The area of southwest South Dakota and the neighboring portion of Nebraska have been called the most poverty striken places in the United States. Allen, South Dakota has been offficially cited as having the lowest per captia income rate in the U.S.
In the mid-1970s, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation had a higher murder rate than the supposed murder capitol of the U.S., Detroit, Michigan. Meantime, the political murder rate in Pine Ridge was about equal to that in the nation of Chile following the U.S. sponsored military coup that deposed President Salvador Allende.
In addition, since 1953, the Oglala Lakota people voted to continue alcohol prohibition on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The residents who desire alcoholic beverages have been patronizing taverns and outlets in neighboring Whiteclay, Nebraska. This activity has been an ongoing, very controversial problem for the residents of Pine Ridge, the village of Whiteclay, the State of Nebraska and the Federal Government.
Western South Dakota has been the site of many unfortunate incidents. The discovery of gold and mineral deposits in that part of the state led to the eventual loss of the Sioux holy lands, The Black Hills. In 1876, the U.S. Congress voted to open up the Black Hills and break up the Great Sioux Reservation. The following year, 7,700,000 acres of the Black Hills were available to homesteaders and private business. In the next decade, the remaining area of the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into five smaller reservations, Pine Ridge was one of them.
In December, 1890, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment under command by Major Samuel Whitside escourted two bands of Lakota to the Wounded Knee Creek where the Lakota set up camp. On the 29th, the remainder of the Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel James Forsyth surrounded the indian camp. A scuffle regarding a disagreement over a tribesman’s rifle escalated. The 7th Cavalry opened fire and shot indiscriminately from all sides. 150 Men, women, and children were killed. Some fellow troops were killed by “friendly fire”, too. 51 Lakota were wounded, but some claim that it was actually closer to 300.
Longstanding disagreements on Pine Ridge once again came to a head in 1973 When retribution was sought for the murder of 20 year old Wesley Bad Heart Bull. The protest at the courthouse escalated into violence after riot police met the protesters at Wounded Knee. This took place during the height of the murder rate years.
It was June 26th, 1975 that armed American Indian Movement (AIM) activists and the Federal Bureau of Investigation engaged in a confrontation that became infamously known as the Pine Ridge Shootout. The aftermath found two FBI agents dead. Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were among the deceased. In addition, AIM activist Jim Stuntz was felled. The violence led to three murder trials. AIM activists Robert Robideau and Dino Butler were acquitted of charges. Meantime, Leonard Peltier was tried separately after a Canadian extradition delay. In 1977, Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole.
Crushing poverty and nagging alcoholism remain very problematic to this very day. The controversies rage in public discussions as I write this essay. It is only the latest chapter in the story of a part of the United States that has yielded a very rich history and tales of many noteable names to people that history remembers.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that there are many beautiful and interesting tourist destinations in Western South Dakota and Northwestern Nebraska.