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Sharing Stories of Sica Hollow

It could be said that Sica Hollow State Park is a place full of mysteries. It’s known for its many legends and tales of strange happenings. It’s also known as one of the best places to see autumn leaves in northeast South Dakota.

It’s a chilly Saturday in October when I meet Tamara St. John, who works as an archivist for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Historic Preservation Office. We’re at Sica Hollow Sate Park during a point in the season when all the leaves have either fallen to the ground, or have hardly begun to change at all. I’m here to learn more about this place, and the first thing I learn is that I’ve been pronouncing the name incorrectly my entire life.
“Some people say Sicka Hollow, or Seecha Hollow,” St. John says. “But the word is She-cha, She-cha, She-cha Hollow. And it means bad, actually.  It means bad hollow.”
It certainly doesn’t LOOK bad, this 900 acre wood springing up from an otherwise mostly treeless prairie landscape. In fact, it’s quite beautiful. St. John says the name comes from a lack of understanding of Native American spirituality.
“For ourselves there is an understanding that with a lot of spiritual things comes good and bad, and the possibility that here there are powerful things that in a spiritual sense could be frightening or be considered negative,” St. John says.  
St. John says one thing’s for sure: Sica Hollow is a very beloved and important place for the Dakota people. Historically it was an annual gathering place. She says some older Native people still come and pick plants here for medicinal purposes. She remembers everybody used to come and drink the water flowing from one of the park’s seven natural springs.

Sica Hollow is a place of stories. Katie Ceroll, Northeast Regional Supervisor for the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, says those stories are partly what attract people to the park. She joins St. John and me in sharing some of the stories we know. St John says there was once supposed to be a tree that oozed red sap.
“Whether it was the sap of the tree that made it at some point appear to be red to where the tree looked like it was glowing red at times, and that added to the belief that there were spirits here,” St. John says.

“And then another one is the water I’ve heard, people ask me if it really moans, like if the creeks and the bogs moan,” Ceroll says. “And some people say it’s because as the springs run, and then the areas around the springs and the bog freezes, it gets cold, and then it thaws. The snow melts away, the trapped air starts to sneak its way out and then that sounds like if you’re blowing over a bottle that’s had the cap removed. It gives that moaning sound.”

And I’ve heard to that the bogs are supposed to red colored, and it makes people think of blood.

“It’s the iron,” Ceroll says. “There’s a lot of iron in the soil so that when things decompose like the moss or anything organic that is decomposing it can get stained that rust color. And then as the springs flow it brings that down. So it’s the abundance of rust.”
Also along on the hike is Elias Mendoza. He’s the Tribal Tourism Coordinator for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe. He says oral history is extremely important for the Dakota people.
“And it just doesn’t stop at any one given point in time,” Mendoza says. “You know like the young people of today will be creating their oral histories for generations beyond them. And so they’re going to have their own legends, they’re going to have their own stories.”
Mendoza says that applies to many people who visit Sica Hollow.
“I’ve heard many non tribal members contact me after their visits here and talk about their spiritual feeling that they had here, how they felt here, the calmness when they left here the calmness when they left here,” Mendoza says. “To them it was like where they needed to come.”
Mendoza says as we listen to each other tell stories in the park, we’re hearing the creek and trees speak as well. As we walk along the Trial of Spirits, he says it’s like we’re in the middle of a piece of music composed by nature.

And while some people do walk away from the park with tales of hearing mysterious noises or seeing mythical creatures, Tamara St. John says it’s important to not only share the romanticized stories about this area. She says the reality is just as significant.

And part of that reality is that Sica Hollow was not always a state park. People used to live here.
“The people that grew up here are all getting older,” St. John says. “And their memories of here are as a child and living here. There are graves here. The family homesteads are still here.”
St. John says it’s important to remember those families who still have deeply personal ties to Sica Hollow. She says the imprint of their life is still here, and there’s a need to preserve and protect that history.

Katie Ceroll says that’s one of the things the Game Fish and Parks Department keeps in mind when managing the area. She says the goal is to maintain it in a way that’s respectful while keeping it a safe place to go. That way, people can continue to hear and learn about the legends while creating their own stories as well.