June 20, 2005
Although it had been five days since I arrived in the region, I was still experiencing some confusion of time, my body still operating on Eastern Time, two hours ahead of Mountain Time. There is so much light, both early and late, that when I woke at 4:30 I thought it must be going on 7.
But time doesn’t matter at the Trailhead Family Restaurant on North Federal Boulevard in Riverton, since the big clock above the grill has no hands. I seemed to be the only patron who had arrived in a conventional car rather than a pickup truck. The coffee was no better than the brown water with powdered fake cream offered at the hotel, but the food was real, scrambled eggs and three strips of bacon with sourdough toast. I spread my guidebooks and maps out on the table and planned my day.
When I was about twelve years old I went on my first long car trip with my family to a hitherto unknown place. We visited first in Erie, Pennsylvania with people my parents had known early in their marriage, and then spent a day or two in Niagara Falls. From there we crossed into Canada, going some 700 miles north as far as Quebec. What I remember most about that trip is that every stop we made was at some Catholic shrine, including the basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec (said to be the oldest pilgrimage site in North America), a memorial to some Jesuit martyrs, a couple of cathedrals, and several places, including a tiny village about forty miles out of our way, dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, to whom my sister (age nine) was in those days especially devoted.
Maybe it was the sudden memories triggered by the Yellowstone Drug Store that made me long for that time in my life. I decided to traverse the twenty-five miles from Riverton to Lander by having a shrine day.
I started at St. Stephen’s Mission on the Wind River Reservation. Founded in 1884 as a ministry to the Arapaho tribe, the original buildings still stand and Mass is still celebrated in the old church. The Jesuits who have maintained the ministry are said to be careful about preserving manifestations of native spirituality, blending them with traditional European Christian ideas and images. The sanctuary is undergoing renovation so I couldn’t go inside to see how this is achieved in the altar and other furnishings, but I did visit the heritage center which displays many historical photographs and artifacts of the mission’s history.
No exploration of any town is complete for me without a visit to a cemetery. The Arapaho Catholic Cemetery lies along the road that leads to St. Stephen’s. Most of the markers are simple stone slabs set upright at the head of the grave, but there are also many hand-hewn crosses. Most give simply the deceased’s name and dates, but others are painted in deep colors with beautiful artwork depicting flowers, animals, and the night sky. A few have tall tree limbs or other wooden uprights topped with a bleached animal skull and some tattered cloth. It’s a native belief that the deceased should take their personal belongings with them into the next world. One fashion I’d never seen in a cemetery in the east was the practice of outlining the plot with a row of pebbles and piling the center with colorful artificial flowers.
From St. Stephen’s I drove out to Fort Washakie, a small town that is part of the 1.7 million-acre Wind River Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Chief Washakie was born some time in the very early 19th century and died in 1900. He was a great leader known both as a peacemaker and a warrior. It was his statesmanship that secured the vast land that became the reservation. He was the only Native American chief ever accorded full military honors at his burial. He is buried in a military cemetery along the Little Wind River. His gravesite has become a tourist destination, and his monument is the largest and most elaborate there.
About a mile west is the civilian cemetery that holds what is said to be the grave of Sacajawea, a Shoshone woman from the Montana border region who was kidnapped and sold as a wife to a French-Canadian fur trader. She was still in her teens when Lewis and Clark hired her husband to guide them on their westward trek. Sacajawea went along, carrying her infant son, Baptiste, on her back. She became a legendary figure, said to have contributed immeasurably to the success of the expedition by her knowledge of native language and culture and her cheerful disposition.
The Episcopal cemetery where Sacajawea supposedly lies is in a remote area some two miles out a bumpy road. It stands alone on a windswept hill. A solitary horse grazed in the field beside the parking area. As I arrived I saw a man and a woman apparently finishing up tending a grave near the first row. They were people with a real connection to someone buried there, I decided. I felt self-conscious about getting out of my car with my camera and my guidebook, so I waited while they put their flower planting materials in the trunk of their car and then drove away. I’d seen a photograph of the shrine to Sacajawea in a guidebook, a huge bronze statue towering over two park benches. In the picture it looked hideous and out of proportion, like the statues of Amish people that I see beside tacky tourist traps back home. Up close, however, it didn’t look so bad, even though it was out of character with everything else in the cemetery. She is depicted holding a sand dollar, representing her arrival at the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from her home. I found it odd that the statue did not include the baby Baptiste in his papoose strapped to her back.
The course of Sacagawea’s life after the Lewis and Clark expedition ended is shrouded in some doubt. Some say she died in 1812 after giving birth to a daughter, when she would have been about twenty-six. Others say she lived a long life, returning to her people and living modestly, never boasting about her accomplishments.
The Sacajawea Cemetery takes the latter approach. A plaque near the statue says that her remains lie beneath a granite marker a few hundred yards west. Well, I am no Sacajawea. I’d probably have taken Lewis and Clark back to St. Louis. I know that the sun rises in the east and traverses the southern sky and that if you know any one direction you can find the others. I checked the position of the sun, and the mountains, yet remained uncertain about which way to turn. Thus I have a very nice picture of a grassy hill with something (a bushy tree?) sticking up out of it, much too far away to walk to. On my way out of the cemetery, however, I practically bumped into the actual supposed gravesite. It is indeed marked by a tall, handsome slab and flanked by two others which honor her son Jean Baptiste and another son (or, as some have it, an adopted nephew), Bazil.
After I left the cemetery I stopped at the site of the Shoshone Episcopal Mission, founded by the Reverend John Roberts, a Welsh pastor who ministered to the Shoshone from 1883 until his death in 1945. He became the spiritual advisor to Chief Washakie who late in his life requested baptism. The church and the parish hall are still in use, but of course were locked up on the Monday afternoon I was there. The original pink brick school building, where Shoshone girls learned a Christian catechism infused with their native spirituality, stands boarded up, as do several log buildings. The constant Wyoming wind moves through the grass and the trees.
When I’m in a cemetery I read names. I do arithmetic. I figure out ages, relationships, how long a widow endured alone. At a historic site, especially if it’s a school, I think about the people who lived and worked there, their names and faces forgotten. Some years ago, when I studied Hebrew spirituality, I composed a bracha, or blessing to be said when entering a cemetery. The prayer helps to remind me that all things come from God, that the pleasure or intellectual stimulation I am taking in examining the site comes from the labor and lives of the people who built it and used it.
“This trip can be mind-expanding for you, but also heart-opening,” the Catholic sister at the St. Stephen’s museum told me. She was a Pennsylvanian, a Josephite sister from a community centered in Pittsburgh, serving the poor and the vulnerable a long way from home.
I stood among the ruins of Father Roberts’s mission and whispered a last prayer to the souls and the spirits who had guided me that day, and left for Lander, richer than I had been when I arrived.
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