The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Great Elk

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I’m on the way to visit Cahokia with the Osage Nation Historical Preservation Department in a chartered bus that is less than half full. Many Americans don’t know that an agrarian civilization was centered in Illinois between 600 to 1300 CE. It supported 40,000 people—more than the population of London at the time. Compulsory labor built a pyramid as large at the base as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Cahokia became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982, and now school kids make yearly field trips.

 

The Osage are part of the Dhegiha Sioux, one of the groups who built the monuments and created a complex cultural life, which is why the Nation takes Osages from Pawhuska to St. Louis most years.

 

I’m sitting with the elders and archeologists near the front. In the back, Gwen is beading and Lana is settled in among fat pillows across from her. We stop for lunch at a Bass Pro Shop, which appears to be an oversized hunting lodge on an ordinary thoroughfare in Springfield, Missouri. The bus circles a large crowded parking lot before the driver stops at the imposing doors.

 

Inside the store, I’m assaulted by stimuli in a space at least four stories high. The place is a clash of antlers and taxidermied head mounts. Twelve or more white-tailed bucks are mounted facing different directions on posts that support upper stories. There’s a full-body grizzly, polar bear, black bear, bighorn sheep, and an antelope.

 

In any direction, from ledges above cabinets, display cases, from the walls, animals either meet my gaze or show their backsides. A post studded with deer antlers stands beside a rack of women’s coats.

 

Upstairs, small human figures file past an enormous bronzed elk that surveys us all. A line of middle Americans file up a flight and a half of stairs toward it. The elk looks down on me—the bunched muscles of the rump uphill, the back legs tensed above rocks where it’s frozen mid-step. The antlers are curved as gracefully as any ballerina’s arms against a blue and green panorama of forest and sky. The flight of a hawk is arrested, the undersides of its wing detailed. The elk looks down a narrow nose past its raised chin. I remember elk I’ve seen skid across the road in front of my truck in the backwoods, or climbing up the steep hill from the Columbia River, by Abe Creek.

 

The elk stands on a rocky ledge by a descending stream bed, surrounded by trees in a woodland diorama that curves through the 500,000 square foot store.

People quietly walk before the elk like pilgrims—a couple with arms bared to the heat, a bald man and a woman with a wavy, brown pony-tail high on her head. Two children gaze up at the animal.

I think of the time when the Osage people in the stars looked down and saw the whole earth flooded. They sent messengers from two clans: one from the stars and one from the bright-stars to make a way for the people and animals to live on the land.

elk

The messengers spoke to the water spider, the water strider, the white leech, and the dark leech. The insects were gracious; in fact, they offered to make the people live a long time—wrinkled as the ripples on the water. They couldn’t help, but they offered to go get the Great Elk, o’pon ton ga. He came and, in the part I like best, threw himself on the surface of the water, not once, but four times.

 

When the Great Elk stood up, the water was up to the middle of his sides, and the next time he stood up, the water reached the underside of his belly, the next time his knees, and finally the earth was all exposed. The last time, he threw himself down and rolled. He rocked to right himself, like the horses in the pasture next door. I imagine running my hand in the stiff hair of an elk hide, feeling the hairs left behind that will turn into grass.

 

An elk herd lives near Gearhart on the northern coast of Oregon and goes into the surf from time to time. Those big tan animals with the dark brown capes splash in blue water and foam on sunny days, and that’s how I picture the Great Elk thrashing.

 

This is the way the Omaha anthropologist Frances LaFlesche recorded the clan stories that Charles Wah hre she and Shunkamolah told him. Stories that Tulsa professor Garrick Bailey collected and reprinted. I wonder if all humans have cellular memory of a flood.

 

For a moment, seeing the small figures walking before the elk makes me think that white people know the Great Elk too.

 

The restaurant upstairs, called Hemingway’s, is filled with mahogany-inspired furniture and lined with paned windows and an enormous aquarium. In one photo an unshaven Ernest Hemingway, his white hair uncombed, sits at a dining table holding a double shot glass to his lips. He looks at something beside his plate. In another, he’s middle-aged, standing beside a marlin, smiling.

 

We’re in the land of sweet tea. The women from Oklahoma are ordering half-sweet and half un-sweet. Ted orders a glass of wine and wahoo, a tropical fish.

 

The only other Bass Pro Shop I’ve been inside was in Florida. My husband and I were driving the causeway between mangrove swamps and the Florida Keys when we stopped on Islamorada. Beyond a manicured parking strip, a new building held clothing and gear, and in the center of it stood a replica of the Pilar, Hemingway’s boat. Bass Pro advertises itself as part sporting goods store, part wildlife museum. I remember the egret with black legs, white feathers like lace panties, walking back and forth on the railing by the fishing dock.

 

Traveling with a group of Osages is like being on a loose family trip, although less stressful than our trips as children. In the 1940s, Osages packed panel trucks full of supplies and sent them ahead to Colorado Springs, while they followed in their touring cars. After lunch, Ted looks for a place to smoke and I trail Jackie and her two adult sons looking for sunscreen. An alligator is suspended from the ceiling, its legs and webbed feet extended as if it is swimming. The alligator’s white belly, the shadows of grass on the bank and jagged light on the water make me feel as if I’m underwater.

 

Alligators aren’t native to Missouri, but the store has an alligator pit. Given the restaurant’s Hemingway motif, I assume it’s a Florida-based chain, but I learn that Johnny Morris started this sporting goods giant from a corner of his father’s liquor store here in Springfield, Missouri, in 1972.

 

I’m looking for inherent logic, but Bass Pro is fantasyland. In this world, big game animals are abundant and guns are unlimited. In fact, 185 muzzle loading rifles act as balusters on stairs to the fourth floor NRA National Sporting Arms Museum.

 

I leave my friends and start for the bus, but I don’t make it outside. Beside the door stands a gleaming white statue of an Indian on his horse that is fully two stories tall. Both are slumped forward, apparently sleeping. The horse’s head and neck hang down, and the man is curled over. He’s leaning so far forward, it seems he will fall off. I think of a person so drunk he’s loose in his body.

 

The Indian appears to be broken, dispirited, desolate. But when you study the statue, the line of the horse and rider are curved at such a diagonal, it feels dynamic. Braids hang forward off the man’s chest near a bright white, muscled arm. The horse’s eyes sag half closed, and its tail is blown forward across its legs.

 

The piece is familiar, of course. The End of the Trail. An enormous representation of an Indian man, whose mental, physical, and spiritual inertia are all that keeps him balanced on the horse. A blonde girl who looks to be about ten and her father stand beside me studying the statue.

eott

I don’t know why this reproduction is in Missouri. Osage men, like most of our kin, shaved their heads. This appears to be a Lakota man draped in a buffalo robe. I realize I’m being too literal. In a Disney-inspired moment, I think I see a butterfly on the end of one braid, but it’s a leather tie.

 

Jackie and her sons pass between the statute and me. Art is tall and wears a braid down his back.

The little girl says, “Is that an Indian?”

Art looks over his shoulder. I see the question on his face, his raised eyebrows. He glances back at her, as I do, but, like her father, she’s gazing up at the statue.

 

The founder of Bass Pro, Johnny Morris, loves fishing, and he loves the Ozarks, part of our ancestral land. Morris says he was captivated when, as a young man, he found an arrowhead as he crossed a recently plowed field:

It got to me. I started thinking, ‘What was life like when the person made this point? What was wildlife like? What was fishing like?’ I was standing there in my jeans and my tennis shoes just thinking, ‘What did they wear? Did they have on a deerskin crop? Or maybe a buffalo hide? What were they really like?’

Since then, he’s built lodges on nature parks near Branson, Missouri, and at least seventy-seven stores across the country. In 2016, he’s worth 3.8 billion according to Forbes. There’s an Osage Restaurant at the Top of the Rock, a forty-seven acre “Ozarks Heritage Preserve” with a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course built overlooking Table Rock Lake. Not surprisingly, the restaurant serves American cuisine, rather than meat pies and yonkapins. On a lower terrace, a metal sculpture of a buffalo is silhouetted against the lake, and outside the Top of the Rock lodge a bronzed version of the End of the Trail stands in a pool reflecting pink and blue at sunset.

 

The Indian man in The End of The Trail sculpture and the buffalo are used as décor, symbols of a long ago time.

 

“Memory is as important as water,” Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in Nothing Ever Dies, his collection of essays examining the Vietnam War and all of those who were, and are, affected by it. “Nations cultivate and would monopolize, if they could, both memory and forgetting. They urge their citizens to remember their own and to forget others in order to forge the nationalistic spirit crucial for war.”

 

I don’t know what white people see when they look at the Indian man drooping on his horse. Maybe he looks benign, maybe he looks sad, or takes them back to a supposedly simple time when Michael Langdon lived with his family in Little House on the Prairie. In real life, Pa Ingalls had to pack up and leave the Osage Diminished Reserve around the time the railroads and settlers were fighting over Indian land, and we Osages were forced to leave for Oklahoma ourselves. Memory is as important as water.

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Photographs provided by Terese Mailhot.


Ruby Hansen Murray is a writer and photographer, whose work may be found in About Place, Apogee, Oregon Humanities Magazine, and Yellow Medicine Review. She is a VONA, Hedgebrook, and Jack Straw Fellow, who has studied at Warren Wilson College and the Institute of American Indian Arts. More from this author →