Governing the countryside: On modernity and progress in rural South Dakota.

University of California, Berkeley

How should we make sense of “red states” and “blue states,” and in a way that does not fall victim to the political polarization that seems to have reached a crescendo in the present? My new book, Power and Progress on the Prairie, seeks to uncover the history of power (legal, political and social) in the Rosebud Country of South Dakota—power that has saturated the relations between the heartland and Washington, DC, since South Dakota became a state in 1889. While it may be that those who designed, enacted, and implemented national policy affecting the heartland had benevolent intentions, the forms of influence that they wielded often harmed and were resented by those people who live in the heartland (both Indian and non-Indian).

Power and Progress on the Prairie focuses on the policies and practices of governing that the federal government (both in Washington and in its local agencies in South Dakota) put into place to “improve” Indian and non-Indian people and their lands. For example, the allotment policy for Lakota people was designed to break up collective tribal landholdings into individual tracts of 160 acres or 320 acres (depending on whether the land was for farming or grazing), just as the homestead laws (which benefited primarily whites) were meant to populate the public domain with small-scale farmers. This Jeffersonian policy for individualizing land ownership in order to found a primarily rural and agrarian society was generally not seen as onerous by either Lakota or non-Indian people in South Dakota, even though it was a policy invented by elites in the east.

Less benign from the point of view of South Dakotans was the early-twentieth-century project to make them into “progressive” farmers and farm-wives (the policy was deeply gendered). For Lakota people, the goal was to “civilize” them by eradicating Native culture (and language) and discipline them to think and act like full-time farm families. Day schools and boarding schools (run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Jesuits, and the Episcopalians) would do some of this disciplining. The rest would be done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs “agent” (later, “superintendent”) at the Rosebud Agency and his field staff. The aim was to keep Indian families focused on the task of raising crops and tending to livestock, to get them to prudently plan for the future (the assumption was that Indians were present- or past-, not future-, oriented), and to encourage them to be rational in their use of time, money, and property. In the process, Lakota culture was systematically denigrated, consigned to the “primitive” past, and Lakota people suffered profound personal scarring in and out of boarding schools. This is part of the colonial legacy of the policy to “civilize” or “modernize” Native people that still has repercussions in the present.

The Cooperative Extension Service took essentially the same approach to improving non-Indian farm families. While farmers and farm wives did not feel personally stigmatized by the teachings of the Extension Service, they were aware that their seat-of-the-pants approach to making ends meet on the farm was rejected by the uplifters as “backward.” The aim was to teach farmers to think like businessmen, to keep detailed records of expenses, assets, and revenue, and to identify precisely how they could improve their bottom line. Many farm families came to see this project to improve them as nonsense, invented by “theorists” who had never been real “dirt farmers.”

The advice of outsiders—or those working at the behest of outsiders in Washington or the (quite distant) South Dakota State Agricultural College—became even more burdensome during the New Deal. In the face of the Dust Bowl and the Depression crash of agricultural prices, the New Dealers sought to socially re-engineer rural society. Instead of seeking to maximize the production of cash crops and livestock, farmers and ranchers would now be paid a fee to reduce production; the idea was that prices had declined because of “overproduction” relative to demand. What is more, farmers and ranchers were encouraged to practice forms of agriculture that protected the land (for example, contour plowing, crop stripping, and fallowing) for “future generations,” even if they reduced farm income in the present. Farmers were criticized by the Department of Agriculture and the Extension Service for being “individualists” who needed to develop “social responsibility,” and turn their backs on their habitual ways of doing things (much of which has been encouraged earlier by the Extension Service). To rural people who had long had their own forms of commitment to the greater good (for example, through military service, church participation, and commitment to neighbors), the collectivist vision of the New Dealers was deeply suspect. While the history of “red state” and “blue state” resentments is complex, finishing this book up at our present moment in American politics has convinced me that much of the left-vs.-right ill will in American politics—and particularly the suspicion of the heartland toward the East and West Coasts—originated during the New Deal. This suspicion of certain outside theories is not at all unlike the understandable suspicion of Lakota people toward the larger, non-Indian society and its ideas about “the Indian problem.”

One of the founders of anthropological method, Bronislaw Malinowski, once described the goal of ethnography as the struggle “to understand the native’s point of view.” In other words, the idea is to translate the thinking of “the native” (the community understudy) in terms that allow one to see the rationality of native thought and behavior—indeed, how one would think and act in the same way in the native’s shoes. Inevitably, this methodological base has ethical and moral implications. The scholar must seek to understand, not critique, the community understudy—in my case, a “red state.” I cannot overstate my deep appreciation for what I have learned from both Indian and non-Indian people in South Dakota, both those I have talked to formally and informally, and those whose thoughts and feelings I have read in the archives. My book is a hopefully not-too-feeble attempt to offer a different kind of scholarly understanding of a special place in a red state.


Thomas Biolsi is author of Power and Progress on the Prairie: Governing People on Rosebud Reservation. Biolsi teaches Native American studies and comparative ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been conducting research on Rosebud Reservation for thirty years. His previous books include Deadliest Enemies: Law and Race Relations on and off Rosebud Reservation (Minnesota, 2007) and Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.

“An insightful, empowering read for those working to understand U.S. policy over time in rural contexts and Indian-White relations in the context of State interventions, this book will help students think creatively and confidently about operationalizing political economic theory over space and time to unpack the messy and incomplete process of governing rural America.”
—Beth Rose Middleton, University of California, Davis

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