The wide-open spaces of the Great Plains seemingly roll away to infinity on either side of I-90 in SOUTH DAKOTA. The land may be more green and fertile east of the Missouri River, but vast numbers of high-season visitors speed straight to the spectacular southwest, home of the Badlands and the adjacent Black Hills – two of the most dramatic, mysterious and legend-impacted tracts of land in the US. For certain whites, they encapsulate a wagonload of American notions about heritage and the taming of the West; to some Native Americans, they are ancient, spiritually resonant places.
The science-fiction severity of the Badlands resists fitting into easy tourist tastes. The bigger, more user-friendly Black Hills, home of that most patriotic of icons, Mount Rushmore, have been subjected to greater exploitation (dozens of physical, historical and downright commercial attractions, as well as the mining of gold and other metals), but encourage more active exploration via hiking trails, mountain lakes and streams and memorably scenic highways.
Time and Hollywood have mythologized the larger-than-life personalities for whom the Dakota Territory served as a stomping ground: Custer and Crazy Horse battled here for supremacy over the Plains, while Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were denizens of the once-notorious Gold Rush town of Deadwood.
Sioux tribes dominated South Dakota’s plains from the eighteenth century onward, having gradually been pushed westwards from the Great Lakes by encroaching white settlement. To these nomadic hunters, the concept of owning the earth was utterly alien, a belief that ran contrary to those of gun-toting Christian settlers and federal politicians. The Sioux fought hard to stay free and theirs was the sole Native American nation to defeat the United States in war and force it to sign a favourable treaty (in 1868). Even so, they were forced to relinquish the sacred Black Hills in the face of a gung-ho gold rush; ultimately, their choice lay between death or confinement on reservations.
For decades, Sioux history and culture were outlawed; until the 1940s, it was illegal to teach or even speak their language, Lakota. Today, more Sioux live on South Dakota’s six reservations than dwelled in the whole state during pioneer days, but their prospects are often grim. Nowhere is the legacy of injustice better symbolized than at Wounded Knee, on the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation – scene of the infamous 1890 massacre by the US Army, and also of a prolonged “civil disturbance” by the radical American Indian Movement in 1973.
Today, Native American traditions are celebrated by music, dance and socializing at powwows, held in summer on the reservations; local tourism offices offer annual dates and locations.Read More
South Dakota’s White River BADLANDS could be considered a pocket-sized relative of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, or even a grass-swathed cousin to Death Valley in California. More than 35 million years ago, there was an ancient saltwater sea here, which subsequently dried up; over the last few million years, erosion has slowly eaten away at the terrain revealing rippling gradations of earth tones and pastel colours and unearthing the remains of prehistoric mammals such as sabre-toothed cats and three-toed horses. The crumbly earth is carved into all manner of shapes: pinnacles, precipices, pyramids, knobs, cones, ridges, gorges – or, if you’re feeling poetic, lunar sandcastles and cathedrals. The Sioux cherished these incredible contortions of nature for harbouring bighorn sheep, mule, deer and other prairie fare, but early French trappers didn’t share the natives’ enthusiasm, dubbing them the Mauvaises Terres à Traverser (“Bad Lands to Travel Across”); they have also been described in more brutal terms as simply “hell with the fires out”.
Spectacular formations can be found within the northern section of Badlands National Park, where the state’s “White Hills” seem to dominate every vista. Elsewhere nearby, the enormous, impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation encompasses the park’s supremely remote southern stretches, while clean-cut Wall, along heavily travelled I-90, is the region’s most visited commercial centre.
One of the West’s wildest Gold Rush towns, DEADWOOD, in a deep gulch 42 miles northwest of Rapid City, has the rare accolade of being a National Historic Landmark in its entirety, although you’d never know it for the liberal assortment of gambling halls and souvenir shops strung along Main Street. Within a year of the discovery of gold here in 1876, six thousand diggers swarmed in to stake their claims; the usual array of con artists, outlaws and other dodgy frontier types trailed closely. Among them was James Butler, aka Wild Bill Hickok, a spy, scout, bullwhacker, stagecoach driver, sheriff and gambler who spent only a few weeks in Deadwood prior to his murder here by a young drifter in 1876. Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary Burke, an illiterate alcoholic whose chequered career included stints as scout, prostitute, nurse and even stage performer, arrived around the same time as Hickok; despite barely knowing him, she was buried 27 years later beside Hickok in nearby Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The bison of the Great Plains
The bison of the Great Plains
In the fifteenth century, the Great Plains were roamed by one hundred million shaggy, short-sighted American bison (popularly known as buffalo, a corruption of the French boeuf). Apart from eating bison’s flesh, Native Americans used the animals’ fur and hide for clothing and shelter; their bones for weapons, utensils and toys; and even their droppings for fuel. The US Army and the flood of ensuing settlers correctly figured that eliminating the bison en masse was a mercilessly effective way to deplete the Native Americans as well; by 1900, there were fewer than one thousand of the short-horned beasts left in North America.
Custer State Park was instrumental in helping to raise that meagre number to a current head count in the hundreds of thousands in the US and Canada. The park’s own 1200 bison constitute the country’s second largest publicly owned herd, surpassed only by Yellowstone National Park. However, over ninety percent of bison in the US are now privately owned – the meat, higher in protein and lower in cholesterol than either chicken or tuna, has become a regular item on restaurant menus throughout the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, and is something between novelty and delicacy in other parts of the US and Canada.
The Custer State Park bison are free to roam where they please until either the last Monday of September or the first Monday in October, when the park stages its annual roundup. From selected viewing points, you can watch one of the region’s most thrilling events, as helicopters, ground vehicles and horseback riders steer the often recalcitrant herds down a six-mile “corridor” and into a series of pens. There the calves are branded and vaccinated, with the whole lot sorted to determine which five hundred will be auctioned off on the third Saturday in November. Proceeds from this sale account for twenty percent of the park’s annual revenue.
Don’t let the tranquil, easy-going appearance of North America’s largest mammal lull you into a false sense of security – these are famously unpredictable animals. An average bison can stand over 6ft-high at the hump, weigh more than a ton, outrun a horse, turn on a dime and gore a human most efficiently.