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By John G. MitchellPhotographs by Jim Richardson

After generations of trying to bully America's heartland into producing, many farmers are giving up. But others are changing their ways, working with the land on its own terms.

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If there was any surprise in the findings of the 2000 U.S. census, it wasn't so much the loss of population from half the counties in the Great Plains; those numbers had been ebbing for decades. The surprise was the disproportionate gain in counties that contain the region's Indian reservations, a growth that could not be pegged entirely to higher birthrates, better health care, casino jobs, and the availability of federally subsidized housing. Thousands of Native Americans long off the "rez"—Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux—were putting the white man's cities behind them and heading for home. "A lot of these people returning from the cities are retirees," says Fred DuBray, a Sioux who manages the InterTribal Bison Cooperative near the Black Hills. "This is where they want to be. This is where their heart is."
The heaviest surge of reverse migration has occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota people and already the most populous of the many reservations scattered across the Great Plains. Though tribal and federal officials disagree on the Pine Ridge numbers, Shannon County, where most of the Oglala Lakota live, registered a gain of 26 percent in the 2000 census, second highest for ten-year growth in the entire state.
One day at Kyle, a Lakota community northeast of Wounded Knee, I spoke with Ivan Sorbel, a Sioux who came home to Indian Country after four years at out-of-state colleges and six in the U.S. Marine Corps. Sorbel works with the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce to promote small, entrepreneurial businesses on the reservation as an alternative to government handouts. "What we're trying to do," he said, "is get away from selling poverty." But it won't be easy. Unemployment on the reservation still runs 60 to 80 percent, with all the attendant problems of substance abuse and short lives.
One prospect that Sorbel finds encouraging would capitalize on the tribe's proximity to vacation destinations such as the Black Hills and Badlands National Park. Already the Lakota are promoting a kind of tourism that celebrates "living" tribal culture. Reenactors need not apply.
Tourism is occasionally touted as an economic panacea not only for the reservation but for the region as well, as if frigid winters, sizzling summers, constant wind, and a paucity of traveler services were mere inconveniences, easily tolerated in the pursuit of all this glorious open space. Yet however devoutly some folks might wish the Plains to develop a recreation-based economy, the safer bet is on those who say it will never happen. So what are the alternatives? 

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Sights & Sounds
Experience the changing landscape of the Great Plains and meet the people determined to change with it.
Add a backdrop to your desktop with an image of a Great Plains ghost town.
Send a friend a goodnight e-greeting of windmills spinning under Great Plains moonlight.
Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of buffalo once again foraging across the plain.
What can be done to bring people and prosperity back to the rural precincts of the Great Plains? How can the rural population decline be reversed?

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?
Homestead Act
The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, provided virtually free of charge 160 acres (65 hectares) of vacant public land to "any person who is head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his intention to become such." The homesteader was required to build a home, make improvements, and farm the land for five years. More than two million people took advantage of the offer and settled more than 270 million acres (109 million hectares) of land. Repealed in the contiguous United States in 1976, it remained in effect for another ten years in Alaska. America's last homesteader was Kenneth Deardorff who in 1988, after fulfilling the requirements of the Act, received his patent on property he claimed in southwest Alaska in 1974.

Famous Words
 "Go West, young man." These famous words counseling men to take advantage of the opportunities available on the western frontier are often attributed to newspaperman Horace Greeley. They were actually written by John B. L. Soule in an 1851 editorial that appeared in the Indiana newspaper Terre Haute Express and were later popularized by Greeley when he reprinted the editorial in the New York Tribune. People have been incorrectly crediting the phrase to Greeley ever since. Though the words were not in fact Greeley's, the sentiment was not unlike that expressed by him in earlier times. In 1841 he wrote in the New York Tribune, "If you have no family or friends to aid you…turn your face to the Great West and there build your home and fortune."
—Abby Tipton

Did You Know?

Related Links
United States Census Bureau
Would you like to find out if the population of your county has increased or decreased over the past ten years? Or maybe you want to find out how many people in your county are over 65. This government website offers census data for each state and county in the United States. 
Land Institute
Log on to learn about this nonprofit research organization dedicated to developing an "agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops."
International Institute for Sustainable Development
This site contains information on issues concerning sustainable agriculture, resources use, and depopulation in the Great Plains.
Center for Great Plains Studies
If you are looking for scholarly articles on the history, culture, and science of the Great Plains, log on to this site and find the table of contents from past issues of the journals Great Plains Research and Great Plains Quarterly. Provisions are also included for ordering any issues that may interest you.


Archer, J. Clark, and Richard E. Lonsdale. "Geography of Population Change and Redistribution Within Post-frontier Great Plains." Great Plains Research (Spring 2003), 43-61.
Belsie, Laurent. "The Dwindling Heartland: America's New Frontier." Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 2003.
Bonnifield, Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression. University of New Mexico Press, 1979.
Callenbach, Ernest. Bring Back the Buffalo! Island Press, 1996.
Egan, Timothy. "Amid Dying Towns of Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand." New York Times, December 1, 2003.
Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Popper, Deborah E., and Frank J. Popper. "The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method." Geographical Review (October 1999), 491-510.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press, 1959.
Wishart, David J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press (forthcoming in 2004).
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, 1979.


NGS Resources
Viola, Herman J. Trail To Wounded Knee: The Last Stand of the Plains Indians 1860-1890. National Geographic Books, 2003.
Leacock, Elspeth. The Midwest. National Geographic Books, 2002.
Hodgson, Bryan. "Buffalo: Back Home on the Range." National Geographic (November 1994), 64-89.
Chadwick, Douglas H. "The American Prairie: Roots of the Sky." National Geographic (October 1993), 90-119.
Fisher, Ron. The Heartland of a Continent: America's Plains and Prairies. National Geographic Books, 1991.


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