I was driving smack in the middle of the pheasant-hunting golden triangle, as it’s called, in South Dakota. Out on one of those snowy prairie roads, over 10 miles from anything—one instant there was nothing, the next she was there, walking across the highway.
Where had she come from? Certainly she hadn’t walked here, not in those boots, anyway. Someone must have given her a ride, dropping her off in this dot of a place with nothing but a black muddy parking lot filled with pick-up trucks. Young and frazzled, her thin, colt legs looked vulnerable and cold as she hurried past an abandoned-looking building with a battered couch out front. She was carrying a large shoulder bag and speaking a little frantically into a cell phone. The sight of me sitting in my rental car seemed to startle her for an instant but she continued past, dodging the huge water-filled potholes in her impractical boots. She was headed for one of the two strip clubs that were the main (and only) attraction in this lonely spot on the prairie.
Sandwiched between the abandoned building and a double-wide trailer that served as a “hunters hotel,” the blinking signs advertised fine dining and girls. She disappeared inside to begin her shift.
I barely recognized her when I saw her later that night in the club. Her hair sprayed and combed into an elaborate style, topless and wearing heavy makeup, she teetered past me on enormous clear plastic platform shoes off into the depths of the dim club, where it was too dark to see that she was a very tired young woman.
She was what a local woman described as one of “the necessary evils” of pheasant hunting season, a dancing girl. I soon learned that locals label commercial sex workers and strippers alike as “dancing girls.” Certainly not all exotic dancers are prostitutes, but strip clubs are often where prostitution and trafficking happens. According to data gathered by the non-profit advocacy organization Prostitution Research and Education, strip clubs are gateways to prostitution. According to Vednita Carter, Executive Director of Breaking Free, there is a definite connection between stripping, prostitution and sex trafficking. “Strip clubs are the place where the training begins,” she says.
Faith Spotted Eagle and her young adult grandson joined me for dinner one night at one of the strip clubs that is a favorite of hunters. Faith is an activist from the Dakota Nation working to draw attention to the dangerous repercussions of building a pipeline through the state. We made an unlikely trio, two middle-aged, matronly Native women and a young Native hipster (her Takoja or grandson) wearing a chic pork pie hat. The owner was quick to seat us away from the bar and the stage in an abandoned dining room plastered with old photographs of generations of patrons and their cowboy hats that crowded the walls. The club had a definite “pioneer” atmosphere and I speculated that the cowboy hats hadn’t been dusted since the covered wagons passed through.
We could just barely make out the booming voice of he middle-aged female owner as she talked on the phone, seemingly about arranging bus transportation to the club. She wore bright red lipstick and a snug red and white checkered blouse and jeans, matching the pioneer ambiance. Her voice was sharp as she negotiated the price with the person on the other end of the phone. “We ain’t coming out there for nothing!”
Hunters crowded the bar room next door and music throbbed from the inner recesses of the building. I could see that Faith’s Takoja was uneasy as we waited for our steaks to arrive. He was escorting his grandma to a wake in Rosebud and had been told that they would be joining a friend–me–for dinner. Clearly this was not what he had expected.
A young woman suddenly rounded the corner from the bar, pulling her top down over enormous inflated objects that I realized were her breasts. Takoja was unprepared for this sight. A flurry of emotions flashed across his face as he seemed to struggle to make sense of it all. Far too many unlikely worlds had converged for him as he abruptly snapped his mouth shut and shook his head very, very slowly.
Just then our food arrived; fatty steaks on Styrofoam plates. “Hmmm, fine dining; I’ll have to bring the family,” he muttered sardonically.
After dinner, I walked deeper into the club, where a nude young woman writhed on a tiny stage; a DJ played music and announced each dancer from a raised platform at the back of the room. It was early in the evening and there were only a few men watching the show. Two beefy middle-aged men dressed in flannel shirts sat together drinking at a little table; each had a dancing girl perched on his knee. Two other men dressed in Carhardt overalls sat close to the stage, giggling together like naughty boys. Everyone seemed surprised to see me; they stiffened ever so slightly, as though preparing for a confrontation.
I could see another doorway opening into a darkened hallway and asked the D.J where it led. Before he could answer, the young woman with the impossibly inflated breasts grabbed me by the hand and said, “Come on, I’ll show you!”
She led me past the “costume shop,” an oversized closet housing yards and yards of feather boas, outlandish negligees and other exotic apparel. The shop seemed to have its own guard, a big man with his arms crossed across his chest stood in the doorway.
She led me down a hallway past several small rooms or “private dance lounges,” as she called them. The tiny, darkened rooms each contained a worn loveseat and had a camera mounted in the ceiling. “The cameras are to make sure nothing funny goes on,’ she explained.
My guide was brassy and officious as she led me to the dancers dressing room, a harshly lit area where the women struggled into their tiny costumes. At last she escorted me back to my table in the dining room, all the while keeping up a running dialogue about the many safeguards employed at the club to ensure nothing “funny” goes on between the dancers and the patrons.
Back at our table, we were surprised to see a dancer who appeared to be close to us in age. We called her over for a chat. In the more brightly lit dining room we could see that her enormous breasts were streaked with stretch marks; it looked painful to see them billowing over the top of her costume without any support.
She was from Las Vegas. She described her time in South Dakota as sort of a working vacation, although the driving was exhausting. Her breasts were diverting and it was difficult to maintain eye contact as we talked. I noted that Faith’s Takoja had given up. He stared at his plate, mortified.
She described herself as an entrepreneur and explained that she chooses to drive up here so she can bring along her extensive sex toy merchandise to sell. It was clear that standing was becoming uncomfortable for her so she excused herself. “I gotta eat my dinner,” she said.
She sat at the bar where the colored lights softened her age but she was a grandma in heavy make-up all the same, wearily eating a hamburger.
The younger, brassy woman told us that the club is very popular with hunters; many of the private lodges bring their clients to the club in buses so they need not worry about driving drunk. Also an entrepreneur, she owns her own small house nearby that she rents to the many out-of-town dancers who travel to South Dakota to “work the hunting season.”
When I asked her about the proposed Keystone XL man-camp that would be located less than 10 miles from the club, she knew all about it. “We’re excited,” she said. “It will be good for business!”
I visited the ladies room just before we left and noticed one phrase scrawled across the blackboard there: “Hooray, tonight is chump night!”