Badlands National Park


Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are. Though seemingly inhospitable at first glance, human occupation of the White River Badlands of South Dakota dates back at least 11,000 years, with as many as 101 archaeological sites identified. Beginning in 1998, the park will be subject to a multi-year parkwide archaeology survey to glean more knowledge about its human past.

The earliest people to come into this area were ancient mammoth hunters. Much later they were followed by nomadic tribes whose lives centered on bison hunting. The Arikara were the first tribe known to have inhabited the White River area. During the 18th century, groups of Arikara people from the Missouri River hunted bison in the Badlands. The Arikara also traded for horses with the Teton Sioux, who had been slowly migrating west since about 1670. Around 1775, the Oglala and Brule bands of the Sioux nation moved into the Bad River territory around the present town of Philip, South Dakota, approximately 40 miles from park headquarters. These Native Americans became the master plains hunters, subsisting on buffalo.

Though the bison-hunting Lakota flourished during the next 100 years, their dominion on the prairie was short-lived. French fur trappers were the first of many European arrivals who, in time, would supplant the Lakota. Trappers were soon followed by soldiers, miners, cattle farmers, and homesteaders who forever changed the face of the prairie. After 40 years of struggle culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the Lakota were confined to reservations. Cattle replaced the bison; wheat fields replaced the prairies; and, in time, gasoline-powered vehicles replaced the horses.

White homesteaders and the Lakota have shaped this land in terms of the impact that human beings have had here. Late 19th century photographers have captured on film the images of these people as they created new lives for themselves and came into contact with one another, showing, unwittingly the poignancy and hard work that typified the process. The bison that had played such a vital role in the Lakotas' way of life were eradicated with the arrival of the white hunters, leaving only the paintings and drawings that they had earlier made to continually remind them of long-gone patterns of life and ways that they related to their environment.

The Oglala Lakota people today have the Pine Ridge Reservation. Fifty percent of Badlands National Park is located on this reserve. Pine Ridge has several very small communities, schools, and Oglala Lakota College.

Other explorers, such as Jedediah Smith, attempted to cross the Badlands with negative experiences. The early fossil hunters, such as Dr. Hiram Prout, Dr. Joseph Leidy, and Dr. F.V. Hayden, began arriving in the 1840s through the 1860s. The science of vertebrate paleontology has its roots in the White River Badlands formations.

These early scientists were followed by the homesteaders. As early as 1890, cattle growers discovered the nutritious Great Plains grasses. They were followed by the wave of early homesteaders, primarily of northern European heritage. The drought of the 1930s brought many hopeful agrarians to their knees. Today, only a few hardy descendants of these original settlers remain. However, their tenacity is similar to that of the prairie itself: Their roots are in deep and far reaching.

Native American History

Human Impact
Although the Badlands are millions of years old, they are one of the most dynamic landscapes in the world. It is estimated that one inch of badland terrain erodes each year. However, this is a natural process. The human impacts on the Badlands stretch back centuries and are visible throughout the park.

Those exploring the Badlands on foot should be careful not to remove any fossils, rocks, plants, or animals. A seemingly insignificant pile of rocks could be a remnant of an Arikara hunting camp. A fossil removed from its setting loses much of its scientific value. Each resource in the park is protected for all to enjoy.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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