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We all have biases when it comes to a sense of place. Most of us struggle to break free from false perceptions about a people and a land that we aren’t familiar with. I don’t blame people for their narrow minded dismissal of the northern plains – Iowa and South Dakota aren’t hubs of cutting edge urban culture. Yet, I think it’s important to correct the misnomer that there is “nothing” here. This morning (Friday), at 5:30 am, Jim Schaap and I set out on a days journey through the Missouri River Valley. It’s a trip that Schaap makes often – he knows the land better than anyone. Me? It was my first journey through the prairie filled back roads. The ghosts of Lewis and Clark are everywhere – signs tell the story of their visit to spirit filled hills and impromptu meetings with native people. We drove a gravel road right down into the valley, mere feet from the Missouri river, through Cottonwood trees and little villages established near the water. We visited the town of Santee on the Santee Reservation, stopping at the Santee museum and the old Episcopal church we weren’t sure was still in use.
Schaap’s the guy you want to take along on this drive – not only does he know the land but he’s spent much time learning about the native people who used to live there. He told me stories about the Santee Sioux who were displaced from Minnesota during the Dakota Wars of the late 1800’s – pointing at pictures of Santee leaders and warriors as he gave me background narratives that provided context for the black and white photos. We stopped to snap pictures of a herd of Buffalo owned by the Yankton Sioux. They frolicked in the grass, not too impressed with the “pale faces” standing next to the fence. Finally we made it to a large Catholic church located in Marty, South Dakota – a catholic mission that still serves native people from all over the northern plains. Sister Miriam gave us the history of beautiful St. Paul Parish – an important part of the complicated history of the relationship between Christianity and the native people. Two hours later… I was back in my driveway, much more aware of the beauty and history that was just over the horizon to the west.
So, if you’re looking for an interesting, out of the way, travel destination – think about spending some time in the northern plains. It may not be cutting edge, hip, or whatever adjective people are using these days, but if you take the time to soak it in I can’t help but believe you’ll come away impressed with the simplicity, beauty, and complicated history of the Missouri River Valley. And if you really want the full experience – take Schaap with you.