This was the first time I had ever ridden horseback. I knew I rode well, but after two days, I was ready to get to our destination. Mahkah and I were both travel weary, although considering he barely had time to recover from his sickness, he was doing remarkably well.
A few minutes later he said we were getting close to the cabin where we hoped to find our Mother and maybe our Father. We knew Soo’-TAH would be there too. He should have arrived early the day before. As we grew nearer, Mahkah suddenly dismounted his horse and told me to do the same.
“We will wait here,” he said. “I will give Soo’-TAH a signal that will tell him we are close by. If all is clear, he will come for us. If something is not right, and it’s not safe for us to approach the cabin, he will find a way to signal us as well.” Mahkah cupped his hands to his mouth and I heard him make a high pitched whistling sound.. like a wounded bird. He only made the sound once, then we sat down on a nearby rock to wait.
We had stopped at a creek an hour before and watered our horses. It had been almost dawn the day before when we got as far as Sylvan Lake. It was beyond beautiful, but the path to the cabin was just as remote and difficult to travel as Mahkah said it would be. The rocks had been treacherous. Twice we had to dismount and walk, leading the horses, for one to two miles.
Vintage pictures of Cathedral Spires (Left) near Sylvan Lake, and Needles Highway where towering rocks in a thousand shapes guard the (now) highway.
The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains.
The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.
The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922. This part of Dakota’s story takes place in 1900.
Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing and thawing.
We sat silently for more than an hour. We had a fair amount of water in our canteens, but we had finished the last of our jerky. It was clear that Mahkah did not want us to talk. We couldn’t take the chance that the men who would most certainly do us harm, had already found the cabin, and would hear us.
I still had so many questions. Why did Mahkah ask me to strap the Indian Princess doll to my leg so she would be hidden under my split skirt? I had a fair idea as to why the authorities were trying to locate our Mother and Father. They must have been seen as guilty for crimes against the United States Army. Our Father was an Officer of the US Cavalry and was married to a Lakota Sioux woman. They had become sympathizers to the Indian’s plight after discovering the white man’s true intentions. Our parents and Grandfather had used William Miles’ position as a roving Ambassador to help keep the peace while a better solution to the breaking of the treaty was found. He Sapa belonged to the tribes it had been given to.
Mahkah had told me as much while we were finding our way to the cabin. He said our Grandfather, who was a Lakota Sioux Chief, had tried to influence his people to keep peace with the US Government, but when he found that all the children who were taken from the Reservations and put in boarding schools, were forced to abandon their culture and become Americanized, he became furious.
He was outraged when he realized the children had been baptized as Episcopalians, given Christian names, dressed like soldiers, and were not learning English, but instead were made to farm and do industrial work. He was convinced the young people should learn the English language so in future communications they wouldn’t have to rely on translators, who might purposely give them wrong information.
At that point Blue Water removed the children of his tribe from the Carlisle school and instantly found the goodwill of many whites had evaporated.
Kunci was the Chief’s wife, and had lived with her daughter and Lieutenant Miles in their home, where she cared for their twin children, Mahkah and Dakota. Kunci and her daughter Makawee, had been forced to take the children and flee almost 14 years ago. They were afraid it would become known that Chief Blue Water no longer trusted the Government to keep their promises and they could no longer rely on him to help calm the tense situations the soldiers found themselves in. What would happen to the family then? It was better for Blue Water’s family to take things into their own hands.
It proved to be an accurate prediction, only at that point, Lieutenant Miles and his wife Makawee were not part of the fray. It was only Blue Water’s influence the US Government feared.
Winding Tail, a nephew of the old chief, Black Crow, threatened to shoot Blue Water, and continued trying to humiliate him with the fact that he was chief not by the will of the tribe, but by the guns of the white soldiers. Black Crow took up his gun and fulfilled his threat. Black Crow shot Blue Water in the chest, killing him.
Before Blue Water was killed, Kunci took little Dakota to one of the boarding schools that William Miles had located. He found it not to be as cruel to the children as some of the others. He had made a simple deal with Miss Harper. He would give her the agreed upon amount of cash each month, and his Mother -in- law would work as hard and long as they wished, in exchange for a safe haven for her and her granddaughter. Miss Harper had been cruel to Dakota, first physically, then mentally, but she had still received and gladly accepted the money each month. She remained silent as to the knowledge of the relationship of Lieutenant Miles with the Lakota tribe and kept from Dakota the fact that her Grandmother was there. She also treated Kunci reasonably well. When she was too old and feeble for hard physical labor, Miss Harper had allowed Kunci to tend to her flowers and live in a dug-out on a distant part of the school property. Miss Harper was not aware of the fact that before she was old enough to leave, Kunci had made contact with Dakota.
Another hour passed and Soo’-TAH had not come to get Mahkah and me, or given us a sign that he knew we were there. It was too dangerous for us to approach the cabin without the assurance we wouldn’t be ambushed. It wouldn’t be long before the horses would become restless. I could tell Mahkah was deep in thought. It seemed like an eternity before he finally spoke.
“I’m going to get closer to the cabin. Something is wrong, and we can’t wait any longer. You go to the horses. Ride Ko’-LAH and lead my horse to the stream we took them to earlier. Come back to the same spot and tie them up again. Wait here for me my Tanke, my beautiful sister…I’m not sure if either of us will be safe. Hide the doll. If something should happen to us, she must not get into the wrong hands.”
Before he left, he handed me an envelope and told me to read it later. He had a sad look in his beautiful eyes. I don’t think I have ever been more fearful, but I did what he said, and I prayed. I asked the Great God that I believed in to let me see my Mother… in this life. I prayed for all of us, but I prayed hardest for the fierce protector. If there was a way for him to save us, Soo’-TAH would find it.