By Lance Nixon Jul 28, 2016
BLUNT, S.D. — They are about a day’s journey east of Fort Pierre, the start of July 1839, and the geographer Joseph Nicollet records what they see in his journal as he and his companions pause to examine the forks of the East Medicine River and the hill looming above it.
“This last-mentioned river derives its name from a beautiful hill on its right bank, called by the Sioux Pahah wakan – translated by the voyageurs ‘Butte de Medicine,’ and in English, Medicine Hillock, or knoll,” Nicollet writes in his journal. “It is to be remarked, in fact, of the prairies of this region that they present such low insulated hillocks, to which the Sioux apply the somewhat generic name of re or pahah, according as they are more or less elevated above the surrounding plain. The affixwakan indicates that the locality is to them peculiarly remarkable, or even sacred, and a spot which they select in preference for some of their ceremonies.”
Nicollet was right in more ways than he knew. In fact Medicine Knoll, though Nicollet knew it only by its Sioux name, may have been an ancient ceremonial place already in use hundreds of years before the Sioux arrived.
Somewhere in the grass of that knoll that Nicollet and his party climbed to look out across the country was the man-made feature that made it an important ceremonial site, and one still intensely interesting to archaeologists: A stone mosaic that makes the outline of a snake in the grass.
It’s known to archaeologists as site 39HU70, and they say is probably the best known of the effigy sites in South Dakota.
No one knows for sure who made it or why.
Dimensions of a giant
Anthropologists J.E. Todd in 1886, T. H. Lewis in 1889 and John Helmick in 1897 published early descriptions, with sketches, of the site.
“The figure in question is built upon the north end of this Paha Wakan (Medicine Knoll) of the Dakotas, and represents a snake,” Lewis recorded. “Its head is 10 feet in length and nearly 7 feet wide at the broadest point. Two oblong stones represent the eyes. The body varies in width from 3 to 10 feet. The stones composing the outline of the tail are much smaller than those used for the body, many of them being no larger than an egg. There are said to have been several large bowlders extending out from the end of the tail, representing rattles, but on September 7, 1884, when this survey was made, there was no indication that there ever had been any bowlders at that point. The total length of the snake, following the curves, is 360 feet, and the total number of stones and bowlders used in the outline and including the two for the eyes is 825, of which at last ten occupied their present positions previous to the construction of the snake …”
Michael Fosha, assistant state archaeologist for South Dakota, said the outline of the snake has doubtless changed somewhat since then, partly because livestock grazing might dislodge stones, perhaps even because visitors might move stones from one point to another, thinking to fix some perceived flaw in the effigy by restoring some stone to what they think must be its original location.
There is also the possibility that looters have made off with some stones.
“When I was young it had a tongue on it, made of red rock,” said Royal Runge, the rancher who owned the Medicine Knoll property from 1938 until he sold it in 1999.
“People just took it away for souvenirs.”
A 2006 report to the South Dakota State Historical Society by archaeological and historical preservation consultant Dr. Linea Sundstrom notes that the current length of the effigy – 55 meters, or 180 feet, in a straight line, and about 100 meters, or 328 feet, following the curves of its body – is about 11 meters shorter than Lewis’s description. That may be because parts of the tail are now buried or destroyed.
Older than the legends
Runge, contacted by the Capital Journal at the nursing home in Marion, S.D., where he lives now, said he believes the site to be at least 400 years old or older. He believes that because he allowed professional archaeologists to examine a nearly perfect arrowhead found at the site. They dated it to an estimated age of A.D. 1550 to 1675, Runge said.
Mike Fosha, assistant state archaeologist for South Dakota, said most of the stone mosaics found on the northern Great Plains were made within the past 500 years, and many within the past 200 years.
The snake effigy on Medicine Knoll probably was made near the earlier of those dates, or closer to the 500-year mark, he said.
If the effigy had been found farther north, around the Bismarck area in North Dakota, Fosha said he would have associated it with the people who eventually become known in history as the Blackfoot nation, who left animal-like motifs of stone in what is now North Dakota before moving west. But other tribes are also on the move at that same time, four and five centuries ago.
Peoples who become known in history as the Mandan are one possibility, and the only tribe that still remained fairly close to the site, simply moving farther north into what is now North Dakota.
But several other groups who are now more distant from central South Dakota are also possibilities, including the Omaha, the Gros Ventre, the Crow, the Cheyenne, even the Plains Apache. Fosha notes that another interesting possibility is the Shoshone people, now located in Wyoming. They’re sometimes known in history as the Snake Indians.
“Snakes make up a large part of their cosmology,” Fosha said. “To me that would be one of the best candidates.”
Archaeological anthropologist Donald Blakeslee of Wichita State University disagrees. Blakeslee – one of whose interests is native trails and sacred sites – believes the Shoshone people wouldn’t have been active as far east as central South Dakota. But he believes the Arikara are a strong possibility as the makers of the snake mosaic. He notes they are related to the Wichita, who built a similar effigy of a snake that is cut into the sod at a site in Kansas.
“It so happens that we have very little well-documented information for the Arikara, where you are, and the Wichita, where I am, but in between, thanks to a Pawnee named James Murie, there is some very detailed information that has been published,” Blakeslee told the Capital Journal this week via email. “The Skidi Pawnees, who were closely related to the Arikaras, had a tradition about the origins of their people that involved the mating of Morning Star and Evening Star. He lived in the East, she in the West. To get to her, he had to cross the sky and was involved in a series of adventures along the way.
“In one, he was swallowed by the serpent (our constellation of Scorpio) and eventually freed himself using a fireball (meteor) as a weapon, killing the serpent. The serpent intaglio here in Kansas has something in its mouth, which may be a representation of the fireball.”
There may be a similar image carved on a rock wall or bluff along the Fall River in southeastern Kansas, Blakeslee added.
“So we have multiple images of a serpent plus meteor/oval thing all in areas occupied by the related Arikara/Pawnee/Wichita – all speakers of northern Caddoan languages. The simplest explanation is that they all symbolize the same mythological event – one that may derive from an actual celestial event.”
One of Blakeslee’s former graduate students is currently researching whether there may have been an actual astronomical event the snake effigies reflect.
“Archaeologists working on the symbolism of the Mississippian societies of the Southeast generally assume that this Morning Star tale was once widespread and that it happened to survive and get recorded among the Pawnee,” Blakeslee said.
Fire in the sky
Blakeslee finds another possible link between Medicine Knoll and the heavens.
“In 1857, the prominent fur trader, C.P. Chouteau found a meteorite that he donated to the St. Louis Academy of Science,” Blakeslee writes. “The only direct evidence we have regarding its original location is that he found it 20 miles from Fort Pierre in South Dakota. Since no other locational evidence was available, the 16 kg medium octahedrite was named the Fort Pierre meteorite and has been listed with the longitude and latitude of that place in the various meteorite catalogs.”
But Blakeslee, in his research over native trails, is intrigued by the recorded distance from Fort Pierre to the place where Chouteau found the meteorite; especially when he cross-references it with Joseph Nicollet’s 1839 journey and map east from Fort Pierre past the foot of Medicine Knoll.
“Paha wakan lay along a trail that ran east and northeast from the Ford of the Missouri across the James River to Minnesota. The same trail continued west of the river to the site of Fort Laramie in Wyoming, and the trail probably predated that trading post and was the reason for its placement. To get from Fort Pierre to Paha wakan, one had to go 2 miles south to the ford and then, according to the Nicollet map, 18 miles more to the hill.”
That would make it exactly 20 miles from Fort Pierre to Medicine Knoll, the precise distance from Fort Pierre at which Chouteau recovered the Fort Pierre meteorite. If the snake image also was associated with a meteorite that had been found at that location or brought there – something native peoples were known to do – it could help explain the Lakota name, Paha wakan, Blakeslee said. And if the Arikara retained the same Caddoan legend that the Skidi Pawnee recorded about the fireball and the snake, they might celebrate such a connection.
Sundstrom told the Capital Journal this week that Blakeslee could be right in proposing a connection between the snake and a large meteorite.
“The snake could have been made in response to the meteorite landing there, but we’ll never know for certain,” Sundstrom said.
Dakota vision quest site
Whatever Medicine Butte’s snake effigy meant to the ancients, the high prairie remained in use as a sacred site for tribes in more recent times.
Vine Deloria Jr., in a book called “Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux,” tells that Deloria’s great-grandfather, a member of the Yanktonais Sioux, did his vision quest on top of Medicine Knoll in about 1831 at about age 16 while his family camped in a draw below the northeast side of the butte.
Deloria’s account notes: “On the southern part of that butte, in the old days, there was a long twisting trail of rocks arranged to resemble a rattlesnake. Some of the rocks can still be seen today, although people have vandalized the spot, making the snake effigy difficult to discern.”
The Deloria account suggests that the Dakota thought of the snake effigy as already very old in the 1830s.
However, a Yanktonais tradition recorded in 1923 by a Yanktonais named Thomas Tuttle said that the serpent was constructed after a young Yanktonais, seeking a vision at Medicine Knoll, alerted his friends to a party of Rees, or Arikara nearby. The Yanktonais captured or destroyed the Rees and made the snake to celebrate that event, Tuttle’s account said.
T.H. Lewis also recorded Dakota informants saying the snake effigy commemorated a great war speech made by a chief as his band was returning from a successful hunt.
Fosha said the stone circles found on top the knoll near the snake may have been associated with vision quests. In some tribes, the young man seeking a vision would not leave that stone circle until the vision had come.
Whether the stone mosaic of the snake was used in some community or ceremonial way remains a mystery. Runge is confident that it was.
“It is a ceremonial ground, no doubt about that,” Runge said.
But what that use was remains a mystery.
Linea Sundstrom, the consultant who has studied South Dakota’s boulder effigies for the South Dakota State Historical Society, said the Medicine Knoll snake effigy may be too far from Shoshone country to have been made by that tribe but it may really refer in some fashion to a people group.
“It is more likely to refer to a snake clan or division of one of one of the tribes that lived along the Missouri: Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ponca, or some unknown distant ancestors of those,” Sundstrom told the Capital Journal in an email. “The snakes tend to be most common in Arikara territory. Arikaras were known as corn growers, and the beliefs of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Dakota make a strong association between snakes and corn-growing. We really don’t know when, why, or by whom that big snake was made, so it’s a matter of coming up with an educated guess that’s not too far-fetched.”
Sundstrom’s 2006 report on “boulder effigy sites” in South Dakota notes that of the seven recorded snake effigies in South Dakota, six are found on the east bank of the Missouri River near Pierre.
“The concentration of snake effigies along the Missouri River between the Big Bend and the mouth of Okobojo Creek suggests these may have been shrines related to corn-growing. This was the northern homeland of the Arikara tribe, known to their neighbors as the Corn Eater tribe. In addition, the Big Bend was specifically mentioned in Lakota mythology as the origin place of corn horticulture,” Sundstrom notes.
The 2006 report notes another possible reason so many snake effigies are found along the Missouri River in central South Dakota.
“The area of present-day Pierre and Fort Pierre was a major crossing-point, as well. This suggests the possibility that spirit beings represented visually as giant snakes were also petitioned at the snake effigies for safe crossing of the river,” Sundstrom writes.
Snakes were seen as a powerful symbol of the underworld, so their help would be essential.
Black Hills State University biologist Brian Smith, a reptile specialist, said it’s not surprising that the site represented a prairie rattlesnake, in particular.
“They would naturally be a potent symbol, since they can kill using venom, display using the rattle, and shed their skin,” Smith said, noting that the snake’s shedding of its skin might be also a sign of renewal or rebirth and perhaps eternal life.
Dan Elwood of Fort Pierre, who bought the Medicine Knoll property from Runge in 1999, said Medicine Knoll could very likely have been used by several different people groups as they moved through the area over the centuries.
He said he’s heard from Native Americans that the name “Medicine Knoll” may have an additional meaning that has nothing to do with its value as a sacred site. It might merely reflect the fact that many medicinal plants known to native peoples grow in the prairie on top the knoll.
He adds that the site’s rich history and the height of Medicine Knoll – at an elevation of 2,037 feet, it is about 400 feet higher than Medicine Creek below – makes it the kind of place that Native Americans still visit for prayer, ceremonies and vision quests. But others who take the trouble to climb the knoll associate it with a vision quest of another kind.
“You can see forever in every direction,” Elwood said.
Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country
By Linea Sundstrom
OVERVIEW OF PLACES OF TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE SRI Foundation June 8, 2012
“The physical setting for fasting, prayer, and vision questing sites, for example, is a hilltop or mountain peak. Human-generated features and materials associated with such sites might include vision quest or fasting structures, cairns, small stone circles or clusters of stone, rock alignments, and offerings. Eagle trapping locations also occur on high points, and might consist of an excavated pit large enough for a man to lie in, which would be covered with a lattice of brush and grass. Alignments are man-made arrangements of stone having a relatively low profile, and being in the shape of a straight line or geometric pattern (Abbott, Ranney and Witten 1982 cited in Sundstrom 2006). These generally serve as “directional markers/prayer lines associated with major ceremonial sites ... or drive lines ... to channel ... deer, antelope and bison. (BLM Montana Field Office unknown). As demonstrated by the site and feature descriptions compiled by Sundstrom (2006), at times it is difficult or impossible to discern whether a rock feature is an alignment, a disturbed stone circle, or some other petroform... Sundstrom (2006), following Abbott, Ranney, and Whitten (1982) defines a cairn as “a pile of stones on the surface; this may have collapsed into a mosaic [an arrangement of stones in the form of a solid figure or pavement].” It is not clear the extent to which this definition is adhered to in reporting on cairns in cultural resource reports. As Sundstrom (2006) demonstrates throughout her report, the dimensions and configurations of cairns can vary considerably. This variation relates in part to the purpose of the feature. Cairns are associated with a variety of contexts and features, including burials, medicine wheels, memorials of important events or persons, trail markers, animal drives, marker for a ritual or ceremonial site, and monuments to important (spiritual) place (e.g., Hall 1985; Liebman 2002; Sundstrom 2006; USFS Custer National Forest 2004; BLM Montana Field Office unknown; Surface Transportation Board 2010). They can occur singly, in clusters, and in alignments. They can be stand alone features or components of larger features (e.g., associated with alignments). Such features, particularly when they are aggregates of larger features, may have significant time depth. Variability in cairns also depends on the relative integrity of the feature, its age, and the extent to which it or its location has been reused over time. Medicine wheels are stone alignments that generally include a central cairn or stone circle from which lines (spokes) radiate outward. There are many variations on this (see Brumley 1988 and Sundstrom 2006 for examples). The number of spokes (either 4, 6, 7, 8 or 28) and their arrangement are based on culturally significant numbers. Thus, if a medicine wheel has four spokes, these will be laid out in the cardinal or semicardinal directions. Additional alignments would bisect these cardinal spokes.
Finally, burials, graves, and cemeteries are also places of cultural significance. Burials have a spiritual significance to the Northern Plains tribes. Respectful treatment and minimal disturbance of these places are of paramount importance. Burials may take several forms, including graves and cairns. Burial mounds, which are present in eastern South Dakota, are not found in the Powertech/Cameco project areas (Winham and Hannus 1990). Out of respect for the sentiments expressed by the Northern Cheyenne about graves and burials, the BLM’s discussion of site types excludes burials, graves or cemeteries (BLM Montana Field Office unknown). As noted above, some of the features covered in this report are sometimes associated with human remains.”