Tim Giago: Nostalgia and South Dakota blizzards
Who would have thought that blizzards hitting Western South Dakota on three consecutive weeks would bring back moments of nostalgia.

Doesn’t it seem to you that when you were a child you didn’t feel the freezing cold from snowstorms and blizzards as you now do as an adult?

Down at Red Cloud Indian School we were issued winter coats handed down to us from charitable organizations, mostly from back east, and we were glad to have them. When the first snowstorm of the year hit, the Mission playgrounds would be filled with boys dressed in various forms of winter clothing engaged in snowball fights or busy building forts with walls of snow.

Our knitted gloves would be soaked through and through in a matter of minutes, but we didn’t feel the cold because we were too busy having fun. One time Mr. John Bryde organized us into two armies, the Union soldiers and the Confederates. We had built two forts of packed snow and placed flags on the highest point of each fort. Everybody got busy making snowballs and piling them in stacks in preparation for the coming battle.

The object of the battle was one army to rush the other and try to capture the flag without getting picked off by a snowball. We didn’t know there were a couple of real fanatics on the Confederate army. These diehards soaked the snowballs in water and let them freeze. When one of those babies bounced off of your head it was like getting beaned with a rock. Well, in retaliation some of the guys in the Union army packed their snowballs with actual rocks. The war turned out to be a bloody one and if I remember rightly, the Confederates made it through our barrage and captured our flag.

Can you imagine the lawsuits that would be filed in this day and age if one boy got a bloody head from a well-aimed snowball either frozen or containing a rock? Heck, you can’t even find a merry-go-round on a modern day playgrounds anymore. If the kids of today could see how we turned a merry-go-round into a destroyer on the high seas they would think we were nuts.

Around South Dakota the old-timers still remember the Blizzard of ’49. Now that was a real doozer. Several days after that blast local dogs were digging frozen pheasant out of the snowdrifts. Cargo planes from the air force base were flying out over the far out ranches and dropping bales of hay to the starving cattle.

Out on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations the Air Force sent several cargo planes to drop parcels of food by parachute to the isolated residents.

The Blizzard of ’49 took several lives. The wind whipped the falling snow and the snow on the ground around so fiercely that cars and trucks on the highways ran into total whiteouts. Unless you’ve ever been in a whiteout you’ll never know how it is to suddenly be immersed in such a blinding mixture of wind and snow that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Trying to see out of the car windshield is like looking into a totally white void.

On one ranch a man tried to make it from the barn to his house, a total of about 200 yards, and got caught in a whiteout. He couldn’t see his house and when they found his body the next day he was only about 20 yards from his front door.

Comparably, the three consecutive blizzards that shutdown Interstate 90 and kept many of us shut in behind frozen doors was probably as severe as the Blizzard of ’49, but with all of the conveniences of weather forecasts and early warnings, we are much better prepared. The Doppler Weather Forecasts can let us know days in advance when the storm is coming, how long it will last, which schools, government offices and highways will be closed, and when it will be safe to venture out again.

In 1949 it was nearly all guess work. One elderly lady on the Pine Ridge Reservation used her knowledge of the culture to forecast a hard winter by watching the number of sun flowers growing along the roads and in the countryside. One winter she told Doris Brewer that it was going to be a bad winter. “How do you know,” Doris asked. “There are hundreds of sun flowers growing in that field over there,” the elderly lady said.

Doris looked at the field and had to laugh. The field was filled with sun flowers because the Oglala Sioux Tribe had gotten into the sun flower seed business and had planted about 60 acres of them just outside of Pine Ridge Village.

Well, enough of this nostalgia. The sun is now shining and spring is almost here. Like most South Dakotans, I am sick of the snow and the blizzards. I am longing for green grass and those warm spring days that make me start searching for my fishing pole.

Tim Giago is the publisher of Native Sun News. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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