Sioux Returning to the Plains ; in Major Demographic Shift, Native Americans Migrate Home to Reconnect with Land and Culture

By Laurent Belsie writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

Sioux Returning to the Plains ; in Major Demographic Shift, Native Americans Migrate Home to Reconnect with Land and Culture


Laurent Belsie writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


During a sunset in the Badlands, 10 buffalo work their way through the landscape of elephant-hide rock toward a creek for the night.

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 - hope.

"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 Hispanics.

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 grass.

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, residents say.

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. …

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