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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tipi Rings

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord recently encountered remnants of an ancient civilization. During a trip to Wyoming, she saw her first tipi rings. These dark circles of rocks are believed to have anchored the tipis of the Plains Indians. They reminded her how easy it is to lose something important, if it's not carefully nurtured. Commentator Nancy Lord is author of Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore and she comes to us from K-B-B-I in Homer, Alaska.


CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord recently had a run-in with the remnants of an ancient civilization. During a trip to Wyoming she saw her first tipi rings. Those dark circles of rocks are believed to have anchored the tipis of the Plains Indians, and they reminded her of how easy it is to lose something important if it's not carefully nurtured.

LORD: To find the rings, I walked up a red dust road and along a truck track, then over a mesa to a bench of land that looked down on a creek. The snowy Bighorn Mountains rose on the far side of a wide valley. The half-dozen rings, an obviously human construct, lay in the short cropped grass among fragrant sage plants, and many cow pies. Rocks no bigger than footballs were laid end to end and side to side. After so much time they were embedded in the earth, with only their rounded licheny tops showing.

I strolled across one circle, pacing it to 12 feet. In its center, more rocks, hearth stones at the heart at what had been a home. I told myself as I sat cross-legged within one ring that old cliche about the only constant in life being change. People came and went over the plains, even before white people arrived to wrest the land away. I didn't know which division of nomadic people, Crow, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, had camped on that bench or how long ago. Still, there was something very sobering in the presence of their artifacts, and the absence they implied.

I looked down off the mesa at the creek now lined with ranch- style homes at the highway to Sheridan. At greening fields full of black cattle and irrigation equipment. Once there were no highways or fences, no cattle. Once, down there, some of the Great Plains' 70 million buffalo roamed. Once the land went on forever. It was rich in a way it will never be again.

At the tipi rings the wind blew as it always has, hard out of the mountains. I understood why the people, in their homes of buffalo hides, needed to anchor themselves within solid circles of rocks. We owe something, I think, to the land where we live and where we visit. We might look for the history in it, the stories it can tell. In Wyoming, all those buffalo gone, and the buffalo people who depended on them, gone. Prairie grasses, unfenced space, other ways of knowing and being, all nearly gone.

I put my hands on what remained: sun-warmed, lichen-roughened rocks. Sometimes it takes just this kind of hard evidence to help us remember what we've lost, and what we still stand to lose. Not just in the west, but in Alaska, in our oceans, in our back yards, in the world. And not just open space and wildlife, but human cultures and their hard-earned knowledge, the wealth that lives in diversity.

(Flowing water or water rattle, fade to Native American flute music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is author of Fish Camp: Life on an Alaskan Shore. She comes to us from KBBI in Homer, Alaska.



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