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South Dakota…Probing The Heartland

June 15, 2013
The Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

The Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

“You Make A Plan For Life…And Then Life Makes A Plan For You”

– a favorite quote of Beattie Magaziner

North Dakota: The Trip That Was Not To Be…

It wasn’t a `plan for life’ –  just a plan for a trip, to see North Dakota. There were three reasons: 1. I’ve lived in the West now for 44 years – never  stepped foot in North Dakota; I figured it was about time 2. I saw an article about fracking in the northwest corner of North Dakota in a National Geographic (which, truth be told, I stole from the office of my health provider). The print edition showed a map of a very small area of the state, where, on both sides of the Missouri River there are 3000 natural gas drill sites. North Dakota has been transformed into an energy production giant. It ranks second after Texas in oil production output. 

I wanted to see the place – there is something about seeing a place – so that I could study and learn more about fracking. 3. I’ve wanted to trace the journey of Lewis and Clark as far as I could, especially that strip of the river that runs north from the northeast corner of Nebraska, first turns west and then swings back north again cutting through most of both South and North Dakota, before north of Bismark, it swings west yet again into the high Rockies. My goal was to reach Mandan, North Dakota where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1804 – 1805 among the Mandan Indians.

But I never did reach North Dakota. I misjudged the distances. A habitual traveler, I never used to do that but in recent years it has happened a number of times. Of course it is easy to do, the mid-west and west are vast; everything is far. The trip from Denver to the North Dakota’s northwest corner is nearly 1000 miles. Furthermore, the oil and natural gas boom in that region has resulted in a  housing shortage with the prices for motels and hotels having reached exorbitant prices.

And Then Life Makes A Plan For You…

Although, when I left Nebraska City, 45 miles south of Omaha where my father-in-law lives, my plan was still to head to North Dakota, an hour’s drive in the car and a more careful look at the map made me revise my plans. North Dakota would be too much driving. South Dakota, which I hardly knew either (although I had once dipped my finger into its southeast corner) would have to do. In Nebraska, when I told people I was heading for the Dakota’s, several people said `what’s there?’. (Later in South Dakota when I told people I had come from Nebraska, they asked `why Nebraska?’ with the same wonder that anything of interest might possibly exist in a neighboring state).

Actually I did not know what `was there’ in South Dakota and that is the reason I decided to spend a week there, to find out something about the place. Me being me, the places that people recommend I see in South Dakota (The Black Hills, Bad Lands, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood) I assiduously avoided. ( I admit that is a little bit stupid and the next time I go to South Dakota I intend to see these places). Not this time. I wanted to see where people live in South Dakota, what they do, places I’d heard of but had never visited – Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Pierre (be careful – it’s pronounced `peer’ in these parts), the Rosebud, Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservations in the southwest corner of the state. And that is essentially the trip I took over the course of a week before swinging southwest and heading back home to Denver.

The falls at Sioux Falls

The falls at Sioux Falls

My perspective for getting to know South Dakota is Nebraska, a state that I have been visiting to see in-laws since 1969. Like South Dakota, Nebraska is a very large state – maybe 500 miles wide 250-300 from north to south. To say that I `know’ it would be an exaggeration, but I am quite familiar with the eastern and southeastern parts of the state – the areas south of Omaha and east of Lincoln that lie close to the Missouri River. Lying directly north of Nebraska, South Dakota resembles its southern neighbor in many ways.

The eastern parts of both states – the sections lying to the east of the 100th meridian – are well watered, with ample rainfall for agriculture; west of the 100th meridian, in South Dakota’s case – west of the Missouri River which divides most of the state in half – agriculture is possible only through irrigation and dry land farming techniques. Heavy rains this late April and May had tainted mid west waters with overflow nitrates, washing fertilizers off of farmlands and into rivers that in turn, provide the drinking water to much of the state. The further downstream, the more serious the problem.This comes after several years of severe drought.  The problem was even more serious in neighboring Iowa.

Further north, in the northwest corner of North Dakota, heavy fracking on both sides of the Missouri River raised concerns about more Missouri River pollution. Much of the fracking waste in North Dakota is held in a reservoir created by damming up the Missouri River. With little oversight and intensified drilling the chance for more pollution is rising. To date there have been no major spills reported into the Missouri River, but given the great intensify of drilling close to the river, the possibility of toxic leaks has grown.

As one moves further west of the 100th meridian, the western region of both states is increasingly arid. As a friend commented, “To the extent the terms mean anything, the area east of the Missouri River is the “liberal” part of So. Dakota and the area to the west is the “conservative” region. Take your microscope to see if you can tell the difference.”

“To the extent the terms mean anything, the area east of the Missouri River is the “liberal” part of So. Dakota and the area to the west is the “conservative” region> Take your microscope to see if you can tell the difference.”

As a result the eastern regions are more densely populated although nowhere in South Dakota are there cities as large as Omaha and Lincoln. Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city has a population of 156,000, while Omaha has 415,000 in the city, if the suburbs are added in the figure doubles to 850,000 so. Lincoln, a bit smaller than Omaha still supports 262,000, nearly double the size of Sioux Falls. Pierre (again, pronounced `peer”), South Dakota’s state capital is the second least populous state capitol in the nation, the smallest being Montpellier, Vermont. Pierre, which was the most northerly point I reached on this trip, has, according to `google search’ , a hair less than 13,900.

The western regions of Nebraska  are sparsely populated and rather arid, but to the north, in South Dakota, west of the Missouri, the grasslands are for miles and miles (and miles), nude – bare of trees, although at least this time of year, early June, the grasslands were green and in some places even lush. I called it `the bald country’ and although I am not a geographer, believe that the winds which blow across the Dakota’s with much greater force than they do across Nebraska and Kansas, that combined with the aridness, explains the lack of trees. In Pierre, several people commented that we were having a `fine day, `not windy’ was how they defined `fine’.

Crazy Horse's War Club in the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum, St. Francis, South Dakota (on the Rosebud Reservation)

Crazy Horse’s War Club in the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum, St. Francis, South Dakota (on the Rosebud Reservation)

The Dakota’s: Native America’s Last Stand

The coming of the transcontinental railroad, accompanied as it was with the mass slaughter of the buffalo – some estimates claim that some 10 million buffalo were killed between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the coming of the railroad – marked the death knell for the indigenous peoples who held out in the high plains a little longer than native peoples either east of the Mississippi or on the West Coast. Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn in Montana is emblematic of the struggles between the native peoples between the Mississippi and the Rockies. The peoples of the Upper Missouri Valley, including South Dakota, went on fighting Euro-American expansion for another quarter of century.

South Dakota was `settled’, the Indians kicked out, massacred, defeated, put on reservations later than pretty much anywhere else in the continental USA.  At Pierre, smack in the center of South Dakota, Lewis and Clark were close to a major confrontation with Sioux tribes that controlled the traffic on the upper Missouri. Conflict was avoided only at the last moment when a chief intervened. Had he not, it is likely that would have been it for Lewis and Clark’s great expedition. Sioux Falls, in the state’s southeastern region was `insecure’ into the late 1870s; on several occasions the fort there had to be either fortified or, on at least one occasion, abandoned.

It culminated in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre but before that there were a series of confrontations. Official statistics – as notorious then as they were in Vietnam and Iraq in under-counting adversarial deaths – estimated 155 Native Americans killed, their bodies left to freeze in the snow for four days before they were buried. Native sources suggest as many as 500 killed. The poorly marked mass grave at Wounded Knee stands as the last memorial to what was four centuries of serial genocide.

What remains is a series of reservations, most on land of poor quality (if hauntingly beautiful to my eyes). They are all over South Dakota. I drove through one on the Missouri River Valley and spent time towards the end of my trip at Rosebud and Pine Ridge (aptly named – there are pine trees topping rolling hills throughout). The reservations were, even from my superficial vantage point, very poor. A Wounded Knee woman with whom I talked spoke of 95% unemployment on the reservation, with those getting jobs `connected’ to the tribal councils. Even if that stat is a little off, it is clear that virtualy no one on the reservations works, with the consequent pile of socio-economic, psychological consequences.

(to be continued).

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