Shannon County is located in southwestern South Dakota and is the only county completely contained within the Pine Ridge Reservation for the Oglala Sioux. Natalie and I moved to the small town of Kyle in the north east of the reservation this July where Natalie will work as a 1st grade teacher in the Little Wound School in support of her continued mission to learn about and advocate for linguistic and educational rights. Shannon County as has the majority of the population on the reservation, which by some estimates is as high as 40-50 thousand, however the last US Census has it listed as just under 20,000. The land is sparsely settled, aside from the town of Pine Ridge and other small towns such as Allen, Wanblee, Kyle, Porcupine, and Manderson. The majority of residents live in donated trailers (often without full utilities) and small boxy homes maintained by the local school districts.

Average yearly household income (that is, for the average family of four) is $20,568, nearly $3000 below the US poverty line. Many individuals make between $3,000 and $5,000 annually and unemployment in 2010 came in at 89%. Of those that do have work, many are cattle ranchers, as the arid climate and geography makes farming difficult, but not impossible (Less than 4% is suitable for agriculture). Less than 60% of reservation-based farms/ranches are owned by Native Americans, sending a large proportion of the potential local income off the reservation. As one of the poorest counties in all of North America, health is also an issue. 40-45% of Shannon County’s adults have also been diagnosed as Obese and ~25% with have been diagnosed with Diabetes. Considering that the much of the population lives outside of town, away from medical treatment centers, these numbers are believed to be disproportionately low.

In the summer months, the temperatures routinely rise above 100 degrees, and in the dead of winter frequently drop below zero. The wind blows steadily, and tornados are not entirely uncommon. The reservation sits directly south of Badlands National Park, where the land has eroded into otherworldly formations, with brightly colored striations and abrupt changes in elevation. National Grasslands are to the north and west where some of the last remaining wild buffalo herds still roam. To the south and west, Nebraska and Black Hills National Forests spring up out of the mixed grass praire, respectively. After the westward expansion had come into its full strength the Fort Laramie Treaty was established in 1868, creating the Great Sioux Reservation across this ecologically diverse land. This treaty, of shaky legality, confined the ‘Seven Council Fires‘ (inclusive of the different bands of Sioux; Lakota and Dakota), who had previously lived from present-day northeast colorado north into Canada and from present-day eastern Wyoming to Iowa, into a relatively small section of land west of the Missouri River to the Wyoming boarder. Over the next thirty or so years, the acreage of the reservation was cut again and again.

In 1874, with General Custer’s discovery of gold in the Black Hills, miners and homesteaders started flocking to the area. President Grant decided that the US would make no effort to prevent the illegal occupation of the reservation by non-native settlers, during a closed-door, and recently unclassified meeting with the Secretary of the Interior. As the area became ‘settled’ in the American sense, Grant decided the land must be acquired by the government because of the value of the gold and the settlement of so many miners. When the Sioux, citing their treaty, refused to sell the land (which held significant religious, cultural, and subsistence value) the US government declared the Sioux as hostile. A number of bloody engagements occurred over the next 30 years including the Wounded Knee Massacre (which will be covered in a later blog post). The Dawes Act of 1887 divided the Great Sioux Reservation into small land allotments for individual Native Americans with the expressed purpose of assimilating the tribes into American society. The Sioux continued to resiste the seizure of their land steadily into the early 1900’s, as the government forcefully took more and more land against their own treaty and the guidelines of their own legal system.

“I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath. Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God.”


About a day into our road trip, Natalie began questioning the U-Haul. She wondered why were we bringing all this stuff, if we should be bringing anything, and if it’s fair that we live in a two bedroom house with just the two of us. Having lived out of a car/tent for nearly 5 months last year, and couchsurfing and living with relatives for the next 8 months, the prospect of having our own house was intimidating to say the least. Adding in the history and current realities described above we began to feel foolish with our small U-Haul half-filled with hand-me-down (though fully nostalgic, beautiful, and useful) furniture and the random assortment of items we’d managed to collect over the last six years of school and travel. We have continually been engaged in finding simplicity in life and learning what that means. My good friend Thoreau once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the things he can let alone,” and I fully dig that as a maxim of my development as a thinker, an advocate, ally, and… well, just as a Human! Was moving to Kyle and living so uncommonly (for the community) in a real house a step backward?

Well, we are here now, and I haven’t yet figured it out. We’ve unpacked, decorated, bought some new …things (ugh!)… and Natalie is teaching a class of nearly twenty 1st graders. I am awaiting the answer to numerous applications and pondering my place in this new community. American mediocracy and material development has somehow found or followed us even to this tiny community in the middle of nowhere (<—Literally.), but we will continue to push against it, seek simplicity, resiliency, morality, and new experiences. The Oglala Sioux, who have extended their home to us for the next 2 to 3 to (??) years are one of the most resilient Native American communities and have fought the good fight continuously for well over 150 years. They have refused to accept payment from the government for the lands that have been taken from them and continue to advocate for justice for the Sioux and all First Peoples. We have much to learn from them and from living here on the prairie.

This is a new chapter in our lives and in this blog. Join us?

Sources: http://www.sdtribalrelations.com/new/tribalstatprofiles/oststatprofile2011.pdf , and http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/DDT_STRS2/CountyPrevalenceData.aspx?stateId=46&Mode=DBT , (also don’t be afraid of wikipedia for guidance)

3 Responses to ““Reservation””
  1. Stacyann says:

    Chris! Many blessings to you on this new journey you are taking…continue to live an inspired life and I’ll stay tuned for more of your updates.
    With every good wish,

  2. Jo-
    Thanks for reading, I’m continuing to learn more and more about the culture here and I’ll be writing more soon. Natalie and I were able to learn a bit about the Modac at Lava Beds National Monument last year – probably one of the more terrible US-Native conflicts I’ve read about. House-living is strange indeed after mobile living… but it’s nice to have a base too.

  3. Johanna says:

    Thanks for the background info, Chris. I think that sad story has been repeated all over the country, and a similar one here in Klamath County (as you know- Modoc and Klamath tribes). I too felt really odd about renting a house (a house!!!) with nothing but my car load of random oddities and a dog. I nearly had a melt down when my mom bought a rug for the place and encouraged me to buy a couch after living out of the car or homeless for many years. Glad that you and your partner are taking in the challenge of a new and very rural community wholeheartedly and positively!

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