenous Peoples Weathered the Storm

In 1888, what habitation existed for homesteaders was newly thrown together and, in its very own way, primitive. The tree-less plains meant people used what was amply available and cheap--sod. No end to it. Whether the newcomers made do in a soddie, a lean-to, a cave, or even a newly thrown up frame dwelling, it didn’t offer much protection from the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Now hold on, you’re saying. The insulation in a soddie couldn't have been better. Walls a foot thick kept folks balmy in January and refreshed in August, right? Maybe. But winter gales could pull a chorus of tea kettles from a soddie's walls. With some luck, you could keep the zero temps at bay, but keeping the wind outside was another story altogether.

Those who remembered the 1888 blizzard compared the snow behind the front as blinding sheets of flour. Earlier that day, what had fallen was feathery and almost fanciful, but once that black cloud people couldn't help but notice swept through, what descended was something else--icy stuff, sharp as cut glass, and capable of locating every last mouse hole in those shaky dwellings. In schools and homes, drifts came in and lay over the floor like sleeping pets. Ice and snow spread over frosted windows. If some doubting Thomas wanted to see what was going on outside and cracked open a door, the barrage thus welcomed made closing that door a two or three-person job. In some of those rough-hewn, one-room schools older kids were assigned the job of staying ahead of whatever drifts blew in.

What Siouxland's Native populations thought of all those white folks building soddies on flat, treeless open prairie isn’t recorded, but they might have chuckled. Whacky newcomers didn't know any better. Come winter, the Winnebagos found their way to the trees along the Missouri, and for good reason--wood, lots of it, for fuel, but also for fortification from the howling winds up on the flat land.

In late November, most western Sioux bands headed off to the Black Hills for nature's own protection. With temps far lower than anyone could handle, life was simply easier in the nest created by the wooded hills of the Paha Sapa. Hard as it may be to believe, tipis created cozy shelters, some of them big enough to hold as many as four fires. Sometimes bark cabins erected around the tipis created more shelter and even better insulation.

Among the Santees, those who remembered the Great Blizzard couldn't recall any deaths, with the exception of a half-dozen of their horses that perished beneath--hard as it may be to believe--twenty-foot drifts that didn't melt away until mid-May.

It's hard to imagine that some of our First Nations folks didn't shake their heads and giggle a little at what seemed the madness of making a go of winter up on all that flat land. It might have been helpful for all those immigrant newcomers, many of them squatters, to sit quietly and observe the ways of Native people who’d lived through the trials and tribulations of many a Siouxland winter. But then, those Indians were "savages," weren't they?

The mountain men, decked out in leather and skins and raccoon hats were here long before throngs of homesteaders set claims. But then, all those newbies thought shaggy old trappers like Hugh Glass, walking along our own Old River Trail, looked and even acted like “injuns.” In some cases, there seemed little difference.

Whatever the story and whatever the reasons, it seems clear that Native people of the region—Omaha, Winnebago, Santee, Yankton—somehow made it through the Great Blizzard without the horrors so many white folks suffered.

Ironic, isn’t it? Then again, when you think about it a little, maybe not.

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