For eleven thousand years, American Indians have used this area for their hunting grounds. Long before the Lakota were the little-studied paleo-Indians, followed by the Arikara people. Their descendants live today in North Dakota as a part of the Three Affiliated Tribes. Archaeological records combined with oral traditions indicate that these people camped in secluded valleys where fresh water and game were available year round. Eroding out of the stream banks today are the rocks and charcoal of their campfires, as well as the arrowheads and tools they used to butcher bison, rabbits, and other game. From the top of the Badlands Wall, they could scan the area for enemies and wandering herds. If hunting was good, they might hang on into winter, before retracing their way to their villages along the Missouri River. By one hundred and fifty years ago, the Great Sioux Nation consisting of seven bands including the Oglala Lakota, had displaced the other tribes from the northern prairie.
The next great change came toward the end of the 19th century as homesteaders moved into South Dakota. The U.S. government stripped American Indians of much of their territory and forced them to live on reservations. In the fall and early winter of 1890, thousands of Native American followers, including many Oglala Sioux, became followers of the Indian prophet Wovoca. His vision called for the native people to dance the Ghost Dance and wear Ghost Shirts, which would be impervious to bullets. Wovoca had predicted that the white man would vanish and their hunting grounds would be restored. One of the last known Ghost Dances was conducted on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. As winter closed in, the ghost dancers returned to Pine Ridge Agency. The climax of the struggle came in late December, 1890. Headed south from the Cheyenne River, a band of Minneconjou Sioux Indians crossed a pass in the Badlands Wall. Pursued by units of the U.S. Army, they were seeking refuge in the Pine Ridge Reservation. The band, led by Chief Big Foot, was finally overtaken by the soldiers near Wounded Knee Creek in the Reservation and ordered to camp there overnight. The troops attempted to disarm Big Foot's band the next morning. Gunfire erupted. Before it was over, nearly two hundred Indians and thirty soldiers lay dead. The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last major clash between American Indians and the U.S. military until the American Indian Freedom actions of the 1970s, most notably again, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of Badlands National Park. It is located approximately 45 miles south of the park on Pine Ridge Reservation. The U.S. government and the Oglala Lakota Nation have agreed that this is a story to be told by the Oglala of Pine Ridge and Minneconjou of Standing Rock Reservation. The interpretation of the site and its tragic events are held as the primary responsibility of these survivors.
The history of the White River Badlands as a significant paleontological resource goes back to the traditional Native American knowledge of the area. The Lakota found large fossilized bones, fossilized seashells and turtle shells. They correctly assumed that the area had once been under water, and that the bones belonged to creatures which no longer existed. Paleontological interest in this area began in the 1840's. Trappers and traders regularly traveled the 300 miles from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie along a path which skirted the edge of what is now Badlands National Park. Fossils were occasionally collected, and in 1843 a fossilized jaw fragment collected by Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company found it's way to a physician in St. Louis by the name of Dr. Hiram A. Prout.
In 1846, Prout published a paper about the jaw in the American Journal of Science in which he stated that it had come from a creature he called a Paleotherium. Shortly after the publication, the White River Badlands became popular fossil hunting grounds and, within a couple of decades, numerous new fossil species had been discovered in the White River Badlands. In 1849, Dr. Joseph Leidy, published a paper on an Oligocene camel and renamed Prout's Paleotherium, Titanotherium prouti. By 1854 when he published a series of papers about North American fossils, 84 distinct species had been discovered in North America - 77 of which were found in the White River Badlands. In 1870 a Yale professor, O. C. Marsh, visited the region and developed more refined methods of extracting and reassembling fossils into nearly complete skeletons. From 1899 to today, the South Dakota School of Mines has sent people almost every year and remains one of the most active research institutions working in the White River Badlands. Throughout the late 1800's and continuing today, scientists and institutions from all over the world have benefited from the fossil resources of the White River Badlands The White River Badlands have developed an international reputation as a fossil rich area. They contain the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known, providing a brief glimpse of life in this area 33 million years ago. Comparisons between the fossils here and fossils of similar age around the world have helped paint a picture of life on earth millions of years ago.
Aspects of American homesteading began before the end of the Civil War; however, homesteading didn't really impact the Badlands until well into the 20th century. Many hopeful farmers travelled to South Dakota from Europe or the East Coast to try to eke out a living in this hard place. The standard size for a homestead was 160 acres. This proved far too small to support a family in a semi-arid, wind-swept environment. In the western Dakotas, the size of a homestead was increased to 640 acres. Cattle grazed and crops like winter wheat and hay were cut annually. However, the Great Dust Bowl events of the 1930s combined with waves of grasshoppers proved too much for most of the hardy souls of the Badlands. Houses built out of sod blocks and heated by buffalo chips were soon abandoned. Those who remained are still here today - ranching and raising wheat. The roots of these people of the prairie run deep. Like the grasses they depend on, they are tenacious, surviving blizzards, droughts, and floods to remain firmly grounded in a place as unforgiving as it is beautiful.
The Stronghold District of Badlands National Park offers more than scenic badlands with spectacular views. Co-managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, this 133,300 acre area is also steeped in history. Deep draws, high tables, and rolling prairie hold the stories of the earliest Plains hunters, the paleo-Indians, as well as the present day Lakota Nation. Homesteaders and fossil hunters have also made their mark on the land. There is a more recent role this remote, sparsely populated area has played in U.S. history: World War II and the Badlands gunnery range.
As a part of the war effort, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) took possession of 341,726 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux people, for a gunnery range. Included in this range was 337 acres from then Badlands National Monument. This land was used extensively from 1942 through 1945 as air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery ranges. Precision and demolition bombing exercises were also quite common. After the war, portions of the bombing range were used as an artillery range by the South Dakota National Guard. In 1968, most of the range was declared excess property by the USAF. 2500 acres are retained by the USAF but are no longer used.
Firing took place within most of the present day Stronghold District. Land was bought to leased form individual landowners and the Tribe in order to clear the area of human occupation. Old car bodies and 55 gallon drums painted bright yellow were used as targets. Bulls-eyes 250 feet across were plowed into the ground and used as targets by bombardier bombing flights. Small automatic aircraft called drones and 60 foot by 8 foot screens dragged behind planes served as mobile targets. Today, the ground is littered discarded bullet shells and unexploded ordnance.
For safety, 125 families were relocated from their farms and ranches in the 1940s. Those that remained nearby recall times when they had to dive under tractors while out cutting hay to avoid shells dropped by planes miles outside of the boundary. In the town of Interior, both a church and the building housing the current post office received six inch shells through the roof. Pilots in practice, operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, found it a challenge to determine the exact boundaries of the range. Fortunately, there were no civilian casualties. However, at least a dozen members of flight crews lost their lives in plane crashes.
Just as it was difficult for pilots to determine the gunnery range from the air, it is challenging to find your way when exploring the Stronghold District. There are few roads. The natural conditions of rain and snow add to the complexity. Throughout the Stronghold District are spent 50 caliber machine gun shells and 20mm cannon shells. Larger explosive shells are occasionally found eroding out of the Badlands buttes. If you find any shells, do not touch them. Note where you are. If you have a map, note on the map where you are. As soon as possible, report this to the White River Ranger Station at (605) 455 - 2878. The National Park Service, working with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are undertaking a clean up effort for this sacred ground. Do your part. Leave all objects you find in the park in place. Report anything unusual you find to a park ranger.
Stand on the edge of a canyon carved through the Badlands and imagine a time when the faint hum of planes grew into a steady buzz. The White River Badlands, avoided by the soldiers of the nineteenth century, becomes a training ground for the airmen of the twentieth. The wind gives way to an explosion. Or not. Those unexploded ordnance wait for the opportunity to do what they were built to do: detonate. Remain safe by remembering.