First, it rained. Then the temperature plummeted, turning the rain to slush and the slush to snow. By the time Winter Storm Atlas was over, it had blanketed some of the nation’s toughest territory, a swath stretching from Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains to the High Plains of South Dakota, covering the Black Hills and Badlands in more than a meter of heavy wet snow and killing more than forty thousand cattle, horses, sheep, and bison.
If the storm had come just a few weeks later, the cattle would have been in their winter ranges, areas that offer more protection from wind and snow than the vast stretches of grass that the animals, worth around two thousand dollars a head, fatten up on all summer. As they were—dispersed and far from home, soaked by the rain and buffeted by the winds, exposed to the cold and blinded by the snow—millions of dollars of animal inventory felt the chill of hypothermia creep through them. Thousands of cattle would eventually die of heart failure, the meteorological stress too much for their bodies to handle. Thousands more broke their legs in stumbles off of high embankments as they blindly searched for somewhere to hide. Unable to walk, they too died. When I pass through, more than three years after that early October storm in 2013, the locals are still whispering about animals suffocating to death, water-saturated air freezing in their lungs.
The storm itself wasn’t all that terrible for a region that’s accustomed to withstanding the vagaries of the elements; had it rolled through in the heart of winter, few people would have blinked. But in early October, its toll—exacted upon some of the most isolated areas of the United States—was devastating. Tens of thousands of dead animals and about a billion dollars in lost income and infrastructural damage are difficult to visualize, but for each rancher, the crisis was personal. Jennifer Reisser used to be one of them; today she owns a small shop in town. She still remembers the pain of losing her cattle. “When they die, like in the storm,” she tells me, talking about her cattle, “that isn’t just money. It’s time, effort, dedication, love, purpose.”
Now, on a warm Indian-summer day in Interior, South Dakota (with a population of ninety-four, according to the 2010 census), the roads are clear and the air is crisp. It’s hard to imagine the landscape dotted with bits of cattle that poked out through piles of bloody snow like the innards of a Christmas fruitcake, passing plows having torn right through their bodies.
When I push open the heavy wooden door of the Native West Trading Company, Jennifer Reisser is slipping tiny glass beads onto a thin needle. Hardened by years of ranching, her hands gently maneuver the soft leather of the moccasin she is working on. I wander around the store in silence until she asks me where I’ve come in from. I tell her I started the day 392 miles northwest in the overnight parking area of a Walmart Supercenter in Billings, Montana, but began the drive forty-nine days and about five thousand miles ago in New York. “Are you alone?” she asks. “Yes,” I reply, “it’s just me.”
Jennifer lives in Interior, but tells me she identifies as Lakota, a confederation of seven related Sioux tribes, which, along with the Eastern Dakota and the Western Dakota, comprise the Great Sioux Nation. She sets down the moccasin and pulls her long black hair forward over her shoulders. Like her hands, her face shows signs of hard work and long days spent outside in weather that favors extremes. She has little grooves between her eyebrows from scowling into the sun and holds herself with a conviction born from struggle. Frayed blue jeans ride low on her hips. I have a hard time imagining that she could be any older than thirty-five—or any younger than fifty. It turns out she’s somewhere around forty. I haven’t talked to anyone in more than forty-eight hours, and Jennifer’s business is slow. Out of casual mutual interest, we spend the afternoon in conversation.
Jennifer acts as if she’s self-conscious about her smile, her thin lips stretching over narrow crooked teeth, mouth closed, but she tells me she’s most worried about sounding uneducated. She knows what outsiders say about the kinds of people who live in towns like Interior—that they’re ignorant and uninformed, that they don’t know what’s going on in the world and weren’t born to amount to much. She doesn’t want anyone to think those things about her, so she starts off slow with strangers, playing sentences out in her head before speaking aloud. When she does talk, she speaks deliberately and with authority.
She says that all kinds of “New Age kooks” have been coming in looking for “Indian stuff.” They want clothing, jewelry, and trinkets that look like the ones they see in the books and movies: oversized feather headdresses, powwow regalia dripping in metal bugle beads that chime with the tiniest movement, over-the-top peace pipes, and heavy leather fringe. Stuff some guy in a wardrobe trailer on a film lot might come up with after a few web searches and not much imagination. It’s “stuff” because they don’t really understand it. Wandering around the store with juju-reading crystals cupped in their hands on the search for something authentic, they don’t really seem to want to, either.
These are the same sorts of people—tourists pausing for a few minutes on their way east to Badlands National Park or west toward Mt. Rushmore—who act offended by the fleece blankets printed with tribal designs that fill the rear right corner of the store. A few will stay a night at the campground or grab a drink at one of the two bars, but most will just pass through. But the blankets aren’t there for them, anyway: Jennifer stocks up for the local tribe members who buy stacks to give as ceremonial gifts at celebrations, funerals, and community gatherings. The blankets are made in China; it’s only the strangers in RVs kitted out with flat-screen TVs who expect places like Interior to be frozen in time. International imports are blasphemous and any evidence of modernity reads false.
A truck crunches through the gravel before parking on the grass to the side of the small building, ignoring the available spots out front. A woman hops out. Jennifer identifies her as a local before asking me to hang around “just in case.” The two of them got in a fight at the Horseshoe Bar across the street the other night, the same bar where there was a gunfight the cops never showed up to a few weeks before, and where, she says, cowboys have been known to ride up and play billiards on horseback. But the woman isn’t there to continue the argument. She’s come to the store, the only gift store in town, to look for a pair of earrings for her granddaughter. Something simple, beaded, and preferably pink.
The large, L-shaped glass case full of beaded jewelry is clearly organized and divided by its anticipated audiences: the muted, earth-tone accessories that tourists like are in the front, and the bright neons and shimmering plastic rhinestones are displayed toward the back. All the jewelry is made by local artists, the beaded pieces mostly by local girls, and they like to make what they like to wear. Lately, that’s been more of a Miley Cyrus–hued color palette.
The woman asks the price of a small pair of dangly earrings. “Thirty-five dollars,” Jennifer replies. The woman tries to negotiate, asking for “the friends and family discount,” but Jennifer holds firm. The woman pulls out a few crumpled bills. She was planning on buying a forty-ounce at the Badlands Grocery, but now that’ll have to wait.
Jennifer packs the earrings into a small gift box and hands it to the woman without a smile. After she’s left, she lights a bundle of sage and a braid of prairie grass and walks around the store, smudging the space to cleanse it of any negative energy. The smell, a comforting combination of winter firewood and really good weed, sticks to the walls.
Housed in a small single-story wooden building and packed with local art, jewelry, beading supplies, and animal pelts, Jennifer’s store sits on the southern side of the two-lane highway, less than a mile from the town’s western limit. It lies next to the Broken Arrow Rodeo grounds, a dirt ring flanked by a few sets of weather-worn bleachers. You can walk the length of Interior’s downtown in five minutes—along the way you’ll pass the Horseshoe Bar, with a few beat-up trucks parked messily out front, and the convenience store and gas station with four analog pumps that date from the 1980s and a sign made from salvaged sticks nailed together to spell out “Cowboy Corner.” Aside from the highway, only two of the roads are paved—A Street and Main Street—but they’re all you need to hit the town’s remaining highlights: the post office, the Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill, the bare-bones Badlands Grocery, and, on Sundays, the First Presbyterian Church of Interior.
Even in this unpredictable and wild region of South Dakota, the Badlands give off a particularly otherworldly aura. Bare spires, ridges, tables, and canyons form a surreal landscape. More than ten thousand years ago, the Paleo-Indians, or Paleoamericans, lived and hunted here, stalking the mammoth that grazed on the lush post-glacial grasses. They were followed by the Arikara, a series of nomadic native tribes and, most recently, the Sioux, who were forced west by the U.S. government and manifest destiny. As many as a million people visit the National Park each year, but only a handful outside the reservations choose to make the area their home. Many of those who do have generations of ranching blood in their veins—heartiness is a trait that may well have been bred into them. Their families have driven fence posts into the region’s dusty copper earth for well over a hundred years. Most of Interior’s residents can connect themselves through blood or legend to early homesteaders, the nearby Native tribes, or both.
The Pine Ridge Reservation starts just under a mile south of Interior, the White River forming the reservation’s northernmost border, and members of the local Oglala Sioux (also called the Oglala Lakota) tribe are Interior’s closest neighbors. But the Cheyenne River Reservation isn’t far either, starting less than one hundred miles north, practically local in Dakota distances. The smaller Crow Creek Reservation, also Sioux, sits nearby as well, guarding the region’s eastern flank from the opposite side of the Missouri River. Between the harsh lands and the chronically underserved and impoverished Indian territories, the reservations and ranching towns exist in a state of suspended depression. Poverty rates are high and standards of living trend low.
Interior has grown little over the past decade, and the National Park hasn’t done as much for the local economy as locals wish it would. According to the results of the 2015 American Community Survey, put out by the United States Census Bureau, approximately 60 percent of the thirty or so households in Interior make significantly less than the median American income. In 2013, the year of the storm, their estimate was about 72 percent, but with such a small sample set to work off of, abstract government statistics don’t do much to illustrate residents’ lived reality. Cattle incomes are already unstable, fluctuating with the price of beef, and Winter Storm Atlas didn’t do those who ranch any favors. Young ranchers were pushed out of business, unable to pay back the bank loans with which they’d started their small herds. Jennifer mentions more than one older rancher who killed himself when the stress of rebuilding what had taken most of a lifetime to create proved to be too much to handle.
Jennifer says that she stopped ranching after leaving a man she refers to only as her ex. But she keeps a few horses in the paddock she built out back after the Tribal Council agreed to let her rent the building, a sign of how the neighboring Pine Ridge communities and the town of Interior have blended across social and geographic boundaries. A few sun-bleached, prairie-cleaned longhorn skulls also hang around the store, the remains of cattle Jennifer slaughtered for her personal consumption. She can sometimes remember their names based on the twists of their horns. “People, outsiders, they don’t see what goes into what we do,” she says. She’s talking about surviving as much as she is about ranching. “We love our animals. We put everything into them.”
One of the first things children in the United States learn about Native Americans—and where much of that education ends—is that when they slaughter American bison, often called buffalo, they use every part of the animal. Even the brain is used to tan the hide. An example of that lies spread out on the store’s floor. This particular brand of conservation bleeds into the non-Native community too, and there is a strong belief that nothing should go to waste, whether the animal is bison or beef. It’s one of the reasons the locals are still so connected to the land. That, and the fact that Interior’s Badlands Grocery offers little in the way of fresh food.
The closest supermarket with a significant produce section is thirty miles from Interior’s “downtown,” about the same distance as the nearest police station. Getting to the hospital takes just under an hour in good weather. Of the fifty or so students who attend the local K-8 school, more than 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the most recent available data. Sandwiched between Pine Ridge and the National Park, both government-created institutions designed to control the region, Interior offers a case study in two sorts of poverty: the financial kind, and a poverty of resources.
Jennifer wasn’t born in Interior. She grew up five hours away in Battle Creek, Nebraska. Love brought her here. Then love left, but she couldn’t bring herself to follow it out of town. Instead, her connection to the place deepened. The woman who bought the earrings is the sister of Jennifer’s now late ex, who himself constitutes a data point in what locals identify as a regional trend of men and women dying young: from cancer, suicide, liver failure—the list goes on.
Pine Ridge has one of the lowest life expectancies in the Western Hemisphere. For men, it hovers around fifty years old. The surrounding region doesn’t fare much better. When looking for something to blame, you might point to the astronomically high rates of alcoholism or the depression brought on by systemic poverty, but Jennifer thinks at least some of it is environmental, and that it has something to do with mining. She believes that contaminated water from poorly contained mines throughout western South Dakota has seeped into aquifers and surface water sources, and that it’s making people sick.
She isn’t the only one who thinks this. The chronically poor management of mines since the late nineteenth century, especially uranium mines, has been a frequent complaint to and by local governments, and the fight for continued access to clean water has broken onto the international stage. We’re just three hours from Standing Rock, where more than two hundred tribes joined together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Planned to run under Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River, the pipeline has been called both an invasion of sacred land and a danger to the water that feeds and replenishes the entire region.
Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, the Black Hills, and the Badlands, the land on which Interior sits were all once part of the Great Sioux Reservation as created by the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, also called the Sioux Treaty of 1868. The deal didn’t last long. Congress started slicing up the reservation in the 1870s in an effort to gain access to rich mining areas in the Black Hills. The Great Sioux War of 1876 was the reservation’s death knell. Approximately half of the land originally promised was divided into six smaller reservations. The government took the rest: the most arable and mineable land, as well as swaths of land between reservations designed to limit communication between the now divided tribes. They incentivized white men to move west, filling the buffer zones with ranches and settlements like Interior (although the town wasn’t officially incorporated until an extension of the Milwaukee Railroad was completed in 1907).
In the 1930s, the drought and destruction of the Dust Bowl era drove thousands of South Dakotans further west, but Interior remained. Instead of returning nearby vacant land to the Sioux, the government handed it over to the National Park Service and what was then called the General Land Office, now known as the Bureau of Land Management. In 1939, a significant chunk of the newly vacant land was established as a national monument. In the nineteen-seventies, the area was more than doubled, to 379 square miles, and designated a national park. That is how Interior ended up in a state of manufactured isolation, a narrow corridor between one of the poorest places in America, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and an awe-inspiring national park with some of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds but few opportunities for economic advancement.
From the summer of 2016 until the final days of February when the last protestors were forced out of the camps, the international media was flooded with iconic images of the water protectors that brought attention to the region. And yet the battle to protect the Missouri River may best be understood as it relates to this broader, ongoing, nationwide tug-of-war: Native American communities pushing for the right to access and protect their sparse natural resources and sacred lands, while the government forces its own agenda through fragmentation and bullying—a continuation of a four-hundred-year-old strategy of physical force and political trickery.
Interior is a town that was made possible by this very agenda, its existence a product of government deceit. As the neighboring settler towns of Imlay and Conata disintegrated throughout the Dust Bowl and dissolved in the 1950s, Interior found itself the unlikely gateway to a surreal juxtaposition. To be sure, Interior is in a better spot than the communities on nearby tribal lands. The median income is higher and the average standard of living is better, but the line between those on and off of the reservations isn’t as clear as it was designed to be. Blurring is a side effect of time and the boundaries drawn up on government maps have proven, in practice, to be less than precise.
In her shop, toying with a pair of bison horn earrings, Jennifer says that the fall has been good so far by Badlands standards, with warm days and cold nights. The cattle will have more time on their summer ranges and their coats will grow in thick, better preparing them for winter. Jennifer is glad she isn’t worrying about a herd anymore, but the rancher mentality, like her Lakota heritage, will always be a part of her. Two worlds once so clearly separate have, in her and many others, found common ground.
Jennifer doesn’t know what the future looks like for Interior, for independent ranchers, for Pine Ridge, or for the Sioux, and she isn’t sure what room there is for small communities and isolated regions like hers in the postindustrial nation that has grown up around them. Around here, there’s a general feeling of having been forgotten and left behind in the push for progress. It’s a frustration frequently voiced on both sides of the Pine Ridge borderline, although it tends to play out differently where politics are concerned. I visit Interior a few months before the 2016 presidential election. That November, only five of South Dakota’s sixty-six counties went blue—and four of those are situated entirely, or mostly, on Indian Reservations. The rest of the state voted firmly for Trump.
While we’ve been talking, Jennifer has climbed up a rickety ladder, taken one of the longhorn skulls off of the wall, carried it down, and rested it gently on the corner of her desk. She can’t remember this one’s name. I’d been looking for a bison or longhorn skull to pick up as a souvenir since I crossed the South Dakota state line and realized that I had been traveling for almost fifty days but didn’t have much more to memorialize the adventure than a few hundred handwritten pages of stories, sent off to a friend back home in tightly packed envelopes every few days, and the takeout menu from a guerilla Mexican restaurant run out of a closed-down gas station in Green River, Utah. I pay Jennifer in cash and balance the skull on my hip. Its horns stick out a foot in front and a foot behind me, and I wonder what, if anything, separates me from the crystal-toting tourists we were laughing at before the sun started to set.
As I waddle awkwardly to the door, a breeze blows it open. “Hold on,” Jennifer says. I pause and turn back to face her. She grabs a bundle of sage and a prairie grass braid like the ones she’d burnt earlier and thrusts them toward me. “Take these.” She says that the door opening was a sign. I try to pay for them, but she shakes her head. “Put them on your dashboard to keep you safe, then burn them around the skull before you bring it into your house.” I tell her I will and walk out to my van.
The setting sun has painted the harsh landscape a dusty peach. It takes me less than a minute to drive the half mile from the Native West Trading Company to the gravel driveway of the campground where I’ll stay the night, before finishing the long journey home.