KILLDEER, N.D. – Tony Mandan delicately crosses his legs in a “matter-of-fact” manner and removes his rhinestone- studded sunglasses. He peers sternly from beneath the bill of a colorful “Native Pride” hat.
He is in storytelling mode. Mandan, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the Three Affiliated Tribes, had just returned from a fast and Sun Dance, a spiritual ceremony he fears is getting away from its old ways. And Dunn County oil activity may hinder such traditions even further, he said.
Tony Mandan, member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in New Town, tells the story of Medicine Hole in the Killdeer Mountains and why the site is sacred to many Native Americans. Photo by John Steiner, Jamestown Sun
North of Killdeer on N.D. Highway 22, about a mile up a rocky, moss-covered section of the Killdeer Mountains, lies Medicine Hole, a cave-like site that is the focal point of several Native American legends.
Alyce Spotted Bear, vice president of Native American studies at Fort Berthold Community College in New Town, has said the place is considered sacred. “It’s a place where individuals from our tribe fasted to get our medicine,” she said.
Malcolm Wolf, another member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said his people consider all high places of the Badlands to be sacred, as sacred beings dwelled within. “Our people went there to acquire knowledge,” Wolf said. “In the past, we buried our people on the hills.”
Mandan recounts the story of Cherry Necklace, a man whose spirit is believed to have been taken into Medicine Hole. After a chief advised Cherry Necklace not to touch a snake, a buffalo stepped on the snake’s tail and broke it.
“As he (Cherry Necklace) jumped over there, the broke part touched him and took his spirit into that Medicine Hole,” Mandan said. “That was his spirit guide.”
Another, more widely known story identifies Medicine Hole as the site where many Native Americans escaped after a fierce battle in July 1864.
“Medicine Hole has a story, and the people here knew about it,” Wolf said. “They knew how to get there. There was an invasion, and that’s where our people went. They went up there and they went through to the other side – women, children and horses, too. They got away from those people who were chasing them.”
A place to fast, a place to meditate
Peering out from atop the site today, one sees a spreading tapestry of rugged landscape dotted with pumping stations, oil rigs, work-over rigs and scoria roads. The ambient sound is of large trucks grinding and whining down those dirt roads.
Four to seven-day fasts were performed frequently at Medicine Hole, but Mandan said it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so because of the new noise and visual distractions.
Clustered oreocarya wildflowers in the Killdeer Mountains partially frame an oil drilling rig in late June. Photo by John Steiner, Jamestown Sun
“They’re doing it (oil development) all over,” he said. “Our fasting places are fastly disappearing.” He believes oil activity surrounding Medicine Hole could diminish its spiritual properties. “That’s one of the places the spirits would rest,” Mandan said.
“That’s why a lot of people used to go and fast there. When the pumps are going … I suppose if somebody is trying to fast up there, they’re not going to get much of an experience. They’d probably leave from that area.”