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Unit 7


Notable South Dakotans, 1900-1950


Lesson 1
Oscar Micheaux and Gertrude Simmons Bonnin


     Beginning in 1904, people settled the lands west of the Missouri River. They took land claims on the newly opened reservation lands. They came from all over the world and from all walks of life. One man was the son of former slaves.


Oscar Micheaux

     Oscar Micheaux was born on a farm in the Ohio River Valley in January 1884. His parents had been slaves before the Civil War. They had thirteen children to help them work their farm. Oscar did not like farming, but he liked selling what his family grew.

Oscar Micheaux
Photo from The Conquest (1913)


     As a teenager, Oscar Micheaux left home to work in Chicago. He worked for the railroad as a porter. In 1904, he heard about land openings on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. The land was in Gregory County, South Dakota. He signed up for the land lottery (you read about this in Unit 6). His number was not drawn. Instead, he bought a claim from someone else. It was just south of the town of Gregory. Micheaux became a successful farmer. Five years later, he bought more claims in Tripp County. This land was just west of Winner. Now he owned nearly one thousand acres of land.

Homesteaders in Gregory County
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Micheaux also wrote about life in South Dakota. His first novel was called The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. Another one was The Homesteader. In these books, he told the story of living and working on the land based on his life. He gave the people and towns new names. Gregory became "Megory." Winner became "Victor." Then drought came, and crops failed. Micheaux lost his land. He moved away.

     Micheaux started a film company in New York City. He made films of his books. He made The Homesteader into a movie in 1919. He was the first African American to make a movie in the United States. The film was also the first to star African Americans. A film crew came to Tripp County to make it. Micheaux made over thirty-five films. Some were set in South Dakota. Micheaux has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died in 1951.

Star of Oscar Micheaux
Photo courtesy of Marty Keenan


Gertrude Simmons Bonnin

     By 1900, there were hard times on the reservations. The Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota (Sioux) people were poor. Their culture was under attack. Children were sent away to school. The government wanted them to be like white people. The Indians wanted their own way of life.


Gertrude Simmons Bonnin
Photo from American Indian Stories (1921)

     Gertrude Simmons Bonnin was the daughter of a white man and a Yankton woman. She saw the needs of the Indian people. She spoke up for them. She was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in 1875. Her Nakota name was Zitkala-Sa ("Red Bird"). She went to local schools and to boarding schools. Later she taught at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Children went there from all over the United States. They were taught to be like white people. Bonnin did not want the old ways to be forgotten. She wrote her first book. It was about the traditions of Indian peoples. It was called Old Indian Legends.

     Bonnin began to work on reservations in South Dakota. There she saw the hard lives of the people. The government had divided the land into farms. The Dakotas, Lakotas, and Nakotas had no experience as farmers. Their land was not good for growing crops. Farming failed. Indian people sold their land at low prices. The government gave them less food and supplies. The Indians were very poor.

     Gertrude Bonnin was angry. The United States government was not doing the right things. It was treating her people badly. It was not doing what it said in the treaties.  The people were sick and dying. They lived in shacks. The government was not taking good care of Indian lands. It did not see the value in native ways. Bonnin spoke about these things in public. In 1916, she moved to Washington, D.C. There she worked for Indian rights. Later she started the National Council of American Indians to speak up for Indians. Her work helped. The government made changes for the better in the 1930s. Bonnin died in 1938.

Reservation Housing, 1930s

culture (n.), ways of doing things that are learned from one’s society or community

experience (n.), learning gotten by seeing and doing

novel (n.), a long story made up by the writer

porter (n.), a person who waits on people riding in a railroad car

traditions (n.), customs passed down from older to younger people