South Dakota at a glance

/ Source: National Journal

When the Census Bureau proclaimed the closing of the American frontier in 1890, one of the last places where it had closed was the southern part of the Dakota Territory, just admitted to the Union in 1889 as the state of South Dakota. For years this land had been the home of the Oglala Sioux, one of the largest Native American tribes, who had built a buffalo hunting civilization by becoming masters of the horses the Spaniards had imported to North America 350 years earlier. It was the Sioux warrior chief Sitting Bull, now buried on a bluff above the Missouri River, who destroyed Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876; it was Oglala Sioux who were the victims at the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. After half a century of horrifying disease and a decade of defeat, the Sioux were a traumatized people, and still are today, living on reservations with proud traditions but in terrible poverty. They are isolated far from the mainstream economic marketplace, beset by high rates of crime, alcoholism and suicide, with life expectancy and disease rates like those of sub-Saharan Africa; on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Shannon County unemployment is 70% and incomes average $3,500 a year. But infant mortality has been reduced and the American Indian population has been growing rapidly. In 2004, 98 buffalo were rounded up on California’s Catalina Island, the descendants of animals brought there to film a Western in the 1920s, and returned to the Lakota Reservation. Indians are in the process of getting a great monument, the late Korczak Ziolkowski’s Crazy Horse sculpture, which—when and if finished; boosters are trying to raise $25 million—will dwarf Mount Rushmore (which was left unfinished itself at the start of World War II). In March 2007 Governor Mike Rounds signed a bill adding to the school curriculum units on the language and culture of the Lakota and other Indians; Indians account for 9% of the population here, more than in any other state except New Mexico and Alaska.

Less tragic and more successful, though not without its moments of violence, was the whites’ settlement of South Dakota. It was a rapid process: the first gold strikes in the Black Hills came in 1876, and soon the mountains swarmed with settlers. Deadwood became a city of 20,000 where Calamity Jane ruled the saloons and Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while holding two pair—aces and eights. Ranchers, knowing that the buffalo could not be contained by barbed wire fences, massacred them so thoroughly that when Teddy Roosevelt got to the Dakota Territory in 1884, he had a hard time finding one to shoot. It was not long before the railroad came through, and then settlers, many of them German and Scandinavian immigrants recruited by the railroads, had built sodhouses, broken the land and set down enough roots to justify making both the two Dakota states.

Geographically, South Dakota has never entirely filled up. In the 25 years between statehood and World War I, the eastern third of the state, sectioned off Midwestern style into 640-acre square miles, was settled by farmers. But moving westward, before a traveler reaches the Missouri River in the middle of the state, green turns to brown, cultivation grows sparse and then stops; the West River plains are open grazing land, scarcely touched by the white men who were so eager to establish dominion over them a century ago. The land is punctuated, not by roads meeting every mile at precise angles, but by buttes, gullies and grasslands sweeping to the horizon with no sign of human habitation except the occasional missile silos that once pointed toward the Soviet Union.

South Dakota’s political patterns were fairly well set by the early 1900s. Its early settlers were mostly Midwesterners who brought their Republicanism with them. Voters here never had much use for the Non-Partisan League, which caught on in the more Scandinavian soil of North Dakota, and there was never anything here comparable to the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. But the nature of the farm economy—its dependence on the great railroads and milling companies, and on the vagaries of international markets—meant that South Dakota was subject to periodic farm revolts. It voted for Populists and William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s; it supported the early New Deal; it revolted against the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s by electing a young congressman named George McGovern, then a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, home also of the Corn Palace, built in 1892 and decorated every year with 13 murals using 275,000 ears of corn. South Dakota shared the isolationist impulse of much of the Great Plains; McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s was not a liability here. In the early 1970s, Democrats seemed on the verge of becoming the majority party.

Then South Dakota moved sharply to the Republicans. This began with the angry response to the violence at Wounded Knee in 1975. And it was perpetuated by the policies of Republican Governor Bill Janklow, elected in 1978 and 1982 and then again in 1994 and 1998. In 1979 Sioux Falls banker Thomas Reardon suggested that the state get rid of its usury law limiting interest rates; inflation was driving market rates over the usury limits and choking off credit to the economy. Janklow and the legislature followed up, repealed the usury laws and in 1981 passed laws enabling Citibank to move its credit card operations to Sioux Falls, where it could charge market interest rates—all in a state with no corporate or personal income taxes, and community with a literate low-wage work force. The Citibank operation here has grown from 50 employees to 3,200, servicing some 118 million cardholders, replacing the meatpacker John Morrell as the biggest employer; other banks and telemarketing followed; some 15,000 people in the Sioux Falls area work in financial services. New firms started up, like NordicTrak and Gateway Computer (their executive offices have moved to San Diego but most employees are still in North Sioux City) as South Dakotans have proved to be an ideal work force; this is the state with the lowest rate of default on college loans. Some meatpacking plants have closed, but others are manned now by a largely Hispanic work force, recruited from the Southwest and beyond; 40 languages are spoken on the floor of the John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls.

South Dakota still has a relatively low-wage economy, but it also has low unemployment and low housing prices; its residents and those in North Dakota spend less time commuting to work than Americans in any other state. It leads the nation in percentage of home-based businesses. South Dakota has long been thought of as a farm state, but farm counties have been losing population; in the 1990 Census, 11% of the workforce was employed in farming, forestry or fishing but by 2000 that figure had dropped to 8%. Ranching is also important, and there is still some mining here, but it is tapering off. The state baked under a terrific drought in summer 2006, and speculation abounded that its economy would come to a standstill. Instead, small businesses and financial services kept humming, exports increased dramatically, unemployment stuck around 3% and the big news was that chemical and credit card entrepreneur T. Denny Sanford donated $400 million to Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System and that a big anonymous investor, known locally as the Gorilla, was assembling a large plot of land for a big development in Union County south of Sioux Falls. Economically and demographically, South Dakota is coming to resemble the Rocky Mountain states, with most people concentrated around a few prosperous and growing cities and towns, while vast acreage remains vacant, punctuated with infrequent ranches and resort areas—a landscape that would not have been totally alien to Sitting Bull. South Dakotans have been adaptive in exploiting this acreage; the number of local hunters has been declining, but promoters are attracting record numbers of out-of-staters to hunt South Dakota’s pheasants; some local meatpacking plants have closed, but the state is promoting the production of luxury beef, with computer tracking of each cow to guarantee its provenance and freedom from disease. Wide open spaces leave room for initiatives like the attempt by American Sign Language advocates to set up a town for the deaf in McCook County. South Dakota’s major population centers have grown, while its farm counties continue to empty out. Lincoln County, just south of Sioux Falls, was the nation’s 12th fastest-growing county from 2000 to 2006, and in 2006 Sioux Falls’s Minnehaha County and Lincoln County together had 25% of the state’s population. Politically, this growth has been a standoff between the parties: Democrats have benefited from growth and increased turnout on the reservations, while Republicans have benefited from growth in the Black Hills and the two parties have slugged it out in the Sioux Falls area.

South Dakota in recent years has been the scene of heated partisan fights. Briefly, from June 2004 to January 2005, it had an all-Democratic congressional delegation—Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and Congresswoman-at-Large Stephanie Herseth—for only the second time in its history (the other time was a period of five days in 1936–37). Johnson beat incumbent Republican Larry Pressler narrowly in 1996 and in 2002 held his seat against Congressman John Thune as a big turnout drive on the Pine Ridge Reservation enabled him to win by 524 votes. But in 2004 Thune came back and beat Daschle, then Senate Minority Leader and earlier Majority Leader, by a 51%-49% margin. Herseth won the state’s single House seat in a special election after Bill Janklow resigned and held it in November 2004 by 53%-46%. This is a state where voters traditionally have expected to meet and talk with their representatives in Congress, and want them to bring back money—which has made Democrats more competitive in these races that they have been in presidential or state politics. Republicans have held the governorship since 1978 and have had wide margins in the state legislature.

State politics was marked with unexpected controversy after the legislature in February 2006 passed a law criminalizing abortion and providing no exceptions for rape and incest, the nation’s most stringent abortion law. Governor Mike Rounds signed the bill in March 2006 and called it a “full frontal attack” on Roe v. Wade. Pro-life advocates outside the state criticized the South Dakotans for fashioning a test case of Roe when it seemed obvious that the votes were lacking on the Supreme Court to overturn it, but the strongest opposition came from inside the state. Petitions began circulating to put the bill on the ballot in November; Democrats suddenly found they had many more legislative candidates than in previous years; some Republicans opposed the bill as too restrictive and confrontational. It became an issue in Oglala Sioux politics as well: Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman elected tribal president in 2005, called for setting up an abortion clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and was impeached and ousted from office in July 2006. The opponents of the abortion ban fared better. South Dakotans voted 56%-44% to repeal the bill. This must be counted as a major defeat for those who want to recriminalize abortion in the United States; even in this culturally conservative state, the people voted not to go so far. At the same time, it may undercut the claims of abortion rights advocates that an overturning of Roe v. Wade will result in the recriminalization of abortion in many jurisdictions. Not in South Dakota, it seems, and if not in South Dakota, then where?

The abortion issue did not totally overturn the political order here. Mike Rounds was reelected by 62%-36%, and voters did pass, though by a narrow margin, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the establishment of domestic partnerships or civil unions. Democrats gained 5 seats in the state Senate but only 1 in the state House. Members of the state’s congressional delegation seemed highly popular, and South Dakotans watched as Senator Tim Johnson, suffering a stroke in December 2006, made a slow but determined recovery into summer 2007.