Nature is your church? Not so fast, says an Indian reservation priest. If there’s a spirituality of the land, it’s tougher than any religion you might be escaping.
The early morning air around Fort Phil Kearney is pristine and cuttingly cold. It is the first day of my drive west, and Wyoming is spectacular. As in the Dakotas, the prairie rolls by like a pale green blanket tossed over the earth, but here the land is choppier – the blanket after turbulent dreams. A dawn rain has painted a gloss over everything, intensifying the colors; even the asphalt seems blacker. The dirt roads and gullies that gash the hillocks are shockingly red, like fresh cuts of beef against a lettuce background. From the highway I notice pronghorn in the distance with their funny, bouncy run. But at the site of the fort – the buildings were torched by the Cheyenne at the end of Red Cloud’s War, so only markers remain – I notice the wind.
A depression just out of view is the site of the Fetterman Massacre. In December 1866, Captain William Fetterman, in pursuit of Indian blood and the glory he thought it would bring him, marched his men into an ambush that remains among the US military’s most singular disasters. A few months earlier he had boasted that if given a force of just eighty men he could “ride through the whole Sioux nation.” The detachment he led to their death, against orders, consisted of eighty-one. All but six of Fetterman’s soldiers were killed with bow and arrow; of those who died of gunshot wounds, a few are thought to have been suicides. A hastily composed burial party found bodies mutilated – hands and feet severed, eyeballs, brains, and genitalia scattered over the frozen stones – to impede passage of the soldiers’ souls into the afterlife.