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Celebrating You and Me and South Dakota
Nov 19, 2013
President Benjamin Harrison declared South Dakota a state 124 years ago. Boundaries were drawn. Politicians were elected. But not much changed except that the inhabitants now had more in common; they were South Dakotans. They came from a variety of ethnicities and played a multitude of roles in the newly formed state. There were riverboat captains, fur traders, prostitutes, politicians, farmers and businessmen.
With such a diverse population, how would you define a South Dakotan? One answer is, of course, place. The late historian and writer John R. Milton, who taught at the University of South Dakota for many years, wrote in his book, South Dakota: A History, "If people of differing beliefs, nationality backgrounds, and activities gather in a place, it is possible that the place becomes the key to the people. So does the particular time."
We share a vast grasslands prairie, the Black Hills, nine Indian reservations, dramatic sunsets, a sharp East/West River divide and the wild Missouri. We share badlands, glacial lakes, huge mountain carvings and extreme temperatures and storms.
Milton believed South Dakotans' cumulative character has been shaped by our closeness to the land. "The earth," he wrote, "and our working of it, or on it, keeps us basically primitive in spirit. This would mean our values (at least many of them) are fundamental, and are less artificial or faddish than some of those values which are associated with sophistication." Milton thought that the prairie's isolation, or privacy, helped to shape Dakotans’ character, making us "independent, occasionally to the point of orneriness, but it also makes us aware of the importance of companionship, of willingness to help neighbors, and so we are a friendly people."
What is a typical South Dakotan? Can we be categorized so easily? The editor of Yankee Magazine was once asked to describe the typical Yankee and he told a story that goes like this.
A Vermont fellow was sitting on a park bench by a fork in the road when a family drove up and stopped. The father rolled down the car window and asked, “Does it matter which road we take to get to the courthouse?”
The man on the park bench, the typical Yankee, replied, “Not to me.”
The Yankee editor thought the joke illustrated the character of his people. But if you change the story and replace the Yankee with a South Dakotan on the park bench it makes no sense. A South Dakotan wouldn't respond that way. He would most likely get in his own car and lead the family to the courthouse.
Along with a unique, shared place and similar values, South Dakotans also have 124 years of shared history. My dad, Bernie, started South Dakota Magazine in 1985. Each issue is filled with stories of South Dakota's people and places. He says he didn't notice at first (because he was too busy selling ads and writing stories in order to pay the bills) but those stories, as a whole, illustrate who we are as a people. "Reading your magazine should be like seeing your reflection in the lake," he once wrote. "The man in the water grins and you grin. He squirms and so do you. He grows sad and you know why."
Our birthday year, which has just begun, will present many opportunities to celebrate our shared history and culture. Visit www.125sd.gov to learn about festivities in your area. And as you attend one, remember it is a celebration of you and me, and of our common reflection in the water.