Skip to main content

Established in 1935, the Wheaton College Science Station in the South Dakota Black Hills hosts the longest running off-campus program at the Illinois-based college and represents a pioneering effort for offering summer programs in field science for Christian higher education. Picture how different things were culturally and politically those 86 years ago. The year 1935 was only 67 years after the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which affirmed Native American ownership of the Black Hills and over 100,000 square miles around them, only to be violated by and essentially nullified by the rush of eastern (white European) settlers after gold was discovered there in 1874. When the Science Station was established, Native Americans had only been permitted to vote for 11 years. Many of their cultural and religious practices were prohibited by law until 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

With the focus on natural science education, for decades there was little effort to consider the Native American heritage of the land we were using as our field laboratory and little effort was made to reach out to the local Native American community. That began to change about ten years ago. For one, it was obvious that some of the best places to map rocks or observe animals and plants were also areas considered scared by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes of the northern Rockies and Great Plains. Growing recognition of these sacred sites, like Bear Butte and Devils Tower, led to the state and national parks to recommend moratoriums or limits on rock climbing and hiking during the month of June, considered a season of particular religious observance by Native Americans at those sites. Of course, June is when we conduct our program, as do other colleges around the country, and is the peak of summer tourism.

Secondly, we were beginning to feel that bringing our students to this amazing physical and ecological landscape should also include an introduction to the remarkable landscape of Native American culture and history. As is often the case in established institutions and programs, it took the eyes of newcomers to reveal our blind-spots. A Bible professor and an anthropology professor recognized the Science Station as a laboratory, not only for natural sciences, but for exploring the history and continuing effects of American westward expansion. The forceable relocation and colonialization of the Plains Indians is a black mark in European American history, especially for Christians who were active or complicit in implementing the racist polices. Bible, anthropology and art classes began to be taught delving into the Lakota experience. These classes and the efforts of artists in residence connected the Science Station with some Lakota leaders. A particular friendship developed with Woyatan Church and their Pastor Jonathan Old Horse. This relationship has flourished in recent years with students worshipping at Woyatan on Sundays and Pastor Old Horse and others visiting the Station.   

A general education science course taught at the Station entitled, Nature, Environment, and Society explores the interactions between the natural and human world. Black Hills regional issues such as land rights, wildlife management, earth resources, and water quality provided case studies for studying human interactions with creation. With our expanding awareness of Native American interests in these issues and our growing relationships we decided to be more explicit and intentional about the role of the Lakota people and the ongoing effects they experience. We would like to highlight one of the four weeks in this course from this past summer.

After two weeks of exploring ecosystems and water resources in the Black Hills and surrounding Great Plains, the focus of the course turned to land use issues, encompassing geological history and resulting mineral resources, mining, public lands, and solid waste disposal (landfills). Special attention was given to the troubled history of Native American land exploitation since the breaking of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.1 Fittingly, our Sunday evening vespers at the beginning of that week featured a visit and conversation with Pastor Old Horse. The pastor shared how the Lakota peoples viewed the land through the telling of their creation stories. Students discovered that many Native American principles of how to live sustainably on the land parallel Biblical principles from Genesis and instructions for care of the Promised Lands. Students read two articles detailing the history of relations between national and state park systems over the management of Bear Butte and Devils Tower, two sacred sites in the theological landscape of Great Plains native peoples. At Bear Butte, a South Dakota State Park, a Native American docent described for the students how he and his family had experienced vision quests on the peak and the reasons it is considered sacred. Later in the same day, we walked respectfully around the circumference of Devil’s Tower (more appropriately and originally named Bear Lodge), observing multicolored prayer cloths tied to tree branches marking individual pilgrimages to the site.

We looked into four holes-in-the-ground that week, too. One was a natural depression, a sinkhole created by the collapse of shallow bedrock due to the dissolution of underlying soluble gypsum beds. There are many in the Great Plains surrounding the Black Hills, but the bottom of this sinkhole was filled with thousands of bison bones and stone tools used to butcher them. Just any sinkhole would not do. Archaeologists excavating at the Vore site, near Sundance, Wyoming, determined that between 1500 and 1800 AD, a succession of Kiowa, Apache, Shoshone, Hidatsa, Crow and Cheyenne hunters took advantage of the most optimal topography to skillfully guide herds of bison into the “jump.”

Two other holes-in-the-ground we visited were dug to mine gold. The Open Cut at the Homestake Mine, in Lead, South Dakota, represents mining operations there between the discovery of the “mother lode” in 1886 and the cessation of mining activity there in 2001. This funnel-shaped crater is one half mile wide at the top and ranges from 800 to 1200 feet deep. Yet, all the gold produced from the open cut and underlying mines to a depth of 8000 feet below the surface would fill little more than two moving vans! Gold is strategic for electronic components, dentistry, and coinage, but 78% of gold consumed annually goes into jewelry.

Not far from the Open Cut, we ascended the bumpy dirt road to the top of Terry Peak; a vantage above the active Wharf gold mine. While Homestake employed traditional stamping and processing of gold in onsite mills, at Wharf the gold is leached out of heaps of rock using a toxic cyanide solution. The “pregnant” solution (that is, fluid now bearing dissolved gold), is drained from the base of the heap and moved to processing ponds and a chemical factory that produces solid gold bullion. We discussed the environmental consequences of mining operations, such as the two local Superfund sites, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as polluted locations requiring long-term (and expensive) cleanup. At the end of the day, we visited a forested valley that is being proposed for new underground gold mining. We considered how the landscape would change if development is permitted by the state.

At the end of the week, our last hole-in-the-ground to visit literally stunk, but not as bad as you might think. It was the Rapid City Landfill. Students were impressed by the exemplary program of recycling and solid waste disposal. The geology of the site is well suited to prevent groundwater contamination from fluids that might leak from the landfill and proper management has mitigated against other potential negative environmental impacts. Perhaps, this effort follows more closely the respect for land known to the ancient hunters of the Great Plains at their bison jump.

Students wrote summary essays at the end of each week, to review and critically reflect on their readings and travels. The issues we discussed were understood by all as deeply complex and deserving multiple perspectives and disciplines of study. One student reviewed our discussions at the two scared sites on the nature of conflict and resolution. Other students continued to question our values regarding such diverse resources as gold and water. Many references were made to how our religious and cultural traditions shape our values, perceiving Native American passive interactions with nature in contrast to European mastery and exploitation over nature. One student compared the Native American belief that things the creator put in the earth were not meant to be dug up with Tolkien’s dwarves of Moria. Their overzealous digging for precious mithril awoke the terrible Balrog of Morgoth. Another student recognized that moving to green technologies will actually require mining of strategic elements. She found published reports on more sustainable extraction technologies. In personal conversation (and course evaluations revealed) some students shared discomfort in our even visiting Bear Lodge (Devils Tower) during the month of June, or at least not observing silence in our walk about the perimeter (we had no plans to hike up Bear Butte).

Like any good course, this one will change and improve with experience, discovery of new readings, and especially with more direct interactions with people who live and work there, representing the diversity of the community. The course certainly attempts to capture the best of experiential and interdisciplinary learning.


  1. In 1980 US Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux Nations were deserving of compensation for the act of breaching the treaty and subsequent actions.

Stephen O. Moshier

Dr. Stephen O. Moshier is a Professor of Geology at Wheaton College, where he also chairs the Department of Geology and Environmental Science.

Chris Keil

Dr. Chris Keil is Director and Professor of Environmental Science at Wheaton College, overseeing the sustainability certificate and programs at the Wheaton College Science Station in South Dakota. His research activity includes environmental pollution assessment and transport of indoor air pollution in industrial settings.