Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Times They Are a Changin’

I recently read an article explaining the world has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. This means future geologists will find human-created residue from radiation, plastics, mining, agriculture, and industry in the earth’s sediments. At this time, scientists haven’t made this official; however, mention in the media indicates the world is evolving. Change unsettles me, so for distraction, I imagined the lives of those who occupied this region I call home. Other than finding bits of worked jasper, chert, and flint in plowed fields and reading stories recounted after the fact in history books, small evidence remains of those who not only survived but also thrived in this arid country west of 98th meridian.

Despite prospering in this landscape, these cultures weren’t native to this place. They migrated from places like the Black Hills and Wind River Range speaking languages with Algonquin, Shoshonean, and Tanoan roots, which indicates their nations originated from distant parts of this country.

Prior to the arrival of Spaniards who brought horses from Europe, these bands journeyed by foot with the help of domesticated dogs trained to carry small loads. This limited not only their range of movement but also their ability to conquer others. Imagine how swiftly their lives altered when horses introduced faster and more efficient travel and ways to make war.

The grassy Plains provided a perfect setting for this equine culture to flourish. The fleet-footed beasts offered not only transportation and military strength but also wealth nourished by endless acres of sun-fueled grasses. Within a generation, people once limited to foot travel became savvy riders who covered enormous distances while hunting and warring. Historians explain that these adaptable equestrians mastered shooting game and fighting battles while firing up to thirty arrows a minute. Until firearm technology included reliable, repeating rifles and pistols, these archers were what some call “Lords of the Plains.”

Due to their nomadic life style, they adapted to unpredictable weather conditions on the prairie more easily than later arriving immigrants who established permanent residences. Mobility permitted bands to relocate as they exhausted resources or fouled an area. Their expanded ability to harvest native animals and plants generated improved nutrition, better housing, plentiful clothing, and other necessities.

 Buffalo herds numbering in the millions migrated through these grasslands seasonally. Native residents used the entire carcass to produce food, containers, tools, robes, and tipis. If they killed more than they could use, they traded for goods. For early Plains residents, these shaggy beasts functioned as a Walmart on the hoof long before Sam Wall conceived of his big box chain.

Even before the Civil War, Plains tribes saw their world changing. Once railways and roads bisected the prairie, they understood their way of life was under siege. For decades, they fought this transformation, successfully for a time. Once the Great Rebellion ended, new technology and hordes of land-hungry immigrants meant the old order was over. No matter how perfectly adapted these transient cultures were to living on this windy, dry ancient seabed, transformation was inevitable.

When I think of those dark-skinned people camping and hunting in the Smoky Hill, Saline, and Solomon River valleys, I wonder what they’d think of asphalt highways linking little towns that follow their old trails. What would they think of the changes wrought in this new age so heavily influenced by humans?

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