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South Dakota's Badlands are rich in culture, rife with poverty

Photojournalist Danny Wilcox Frazier writes: The Badlands of South Dakota is one of the most economically depressed regions in the United States. Though surrounded by common social strife as a result, rich traditional culture survives since much of the Badlands are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota. Once led by the legendary war chief Crazy Horse, Pine Ridge is also where some 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry at the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, the tragic end to the Indian Wars.

Danny Wilcox Frazier for FacingChange.org

Locals attend the youth rodeo at Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Lakota traditions as well as Western culture are strong throughout the reservation.

Conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation are comparable to the most impoverished nations in the world. Two out of three people on the reservation live below the federal poverty line, and the unemployment rate hovers between eighty-five and ninety percent. Life expectancy is 48 years for men and 52 for women. Faced with staggering poverty, the Lakota work to preserve tradition, culture, and maintain their community.

Danny Wilcox Frazier for FacingChange.org

One of Nancy Broken Rope's twelve grandchildren who live with her hides inside a kitchen cupboard in Allen on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Broken Rope has 18 members of her family living with her, while the average number of people living in a single family home on the reservation is 17.

The Lakota are not the only people who struggle economically in the region today. Small towns across the Badlands suffer greatly as national economic shifts bankrupt and depopulate many rural communities. Broken-down ranches litter the landscape while leather-faced cowboys seemingly as old as the soil itself pass in sun-faded pickups. Many ranchers in South Dakota are descendants of the land-hungry settlers who historically pressured the federal government to take Lakota territory and confine the Lakota to reservations. Now, both Indians and whites live in isolation in the Badlands, forgotten communities left to survive as best they can. 

Danny Wilcox Frazier for FacingChange.org

The Great Plains of southwestern South Dakota.

Danny Wilcox Frazier is unusual in the world of photography. Instead of gravitating to the media hub of New York City or far flung war zones, he works as a freelance photographer in Iowa City, Iowa. While he’s always been drawn to documenting the emptying of rural America, recent data from the Census Bureau emphasizes the trend: the rural population has dropped from 20% to 16% of the nation's total in ten years.

Danny Wilcox Frazier for FacingChange.org

Friends gather to practice steer roping near Kadoka, South Dakota. Traditional Western life still lives strong through the region surrounding the Badlands.

For this most recent look at rural America, Frazier spent a month this summer in the southwest corner of South Dakota. He's been visiting the area frequently since 2008. See the complete story at FacingChange.org which commissioned the work in conjunction with Leica Camera.

Danny Wilcox Frazier for FacingChange.org

John Neumann and first cousin, Colten Triebwasser, take a break from cutting hay and vaccinating cattle on the Neumann ranch near Cactus Flat, S.D. Neumann lives with his wife, Julie, on their self-described "dirt poor" horse and cattle ranch in southwestern South Dakota. They struggled to survive eight straight years of drought that ended in 2008, only to be challenged by high fuel costs once the rain fall improved.

Frazier wants to bring attention to the people who still live there. Why? “Land is still one of our nation’s greatest assets and if no one is living in these rural places, how that land is being used, treated or disregarded, there’s no oversight of that…We need to have a rural population to watch out for and invest in rural places, and maintain our rural culture,” Frazier says.

See more of Frazier’s work on rural America in an urban age: Driftless: Stories from Iowa

Related story: New data shows grim picture of poverty