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Bear Country USA is a unique opportunity for people driving through the Black Hills area of South Dakota. This conservation site allows you to drive though a park to see enclosures and encounter many different types of animals. Dr. Dennis Casey and his wife Pauline opened Bear Country USA in August 1972. They started out with 11 black bears, one cougar, one wolf, three buffalos, and one large bull elk. Their main purpose for this attraction was to provide a place where the people of Rapid City could enjoy animals. Over the years the number of animals living at the park have grown. Now there is around 200 acres filled with black and grizzly bears, plus 20 other species of North American animals. Now owned by Pauline Casey and 3 of her children, this family has dedicated much time to opening up a place where people can come and appreciate the animals that are in their home areas. Most of the animals are born on the premises and are hand raised by the park staff. They make a few exceptions to accepting animals off of the reserve.


Bear Country USA, while performing many noble missions regarding animal preservation and conservation, is symbolic of a long, rich, complex, and tumultuous history, both for southwestern South Dakota and the U.S. The park represents a long history of Americans attempting to first, claim the West, and then taming it; part of taming it included the removal of Native Americans. Very often, in Europe and the U.S. creating parks includes social unrest, needing to remove both animals and humans in order to construct a perfect park. In truth, Parks represent a movement started it the 19th century to preserve the frontier, but in a controlled manner. As such, modern society often seeks to look at nature as if part of a laboratory, be it zoos, parks, or on television and film.1 

Before white settlers arrived, much of the region was inhabited by the Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapahoes. Frank B Linderman, in his book (and interview with) Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows, describes the land that included the Black HIlls region before it was necessary to build a park, "No other section could compare with the Crow Country, especially when it was untouched by white men. Its wealth in all kinds of game, grass, roots, and berries made enemies for the Crows." So majestic and bountiful, in fact, the Crows routinely had to defend itself against other tribes to protect its resources.2 

Not only did Americans also covet that land, but when gold was found in the Black HIlls, the eventual end to Native American occupancy came with it. Americans also looked to preserve its own frontier, but in its own way. Historian Ted Steinberg notes the Crows and other tribes as it related to Yellowstone National Park policy:

In Yellowstone's case, creating wilderness meant rendering the Native Americans, who laid claim to the area, invisible when, in fact, they had long used it for hunting, fishing, and other means of survival. Preservation of the country's national parks and Indian removal proceeded in lock-step motion. Treaties and executive orders signed between 1855 and 1875 effectively cosigned the Bannock, Shoshone, Blackfeet and Crow Indian to reservations, where they would be less likely to interfere with tourists headed to Yellowstone.3 

Much of the tension that resulted can be summarized by the events unfolding in nearby Wounded Knee, both in 1890 and again in 1973.  

HIstory.com provides a good summary of the 1890 episode:

Throughout 1890s, the U.S. government worried about the increasing influence at Pine Ridge of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians. On December 15, 1890, reservation police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, who they mistakenly believed was a Ghost Dancer, and killed him in the process, increasing the tensions at Pine Ridge.

On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Big Foot, a Lakota Sioux chief, near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. A brutal massacre followed, in which it’s estimated 150 Indians were killed (some historians put this number at twice as high), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost 25 men.

The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle, but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Surrounded by heavily armed troops, it’s unlikely that Big Foot’s band would have intentionally started a fight. Some historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last major confrontation in America’s deadly war against the Plains Indians.

Nearly half of the Sioux killed at the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre were women and children.4

As Bear Country USA arrived on the scene in 1972, tensions between Native Americans the and the Federal Government had arisen again. An article by The Atlantic describes the event:

On February 27, 1973, a team of 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized control of a tiny town with a loaded history -- Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They arrived in town at night, in a caravan of cars and trucks, took the town's residents hostage, and demanded that the U.S. government make good on treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Within hours, police had surrounded Wounded Knee, forming a cordon to prevent protesters from exiting and sympathizers from entering. This marked the beginning of a 71-day siege and armed conflict.

Russell Means, one of AIM's leaders, died yesterday. Means was a controversial figure within the movement and outside of it; as his New York Times obituary put it, "critics, including many Indians, called him a tireless self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety." After getting his start in activism in the 1970s, Means went on to run for the Libertarian presidential nomination in 1987, and for governor of New Mexico in 2002. He also acted in scores of films, most famously in a lead role in the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans.

For all the contradictions of his life, he was no less controversial than AIM itself. The Wounded Knee siege was both an inspiration to indigenous people and left-wing activists around the country and -- according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which besieged the town along with FBI and National Guard -- the longest-lasting "civil disorder" in 200 years of U.S. history. Two native activists lost their lives in the conflict, and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed. Like the Black Panthers or MEChA, AIM was a militant civil rights and identity movement that sprung from the political and social crisis of the late 1960s, but today it is more obscure than the latter two groups.

The Pine Ridge reservation, where Wounded Knee was located, had been in turmoil for years. To many in the area the siege was no surprise. The Oglala Lakota who lived on the reservation faced racism beyond its boundaries and a poorly managed tribal government within them. In particular, they sought the removal of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whom many Oglala living on the reservation thought corrupt. Oglala Lakota interviewed by PBS for a documentary said Wilson seemed to favor mixed-race, assimilated Lakota like himself -- and especially his own family members -- over reservation residents with more traditional lifestyles. Efforts to remove Wilson by impeaching him had failed, and so Oglala Lakota tribal leaders turned to AIM for help in removing him by force. Their answer was to occupy Wounded Knee.

Federal marshals and National Guard traded heavy fire daily with the native activists. To break the siege, they cut off electricity and water to the town, and attempted to prevent food and ammunition from being passed to the occupiers. Bill Zimmerman, a sympathetic activist and pilot from Boston, agreed to carry out a 2,000-pound food drop on the 50th day of the siege. When the occupiers ran out of the buildings where they had been sheltering to grab the supplies, agents opened fire on them. The first member of the occupation to die, a Cherokee, was shot by a bullet that flew through the wall of a church.

To many observers, the standoff resembled the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 itself -- when a U.S. cavalry detachment slaughtered a group of Lakota warriors who refused to disarm. Some of the protesters also had a more current conflict in mind. As one former member of AIM told PBS, "They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, 'Man, this is just like Vietnam.' "

When PBS interviewed federal officials later, they said that the first death in the conflict inspired them to work harder to bring it to a close. For the Oglala Lakota, the death of tribe member Buddy Lamont on April 26 was the critical moment. While members of AIM fought to keep the occupation going, the Oglala overruled them, and, from that point, negotiations between federal officials and the protesters began in earnest. The militants officially surrendered on May 8, and a number of members of AIM managed to escape the town before being arrested. (Those who were arrested, including Means, were almost all acquitted because key evidence was mishandled.)

Even after the siege officially ended, a quiet war between Dick Wilson and the traditional, pro-AIM faction of Oglala Lakota continued on the reservation -- this despite Wilson's re-election to the tribal presidency in 1974. In the three years following the stand-off, Pine Ridge had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Two FBI agents were among the dead. The Oglala blamed the federal government for failing to remove Wilson as tribal chairman; the U.S. retorted that it would be illegal for them to do so, somewhat ironically citing reasons of tribal self-determination.

Today, the Pine Ridge reservation is the largest community in what may be the poorest county in the entire United States. (Per capita income in 2010 was lower in Shannon County, South Dakota, where Pine Ridge is located, than in any other U.S. county.) Reports have the adult unemployment rate on the reservation somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. AIM -- and Means -- drew a lot of attention to the treatment of indigenous people in the U.S. But perhaps more than any other civil rights movement, its work remains unfinished.5

Thus, while the park provides numerous environmentally- and sustainability-minded efforts, deemed necessary and good by modern society, it should be remembered that it came only after the removal of the animals that once roamed free in that region, and by a people that largely lived amidst nature (though they altered their environment as well, albeit to a much less extent to modern society). 

1 Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001), 5; Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), 24, 27, 126-7.

2 Plenty-Coups and Frank Bird Linderman, Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 27. 

3 Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American HIstory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 148-9. Bold text added by me, for emphasis. 

4 "Wounded Knee," History.com, last accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/wounded-knee.

5 Emily Chertoff, "Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement," The Atlantic, October 3, 2012,  https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgot...

Further Reading: 


Burnham, Philip. Indian Country, God's Country: Native Americans and the National Parks. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.

Crow Dog, Mary, and Richard Erdoes. Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Weidenfeld (1990).

Mitman, Gregg. Reel nature: America's romance with wildlife on film. University of Washington press, 2012. 

White, Richard. "American environmental history: the Development of a New Historical Field." Pacific Historical Review 54, no. 3 (1985): 297-335.