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Great Falls, Montana
About Richard Johnsten



The Skull

High in the mountains there runs a stream,
Jagged cliffs nearby.
In the water over there
Something caught my eye.

Was white amid the mossy green
Out there in the dancing brook.
I stepped across from rock to rock
Take a closer look.

Protruding from the water clear
There lay a bison skull.
Part was bleached a shiny white,
Moss made the rest quite dull.

Why do the bones of the buffalo
Lie mid these rocks and pine
And not on the sweeping plains below
Where one should make this find?

Why did he climb the rocky ridge
And leave his home below
Far from his native grassy range
That always was his home?


Oh the times were a changing
And the bison had to go.
No room for the creatures
On the plains down below.

So move them from their homeland
And hide them far away.
Others want their precious land.
No room for them to stay.

Looked at a map the other day
And saw a reservation.
Was named for the native folks
But not of their creation.

They lived out on the endless plains
There with the buffalo
And trailed along the massive herds
Where ever they would go.

No boundaries did they recognize.
The land was theirs to roam
Just like the noble buffalo,
The great expanse their home.

The only life they ever knew
Is now in someone's way.
Push them out to somewhere else
No matter what they say.

Gone and never to return,
Just tipi rings and bones.
That now is all that there is left
Of what they once called home.


And then who else got pushed aside?
The Cowboy was the next.
The places where he used to ride
Are now crisscrossed by fence.

The mighty herds that pushed up north
From Texas to the rails
Is just a story in a song
All gone the lonesome trails.

Some ranch work remains, of course.
Corporation owns the place.
The hired hand does as he's told
And works in one small space.

A job in town is not the same
As riding for the brand.
No sunrise in the saddle now
And crossing miles of land.

The skull told us the tragic tale
Of those forced from their home.
To ever be in exile
And never more to roam.

The buffalo, the natives and
Now the cowboy too
Were pushed aside by other folks
And now there are so few.


2012, Richard Johnsten
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Richard Johnsten comments, "In 1965 my wife, Marge, and I were fishing in a rather steep, narrow canyon on the eastern front of the Rockies near Augusta, Montana and found this buffalo skull half in and half out of the little stream. I pondered the story of that buffalo for years. It was such an unlikely location. Finally resolved the mystery in my mind with the poem. The skull decorates our family room, hanging over the fireplace." [See the photo above.]


    About Richard Johnsten:
provided 2013

I moved to Montana from Iowa in 1960 and immediately fell in love with the West. We were still using silver dollars for transactions then. I was introduced to western poetry at a gathering in Big Timber, Montana and subsequently for years of attending the annual Cowboy Song and Range Ballad event at Cody, Wyoming. I spent 22 years in the Air Force living in Roswell, New Mexico; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Minot, North Dakota; and Great Falls, Montana.



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