Half way across South Dakota: September 2-9, 2010

Our next stop after Rapid City was the twin towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma. We made this stop for several reasons, the most important of which are that it is on the Missouri River, home to a Lewis and Clark interpretive center, and a source of additional information on the multiple Sioux tribes that call this area home. It’s fascinating that each stop we make both refreshes and illuminates our interests.

The prairie winds were blowing again. On our way out to Medora, the headwind reduced our fuel mileage from our normal 10 to just over 8 mpg. On this trip, with a strong northwest wind pretty much behind us, we ran at 12.2. (On Labor Day, the gusts were near 50, and we were glad we were staying in port.)

En route, we left the Black Hills and experienced another stretch of the Badlands some distance south of the highway. It was strange to be 1500 to 3700 feet above sea level and still encounter endless stretches of perfectly flat land.

The trip was not long – less than four hours. So we took the time to stop at Wall Drug. Like the Mall of America, you have to be able to say you’ve been there. The largest “drug store” in the country, one can still fill a prescription there! And you’re able to feast on a variety of good food and stock up on an unlimited collection of souvenirs, western wear and even HBA (health and beauty aids). An animated cowboy band exhibit performs every fifteen minutes; western characters (in plaster) sit on every bench beside whom you can be pictured; there’s a mining town, a T-Rex, and rides for the kids. Not to be missed – once!

The drive along I-90 also gave us a repeat of one of our favorite vistas in the Dakotas: fields of sunflowers stretching as far as the eye can see. North Dakota produces more sunflower seeds than any other state, and South Dakota is second. So much for Kansas! The story goes that they follow the sun, but that’s not true out here; they always face east.

We settled into a campground in Oacoma (pronounced OH-ko-ma by the locals). The campground, called Oasis, is part of the major influence in the area. The park is flat, spacious well equipped and grassy. Our site had a beautiful view down the Missouri River, about half a mile away. Unfortunately, it also had a view of I-90, about 400 feet away. There’s something to be said for hearing impairment! This was Labor Day weekend, so while the campground was sparsely populated when we arrived, it filled up fast on Friday and Saturday. We signed on for a week, not because there was that much we wanted to see but I had a neglected chore. The gaggle of Nantucket baskets that have to be in Churchton for the MCAG Fall Show were in various stages of completion, so I needed a more-or-less temptation free area to concentrate on finishing up.

Across the street, a long strip center contained Al’s Oasis Restaurant. In the same strip center are the Oasis Grocery Store (a decent-sized supermarket) and a dozen other stores, with the Oasis Inn next door. When you enter the market, the first stock you encounter is more than five hundred boxes of shotgun shells, every size and load you could possibly need. Pheasant and grouse seasons are about to open. On the other side of the center is the Pump-n-Pak fuel stop — and casino. Directly across the street from the campground is Harry K’s Chevrolet-Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Pontiac dealership, which is also home to Ray’s Western Gear for human and horse. Somebody needs to clue Harry in to the demise of Ransom’s invention and those GTO’s of legend and song. About a mile away, on the river, is Cedar Shore, a prosperous resort with houses of all types, community marina, clubhouse, indoor pool and other benefits. We know Al manages it and we suspect he owns at least a major interest.

We spent parts of Friday through Sunday absorbing the local culture. Our first stop was the highway rest stop that featured a comprehensive picture of the Corps of Discovery’s stop here in September, 1804. Panel after panel described major components of the Corps and the interface with the Native Americans here. There was a lot of emphasis on the makeup of the expedition: the military nature of it, the personalities of the adventurers, the various components of their supplies and cargo, and the relationship they established with Sioux tribes in the area, including Lakota, Yankton and Brulé. Yes, there’s yet another rendition of the infamous keelboat there, but this time, it’s the upper story of the center, partly inside and partly outside the building, filled with cargo exhibits and commanding a fabulous view of the River. Oars protrude from the sides, both indoors and out. It was here that L&C gave up the keelboat, sending it back to St. Louis with journals and artifacts to update President Jefferson.

Legendary stories arise from this area. Shortly after entering South Dakota, the Corps held an election to replace the mortally stricken Sergeant Floyd, choosing Seaman Gass for the honor. (More on Floyd in a future episode.) This is reputed to be the first American election held west of the Mississippi.

A week later, while attending a pow-wow hosted by the Yankton Sioux, L&C learned of the birth of a baby that day. Wrapping him in an American flag, they dubbed him a Great American. He grew us to be Chief and an important player in the relationship between the Euro and Native Americans. His name was Struck By The Ree.

Our next stop was the Atka Lakota Museum and Cultural Center at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain. The Center is a “Living History Museum,” a designation important for two reasons. First, it is an extension of the classroom, an opportunity for the School’s students to learn and contribute. Second, it is by definition, a facility combining past and present. Along with multiple dioramas and exhibits of collections, it houses many paintings and sculptures of contemporary Native American artists. Some are simply for display, while an equally large number are for sale to benefit both the artist and the school. No cameras were allowed inside; I suspect that the reason is to prevent publishable pictures of the artwork. I certainly wish we had some to share with you. The museum is divided into four sections:

  • The east (yellow) depicts life on the Great Plains prior to the infusion of Euro-Americans
  • The south (red) depicts the arrival of the explorers, traders, and settlers
  • The west (black) depicts the loss of the Sioux lands at the hands of the US government
  • The north (white) depicts the adaptation of eh Native American to their new way of life while preserving their heritage

Our third stop was the South Dakota Hall of Fame. Also located in Chamberlain, we think it would be better located in a major center like Pierre, the capitol. But a contemporary 10,000 sq. ft. building was constructed in 2000 to house it. The entrance foyer is dramatic; it features series of photographic portraits projected on ten transparent panels. Exhibits themselves break up the interior, some containing scenes of the times while others containing photos and artifacts. We determined no pattern within the exhibit, either by year or by classification.

A dozen or so new inductees are picked each year, and all are listed on an honor roll. There are many classifications. They are divided into five major categories, one of which is “General.” Into this category fell people of all walks of life, from Louis Flaigg, inducted in the sub-category called Unsung Heroes and Good Hearts to a couple of U.S. Presidential wannabes named McGovern and Humphrey. (Humphrey was born in Wallace, SD and spent all of is pre-college years in his home state.) Many of the names are primarily famous within the state’s borders, but standouts include Tom Brokaw, Lawrence Welk, Olympic hero Billy Mills, ET’s Mary Hart, sports broadcaster Pat O’Brien, USA Today founder Allan Neuharth, Laugh-In’s Gary Owens, both monument sculptors Gutzon and Korczak, and author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Dozens of Native Americans are included, of course, including Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Struck By The Ree and Young Man Afraid Of His Horse. Gall was the third musketeer with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn. Young Man Afraid Of His Horse is an inaccurate translation; his name really meant roughly “just seeing his horse will cause you to quake with fear.” After Wounded Knee, he urged the Oglala not to avenge the deaths and later served as president of the Pine Ridge Council. More than anything else, the Hall reinforced a feeling that we’ve had ever since arriving in this section of our country. The frontier was an endless land of opportunity, laid at the feet of the ambitious and the courageous. And in many ways, it still is.

There was one more adventure to undertake. On our last full day in the area, we headed north about forty miles to the town of Fort Thompson. At this location is Big Bend, a twenty five mile section of the Missouri River where it travels around in a big circle and comes back on itself less than a mile away before resuming its course. A dam built here by the Corps of Engineers in 1964 created Lake Sharp and generates about 800 megawatts of hydroelectric energy. Almost a quarter mile thick at the base, the dam tapers to a mere 50 feet at the top! The Big Bend recreation area is very large and filled with launching ramps, campgrounds and picnic areas.

Fort Thompson is also the capital of the Crow Creek Reservation. The Crow Creek are a combination of Dakota and Lakota Sioux. They escaped from Minnesota during the Lakota wars of 1862 and were forcibly moved farther east to this location. The land area of about 400 square miles is mostly leased to ranchers, although there are also several archeological digs in villages of the Mandan and Arikara who preceded the Sioux in this area. (See North Dakota for more information on these tribes.) There is a monument called Spirit Of The Circle; the large circle is divided into four color and flagpoles along the shore edge fly flags in the same colors. (See the Atka Lakota museum story above.) It is dedicated to the 1,300 Crow Creek who died of malnutrition and exposure during their migration.

We were lured here in part by the promise of a museum. Not being able to find it, we stopped in at the Corps of Engineers headquarters where we learned that it had been destroyed by a tornado about five years earlier and never rebuilt. The headquarters itself had a small exhibit, however, from which came the pictures below.

Lewis and Clark stopped here and wrote of the Big Bend. They camped below it on September 19, 1804 and sent an explorer to “step off the distance acrous the gorge…he made it 2000 yards.” The Corps made it around in two days and continued their journey.

We would like to have spent more time in this general area, between Chamberlain and Pierre, the capital. The Crow Creek occupy one side of the Missouri while the Lower Brule occupy the other. And the Lower Brule have a bison farm. But fitting in travel between dog-walking requirements got in the way. Nevertheless, our adventures gave us an excellent perspective on the history of this area.

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