The Badlands of South Dakota

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The Badlands of South Dakota are one of the most economically depressed regions in the United States. Though surrounded by commonplace social strife as a result, rich traditional culture survives, since much of the Badlands are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota. Once led by the legendary war chief Crazy Horse, Pine Ridge is also where some 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered by the 7th Calvary at the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, the tragic end to the Indian Wars.

Conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation are comparable to the most impoverished nations in the world. Over ninety percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line, and the unemployment rate hovers between eighty-five and ninety percent. Life expectancy is 48 years for men and 52 for women. Faced with staggering poverty, the Lakota work to preserve tradition, culture, and maintain their community.

The Lakota are not the only people who struggle economically in the region today. Small towns across the Badlands suffer greatly as national economic shifts bankrupt and depopulate many rural communities. Broken-down ranches litter the landscape, while leather-faced cowboys seemingly as old as the soil itself pass in sun-faded pickups. Many ranchers in South Dakota are descendants of the land-hungry settlers who historically pressured the federal government to take Lakota territory and confine the Lakota to reservations. Now both Indians and whites live in isolation in the Badlands, forgotten communities left to survive as best they can.

– Danny Wilcox Frazier


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