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Real Runners: Being “The Runner” In Rural South Dakota

A Land Without Exercise Culture

As a white woman in my twenties, I lived in a 700-person town in the northeastern corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the most impoverished area of our nation, where indoor plumbing and electricity are not guaranteed and the life expectancy for adult males, 48, sits just below that of Sierra Leone. Places like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Diego have established running cultures—athletic boutiques dot shopping promenades, trails are clearly marked and races are publicized. In rural South Dakota, running, especially in the most underserved pockets of the state, is as rare as a mild winter. In my new home, I was told, “The only thing we run for is the dinner bell.”

Pine Ridge’s poverty cannot be unbraided from its isolation—the Lakota Sioux of Pine Ridge were the last tribe to relocate to their present-day reservation after an expedition led by General Custer found gold in the Black Hills, originally granted to the Lakota in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Wounded Knee Massacre that followed in 1890 is considered the end to the Indian Wars that left tribes parcels of undesirable land. A thorn in the side of the U.S. government and their gold-seeking expeditions, the Lakota were eventually confined to some of the most desolate, uncultivable land in the nation—literally dubbed the Badlands.

Physical isolation makes economic prosperity nearly impossible, and life harsh. If I wanted a beer, I needed to drive 30 miles to get it. For fresh vegetables and hummus, I traveled 86 miles. But the land, with its muted gold hills that threatened to buck the road and flat-topped buttes thrust like fists against the sky, is a place of open plains and possibility.  It is land that is meant to be run.

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