Oahe Dam, the Turtle Effigy, and Honoring Thy Enemy

Nov 18, 2019

Lake Oahe
Credit James C. Schaap

On August 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood behind a podium just north of Pierre, South Dakota. The President of the United States was here for the dedication of Oahe Dam, an earthen monster that created the fourth largest man-made reservoir in the world. 

Seven mighty Oahe turbines create enough electricity to power whole regions of the country. Oahe Dam stands 245 feet above the river bottom and required 92 million cubic yards of fill dirt, plus well over a million cubic yards of concrete.

The Riggs' chapel at Lake Oahe
Credit James C. Schaap

Right up there on top--you have to look to find it--is a little chapel, decorated in church-ly furnishings of the time. A Congregational preacher named Thomas Riggs and his wife, Nina, built that place, determined to bring the gospel to the Lakota—oh, and a school, too, where students could be taught to read and write. 

Someone named that mammoth earthen dam after the tiny church, a church the lake displaced. Why? --is a question I can't answer. But quick now, how do you spell “white privilege”?

Because Oahe Dam tells another story too. Once upon a time a visitor to the Cheyenne River reservation looked around and decided there were no old people. Most had died, someone told him, of a broken heart, so much of their lives and history buried beneath the waters of Lake Oahe.

You can miss the chapel with all that wide-open beauty around the dam, but don't. You can honor the Riggs family by stopping by and poking your head in. "Bringing in the sheaves" on reservation land was tougher work than some of the old missionary hymns once made it sound. 

It's right there, just a few miles north.

Snake Butte Turtle Effigy
Credit James C. Schaap

And as long as you’re close, stop for the Snake Butte Turtle Effigy, although what you’ll find is neither stunning, like the dam, nor quaint, like the chapel. It sits up top one of a hundred river bluff promontories, and, trust me, you've got to hunt to find it. It's little more than a box of rocks parked in a chain-link fence. But those rocks have a shape, a turtle shape that's roughly visible.

They’re worth your time. Just over the hill is the Missouri. When you get there, you're standing on private land, but that’s no problem--the good people who own the spot like to share the Snake Butte Turtle Effigy. 

Age?--who knows? Origin?--just as mysterious, but historians prefer one old saga, so let's go with it. 

Once upon a time an Arikara village stood somewhere below where the dam now stands. The Arikaras were always in danger of a Lakota attack, so they posted sentries up on promontories like Snake Butte to keep an eye out. The Lakotas were as stealthy as they were dangerous, so when a young Arikara warrior spotted the sneaky Lakotas, they were already close enough to let loose a fusillade of arrows, one of which caught the young warrior mortally. 

But his people's safety was his single concern. With every ounce of strength and perseverance, he ran a half-mile, a mile? --distance doesn't matter, pure bravery is at work. Right there, at the edge of the butte, he fell down and died.

The Lakotas had more respect for sheer for courage than they did for the Arikara, and what they'd witnessed in the kid's determination was a miracle of courage, of bravery that stunned them so profoundly that after marking whatever blood spots they could in the grass the kid had traversed, they sat down and created this turtle effigy at the spot where he died, to honor him and his immense and determined courage.

The view of the Missouri River and Lake Oahe from Snake Butte
Credit James C. Schaap

When you get up there north of Pierre, whatever you do, don't miss the Turtle Effigy, the only memorial you'll ever find anywhere created to honor the great courage of an enemy.

The dam is huge, the chapel quaint, but the Turtle Effigy, high up on a butte above the river, is a memorial for an young man who gave his life for his people—a memorial created, strangely enough, to honor the enemy. That’s almost biblical.

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