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  • I grew up on the prairie grasslands, where Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota meet.

    In 1918 my dad homesteaded a half-mile south of Red Bird’s general store and worked as a mule skinner from the Silver Springs Station, across the Niobrara north to Lance Creek and finally turning around at Mule Creek Junction with a night at the limestone and shale dugout on the homestead. It was a one-way trip of 4 to 6 days, depending on the season, the availability of water, and health of the mules-more than 60 miles, to earn money to help prove up on his claim.

    I spent many summer days in the 1950s and early 60s in those badlands near Red Bird, walking, riding and sitting with an old Lakota shepherd that we knew as Salt Licker George. That’s what uncle Edwin called him, because every time he got new salt blocks for the stock, old George would take a rock or a hammer, whatever was handy, and break off a piece of salt for himself.

    We listened to George tell stories about the prairie dwellers as he built rock mounds on hilltops,watching over his flock of 200 plus sheep. If we were in a meadow of the wagichun wagi-talking tree (cottonwoods), we respectfully watched the beaver build dams across the spring fed creeks, and listened to legends of the people.

    I didn’t wear cowboy boots growing up, I wore mocassins, because Salt Licker George said that it was better to respect Unci Maka (mother earth) than to scar it. I did not use a saddle or a bit, when I rode the paint guilding tashunke bareback. I learned to move with him. He understood and obeyed when I used subtle pressure with my knees and hand pats on his neck to direct his movement, as we rode across the fossil flats, cottonwood bottomland and cedar breaks.

    Many days on those bareback rides, we could look east to the the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, known as Fort Igloo. The grass covered concrete mounds looked like hundreds of ant hills, cearly visible, in perfect rows in the distance to the horizon. My Lakota friends and teachers came to us from Edgemont and the grasslands near Fort Igloo. They were not reservation Indians, finding freedom and honor working the large sheep ranches from the head waters of the Cheyenne River, south to the Tahalo Paha’ (Rawhide Buttes) south of the Niobrara.

    Today, Fort Igloo and Red Bird are ghost towns and the Cheyenne and Niobrara River drainages in Wyoming are dry. But memories of the Lakota are still a big part of my education and understanding of humanity.
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