This coming Monday will be Christmas Eve. It will also be five months since my friend and brother, Byron Buffalo was laid into the earth at the tiny cemetery in Bridger, South Dakota. A heart attack was the official cause of his death. He died working horses at the Bridger Church, where he established the horse ministry that touched the lives of so many youth and adults. He is now a man of the earth, buried in that hard South Dakota prairie gumbo. His grave is within easy sight of the hills where he rode his horses. The horses graze right up to the cemetery gates. It’s windy there. It’s almost always windy there.
Byron’s earthly remains lie amongst the remains of a lot of people at whose funerals he officiated. He’s put shovel to that ground many times and laid to rest elders and peers and those who were younger than he. Among those who lie in that hallowed ground are survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation a detachment of the U.S. 7th Calvary rode up to a small camp to disarm the Lakota who were there. In the course of their actions, a rifle went off and members of the calvary started shooting. When they stopped hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children lay dead on the ground. An exact count has never been officially recognized, but estimates range from 150 to 300. In addition 4 men and 47 women and children were wounded, some of whom later died of their wounds. A handful of survivors were forced to leave the bodies of their loved ones behind and started to walk north in the middle of the cold Dakota winter. The bodies of those who died were placed in a mass grave.
The survivors walked and walked and walked. Some say they were headed to Green Grass where they believed Sitting Bull was encamped. They made it to a place alongside the Upper Cheyenne River, where they finally formed a new winter camp. Some food and assistance was provided by other Lakota from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Reservations. Years later a housing development was placed there and the town was named Bridger. The Lakota name for the place, Takini, was given to a nearby school. Byron taught me to call the place Upper Cheyenne. It is where Byron served as a pastor for two decades. It is where he is buried, alongside some who survived the attack at Wounded Knee.
On Sunday, a circle of riders on horseback will ride around that little cemetery before heading south to retrace the route of the Wounded Knee survivors, arriving at the Wounded Knee Battlefield and memorial on December 29 to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. Every year since 1986, riders have retraced the path of Chief Bigfoot’s Lakota band traveling from Bridger to Wounded Knee. Those who participate in the ride say it is an important way to remember the past and to build a strong future. “It’s about remembering Chief Big Foot and his people,” said John Two Hawks. “It’s about healing a wound that has existed in our culture since that day. And going back to that place is a way to do that.”
This year will be especially bittersweet because this year Byron won’t be riding. His body will stay in its final resting place. His spirit will forever ride with those who continue the tradition.
The ride was very important in Byron’s life. It was an honor, in 2016, to be invited to come to Upper Cheyenne and photograph the riders as they departed from the church and cemetery. As was typical, Byron arrived a bit late that December 23. His pickup was on its last legs and the trip from Eagle Butte was delayed by the need to pick up a few supplies. He greeted me warmly, but was in a rush to help others get their horses ready for the ride. They knew that Byron understood the horses and could help them prepare for a long winter’s journey.
Historically the Lakota were a semi-nomadic people. They followed the buffalo and their traditional homes were portable. They could pick up and move camp as the movement of the buffalo demanded. They had traditional places to camp and traditional places for ceremonies, but they lived with a degree of flexibility that made them especially well-suited to the ever-changing conditions of life on the plains. It only took a couple of hundred years for the reservation system to produce people who had a different relationship with place. Now there are those whose lives happen in a very small bit of geography and who are firmly attached to specific places. Byron was a member of an in between generation. He did his share of traveling, living in Arizona when his father attended Cook Theological School and later, after completing his military service, when he returned as a student at Cook. He lived in several places on the Cheyenne River reservation, settling in Eagle Butte where he served as addiction counselor before turning full time to the ministry at Frazier and Upper Cheyenne.
Still, I don’t know anyone who belonged to the land more than Byron. I can’t imagine any place that would be more fitting for his grave than that cemetery. His family got it right when they decided where to place his remains.
I have relatives who are attached to a place, in a way that seems similar to Byron’s attachment. One of my cousins has lived on and worked the place we call the River Ranch for all of his life. Unless some medical emergency takes him to a nearby hospital, he will die on the ranch. His niece and her family run the ranch. Her children are the sixth generation of the family who have lived there. I sometimes think of the ranch as the place of our people.
But my life has been nomadic. Born in Montana, I’ve lived in Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and South Dakota. I’ve lived in South Dakota more years than in any other place. But there is no one place to which I belong. I’ll probably do more moving before the end of my life’s journey. But for as long as I live, there will be places I long to visit that hold special meaning for me. The River Ranch is one of those places. Another is a tiny cemetery not far from the Upper Cheyenne where the riders will gather Sunday and circle around before heading south to Wounded Knee.