As South Dakota marks 125 years of statehood, SDPB is featuring stories that rediscover our identity and heritage through the people, places, and ideas that make this state unique. Although there are many arid areas across the country that bear the name, there’s only one “Badlands” National Park – and it’s located in South Dakota. We visited this former site of an ancient sea to learn more about the area the Lakota have called “Bad Land” for centuries.
Their history dates back before mankind…more than 60 million years…to when dinosaurs still roamed the land and a great ancient sea covered the northern plains.
When that water retreated, wind and weather began to erode the sea floor giving way to huge spires and deep ravines, creating an area the Lakota had a special name for says Rick Two Dogs.
“Our Lakota name for it…the name for our people is Mako Sica…means…like…the bad lands.”
Rick Two Dogs is a Wakan Iyeska – or “interpreter of the sacred” for his people. Rick’s great-grandfather was Chief American Horse…a keeper of history for the Lakota.
“And he carried a winter count,” Two Dogs explains. “It was handed down to him…something like…I think what he said was twelve generations.”
A Winter Count was a way of recording the history of the Lakota people. Each winter an image was painted on a piece of rawhide that symbolized the most significant event that had occurred during the previous year. That rawhide was then saved and added to during each successive winter.
“He said there’s stories of giant beings that lived there,” Two Dogs recalls. “And I think he’s talking about the dinosaurs and the different prehistoric animals that were there.”
Looking out across a stark landscape that’s part of the quarter-million acres that make up Badlands National Park, Education Specialist Julie Johndreau says giant beings did, indeed, once roam the land.
“The oldest rock layers in the park are from about seventy-million years ago,” Johndreau explains. “That was the time of the dinosaurs. Of course, we don’t see dinosaur fossils because at that time it was a shallow ancient sea.”
That ancient sea stretched out across what is now the Great Plains. Over time, the sea retreated and opened up the land. Johndreau notes that the materials that make up what most people consider “The Badlands” – the unique spire formations – were deposited in that basin from about 37 million years ago to 25 million years ago…or about halfway between the time of the dinosaurs and today.
“It’s amazing sedimentary rock formations and deposits,” observes Johndreau. “And they were deposited from rivers, streams, floods millions of years ago…carrying sediments from the Black Hills out to this area which was a basin at the time…and filling it in…layer upon layer upon layer. Of course, when we look at The Badlands today, we see those stripes…those layers.”
Before the erosion that created those spires and valleys began, says Johndreau, the area was a terrestrial environment.
“So…at the very beginning of this process it was very wet and very tropical,” Johndreau comments. “So...very wide meandering rivers coming through. But from the Eocene to the Oligocene…that thirty-seven million years to twenty-five million years we go from a warm, wet environment to a cooler, drier environment.’
And contrary to what many believe, explains Johndreau, the spires and valleys seen in The Badlands today are not the bottom of the sea that once existed here.
“No…that’s a misconception,” notes Johndreau. “It was once actually completely filled in and flat from the spires. So when you’re looking…now you’re looking at the spires…but at the time it was being deposited it was a flat, terrestrial land environment.”
Which just goes to show what twenty million years or so of erosion can do.
Creatures that existed here include camels, the three-toed horse, rhinoceros, rabbits, beavers and land turtles as well as ammonites, marine reptiles and a variety of fish. In fact, one of the most complete fossil collections in North America can be found at Badlands National Park.
As for human habitation, Julie Johndreau says the difficult terrain and extremes in weather didn’t rank The Badlands high on the list of relocation destinations.
“The Badlands does have a history of human use and human occupation over the last 11,000 years,” states Jonhdreau. “From what I know it was mostly transient people passing through.”
Rick Two Dogs agrees and notes that the Lakota would generally only come here for one reason.
“We would go in there probably for no other reason than there’s medicines that grow there that don’t grow anywhere else in the world,” notes Two Dogs. “And there’s evidence of camps there that go back thousands of years. So it was…it was a spiritually significant place for us in that sense.”
Since 1939, visitors to Badlands National Park now include people for all over the world. Or, as Julie Johndreau answers when asked who comes here: “the lucky ones”.