In the beginning, the floodwaters were all around. The crow asked the Great Spirit for a place to rest, and feeling it was time for a new beginning, the Great Spirit took four totem animals from his pipe bag: the loon, otter, beaver, and turtle. Though each tried their best, it was only the turtle who could dive far enough, hold his breath long enough, and scoop the mud from the bottom of the vast water to carry it back up to the Great Spirit. It is with this mud, that the new land was created. The Great Spirit used mud colors red, white, black, and yellow to create man. This was called the Turtle Continent.
When Mel Ziegler invited me for fellowship to the Sandhills Institute, I had no idea what to expect, but having worked with Mel for 16 years, I have learned that when he offers an opportunity, accept. Mel has an enchantment about him, no creative endeavor too great for him to accomplish. His family, work, and life merge together forming a beautiful symbiosis of human experience. The Sandhills Institute is a fantastic comprehensive art exhibition—one where he gives all he has back to community.
I spent the early days of my fellowship blundering around the Sandhills. I felt at a loss, what was it I was invited for again? As a wife, a mother of a toddler, plus teaching, my personal time is limited. I survive daily life on a rigid schedule to keep everything from falling to pieces. This fellowship offered me a full week of relatively unstructured thinking time, and I was inexperienced to such freedom. I spent the first few days walking through the landscape, searching for turtles.
Turtles are my spirit animal—something about their longevity, persistence, and simplicity. As a transplant to the Desert Southwest, I have become fascinated with the desert tortoises of Las Vegas. I was delighted to discover six species of turtle lived in the Sandhills’ region. The blanding’s turtle (endangered), ornate box turtle,* painted turtle,* spiny softshell turtle (threatened),* common snapping turtle, and yellow mud turtle can all be found within the Sandhills . Most of these creatures remain hidden in the tall grasses and wetlands, feasting on plants and insects. Visually, turtles are not as iconic as the cattle and buffalo that describe the region; however, they provide important balance to the ecosystem, and they are disappearing…rapidly. It has been estimated “that 60% of all modern turtles are already extinct or threatened .”
These were discoveries during fellowship, but how to connect these to the community and art, was still unclear. After attending an Oglala Lakota Tribe Powwow, our group decided to drive out to Wounded Knee. I was nervous to visit, afraid I would not be able to deal with the melancholy. Once arriving, I looked out at an empty field. Over the years it had been subdivided and currently had power lines running across. It looked unremarkable and indistinguishable in any specific way, but the weight of this place is heavy to bear. All the living and dying, the field cares nothing, but we are left to deal with the past. I purchased a dream catcher from a Lakota man at the trading post, half out of guilt for my ancestors’ monstrosities, and half because it featured a turtle design.
The next day was the last of my fellowship. I asked for a ride to a pond south of the ranch, in hopes of seeing some large snapping turtles. While driving to this pond, the sun at its brightest before setting, I noticed a speck of something near the road. I called to the driver to stop, jumped from the vehicle and began running. There she was, the tiny ornate box turtle! Nebraska’s state turtle, and she was headed toward the road. After safely transferring her to the other side of the road in her desired direction, she walked eastward away from the sunset. This, I realized, was my path.
On my flight home, I conversed with a local woman on the Boutique Air flight. I told her about the Sandhills Institute and my reverence of turtles. She laughed and said, “You know, they are looking to repair turtle fencing and build new ones in the area. The fences help keep wildlife safe and off the roads. You could help.”
Mending fences today will preserve species for tomorrow. Why not take a step further and make these protective structures a work of art? I hope Mel Ziegler will have me back to continue work on this and other projects. After all, I am an excellent handywoman and there are a lot of fences in the region. I would like to thank the Sandhills Institute for challenging me to break away from my daily structure, to see this beautiful region, wonder a bit, and remember that the answers are not nearly as important as the questions.
* Denotes animal observed during field study
1] Lovich, Jeffrey E. Ph.D. “Turtle Ecology.” USGS, Southwest Biological Science Center. U.S. Geological Survey, 2016
2] Ferraro, Dennis. “Amphibians, Turtles & Reptiles of Nebraska.” University of Nebraska, School of Natural Resources. School of Natural Resources, 2017
3] Atka Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. “Lakota Creation Story.” St. Joseph’s Indian School. Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center
4] Dr. Steven Farmer. Pocket Guide to Spirit Animals. Carlsbad: Hay House, Inc., 2012. Print
5] Salter, Peter. “Fixing Fences in the Sandhills: Knee-high Turtle Barriers in Need of Repair.” Lincoln Journal Star, 2018