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Badlands On Assignment

Badlands On Assignment

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Where the Buffalo Roam

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By John L. EliotPhotographs by Annie Griffiths Belt

South Dakota's stark buttes and wind-roiled grasslands are more bountiful than bad, harboring bison, birds, and a hoard of fossils that illegal collectors can't resist.

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A "Homecooking" sign, perched on the side of a gravel road in southwestern South Dakota, stops me. It leads to a brown sheet-metal building, the Cuny Table Cafe—two booths and one round table, first come, first served. Nellie Cuny and her sister do most of the cooking, which runs to T-bones and Indian tacos. Nellie's 61-year-old son, Marvin, does most of the talking. He offers me a ride around their sizable spread.

With Marvin's pickup locked in four-wheel-drive, we lurch for hours over Cuny Table, the plateau where his family has been raising horses and cattle for more than a hundred years. The family has stayed because this is the fat of the land: buffalo grass, wheatgrass, and grama grass, the full bushel basket of the mixed-grass prairie.

Marvin drives slowly through rippling pasture as several Cuny mares and foals sidle up. We stop. Knowing Marvin's truck may yield treats of grain cubes, some lay their muzzles on the hood.

The land benefits more than livestock. We see long-billed curlews—huge sandpipers—twittering overhead. Mule deer lift their heads, all ears. Half a dozen pronghorn, speed kings of North America, watch us nonchalantly. Then two of them bolt as if a gun had fired. Legs hidden in the grass, their tan-and-white bodies blur.

To the north, along the rim of Cuny Table, the horizon suddenly changes. The prairie gives way to a stark and eerie landscape, an area so desolate that the U.S. Air Force and later the National Guard used it for bombing and artillery practice from 1942 until 1970. "We lived next to the range," Marvin says. "Planes dropped targets with parachutes, and we'd watch where they came down. Then we'd go get the parachutes and make silk curtains and tablecloths out of 'em."
The great-grandfathers of the Oglala Sioux called the land north of Cuny Table mako sica, "land bad." They had good reason. Eons of water and wind have carved the region into a wild maze of cliffs, canyons, spires, pinnacles, castles, balancing rocks, tables, gullies. Almost nothing lives in the hot, naked buttes except turkey vultures that soar and scan for a jackrabbit's carcass. French-Canadian fur trappers reviled the landscape as les mauvaises terres à traverser, the bad lands to cross.

Yet there is a richness to this desolation.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Origin of the Ghost Dance
The Native American Ghost Dance, also known as the Round Dance, first occurred in the late 19th  century. Two versions of the dance were created—the earliest was developed in 1869 by a Paiute named Wodziwob who awoke from a trance declaring that Indians could begin a new life by performing a series of rituals. The rituals included a Ghost Dance, during which participants would hold hands and sidestep left around a circle. This initial Ghost Dance spread west to California and Oregon, and then gradually subsided.
In 1889 another Paiute named Wovoka—whose father may have assisted Wodziwob—fell into a similar trance and awoke with prophecies that a new day would arrive in which all whites would be destroyed, Native Americans would regain their land, and their deceased ancestors would return to them. According to Wovoka the practicing of rituals such as the Ghost Dance would help bring about this new life. These ideas spread throughout tribes of the central and western United States. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Caddo, and Paiute soon became followers of Wovoka's teachings.
White American settlers became extremely unnerved when they began noticing the dances that various tribes were conducting, thinking that the Ghost Dance was in preparation for war. The federal government was called upon to put an end to the rituals. In South Dakota a group of Lakota Sioux fleeing to the Pine Ridge Reservation for safety was intercepted by the Army near the town of Porcupine and redirected to an encampment along Wounded Knee Creek. As the Army attempted to disarm the Lakota, a shot went off. The Army began firing and ended up killing hundreds of unarmed Lakota. Many of the victims of the Battle at Wounded Knee were the elderly, women, and children.
Wovoka's Ghost Dance died out; however, variations of the ritual were practiced by a few tribes during the early 20th century.

—Erika Lloyd
Did You Know?

Related Links
Badlands National Park
The official site for the park contains a wealth of information on the park's history, natural resources, paleontology, and travel tips.
Buffalo Gap National Grassland
Administered by the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, this site provides a brief overview of the flora and fauna that can be found in these grasslands.
USDA Plants Database
A searchable database for U.S. native or naturalized plants; you can search by common or scientific name. Includes images, classification information, plant characteristics and/or fact sheets, distribution information, etc.
Wounded Knee Museum
Learn about the events that led up to the massacre at Wounded Knee through this museum's online exhibition. Flash software is required.


Froiland, Sven G. Natural History of the Black Hills and the Badlands. Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, 1990.

Gagnon, Gregory, and Karen White Eyes. Pine Ridge Reservation Yesterday and Today. Badlands Natural History Association, 1992.

Hauk, Joy Keve. Badlands, Its Life and Landscape. Badlands Natural History Association, 1969.

Johnson, James R., and Gary E. Larson. Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. South Dakota State University College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, 1999.

Lanham, Url. The Bone Hunters: The Heroic Age of Paleontology in the American West. Dover Publications, 1991.

Samson, Fred, and Fritz Knopf. "Prairie Conservation in North America," Bioscience (June 1994), 418-21.

Stoffer, Phillip W. Geology of Badlands National Park: A Preliminary Report. U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, 2003. Available online at

Tomovick, Barbara, and Kimberly Metz. Insider's Guide to South Dakota's Black Hills and Badlands. Falcon Publishing, 2000.


NGS Resources
Phelan, Glen. "Uncovering Earth's History." National Geographic Reading Expeditions (2003), 1-32.
Brokaw, Tom. "ZipUSA: Pickstown, South Dakota." National Geographic (April 2002), 124-28.

Gorman, Jim.  "America's Sweet Spots." National Geographic Adventure (March 2002), 52-65.
O'Gara, Geoffrey. "Prairie Pride." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1997), 132.
Kostyal, K. M.  "America's State Parks: 10 of the Best." National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1994) 54-78.
Dunn, Jerry Camarillo.  "The Great Wall of South Dakota." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1990), 120.
Madson, John.  "South Dakota's Badlands: Castles in Clay." National Geographic (April 1981), 524-39.


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