Thursday, August 28, 2014

Travelogue: Museum of the Great Plains

What: Museum of the Great Plains
Where: Lawton, Oklahoma
When: Friday, August 8, 2014

We haven't even parked, and I can see this place is infested with prairie dogs. They look like gophers and act like meerkats, with sentries standing straight up on mounds of dirt and guarding over the others. Naturally I want to take a picture, but as soon as I creep close, the sentry begins to chirp.

"Chip, chip, chip."
Prairie Dogs
It sounds more like the call of a bird than a rodent. I focus my zoom, and the prairie dog crouches low in its burrow. His alarm becomes more fast-paced and frantic.

"Chip chip chip!"

Finally, it just up and dives into its hole. I look for a new prairie dogs to photograph and find they're gone.

In addition to prairie dogs, the Museum of the Great Plains has a fort and an old-fashioned train and a gift shop with apple basil jelly and "rattlesnake eggs." There's also a science center with a bed of nails you can lie on as metal spikes lift you into the air. (It doesn't hurt.) My mom and dad and brother decide play around in this section but I choose to edjamacate myself and stuff, so I go through the displays and actually read the signs.


"There is a feeling of people, the lack of people, the want for people, the desire for no people. I want to draw the horizons into my soul and have them bounce around so much that they expand my horizons and I become unfettered. This is a metaphysical land."

I stare at Peter Miller's black and white photographs of grassless badlands, chisel-faced cowboys, old houses, organic farmers, fields of sunflowers, and storm clouds. I've absorbed these kinds of images of course, but glossier, air-brushed, and stuck on political brochures. But this feels more like real America to me.

"The winter wind is so strong that the snow can blow sideways for 3 days before it grabs onto the ground. ...There is not much difference from being in the Plains or on the seas during a gale. On the Plains you may freeze to death and on the sea you may drown."

The quotes beneath the photos make me wonder if he's been there, if he's experienced these kinds of storms. I imagine him loading his camera into the back of his truck and just driving from place to place, photographing whatever catches his eyes, interviewing ordinary folks, and wandering through the heartland like some kind of modern day cowboy.

(Examples of the work can be found here)


The buckskin dress is ornamented with elk teeth, porcupine quills, and fringe. And while these may be objects native to the plains, the brightly-colored beads, metal tinkling coins, and cowry shells are not.

Buckskin Dress
This dress is symbolic of our image of American Indians, yet embedded in it are objects of foreign trade. I don't know why this should be surprising, but it is. For some reason, I seem to think of Native Americans as being insulated from the white man's culture. The romantic image is, I suppose, a peaceful people who live entirely off the land.

But then I see a display on how Plains Indians used guns. Oh yes, they had access to firearms. "Guns introduced in the 17th century [before America was even thinking about becoming its own country] had a far-reaching effect on culture. Firearms increased hunting effectiveness and gave power over foes." This resulted in an intensification of tribal warfare.

Makes sense. If you're going to war, you want to make sure you have the best weapons. Guns so permeated Native American culture that in the Blackfoot language the word for honor was "Namachkami," or "a gun taken." The downside of this, however, was that it fostered dependence on the Europeans, who provided the guns.

They traded animal skins to get their weapons. Beaver pelts were all the rage until the 1830s and then the fashion turned to Buffalo robes. This particularly suited the Plains Indians, who held a monopoly over the tanned hides until the 1870s. In addition to guns, they traded these skins for Venetian glass beads, Chinese vermillion (which they used to paint their face), French-style axes, metal arm bands, wool blankets, and top hats. Truly, they had an international culture.

All this makes me think of the ways in which we integrate foreign objects into the heart of our culture. How many of our national symbols, so dearly treasured, are really our own?


The 1870s were a bad decade for the Plains Indians' buffalo skin trade. Not only did the Americans bust open their monopoly, they nearly exterminated their supply.

I knew, of course, since grade school that Americans recklessly over-hunted thundering herds of buffalo to a mere handful. But I always thought this was the work some crazed gun nuts shooting buffalo off a train for the sheer hell of it. Like when I played Oregon Trail and killed six buffalo, just to hear their bodies thump on the grass.

Poor Buffalo
But, no, it turns out there was a much more practical reason for killing buffalo. Money.

"When I went into business," wrote Anonymous Man on the wall display, "I sat down and figured I was indeed one of fortunes children." The numbers bore out.

20,000,000 buffalo roaming the plain
$3 per skin
$60,000,000 out there for the taking
25 cents to purchase cartridge
12 times return on investment
100 kills a day
$300 in gross profit or $200 in net profit

He concluded that a hard-killing man could make $6000 a month "or three times what was paid, it seems to me, the president of the United States, and a hundred times what a man with a good job in the (18)70s could be expected to earn."

Hell, a hundred and fifty years into the future, and I think $6000 a month sounds good.

This is the dark side of capitalism. What incentive is there to plan for the future when every buffalo you don't kill goes into your competitor's hands? As a result, by the 1880s the plains were littered with carcasses and a lucrative new field had opened: bone collector.

One ton of buffalo bones would pay $15. Trains would haul the skeletons east, and factories would assemble them into buttons, combs, glue, fertilizer, tooth brushes, and dice. And, somehow, bones were also used for refining sugar.

So no one can say that folks back then didn't know how to recycle.

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