To round up a herd of wild buffalo you need three things: a horse, a whip and an ability to use both. Hats, spurs, chaps, neck scarves, a familiarity with Johnny Cash? These are all fine and dandy, but when 900 head of buffalo are coming at you, stomping, snorting and quaking the very earth, fashion is not a priority. Buffalo, or American bison as they are properly known, weigh up to 1000 kilograms and can out bolt Usain Bolt. They have necks like quarterbacks, the horns of alpha bulls and injure more careless campers each year than grizzly bears. “The trick,” explains a barrel-chested cowhand in a luminous pink shirt, “is to get the herd to do what they want to do.”
I’m in Custer State Park for the fiftieth anniversary of the Buffalo Roundup. The air is thick with dust and excitement, and rent by “hoo-hars!” and whip cracks. Cowhands work in teams to guide the excited bison down a valley, across a road and onto an enormous grassy prairie. Some 15,000 spectators have assembled on the hillside to watch the final surge into the awaiting corrals. All is going well until suddenly it isn’t. I watch the herd disappear into a thicket of trees. When they reappear they are thundering in the opposite direction. The buffalo have turned! The buffalo are doing what they want to do! The buffalo are outta here!
Twice more a rebel bison force breaks away from the main herd and hightails it over a nearby hill causing much consternation. It’s an unexpected and most welcome development. My big fear about the round-up was that it would be a stagey Disney Does Dakota tourist production, but this is very much the real thing. When the last of the wild beasts is steered into the corral there is much applause and more than a few hallelujahs.
The mighty buffalo are impressive in their own right and are woven into the fabric of the American west. They once roamed the vast interior in the tens of millions and were a crucial part of life for the Plains Indian tribes, providing them with food, clothing and shelter. Then came the European colonisers, with their guns and unshakable ambitions. In 45 years of efficient slaughter they came close to wiping out the buffalo altogether. Conservation efforts saved the species and today one of the biggest wild herds roams free in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. The annual round-up is primarily to maintain the herd size so that they have enough food to last the winter. Tourism is merely an added bonus.
It’s an honour for cowhands to participate. Miss Rodeo South Dakota is here all glammed up in make-up and spurs, holding the state flag atop her gelding Little Man. Horse whisperer and campfire poet Bob Lantis is in the thick of it with all four of his kids. This is the forty-fourth round-up for the 80-year-old. He gets thrown off his horse early and an ambulance is called, but he shrugs off medical assistance and gets back in the saddle. “I’ve been coming here for over 50 years and I’m just so proud that they’ve been able to look after it,” he says. “I keep coming back every year just to make sure they don’t screw it up.” Bob chuckles wryly.
Lantis’s enthusiasm for the Black Hills is widely shared and well founded. Prior to the round-up I spend a week driving around them, climbing up them, spotting wildlife in them and talking to people who revere them as their ancestral land. Pretty in parts, angular and austere in others, the Black Hills are creaky with human drama. They rise modestly from the great plains of central North America but offer disproportionately large insights into America’s pioneering history. While the Wild West has been reduced to myths and bumper-sticker clichés, the real story is nuanced and fascinating. It’s an epic of titanic ambition, monumental achievement, tremendous courage and harrowing tragedy. In its essence it is the story of America.
In the gold-mining town of Deadwood I visit the grave of Wild Bill Hickok. Lawman, coach driver, actor, gambler, outlaw and war scout, Hickok wore many out-sized hats. He helped slaves escape north along the underground railway, fought in the country’s bloody civil war, then again in the Indian wars. Along the way he killed at least 10 men and earned a reputation as the fastest gunslinger in the west. Although Wild Bill stories are told six different ways, it’s established he was shot dead while playing cards in a Deadwood saloon, his six shooters tucked into his belt. He’s buried next to Calamity Jane, another Wild West celeb, on her insistence.
Today you can witness Wild Bill’s murder by the coward Jack McCall three times daily during tourist season. Modern-day Deadwood has been burnt down, rebuilt twice and saved by gambling and tourism. I miss the re-enactment of Wild Bill’s slaying in favour of an excursion into a nearby gold mine. It was gold fever that lured devil-may-care opportunists into the Black Hills to form lawless outposts like Deadwood. The cult TV series of the same name has brought to life a handful of the town’s more lively characters, but there were plenty more of that ilk. I’m raising a glass to you, Madam Bulldog, and your establishment, the Bucket of Blood.
Gold fever and the pioneering push came with a cost paid in full by the American Indians. Tatanka: Story of the Bison on Deadwood’s outskirts is a museum sharing the unflinching account of the great buffalo slaughter of the late nineteenth century and its subsequent effects. Plains Indian tribes based their nomadic existence around hunting the shaggy beasts, which they called tatanka and considered a relative. Europeans slaughtered the buffalo en masse for their hides, but also to drive the remaining Indians on to reservations where the exchange rate was one glass of whiskey per buffalo hide. You can imagine how that ended.
That noted, there remains a great deal of pride in Native American culture. Its art and philosophy, respect for the natural world, eloquent orators and history of resistance are all widely celebrated. During the Black Hills War of 1876, Lakota and Cheyenne Indians defeated a bigger and more heavily armed US army in open combat including, most famously, at the Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the most revered warrior leaders of that campaign was a quietly spoken Lakota thunder-dreamer whose presence today can still be witnessed in the mountains. His name? Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse literally looms out of the Black Hills, west of Mount Rushmore, in the form of a memorial sculpture taking up an entire mountain face. It has been under construction for 67 years and, on completion, will be the biggest on earth, standing 172 metres tall and 195 metres wide. The completed head of Crazy Horse alone is already bigger than any of the Rushmore presidents. The story of its construction is equally gargantuan. It was started by Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who chipped away at it by himself with a chisel and a shed-load of dynamite. When he passed, his 10 children inherited the project. A third generation of Ziolkowskis is now onsite and it’s debatable whether any of them will live to see the sculpture’s completion.
While some Indians support the Crazy Horse Memorial, others consider it a desecration. The Black Hills are sacred for Lakota, nowhere more so than at its tallest point, Harney Peak, which I set out to hike on a clear autumn day. The pine forest is gilded in patches of gold and I spot a whitetail deer and a scurry of chipmunks gathering nuts like acquisitive, more authentically follicled Donald Trumps. A heavy mist cloaking the valley burns off when we reach the summit and the view opens into a stunning panorama stretching to the distant Rocky Mountains. “It’s an easy day to be grateful,” comments a beaming local hiker, capturing the summit mood.
South Dakota is not short of surprises. Best known for the presidential heads carved into the mountain at Mount Rushmore, its other attractions are unfamiliar even to most Americans. It has an ancient inland sea – now a maze of layered, fossil-rich chasms – known as the Badlands. It has the biggest motorcycle rally in the world that incorporates two weeks, each August, of leather, burn-outs and hair metal and doubles the state’s population. There’s fly-fishing in Spearfish Canyon, rock-climbing in the aptly named Needles, Indian history to discover, horse riding at Ghost Canyon Dude Ranch and, of course, the Buffalo Roundup, which rates high among the many highlights of my trip.
I leave invigorated and laden with treasure: Lakota arrow heads, Deadwood playing cards, lucky charms and a hunting hat that proudly proclaims South Dakota as Big Cock Country. My camera’s memory cards are full of big prairie landscapes and wide, open American faces. My notepads overflow and my nose is buried in a Crazy Horse biography. It’s a good sign when an unfamiliar place follows you home. And it’s a nice bonus to have a swaggering sentence to hand when you’re asked what you got up to in the States. Rounding up wild buffalo in South Dakota sounds better than a lost weekend in Vegas, and it’s definitely more memorable.
Custer State Park Resorts offers a selection of historic lodges and cabins for visitors who want to stay within the park. Blue Bell Lodge has 29 cabins surrounding the main lodge with its log-cabin design. There’s also a dining room serving cattle-drive classics, including bison. The State Game Lodge was a popular summer destination for Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower. Double queen rooms for two people start at about US$210 a night. Near Badlands and Mount Rushmore, Frontier Cabins in Wall has 33 simple log cabins available from March to the end of November.
Double queen cabins cost about US$120 a night.
The Buffalo roundup is held on the last Friday in September and is free to attend