From space, the Black Hills of South Dakota take the unmistakable shape of a heart, marking a region that some consider the spiritual center of the world. But driving into Bennett County, S.D., is more like entering a legal Twilight Zone. This checkerboard of private, tribal and federal land seems to belong to everyone — and to no one.
In the early 1900s, the
federal government carved Bennett County out of the Pine Ridge
Reservation, creating a space where white settlers and Lakota
Indians could own and farm land as neighbors. But inconsistent
policy thwarted the development of this interethnic, agrarian
ideal. "You couldn’t by design figure out a way more likely
to create racial tension than what the government did (in Bennett
County)," says one official.
In "They Treated Us Just
Like Indians": The Worlds of Bennett County, South Dakota,
anthropologist Paula Wagoner presents "snapshots" of this mixed
community. In one, the county appears united, cheering on a parade
that celebrates Lakota culture alongside the legacy of white
ranchers and farmers. But in times of trial, the community reflects
long-standing differences. Wagoner describes the divisive effect of
the quasi-Indian-style homecoming ceremony at the high school, and
the entrenched racial loyalty that overtook the community after a
white killed a Lakota.
But the three main ethnic groups
— Lakota ("full-blood"), "mixed blood" and white —
share more than you might think. As Wagoner discovered during her
two-and-a-half-year stay in the county, nearly everyone there
defines themselves, in one way or another, by their connection to
the land. And everyone has a historical reason to fear that their
land could be legally taken away.
"They Treated Us Just
Like Indians" probably won’t inspire readers to make Bennett
County their next recreational get-away. Rather, Wagoner offers an
intriguing, vicarious visit to a complicated piece of prairie
— a colorful, controversial world that most people
don’t even know exists.
"They Treated Us
Just Like Indians": The Worlds of Bennett County, South
By Paula L. Wagoner
University of Nebraska Press,
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