By Anna Paetkau

‘We Ride through Stolen Lands’

Crazy Horse, South Dakota, June 24

This past week completed week three of the climate ride. In my personal opinion (which was shared by many others on the ride) this week was the most difficult in many aspects. Firstly we completed not one but two centuries meaning that we rode for 100 miles those two days. Sandwiched in between was the biggest climb of the trip, the Big Horns baby. Our legs were dead and our minds fried from the draining heat and the incredible challenge. Despite our sorry state, we realized we were not fully appreciating the land we were on and the history that allowed us to even complete this trip. We ride on stolen land and many of our ancestors were responsible for settling it. How could we continue this ride while acknowledging and appreciating the land and its previous inhabitants?

A couple of riders came up with an antidote to our problem while riding through Yellowstone National Park. They suggested we have a couple of people do research about the land we were traveling on. This research would include its previous indigenous occupants and potentially some history of its importance. Another group of riders also had the brilliant idea of researching how climate change was affecting our surroundings and sharing that with the group too. I volunteered. Little did I know, the week I would be sharing would be the week I would be the most exhausted. Our fearless second-in-command Tyler Goss asked me if I was ready and I half heartedly said I could pull something up. Disheartened by the fact that my sharing would not be as in-depth as I would have liked, I started putting some ideas together. 

The day I was supposed to be sharing was the day we were staying at “Devils Tower”. Riding up to the incredible rock formation, I wondered how it got its name. Although the thought soon left my mind at the prospect of post riding snacks as we pulled up to our campsite. Instead of being greeted by our usual grapes, chips, and chocolate milk, one of our support drivers, Mary Ann, introduced us to a family at the entrance of the campsite. They were members of the Northern Cheyenne people and were at the park celebrating the solstice.

The park was sacred land and part of the buffalo migration that this family followed every year in order for ceremonies and celebration. Marianne introduced us to Thaddeus who had graciously offered for us to sleep in the two teepees he and his brother Cleroy had set up for their stay. It had rained the night before and so it was important to let the teepees dry out in order to prevent mold. With the agreement that we would help take down the teepees, we had found our housing for the night, 

Thaddeus gave us much more than shelter however. After an invite to dinner, he stood in the teepee with a group of riders and gifted us with his vulnerability and insight. He shared that he was one man that could only speak for himself and to his experiences/ teachings, and then opened up about his difficult upbringing and the multiple mindset shifts he endured in order to become the person he was. He was raised in a Catholic boarding school and taught Christian ideals whilst also being taught traditional practices from his great grandmother. He shared how he let go of his anger of being raised with two conflicting identities and his journey of forgiveness and self discovery. In the spirit of his wisdom, I will not share his personal stories as I cannot speak for him or to his full truth. 

He, however, gifted us with more than just personal stories. He unknowingly saved me from my conundrum of poorly planned land acknowledgment by sharing his family’s story of the sacred land we were on. The name Devils Tower is the white given name of the natural monument. It got its name from white settlers viewing sacred ceremonies of indigenous people and thinking that they were devil prayers. Despite the derogatory origin of the name, the South Dakota government was unwilling to change it back to the indigenous name, Bear Lodge. While I will probably not change a state government’s mind with this reflection, I can share the story of Bear Lodge that Thaddeus shared with us. 

A long time ago, there was a young bear that fell in love with a human woman. The woman did not reciprocate the feelings of the bear and so she climbed a large tree, what is now known as Bear Lodge. Four men shot the tree up into the sky to allow the woman to escape the bear. She became the North Star. The four men became the Little Dipper, always pointing to her. The young bear grieved at the now stump and clawed at it. (If you look at Bear Lodge, it resembles a clawed stump quite well). The bear went home knowing that the woman would not come down. His home was a couple of mountains away at Bear Beaut. His father and mother punished him for breaking the natural laws and told him that he would be forced to pray for the humans for the rest of his life. They forced him on his knees and elbows and put a crown on his head to symbolize his fate. If you go to Bear Beaut, you can still see the mountain that looks like the praying bear. 

It is important to note that this is my retelling of the story Thaddeus heard from his family and isn’t necessarily a general story shared with all North American indigenous people. What it is, is a different narrative to the white washed history that plagues this nation. The climate riders were gifted with this alternate history. After hearing Thaddeus’ stories, we dove deeper into conversations as a group on our white washed education and the idea that language and names hold so much power. By using white given names for sacred landmarks, we are perpetuating the gennocide of indigenous culture and uplifting white power. Such a small change in our language can begin the necessary dismantling of colonialism that runs deep in the veins of this country.

I challenge our riders and the people following from back home to take the time to question the names of land and landmarks used in this country and to even question common phrases. What is the history behind what we are saying? How does it continue our conformity to colonialism? I will be carrying these questions with me throughout the rest of the ride and beyond, join me in the conversation.