Skip to main content

"They Treated Us Just Like Indians" by Paula Wagoner

LINCOLN, Neb. - Very few people have ever heard of the tiny town of Martin in Bennett County, S.D. Described as a "wide spot" on highway 18, it didn't even merit a blip on the map in the 1990 Rand McNally travel atlas.

Martin is the kind of place where people bake pies for needy neighbors, grandmothers sew star quilts and everybody knows the names of the high school royalty that leads the annual homecoming parade down Main Street. Not a heck of a lot happens in Martin that would ever draw notice from the outside world.

The town did, however, merit the attention of Paula Wagoner, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at Juniata College in Huntington, Pa., and author of multiple publications concerning Native American identity. Wagoner found that there is much more to Martin than meets the casual eye.

Bennett County is unique in at least one respect. The Rosebud Sioux Reservation borders it on the east and to the south is the Nebraska state line. The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to a large community of Oglala Lakota, envelops the county to the west and north. In fact, many would argue that fully one third of Bennett County belongs to Pine Ridge.

"They Treated Us Just Like Indians, the worlds of Bennett County, South Dakota" was the result of Wagoner's probing into the heartland tissue beneath the communities' outer fa?ade, a skin which seemed at first to be as nondescript - yet tough to penetrate - as the prairie sod it was built upon.

Wagoner's fieldwork took place between1993 and '97 and caught the community in both calm and crisis. The book is an ethnography of diverse racial groups in a small town placed under great pressure. While many of the references and terminology are best left to sociology scholars, she does break down the complex relationships into digestible chunks.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Residents of Bennett County are lumped into one of three categories: "full-blood," "mixed-blood" and "white." Non-residents are simply "outsiders" whose opinions are rarely appreciated and more often than not hurtful. The dynamics inside these generalizations are fluid and frequently change depending upon the socio-economic stress applied as well as the worldview of the observer.

Living in one of the poorest counties in the United States complicates social relationships even further. With a large percentage of its land base exempt from property taxes and with no income tax, Bennett County is at the mercy of fickle federal funding and amorphous federal Indian policies.

South Dakota has its hands tied by jurisdictional issues so extreme that surveyors are often required to determine whether an offender should be prosecuted under state, federal or tribal law.

Wagoner explores these multi-layered problems in a series of three different snapshots of community events. The first is the controversy and resulting protest over the use of the high school's mascot "the Warrior" in homecoming rituals. The second is the near flashpoint reached when an Indian man was shot and killed by a non-Indian after a bar room altercation. The community spirit and potential for healing is demonstrated in the third snapshot of a pow wow.

"They Treated Us Just Like Indians" is not funny or glamorous. It does not necessarily have a happy ending (or any ending at all for that matter.) It is an important tool in understanding race relations. It does contain a hopeful message for us all.

The 150-page book contains two maps, 19 photographs, an index and an exhaustive list of references. It was released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.

For more information write to University of Nebraska Press, 233 North 8th St., Lincoln, Neb. 68588-0255, phone (402) 472-3581, fax (402) 472-0308, or visit To learn more about Paula Wagoner's works visit