In 1650 A.D., the largest city in the United States existed only four miles south of Sioux Falls. Today, we call it Good Earth State Park.
Nestled between cornfield upon cornfield and obscured by the absurdly large mansions popping up on the prairie like invasive species, Good Earth doesn’t draw much attention.
Although beautiful and quiet, there is nothing visually extraordinary about Good Earth’s geography to give away its historical significance.
During the many years my friends and I visited Good Earth (which was called Blood Run at the time), we had no inkling of its history. To us, the grassy hills felt as if they had always been that way—quiet and empty for centuries.
In the summertime, we’d cling to the seat of a four-wheeler and ramble over empty fields before disappearing into a forest of oaks and box elders. In the wintertime, we’d walk alongside the river in boots and pajama pants while my friend’s beagle led the way through the untouched snow. We followed, carrying big branches as walking sticks and feeling as if we were explorers in new land.
The irony is that we were anything but that.
What we wouldn’t learn until years later is that the quiet, mysterious area we loved retreating to was once a bustling trade and ceremonial center. It was, and still is, one of the United States’ oldest areas of long-term human habitation—human activity can be traced all the way back to 6,500 B.C.
Between the years 1500 A.D. and 1700 A.D., tribes from all over the Midwest traded items such as pipestone, pelts and pottery at Good Earth.
With so many diverse groups of people mingling in one area, Good Earth (contrary to what it’s old name, Blood Run, suggests) was an area of great peace, where tribes shared cultural ceremonies and songs and where Natives escaping conflicts in the East could find refuge.
At that time, the area was called “Xe,” or “where something is buried.” It’s a name just as apt, as roughly 480 burial mounds existed at Good Earth. However, by the middle of the 20th century, decades of mining and railroads destroyed over 400 mounds, erasing many signs of the city. For this reason, many people also called the area the “Silent City.”
But regardless of what you call it, the area is a microcosm for most of South Dakota, in that we aren’t aware of the history beneath our own soil. For years, my friends and I explored those hills and fields, without an inkling that we were on special land.
We live on a land that’s been ecologically, ethnically, culturally and historically destroyed to the point where we call it “flyover” country.
Thankfully, some are trying to change that.
When you visit Good Earth, you can stop by the new visitor’s center before heading on the trails. The center features a museum about the area’s rich history and a theatre screening the documentary “Awaken the Silent City.” Filmed at Good Earth, the documentary centers itself around the question, “Why should we remember?”
It’s a question I wrestled with while revisiting the area a few weeks ago.
It was a frigid day in early November and, despite a deer or two that would occasionally pass through the trees and the soft wooo-ing of a lone owl, the trails felt just as quiet as I had remembered them. The silence and openness of the land could have easily convinced me, once again, that it had always been that way.
But we can’t fall into that pattern of thinking, because our state has a history, both dark and beautiful. We are all part of that history. And as South Dakotans, we all have a responsibility to learn its story—and that means long before we called it “South Dakota.”