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Know the West

Forgotten borderland

  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 Dakota
By Paula L. Wagoner
155 pages, paperback: $19.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2003.