Sanson Homestead Bison Jump
WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK

~ Mary Burrows
 
According to legend, the Earth was once water

with no land. The turtle was the only water

animal with the strength and stamina to swim

to the depths where there was earth, which it

carried on its back to the surface. The

deposited soil grew to become the land known

as Turtle Island to many Native tribes: the

continent of North America.
 
A version of the Lakota emergence story as told by Wilmer Mesteth, elder of the Cheyenne Creek community on Pine Ridge Reservation, to Sina Bear Eagle, Park Ranger at Wind Cave National Park, says the “story begins at a time when the earth was here—the plants and the animals were still being named and brought into existence—but there were no people living on the earth, and no bison. People at that time lived underground in the spirit lodge, waiting for the earth to be prepared for them to live upon it.”
 
From the emergence story: “To get to the spirit lodge, one must take a passageway through what the ancestors referred to as Oniya Oshoka, where the earth 'breathes inside,'” known today as Wind Cave. In modern Lakota, Wind Cave is known as Makoce Ohloka, or the “breathing earth.” Quoting again, “Somewhere, hidden deep inside this passageway, is a portal to the spirit lodge and the spirit world.”
 
There were two spirits living on the surface who had been banished there by Takuskanskan, the Creator, for their behaviors when they were used as pawns by the evil spirit Gnaskinyan to deceive other spirits. The two spirits were Iktomi, the spider and trickster, and Anog-Ite, the two-faced woman, one face horrible, one face beautiful.
 
Iktomi spent his time harassing Anog-Ite with his tricks, but that soon bored him, so he set his thoughts upon how to entice human beings from the spirit lodge. He promised Anog-Ite that he would never annoy her again if she would help him in his quest for new victims of his trickery.
 
She set about loading a leather pack with beautiful quilled leather clothing, dried berries, and dried meat. After Anog-Ite created an opening in the ground, she instructed her wolf companion Sungmanitu Tanka to carry the pack inside Oniya Oshoka and find the humans. The people were completely enthralled and impressed by the goods in the pack, especially the meat, which they had never before tasted. Wolf tempted them to follow him to the surface of the earth, where they would find meat and all the other items he had brought to them.
 
The First One, or “Tokahe,” leader of the humans, refused to go to the surface. He evoked Creator's admonition for them to stay underground until the earth was ready for them. Many of the people stayed with him. “But all those who had tried the meat followed Wolf to the surface.”
 
On the surface, they were greeted with beauty in every direction, as far as they could see. Blue skies, blooming flowers, the bright sunshine of summer. They were led to the home of Anog-Ite, who had her horrible face covered, showing only her beauty. She promised to teach them how to obtain all the things she had sent to tempt them in Oniya Oshoka.
 
But the people did not know how to work, and they went slowly into Fall with nothing put aside for Winter. As a result, they began to starve and had no clothing or shelter for protection. They went to Anog-Ite and, for the first time, saw her ugly side. She laughed and sent Wolf to nip their heels as they ran away in horror, running for the opening to the underground, but Iktomi had closed it. They were trapped! Creator was unsympathetic when they relayed their predicament. “You should not have disobeyed me; now I have to punish you.” The humans were transformed from people to the first Bison herd. Thus, when the earth was ready for humanity, and they were led to the surface, they were instructed to follow the trail of the the Bison, from which everything they would need to survive could be obtained.
 
“We say that Wakan Tanka created the Heart of Everything That Is to show us that we have a special relationship with our first and real mother, the earth, and that there are responsibilities tied to this relationship. Wakan Tanka placed the stars in a manner so what is in the heavens is on earth, what is on earth is in the heavens, in the same way. When we pray in this manner, what is done in the skies is done on earth, in the same way. Together, all of creation participates in the ceremonies every year...
 
“Wakan Tanka intended that we must always hold the Black Hills special to our hearts, so we are reminded every night that we have a sacred home. And, all one has to do to be in the Heart of Everything That Is, is to look at a star pattern and be spiritually with the Black Hills. A constant renewal of relationship by traveling home, to that special place with the stars...
 
“So, tonight, walk outside and look up. See the Black Hills Sacred Ceremonies of Spring, and you will understand and know why this place is special and stands first among all places of Maka. And return, in the manner the Lakota have done for thousands of years, to the Heart of Everything That Is, to the heart of our home and the home of our heart...
 
“Then, when the sun passes through each part of the star pattern, prepare to travel home and renew the circle once more, that the four children of the earth may all live well, altogether (sic) – and, with their generations, walk on the sacred red road in a dancing manner.” {Charlotte Black Elk, from Lakota Star Knowledge*, page 52, emphases article author.}
 
One of the Lakota Seven Sacred Sites forms a gateway at the southeastern edge of the Black Hills, known today as the Buffalo Gap, through which ancient Bison herds migrated from the plains into Paha Sapa during the Spring. Just north and west of the Gap, on Red Valley Road, is the Sanson Homestead, which is now a protected area as part of Wind Cave National Park. Homesteaded by the Sanson patriarch in the late 19th Century, the land holds evidence of a Bison jump with a kill/processing site at its base. The long valley stretching north and east from the cliff contains tipi rings and fire pits, reminders of the peoples that migrated into the Hills in the Spring through the Valley of the Council Oak [unable to determine where in the Hills] after they had prayed and purified themselves at Rapid Creek. From there, they traveled southward along the high limestone plateau to meet the Bison near the Buffalo Gap and to prepare for coming seasons and ceremonies.
 
Fridays in July, Wind Cave National Park conducts tours to the Sanson Homestead from the park's visitors center. From a parking area near the original barns, visitors walk to the root cellar dug into the red shale dirt where the family sheltered after a fire, and past the hilltop rock-walled cistern to a path that crosses the mostly-dry Beaver Creek and climbs up through the wild mahogany to an ancient stone  drive-line that once guided Bison over the cliff to their demise.
 
On the edge of the jump, Ranger Bear Eagle stands in front of the long red valley and relates the Emergence Story. [Download this beautiful story here https://www.nps.gov/wica/learn/historyculture/upload/Lakota-Emergence-Story-Accessible-for-website.pdf  ]
 
Beaver Creek once flowed freely from the Hills, down the chasm of Wind Cave Canyon through the Buffalo Gap and on into the Badlands. At one time, the red valley appears to have been a flood plain, or perhaps a lake bed. With the advent of pioneers and homesteaders, “progress” and the drilling of wells, Carl Sanson's water source basically dried up in 1951. (Although Bear Eagle related that there had been  water flowing intermittently in the past few years, relative to the changing climate.) According to Carl's personal conversation with this author in 1987, he and the University of Nebraska collaborated in building “catch ponds” on the ranch property so he could water his cattle. The ponds were described as having cement sidewalls with channels that guided the slightest moisture toward the collecting pool before it could evaporate. He also related that he and the late Dr. Larry Agenbroad of Chadron State College in Nebraska (and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs) discussed the historical treasure that was the Sanson Homestead. At the time of his death, Carl had over 3000 Native American artifacts displayed on his front porch. The Sanson family allowed the Native Americans to continue their hunting and migratory ways on the land for as long as circumstances permitted.
 
Bear Eagle also told of a blizzard one year that caused Carl Sanson considerable anxiety because he could not get to his cattle to feed and water them. When the storm was over, the cattle were safe on the west hillside of the buffalo jump where they had survived by consuming snow and eating the wild mahogany shrubs. Were the spirits with the Sanson Ranch even then??
 
Following Carl's death, the last Sanson on the place, the ranch was sold to a family that “owns” another natural attraction in the Black Hills. They had plans to build a resort and establish an amusement park in the long, red valley at the floor of the buffalo jump. Thankfully, the spirits intervened, and the plan for commercialization became dust.
 
The original homestead dwelling burned at the end of the 19th Century and was replaced by a substantial two-story frame structure with a big apron of a porch across the front. This building is being renovated and restored by the park service for its future as a museum and information center. Carl Sanson always wanted the Park to have the ranch, and now his dreams have been fulfilled.
 
    *Lakota Star Knowledge, Ronald Goodman.
      published 1992 by Sinte Gleska University, Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Mission, SD



Photos Courtesy the Author