West comes east

That tiny dot in the photo is me, hiking across the prairie of Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota on vacation in September, channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose books I devoured as a kid) and seeking out as much charismatic megafauna as I could. (Tatanka everywhere!)

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Bison in Custer State Park, SD. Photo by Amy Mathews Amos

There’s something captivating about the American West; a longing that poet Emily Walters called the “internal West” in a recent essay for High Country News. I first felt my own internal West as a graduate student years ago, standing on the edge of central Wyoming’s Beaver Rim while my geologist boyfriend prepared for a summer of field work in the badlands below. My east coast upbringing hadn’t prepared me for such vastness. I married the boyfriend, but left the West behind.

Lucky for me, this time the West followed me back home to West Virginia.

This fall’s American Conservation Film Festival (ACFF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia will screen at least four films featuring western themes. Two of these films are the top student submissions of the festival: White Earth by Christian J. Jensen, which explores fracking in North Dakota from the perspective of the children living there, and Silencing the Thunder by Eddie Roqueta, which examines the controversy over containing Yellowstone’s bison within park boundaries. I’ve served as a film selector for ACFF for more than six years now and continue to be inspired by the films we screen each year. You can read about the festival – and the importance of supporting talented young filmmakers – in my most recent piece for Fluent magazine.

Unexpectedly, I also had the opportunity to interview Dennis Banks this fall, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. Banks is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972 and the standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 that led to reforms in federal policies towards American Indians. A controversial figure, Banks remains an icon for many who support Native American rights, and will be a Master of Ceremony at the Harvest Dance of The Gathering, a multi-cultural thanksgiving at the Clarke County (Virginia) Fairgrounds October 30 – November 1. Some highlights of that interview appear in the October issue of The Observer of Clarke County, and my followup story on The Gathering itself will appear in November, coinciding with Native American Heritage Month. For our interview, Banks was accompanied by The Gathering organizers René Locklear White, Chris (Comeswithclouds) White, Curt Hansen, and his son, Tatanka Banks.

Thanks to them and ACFF, I’ll continue to be reminded of my internal West for weeks to come. Long after I’ve left the vastness of the South Dakota prairie and the magnificence of all those bison scattered across the rolling plains, I’ll be thinking of my inner home on the range.

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Bison in Custer State Park, SD. Photo by John Amos

(Note:  this post was updated 12/8/15 with a new title and modified photo and lead).

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