Writing A New Narrative in the Rushmore State

by Dianna E. Anderson

Anderson is a South Dakota native, though she now lives in the Chicago area and works as a radio producer. She also blogs about the intersections of feminism and theology at http://www.diannaeanderson.net.

Overlook on South Dakota Highway 87, or Needles Highway - blue sky, green trees, rolling hills
Overlook on South Dakota Highway 87, or Needles Highway – by Vladsinger on Wiki Commons

[TW: discussion of sexual assault]

I have a rule – it’s not always hard and fast, but it’s a rule. No one is allowed to make fun of South Dakota unless they are from there or have lived there for an extended time. Honestly, it’s an easy state to make fun of, but if you haven’t been there except on vacation, there’s a good chance you’ll simply reinforce the idea that South Dakota is merely backwards and full of hicks, rather than actually being funny.

Boasting a population barely large enough to qualify for a representative, South Dakota is best known for a giant shrine to Presidents Past, and even then, most people aren’t aware which Dakota it’s in. But those from the state know our homeland well and love it. Just as a parent is only allowed to make fun of their own child, South Dakotans are fiercely proud (and sometimes fiercely cynical) of their little state.

South Dakotan liberals are a unique, small group of people who also have a fierce state pride, though it is frequently tempered by disappointment in an ongoing conservative government. There is a sense of dread any time South Dakota ends up on the national scene, because it’s usually for some horrific miscarriage of justice performed by our government.

We know it doesn’t help our image outside the state when the only national stories are that we have a three day waiting period for abortion; that we tried to propose a law that would make it legal to kill abortion providers; and that we have tried to ban abortion wholesale not once but twice (and almost succeeded, both times). This is who our government has proclaimed us to be – indeed, members of the South Dakotan Republican party have openly stated that they want South Dakota to be the state that gets Roe v. Wade overturned.

That makes it easy for young South Dakotan liberals to throw in the towel and leave. There are already few opportunities for young college graduates, and the large, liberal urban centers call out to us: “Your car won’t get keyed if you have a pro-choice bumper sticker here. You’ll find like-minded individuals. Come, come.”

Many of us answer the call (though not all of us who leave are liberal). The state has been hemorrhaging young people for my entire life and has tried numerous incentives and plans to get young people to stop leaving – loan forgiveness if you stay and work in the state, tax breaks for young families, etc. And yet, the young, especially the liberal, leave. Why?

The answer is fairly simple from my perspective: we feel unsupported. When interviewers in national magazines joke “South Dakota’s pretty useless, isn’t it?” and the only national stories are about how awful our record is on women’s rights, it gets harder for those performing liberal advocacy to feel like we have a foothold. It’s easy to feel like we’re completely and totally alone. It’s especially easy when South Dakota’s form of intersectional feminism is all but ignored on the national scene by urban white feminists.

The problem is that South Dakota liberals have, for too long, been pushed out of our own narrative. Instead of our advocacy, the national narrative has been one of reaction – we are always and forever reacting to the actions from the state legislature. The stories that get told are the narrow victories, the lawsuits and court cases, the loud brash belligerence of some of our legislators’ ideas and statements.

But, being a small population, South Dakota liberalism is of a different flavor than the national scene. We’re a practical, pragmatic people as a whole, and don’t tend to see a lot of need for pomp and circumstance. Many of us pride ourselves on being able to spot phony people from a mile away – hey, some of those stereotypes about Midwestern folk are pretty true. Most of all – and this is especially true for the hard-fighting South Dakota liberals – we like it when our stories are told well and truthfully.

There’s a lot of quiet advocacy that doesn’t make the front page in South Dakota or on the national scene. People who open their homes to women who need a place to stay during the 3 day waiting period for an abortion.* People who work tirelessly in the intersection between Native and women’s rights. People who answer the phone lines at the rape crisis center in Sioux Falls and help rape victims in the area to recover and heal – South Dakota is, after all, one of the states with the highest rate of violent rapes.

These aren’t the stories that get told on the national scene, but they are the ones that deserve telling. I left the state because I was tired of that narrative being written for me. I say it’s time South Dakotan liberals take it back, and begin to write their own narrative, their own works. Let us write our stories – you’d be surprised at how fierce we can be.

*In South Dakota, this three day waiting period effectively means a week, as we have one abortion provider in the state, and they have a doctor flown in once a week to perform abortions.

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2 Responses to “Writing A New Narrative in the Rushmore State”

  1. Sarah TX

    Texas is different in a lot of ways – but I totally identify with the fact that “the stories that get told are the narrow victories, the lawsuits and court cases.”


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