During a sunset in the Badlands, 10 buffalo work their way
through the landscape of elephant-hide rock toward a creek for the
From a ridge high above them, they look like big black shadows in
the cinnamon half light, moving silently among the trees.
Such a herd brings hunters and tourists to this remote corner of
South Dakota. But for American Indians, a herd brings something else
"The legend goes that at the end, the buffalo will save the
Indians again," says Ralph Bear Killer, buffalo keeper for the park
and recreation department of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The legend looks to be coming true.
Just as the buffalo are returning to the rural Great Plains,
native Americans are staging a dramatic demographic comeback -
thanks to high birthrates and the return of many who want to
reconnect with their land and culture.
The region's native American population has nearly doubled since
1990 (even using the most restrictive census definitions). That's
almost four times the national growth rate and, regionally speaking,
the biggest increase of any major demographic group except
And this comes as white residents are fleeing the Plains.
To some observers, the continued disappearance of the descendants
of European settlers points to the government's failure to support
rural communities. Others see it as the last chapter in a failed,
century-long experiment to homestead the Plains frontier, an
unforgiving landscape where, sometimes, the only signs of life seem
to be the wind currents that chase each other through the long
Either way, the dramatic growth of large American-Indian counties
represents one of the few growth spots in the region. And it's
happening in the strangest of places, where economic logic doesn't
seem to hold.
Take Shannon County, S.D., home to part of Pine Ridge Reservation
and one of 261 Plains counties that qualify as frontier (fewer than
six people per square mile, according to an old census yardstick).
In 1950, this dry, hilly county on the edge of the Badlands National
Park contained less than half the population density of McPherson
County, a virtually all-white enclave in the north-central part of
the state. Today, their positions are reversed.
McPherson County averages only 2.6 residents per square mile,
while Shannon County is growing so fast it barely qualifies as
frontier anymore (5.95 residents per square mile). And that's only
the official data. Unofficially, residents say, the population is
much higher, which has caused a housing shortage on the reservation.
An influx of people, but not money
On the face of things, this influx of people makes little sense.
Most Indian reservations remain in poor shape economically, with few
jobs and little opportunity. Shannon County's unemployment hovers
around 10 percent, and roughly half its households fall below the
poverty line. Again unofficially, the situation looks even worse,
Nevertheless, the Lakota people are returning. In towns such as
Kyle and Wounded Knee (home to the infamous massacre of Indian men,
women, and children), extended families cram themselves into
clusters of dilapidated government-issue houses linked by narrow
gravel roads. …