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The Missouri: South Dakota's River Legend
by Bernie Hunhoff

The Missouri: South Dakota’s River Legend is just the type of work John Milton would have loved. I’m talking not about the English poet but the John Milton who came from Minnesota to serve as professor of English at the University of South Dakota.

South Dakota’s Milton despaired that we did not have enough artists and writers interpreting rural life. The introduction to his history titled South Dakota laments that images of a barren plains suffering under extreme weather conditions have been burned into the nation’s consciousness by visiting writers and photographers who never got to know the true story. “Images once established are difficult to change,” he wrote, while images of “the joys of spring mornings, of birds nesting, of prairie flowers, and of clean air …. are almost forgotten.”

That’s why I know Milton (both of them, in fact, the Englishman and the South Dakotan), were they alive today, would enjoy Greg Latza’s portrayal of the Missouri and the people and land of its broad valley. Latza knows South Dakota. He grew up in the small town of Letcher, attended S.D. State University in Brookings and worked in photojournalism for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader before becoming a freelancer in 1997.

South Dakota is in his heart and soul. It shows in the way he uses his camera. One of my favorite Greg Latza photographs (printed in another book) is of the auction on Milton Overvaag’s farm. The photo shows only the farmers’ shadows, ghostly against a rusting machine shed. I would only have been taken by a person who understands that rural people feel their mortality on farm sale days.

He does the same in The Missouri. All the beauty, optimism, grace and humor that lives on and near the river is there for us to see; for the world to see: The colourful, graceful Native American culture, the determined farmers, the adventurus sportsmen –– and the birds and flowers and spring mornings Milton wanted the world to see.

Milton liked to refer to the Missouri as The Big Road because, before the dams, it was a thoroughfare for travelers. But the Missouri means more to us than any hard road. Its economic, military, agricultural, environmental. sporting and cultural implications have endured as long as man has lived here. Flowing through seven states, the 2,341-mile Missouri is the world's eighth longest river. It would rank third if we could persuade mapmakers that the Mississippi is just its tributary.

But better bragging rights would not change the Missouri. The river is bigger than hard facts. It is part of America's collective soul. That’s why Latza’s photos –– and the fine essays by longtime South Dakota journalist Kevin Woster that accompany them –– take those of us who grew up along the river back in time.

My brothers and I all were born at Yankton's Sacred Heart Hospital, which sits on a chalkstone bluff above the river. We did a little fishing, not much, in its waters. But we swam in its murky water, romanced girls on the rocky shores, found summer jobs with the Corps of Engineers, and proudly took visiting relatives past the massive Gavins Point Dam power plant and the huge gates that gush foam when the Corps reduces Lewis and Clark Lake and raises the river. An eccentric great-uncle occasionally came from northern South Dakota to fish in the lake. He caught catfish so big that they looked like passengers in the backseat of his old Ford.

Married with two kids of my own, we camped under the big cottonwoods by the lake. Every summer, we rejoined my brothers for outings by Fort Randall, an hour's drive west. We also had a family reunion upriver on Lake Oahe near Mobridge. The river is the river, no matter what stretch you're on at the time. It feels the same whether I'm in Chamberlain or Omaha or St. Louis. Call it camaraderie among river rats.

On one particular Fourth of July, our family was picnicking by Lewis and Clark Lake when a young woman asked us to help find her missing boy. She was calmly recruiting everyone. Some people searched up and down the shore. Some combed the beach and the adjacent groves of trees. Some walked through waist-deep water, hoping they would bump into nothing softer than a rock or a beer bottle.

There was no panic. Surely, the boy would show up -- sleeping in the backseat of a stranger's car or chasing butterflies in the trees. All was calm. Then a young man's foot bumped into the boy under the water. The man cradled the boy like a baby and carried him to the sand. A nurse in a bathing suit gave him mouth-to-mouth. Medics arrived. They left with the boy. His obituary was in the next day's paper. It all happened quietly, with the sound of the waves loudly licking at the rocks.

We love the Missouri, but the Missouri is indifferent about us. It makes itself felt to people who come near. It changes lives, usually as slowly as it washes at a chalkstone bluff; other times, change floods in faster than can be comprehended by the human mind. Despite our unequal relationship, the river becomes part of our soul.

The river has always been rich with drama. Buffalo roamed its banks in herds so huge they turned the banks brown as far as the eye could see, according to early explorers. In winter, they crossed the river on the ice. At times, their cumulative weight was too much and whole herds fell into the icy water and died. When the river level is low, a skull or bone sometimes surfaces in the sand.

Also buried in the river near Yankton is a steamboat called the Western. It was sunk by an ice jam and flood in March of 1881. Like the buffalo skulls, the Western sometimes reveals its skeleton in low water. Altogether, about 30 such ships are buried between Yankton and Omaha. They were not primitive, over-sized rafts but finely built ships that measured over 200 feet in length and carried hundreds of tons of cargo to Dakota Territory. If you believe local legend, the North Alabama, which went down near Vermillion, was carrying treasure of some sort.

Before Gavins Point Dam created Lewis and Clark Lake, Yankton was known as the city that hung Jack McCall in 1877, lost the territorial capital in 1883 and replaced it with an institution for the mentally ill. The lake was a badly needed bump. It started a tourism industry in a river valley previously inhabited by ranchers, cows and those big catfish. Houses were built in the hills north of the lake. The state built a marina. Boats, some as big as small ships, dropped anchor. Restaurants, shops and bait stops sprouted along Highway 52.

About 50 river miles from Yankton, in the extreme southeast corner of South Dakota, the river -- and South Dakota's friendly tax climate -- attracted the creators of Dakota Dunes, one of America's most affluent and newest communities. The new city makes Union County one of the nine wealthiest in the United States. Million dollar homes and some of the Midwest's best-known corporations have been built on the sandy riverside soil.

Going upstream, however, economic benefits of the river -- pre- or post-dam -- are less apparent. Though a tourism industry exists, it hasn't spread Dunes-style prosperity. In fact, some of America's poorest families live along and near the river valley on the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Standing Rock and Cheyenne Indian reservations.

Golf courses, hunting lodges, residential developments and other amenities are taking root in the expansive landscape along the Missouri. In some cases, tribal officials are initiating the development. In other places, white ranchers and farmers are looking for ways to supplement their income. Examples of both can be found in this book, like the farming operations developed by the Crow Creek and Lower Brule tribes and Lee and Trudy Qualm, who started a hunting lodge on their Platte farm.

Hilly, rocky land within a rifle shot of the Missouri often brings a better price than the best Lincoln County corn ground. Yet, the men and women who run cattle on that same land or use it to grow wheat are being squeezed by the whims of Mother Nature and a world economy that seldom rewards raw production, even when the product is food.

Despite its generally placid surface, the Missouri has been a valley of controversy and adventure ever since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed this way in 1804. The people and places you'll meet on the following pages represent our river culture. Greg Latza and Kevin Woster are sons of the state. South Dakotans are fortunate that the two have been able to earn a living with their creative talents without emigrating like so many of their contemporaries. Their photos and prose remind me both of what the river was like before our time, and how today's society is shaped by the ageless and watery road.

The small town mayors, family farmers, tribal leaders, sportsmen and historians featured by Latza and Woster provide human drama to the river valley. Altwin Grassrope comes from a long line of Lower Brule leaders. Springfield Mayor Norm Schelske, a happy-go-lucky saloonkeeper by trade, has been fighting to fix the sediment problem on Lewis and Clark Lake for years. Bob Hipple was a legend in South Dakota newspapering; he loved the river and his native state with passion, and with humility. When the state's press association honored Hipple a few years before his death, he modestly shrugged it off, saying he just happened to hang around long enough to be noticed.

The same might be humbly said of the Missouri. As the years pass, we gain a better appreciation for its importance in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the river is indifferent. It acts as if it knows it will outlast us all.

On a more positive note, Greg Latza’s The Missouri will dispel myths about the landscape for readers who don’t live in South Dakota. For the rest of us, it is a reminder of why we do.

© 2003 Bernie Hunhoff

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