Posted by: Samuel Gabel, Public Affairs Section Assistant
South Dakota is a land of natural beauty and diversity. The types of landscapes found here range from, rolling hills, oceans of waiving grass, and lakes that cover the eastern part of the state, to the alien beauty of the Badlands, to the majestic granite peaks and pine forests of the Black Hills. Here the Midwest meets the West. Here, one can find both fields filled with amber waves of grain, as well as cattle ranches and cowboys. This is the land where the proud and fierce Sioux tribes once roamed. It is also the setting for some of the most dramatic History of the Old West.
My Experience Here
South Dakota is my home state. Here I have passed many memorable childhood summers, boating, hunting, fishing, walking through the tall prairie grass, driving old tractors and setting off fireworks on Independence Day. I like the sense of security that people have here, the friendliness found in the various small towns, the wide-open landscapes and the way the sky seems bigger and more beautiful here.
People and Cultures
My family, and a fair sized portion of the population, are ethnically German. However, probably the most distinctive ethnic group is the Sioux Nation (also known as the Lakota or Dakota). It is from these people that the state gets its name. South Dakota’s native tribes make up a relatively high portion of the population (even greater than in Oklahoma). Traditionally, the Sioux were a nomadic warrior people. Today, most live in several reservations scattered across the state. The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, near Chamberlain offers an opportunity to learn about the history and traditions of the Sioux. There are also a number of powwows (tribal gatherings generally involving dancers in costume) all across the state. A number of them welcome visitors (provided said visitors are respectful).
In addition to the Sioux culture, Cowboy culture is also strong in South Dakota. There are numerous rodeos around the state where one can see cowboys compete in various exciting events. These often include riding bucking broncos, cattle roping, and steer wrestling.
South Dakota’s best known landmark is undoubtedly Mount Rushmore, where the six-story-tall likenesses of four of the nations’ most revered presidents gaze out from a granite mountainside. According to the documentary Life after People, the sculpture would be one of the few human monuments still standing 10,000 years after humanity’s theoretical extinction.
The faces of Mount Rushmore are not the only colossal sculpture in South Dakota. 17 Miles away on Thunderhead Mountain, a sculpture of the famous Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is taking shape. Already his face and the general shape of the warrior’s arm can be seen. The work has been progressing since 1948. There is no set date for its completion. When/if completed, it may be the world’s largest sculpture. Both the sculptor and his descendants have refused federal funding for the project. Rather, the work progresses on the basis of income from the visitor center and various donations.
Both of these Colossi are located in a region of South Dakota Called the Black Hills. The region is known for gold mining and the rugged beauty of the granite peaks. My favorite place to enjoy the natural beauty of the Black Hills is Custer State Park. Needles highway has exceptional scenery, with beautiful views and unique needle-like granite formations jutting skyward. The park is home a variety of wildlife, including prong horn antelope, Rocky Mountain goats, prairie dogs, and a large herd of free-roaming American bison.
Located within Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park. The cave is notable for the unique boxwork calcite formations that line its ceiling. It is one of only two caves in the world known to have this type of rock formation.
In addition to colossi and natural wonders, the Black hills are also home to one of the largest annual motorcycle rallies in the world. One week out of the year, the little town of Sturgis is filled with the thrum of motorcycle engines. Rally goers come from far and wide to enjoy motorcycle races, motorcycle stunts, and live music performances.
There is a lot more to of South Dakota’s land than just the Black Hills. Not too far from the Black Hills lies the Martian landscape of the Badlands. Natural forces have sculpted the land into a striking and beautiful complex of gorges, buttes, ridges, pinnacles, and precipices. Different colored sediments in the landscape make it look as if it was painted by the brush of some gargantuan artist.
In addition to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, South Dakota is a famous destination for pheasant hunting. The colorful and tasty fowl bring out as many as 150,000 hunters each year. Collectively, the hunters generally bag over a million birds.
Great Faces of History
In addition to impressive landscapes and wildlife, South Dakota is home to some of the most fascinating history of the Wild West. It was in South Dakota’s Deadwood City that the famed gunfighter and lawman Wild Bill Hickok met his end. Today, one can still visit the spot where it happened. It was in South Dakota that Calamity Jane built up her legendary status. This was also the place that gave birth to some of the most famous Native Americans in history: the stalwart Chief Sitting Bull, and the brave warrior Crazy Horse. On a South Dakotan hill named Little Bighorn, the Sioux, lead by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, defeated Col. Custer and his outnumbered 7th Cavalry. One can still visit the now silent battlefield of Little Big horn, where monuments commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of both U.S. soldiers and Sioux warriors.
South Dakota also has its place in American literary history. The wide open prairies serve as the setting for a number of books in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The popular series of books is based on Wilder’s childhood in a pioneer family. Today, the house where she and her family lived can still be seen in the small, but pleasant town of De Smet. Every year, the town hosts a Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant that attracts numerous fans of her books.
South Dakota is an inspiring and memorable place due to the contrasts of the calming beauty of east side of the Missouri River vs. the wild beauty of the west side of the Missouri River. If you like wide open spaces where the sky seems bigger than in most places, friendly people, unique history stories, and the chance to explore restful spots or have a big adventure, you’ll love South Dakota.
One of the earliest European explorers to see South Dakota sums up the state rather well. “Let it not be supposed, that life on these boundless regions is monotonous and dreary, for nowhere does nature sit more majestically enthroned…”