A Trip to the Badlands

Tekakwitha Indian Mission, South Dakota, 1958

Tekakwitha Indian Mission, South Dakota, 1958 – letter to prospective adoptive parents


It took this podcast two years to find its first listener in South Dakota.

South Dakota is a big state with a small population – less than a million souls, in fact – making it the fifth least densely populated state in the union.

Still, we’ve managed to find more listeners in states with even fewer inhabitants, including Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont.

It’s not all about us, though.

But still.  What’s going on up there?

South Dakotans vote conservative.  Only five out of South Dakota’s 33 governors have been members of the Democratic Party.  A rush of blood to the head once saw South Dakotans vote a Norwegian-born left-wing agrarian populist into office back in 1897, but that dissociative fugue passed quickly, and Republicans have held the top office now for nearly half a century.

Today, South Dakota is governed by a woman born with the name Kristi Lynn Arnold, more widely known by her married name, Kristi Noem.

Born in South Dakota in 1971, Ms. Noem was first elected to state office in 2007 at the age of 36, as a member of the state’s house of representatives.

Noem is a conservative with a big “C” for “Calculating”, portraying herself in whichever light will make her voters think she is “owning the libs”:

> Endorses Donald Trump?  Check.

> Endorsed by Donald Trump?  Check.

> Flags, trucks, and cowboy hats regularly used as campaign props?  Check.

> Camouflage jackets and guns on her social media?  Check.

> Well-paid positions for family members?  Check.

> Support for new oil pipelines? Over Lakota lands?  Check.

> Calls progressive senate candidates “communists”?  Check.

> Sends South Dakotan national guards to the Texas/Mexico border as a publicity stunt?  Check.

Note: The labor of undocumented immigrants (including children), underpins many South Dakotan businesses.

> Covid pandemic public health measures ignored?  Check.

Note: Covid cases quadrupled after Noem encouraged people from all over the USA to ignore the pandemic – inviting them to attend an annual motorcycle rally in the state.


Nearly 400,000 answered the call-out she made on Fox “news”, and this superspreader event made South Dakota a Covid hotspot.  Most of the dead were undocumented immigrants and indigenous Americans working in poor conditions in meat-packing plants.


This latter point brings us to the very heart and hidden meaning of much rural conservatism, especially in the western states of the USA.

At its core, Noem-style conservatism is about a weird form of self-aggrandisement.  It’s all about proclaiming the virtue of hard-working people, people supposedly raised from the Dakota soil – a soil consecrated during its appropriation by European-American settlers/colonisers, and enjoyed by their descendants.

Truckers.  Ranchers.  Farmers.  Oil workers.  Everyone a “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” kind of voter.

And then we do a bit of research.  We read some history.

Kristi Noem, like many Dakotans, is descended from mostly German and Scandinavian immigrants.

Her second great-grandfather (whose name she carried at birth – Arnold) was the son of Alsatian immigrants, and like so many others, arrived in Dakota Territory during the 1880s in a railway boxcar.

While the US Army was still rounding-up and killing Indians there.

There is no doubting that many of these immigrants were leaving bad conditions back in their homelands.  Unemployment and famine were especially common in Sweden and Norway during the 19th century.

Many immigrants lived in sod cabins due to a lack of timber, and Dakota soil was not easy to farm.

So hard work was certainly a given.

But one thing is never mentioned by the conservative descendants of these immigrants when they tell their story of bootstrapping.

It takes land to get started in your new life in America as a hard-working farmer.

And it’s much easier to get your hands on land when it is being given away cheap or free by the US government.

And where did the US government get this land?  Why, from the dispossessed Lakota, of course.


This post hasn’t the room to recount the history of the Indian Wars in the west.  Everyone has heard of Little Big Horn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee (let’s hope they have, anyway).

But some things which are lesser-known and not widely understood need and deserve mention.

Even after the bloodshed in South Dakota was over, and indigenous peoples had been forced onto reservations, the US government and “white” settlers couldn’t leave them be.

The US government very cleverly changed the laws in relation to indigenous landholding.

Whereas most indigenous peoples viewed land as a resource to be held communally, the Dawes Act of 1887 forced indigenous Americans to subdivide and allocate set parcels of their reservation lands to INDIVIDUAL tribal members.

Once reservation lands had been parcelled-out this way, any land not allocated to a specific tribal member was deemed “surplus” by the state and federal government, and opened to non-Indian settlers.

The poorest of the poor among European immigrants tended to take-up this “surplus” reservation land, and the US government hoped in this way to dilute and break the cohesiveness of indigenous communities.

With their communities shattered in this way, the US government and religious groups then began to step in, opening Indian Boarding Schools where the now impoverished Lakota might send their children to “become white”.

Children were often not even “sent” – they were kidnapped outright, with many being placed into foster homes where they were treated for years as little more than free domestic laborers.

In some of the worst cases, children were quite literally “loaned-out” to be sexually abused.

So here we are, in 2023, with people like Kristi Noem and Donald Trump stoking their fruitcake base, a base galvanised by QAnon and tales of paedophile rings, when the real paedophiles were always right there in the open.

In the swanky apartments of rich financiers in New York, and in the Indian Boarding Schools of South Dakota.

Not under pizzerias in DC.

Meanwhile, the charming legislators of South Dakota signed “HB 1104” into law in 2010, ensuring that the victims of cultural genocide and sexual abuse are unable to hold the perpetrators to account.

This is how American conservatism buries real history, so all that remains is their self-penned stories of heroism and bootstraps.

I have no idea if I’ll still have my 5 listeners in South Dakota after this…

©Brian Halpin 2023

#history #southdakota #kristinoem #lakota

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