Dakota Life Preview: Greetings from Fort Thompson
Dakota Life heads to Fort Thompson, South Dakota February 8th. Here is a preview of some of the stories you will find in the episode that premieres at 8 p.m. (7 mountain) on SDPB TV-1, Facebook and YouTube. Plus, a look back at some of the past stories we have brought you on Dakota Life.
South Dakota has an extensive military history with at least a dozen forts being established in the territory throughout the 1800’s. The fortifications were built mainly along the Missouri River where riverboat traffic was used extensively to move cavalry troops into Dakota Territory. First came Fort Pierre in 1855, Fort Randall the next year, Fort Sully in 1863, Fort Thompson then Fort Dakota, Fort James, Fort Whetstone, Fort Bennett, Fort Hale and Fort Meade. Most of these military Forts operated for a very short time, in many cases, just a couple of years. Some disappeared completely, and some had villages spring up on their sites.
Fort Thompson was named in honor of Clark W. Thompson, an unscrupulous man with a very checkered past, who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time. Built at the mouth of Soldier Creek on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation 25 miles north of Chamberlain, the military fort opened in 1864 and closed in 1867.
Today, the village of Fort Thompson is home to around 1300 people, making it the largest settlement on the Crow Creek Reservation. Nearby Lake Sharp, created by Big Bend dam, starts near Fort Thompson and stretches upstream to Oahe Dam, near Pierre. The lake is in five South Dakota counties. The Big Bend of the Missouri river is about 7 miles north of the Big Bend dam.
July and August mean Powwow season across South Dakota and the village of Fort Thompson comes alive with the sights and sounds of Dakota tribal festivities during the Annual Crow Creek Dakota Nation Wacipi. Powwows are a way of coming together, to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships, and making new ones. Powwows are also one of the best ways to experience Native culture through traditional dances, food and crafts..
In Fort Thompson, each session begins with the Grand Entry and a prayer. The Eagle Staff leads the Grand Entry, followed by flags, then the dancers, while one of the host drums sings an opening song. Thousands of people including local residents, and visitors gather to celebrate Dakota heritage and culture past and present. Competitions include dance divisions for everyone from the tiny tots to senior adults, drum contests, and singing contests. The Crow Creek Dakota Nation Wacipi features three days of regalia, culture and celebration.
Fort Thompson serves as the headquarters of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and the surrounding Crow Creek reservation has been connected to some very notable people. Olympic medalist Billy Mills has family here. Noted writer Writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn grew up here, she taught native studies for 20 years before becoming a full-time writer and is the author of two novels and a collection of short stories. She edits the "Wicazo Sa Review," an international Native American studies journal, and is an accomplished editor, essayist, poet, and novelist. She is outspoken in her views about Native American politics, particularly in regard to tribal sovereignty. She's also a traditional dancer on the powwow circuit. Among other honors, Elizabeth Cook Lynn was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.
Oscar Howe, a Yanktonai, pioneered a new era in Indian art. Howe was born on the Crow Creek Reservation in 1915. Throughout his life, he received many honors, including the title Artist Laureate of South Dakota. When he died in 1983, Howe left behind a legacy of cultural heritage and pride. More than 20 Oscar Howe originals are on display at the Oscar Howe Art Center in Mitchell.
The people of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe are mostly descendants of the Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe of south and central present-day Minnesota. They were expelled from Minnesota, along with the Santee Dakota Tribe and Ho-Chunk Nation after all reservations in the southern part of that state were abolished in December 1862 following the Dakota War.
Some Yankton and lower Yanktonai Dakota also reside on the reservation. Although some consider this to have been part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which was established west of the Missouri River, the Crow Creek Reservation, founded in 1862, has always been separate.
The reservation originally included bottomlands along the Missouri, which had been farmed previously by Mandan and Arikara, and other indigenous peoples. These peoples were decimated in smallpox and other infectious disease epidemics in the 18th century. Surviving Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara moved northwest and formed the Affiliated Tribes, whose descendants have occupied the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Today several former Mandan and Arikara villages within the Crow Creek Reservation are preserved as archaeological sites.
The tribe operates the Lode Star Casino and Hotel, attracting tourists and area residents. The archeological sites are tourist attractions, and Lake Sharpe's fishing and boating attract recreational travelers.
Fort Thompson is a very youth focused community. The Crow Creek Head Start is a licensed daycare center offering childcare and play experiences for up to 133 children. The tribe runs its own school, the Crow Creek Tribal Schools system, with an elementary school at Fort Thompson and a K-12 boarding and day school at Stephan, approximately 10 miles north of Fort Thompson. In September of 2022, the new 7500 square foot Tokata Youth Center opened and already serves over 460 young people, providing a safe and stable environment modeling biblical principles and Dakota Oyate values.
Stretching for 6 miles along the Missouri River, the Fort Thompson Mounds is a National Historic Landmark and the largest burial mound complex in the Great Plains. Dating back to the 8th century, archaeological discoveries from these mounds include some of the oldest pottery in the Great Plains region, stone hearths and stone tools. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the sites were known but not studied prior to the 1950s, when the United States Army Corps of Engineers began planning the construction of Big Bend Dam. Beginning in 1957, archaeologists engaged in a series of digs to understand the sites better, and to perform salvage archaeology on sites that were likely to be inundated by the waters the dam would impound. In addition to burials found in the mounds, features of habitation were also discovered. These include stone hearths, pottery fragments, and stone tools. One of the sites excavated in the 1950s was radiocarbon dated to c. 2450 BC, showing nearly 5,000 years of indigenous human settlement. The mounds are believed to have been constructed in the Plains-Woodland period, beginning the 8th century. The human remains found within these mounds, indicate the mound’s primary purpose as a burial site. Visitors to the site are reminded to treat these sacred burial lands with respect.
There is no other ethnic group in this great nation that has offered a greater percentage of its young men and women in military service to America in all its most difficult times. At the Annual Crow Creek Dakota Nation Wacipi, military veterans are honored and held in the highest regard. Veterans lead the parades into the arena, they are given the opportunity to dance in their own traditional styles. They wear the uniforms of the various military branches they serve, or served in, along with tribal attire they to identify with their tribal heritage. The feeling is pure pride and joy as the tribe honors their warriors.
The idea of using American Indians who were fluent in both their traditional tribal language and in English to send secret messages in battle was first put to the test in World War I. However, it wasn’t until World War II that the US military developed a specific policy to recruit and train American Indian speakers to become code talkers. Most people may have heard of the famous Navajo, or Diné code talkers who used their traditional language to transmit secret Allied messages in the Pacific theater of combat during World War II. But did you know that there were at least 14 other Native nations that served as code talkers in both the Pacific and Europe during the war? It is believed that there were more than 200 tribal members from South Dakota who used their language to send covert messages during the wars.
The area around Fort Thompson is rich in history and recreational opportunities. The Crow Creek Site, marks the site of massacre that occurred around the mid 1300s between Native groups along the Missouri River. Which is now within the Crow Creek Indian Reservation. The site, uncovered by archeologists, is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Don't miss Greetings from Fort Thompson, Thursday, February 8th at 8 p.m. (7 mountain) on SDPB TV-1, Facebook and YouTube. You can catch up on past seasons of Dakota Life HERE.