Sioux returning to the Plains

In major demographic shift, native Americans migrate home to reconnect with land and culture

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.

Residents complain the houses are poorly constructed and hard to fix. Nicely kept lawns are abutted by yards that are the final resting place for all manner of junk. There are few signs of horticultural endeavor. And every home seems to sport three or four dusty vehicles parked outside in various states of repair.

"I wanted [my children] to be around the culture," says Karlene Hunter, who left a good job in Denver to return here. She worked at the local college on the reservation, got her master's degree in management, and eventually started a direct-marketing firm called Lakota Express.

Signs of growth

Despite huge procedural barriers, the company has grown to become the second largest for-profit employer on the reservation.

Indeed, the entrepreneurial spirit is slowly beginning to percolate here. To alleviate the acute housing shortage, the local Partnership for Housing Self Help Program has begun a home-ownership initiative. Kyle, for example, now boasts a six-table Taco restaurant run by a local couple. Residents get low-interest loans if they build their own homes.

"We're the pioneers," says Cindy Milk, one of the original seven participants - all women - and now coordinator for the program. A few miles away, local teacher Marla Herman shows off the two-story house she spent 18 months putting together during nights and weekends. "It was always a dream of mine since I was a kid," she says.

A second group of applicants is now busy building away.

Native Americans are also beginning to turn to buffalo ranching - in part for economic reasons, but mostly for cultural and environmental. A few native landowners have taken their land out of government trust (a laborious process) and replaced cattle with their own buffalo herd.

"With the buffalo, they help take our lands out of cattle [ranching] and start restoring our lands," says George Tall, board member and consultant for the Lakota Land Alliance.

A crash in the price of buffalo and buffalo meat, however, is forcing many Indian ranchers to reduce their herds. But leasing the land out to hunters provides another source of revenue, says Mr. Bear Killer, the local buffalo keeper.

Letting the buffalo roam

Moreover, Indian reservations provide key support for the "buffalo commons," a loose-knit (many observers would say quixotic) movement to return the Plains to its natural state by persuading tribal, private, and public landowners to tear down their fences so buffalo can roam again. Nearby Rosebud reservation has officially endorsed the concept.

Restoring the ecosystem could lure in tourists, provide jobs, and bring back many of the native plants used for tribal medicine. Yet ultimately, "the buffalo commons is not only about bringing the buffalo and prairie dogs back," says Nick Tilsen, board member of the Great Plains Restoration Council, which aims to make the commons a reality.

"It's a holistic view of the prairie," he says. "Without the buffalo coming back, the people can't get healthier."

A four-part series on America's reemerging frontier appeared last week in the Monitor.

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