The Sacred Hills, by Don Coldsmith, a Bantam Books
paperback, copyright 1998. Courtesy Protect The Flint Hills website.
The Sacred Hills, by Don Coldsmith, a Bantam Books paperback, copyright 1998. Courtesy Protect The Flint Hills website.For whatever reason, perhaps because we feel closer to the divine or perhaps from a hill we can see farther and with greater clarity, human beings of all cultures seem spiritually drawn to high places. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” sang the psalmist: for Looks Far that statement was literally true. It was from a hilltop that the bison stampede both destroyed his enemies and provided winter food for his tribe. More important, it was the Sacred Hills that brought together, for the first time, two warring tribes; love for land proved stronger than human animosities. The Flint Hills were indeed a holy place for the People.
The Sacred Hills
The Spanish Bit Saga Book eight
By Don Coldsmith
Bantam Books, 1988
Introduction by James Hoy
The Sacred Hills is my favorite of the novels in Don Coldsmith’s Spanish Bit Saga. This book, as with the other titles in this collection of historical fiction, appeals because of its clean plot line, its plausibility of character, and its accuracy of situation. The particular attraction of this book for me, however is its setting, the Flint Hills of Kansas, an area of quiet beauty and special attribute rarely portrayed in literature.
One of Coldsmith’s strengths as a writer is his ability to universalize. Readers have variously thought the People to be Kiowa or Cheyenne or Comanche or Osage or Plains Apache. As Coldsmith himself notes, however, his People are in reality a composite, a generic (to use this oft maligned word in its original and positive sense) plains tribe that combines traits and traces from a number of tribes into a fictional People every bit as realistic as any who historically roamed the central plains.
In setting, as well, the author has created landscapes that allow each reader to see the meadows, mountains valleys and hills of his or her own area of the plains—or imagination. Some years back, for instance, a reviewer commented on the accuracy with which Coldsmith had portrayed a particular bit of countryside (Wyoming, as I recall) when the scene that was actually in the author’s mind as he wrote was a hill in Chase County, a few dozen miles west of his Emporia, Kansas home. Much of this same latitude for the exercise of the readers geographic imagination is preserved in the Sacred Hills, yet at the same time, Coldsmith has explicitly placed the People in the tallgrass range country of the Flint Hills, quietly evoking in an occasional descriptive detail the special quality of these hills.
The Flint Hills of Kansas, forming a band approximately 50 miles wide, start near the Nebraska border (north of present-day Manhattan) and run south nearly 200 miles, at which point they merge into the Osage Hills of Oklahoma. This area, together with the row of counties bordering the Flint Hills to the east, sometimes labeled the Bluestem Grazing Region, its 4,000,000 acres of native grass a small remnant of the tallgrass prairie that once stretched north to Canada and east to Ohio. At the time of the action in this novel, of course, this native grass was still undisturbed, except for those few acres cultivated by the Growers.
In time the Flint Hills stretch back nearly 300,000,000 years to the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era. Over the eons as wind and water smoothed much of the center of the North American continent into the comparatively level grassland we call the Great Plains, layers of limestone permeated with bands of flint (or more properly, chert) protected the ridges of what are now the Flint Hills, the sides eroding away to form valleys and canyons. While much of this region is distinctly hilly, it is not overly rough (in comparison, say, to the Gypsum Hills of Kansas, the Black Hills of South Dakota, or the Missouri River Badlands of North Dakota) nor are any of the hills particularly tall—perhaps 1,500 feet above sea level. Still, lying as they do between rolling wooded land and small farms to the east and flat wheat land to the west, the emerald-grass Flint Hills stand out uniquely in modern-day Kansas.
Cutting through the Flint Hills are a number of rivers—among them the Kaw and the Blue in the north; the Cottonwood, the Neosho and the Verdigris in the middle; and the Walnut and Fall rivers in the south. These rivers, along with numerous small streams and springs of the Hills, would have supplied a group of Native Americans such as the People with fish and ample water. Today many watershed dams and ponds dot the Flint Hills, but the springs still gush and the streams still run clear.
Another resource that might have drawn the People to the Flint Hills is wood. While the hilltops and slopes and valleys themselves are grass-covered with only an occasional tree, the banks of the streams and rivers are lined with forest of oak, elm sycamore, ash, hickory, and hackberry. The trees around Council Grove were especially prized by Santa Fe traders as a source of hardwood for repair of wagons. Many of the trees in the Flint Hills today, the oaks and the sycamores especially, are over a century-and-a-half old, predating white settlement.
Anglo-Americans began to settle in the Flint Hills within a year or two after the opening of Kansas territory in 1854, although the oldest town in the Hills, Council Grove, traces its origin back to 1825 when government officials met with representatives of the Osage tribe in order to secure peace along the recently opened Santa Fe Trail. The Osage had been roaming in the general region of the southern Flint Hills (and eastern Kansas, western Missouri) for some two centuries by this time, arriving at approximately the same time the Kansas (or Kaw) Indians had moved into the northern part of Kansas and of the Hills. In their time of freedom both tribes maintained villages in western Missouri and eastern Kansas and, still later, northeastern Oklahoma. The Kansa actually occupied two different reservations in the heart of the Flint Hills near Council Grove, once fending off an attack by marauding Cheyenne while their white neighbors came out from town to watch the battle from surrounding hilltops.
The Native American history of the Flint Hills goes back much further than either the Osage or the Kansa, however. The popularity of this area as a pathway for north-south migrations and as a site for permanent villages and camps lends support to Coldsmith’s assertion that different tribes might have considered the Hills a special, even a holy, place. Ceramic materials and other Woodland native artifacts from the Flint Hills, for instance, have been carbon dated to around 350 A.D., while Paleo-Indian artifacts dating back to 10,000B.C. have been discovered throughout the region.
Archaeologists have also located and examined sites where Native Americans mined flint for the making of tools—scrapers, knives, spearheads, arrowheads. While much of the flint (or chert) in the Flint Hills is found within small pockets of limestone rocks, some of it exists in layers, and where these layers cropped out to the surface Native Americans would gather to cut “blanks” to be taken back to their villages for more detailed work. Stone artifacts were (and are) plentiful at various sites throughout the Flint Hills, but especially so along the South Fork River in Chase County (a river, like the Verdigris, with bluffs steep enough to have served as a model for the bison-stampede ambush in the Sacred Hills). In the first half of this century Frank and George Roniger (bachelor brothers who farmed near the small cattle-shipping town of Bazaar in Chase County) collected stone tools so successfully that they amassed what was at the time the largest collection of arrowheads in the nation. Much of their collection, by the way, is on display at the museum bearing their name in the county seat town of Cottonwood Falls.
Early in Chapter Four of this novel, Dr. Coldsmith touches on the practice of burning old grass in order to attract game to the new growth, a practice especially effective in a tallgrass region. This brief allusion is fraught with meaning for those who know the Flint Hills, for the Native American custom of firing the prairie was adopted here early on by white settlers whose descendants maintain the custom to the present day. At one time the deliberate, regular burning of pasture ground was undertaken virtually nationwide, but by the second quarter of this century the practice had fallen victim to popular and scientific opposition. Burning on a large scale continued only in the Flint Hills and there is a folk custom among farmers and ranchers who burned in open defiance of accepted wisdom. By the 1960s, however, that wisdom changed as range management specialists discovered though experimentation what the ranchers, and before them the Native Americans, knew from experience—that deliberate burning created better pasture for livestock, whether cattle, horses, or bison.
Native Americans throughout the Great Plains burned for many reasons—to signal, as a weapon in warfare, to drive game, or, through the growth of new grass, to attract game. Historical documentation of burning in the Flint Hills by both the Kansa and the Osage can be found in the accounts of early white travelers in the region, while folk tradition links today’s burning by ranchers directly to that done by the native peoples. Flint Hills ranchers, for instance, tell of native Americans weaving huge balls of long-stemmed bluestem grass, then attaching a rawhide lariat to the ball, setting afire, and dragging it across the prairie from the back of a running horse.
The ensuing fires must have been extensive and spectacular, burning everything from river to river. A desirable side effect of such burning was to keep the tallgrass prairie free of trees, but the immediate result was to attract game, for new bluestem, the richest of prairie grasses, will spring up within days of an April burn. That the burning did indeed attract game into the Flint Hills is proven both by accounts of early white explorers and settlers (who note in particular buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope) and by the many buffalo wallows still visible today in the Flint Hills pastures. The buffalo, Coldsmith’s narrator says, come and go, like the season, and undoubtedly the fall and winter months would have found the Flint Hills frees of bison, for bluestem, while nutritious in the spring and summer, quickly losses its food value in the cold months, a time when the bison would migrate out onto the buffalo grass of the high plains.
Although Coldsmith’s main purpose is narrative not descriptive, he does include a short passage here and there that accurately portrays the beauty of the Flint Hills that describes color or scenery or vegetation or wildlife, passages that help to explain why both the People and the Head Splitters consider the Hills a sacred place. A major reason for their importance to the two tribes is because of the resources—game, water, wood– that are to be found therein, but these mundane qualities do not explain fully the love for the tallgrass prairie that both Looks Far and Wolf’s Head express.
Their feelings, and those of their fellow tribesmen, it seems to me, result not just from the productivity of the Hills but also from the physical beauty that mirrors a spiritual strength that comes from deep within them. In mythic terms, hills (or other high places) are almost invariably associated with the divine. Moses is called onto a mountain in order to receive the law. Noah’s world-saving voyage ended on a mountaintop. In The Fairie Queene the Red Crosse Knight attains purity and sees a vision of Truth while on a mountain. The Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Crow all considered the Black Hills sacred; it was in fact, to Harney Peak (highest point in the Black Hills) that Black Elk, holy man of the Ogallala, was transported in his great vision.
For whatever reason, perhaps because we feel closer to the divine or perhaps from a hill we can see farther and with greater clarity, human beings of all cultures seem spiritually drawn to high places. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” sang the psalmist: for Looks Far that statement was literally true. It was from a hilltop that the bison stampede both destroyed his enemies and provided winter food for his tribe. More important, it was the Sacred Hills that brought together, for the first time, two warring tribes; love for land proved stronger than human animosities. The Flint Hills were indeed a holy place for the People.
Emporia State University
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