The Big Sioux River provides the borderline between northwestern Iowa and southeastern South Dakota. It also divides a significant Native American site that has come to be known as Blood Run National Historic Landmark. It is the largest and most complex site of the Oneota tradition and a sacred place of importance to several Native American tribes.
The landscape includes evidence of mounds that were specially prepared for human burial, boulder circles, storage pits and other features that provide tangible links to the people and traditions associated with the use of the site.
According to Lance Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Oneota is a name used by archaeologists to refer to a cultural group that existed in the eastern plains and Great Lakes area of what is now the central United States from AD 900 to around 1750. It is considered a major component of Upper Mississippian culture.
“At Blood Run it’s known that in the year 1700 the Omaha and Ponca inhabited that site,” said Foster. “There is a very strong connection between the Oneota and the Omaha and Ponca. Blood Run probably had about 8,000 to 10,000 people living there, on both sides the Big Sioux River, which was then called the Red Stone River for the pipestone.”
Encroachment is threatening this ancient site, but the states of Iowa and South Dakota, with the help of the Omaha, Ponca, Ioway, Sioux and other tribes have been notching up their efforts in recent years to keep the area protected from development and possible destruction.
The two states have both began development of master plan projects to ensure the preservation of this significant cultural site. The intent and priority of the projects are to preserve the important cultural aspects of Blood Run, while at the same time sharing the incredible history of the area.
“The development pressures are actually greater on the South Dakota side because the site is so near to the city of Sioux Falls, which is the largest city in the state,” said Doug Hofer, director of Parks and Recreation for the state of South Dakota. “We’ve purchased land (for preservation) in 1995, 2011, 2012 and earlier this year—it’s an ongoing process. For the most part we’ve been successful in staying ahead of development pressures.”
The site has had a lot of damage over the past century. The mounds are being damaged by agriculture and by gravel quarry operations. On the South Dakota side there was encroachment from housing and golf courses being built.
“This is a sacred site essentially,” added Foster, who is an enrolled citizen of the northern Iowa Tribe, headquartered just outside White Cloud, Kansas. “On the Iowa side it’s been protected. In 1970 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Finally, over the past five years or so there has been a planning effort on the South Dakota side to designate the site as a state park—called the Good Earth State Park.”
“It’s now part of the National Historic Landmark (program) in South Dakota as well. Good Earth State Park overlaps Blood Run in South Dakota. It was dedicated as a new state park in South Dakota in July 2013. It was a great event and the tribes and the states pledged to continue the work preserving the cultural and historic significance of Good Earth State Park and Blood Run,” said Hoffer, who added that South Dakota will begin building a visitor center at the site this fall.
“There was some discussion about the proper name for the park. They didn’t use the Native name because it was thought non-Indians couldn’t pronounce it correctly. After several rounds of going back and forth it was decided that ‘Good Earth’ would be a name that everybody could live with,” Foster said.
“The problem with the name Blood Run is that people think there was a battle there—running blood. But the word run is just another name for a creek. One of the stories is that because of the red stone near the site, the water looks like blood from the Earth,” he added.
“I would like all tribes to begin to see how important the Midwest is, to begin to tell our story as indigenous people. All the way from Cahokia to Blood Run, to the effigy mounds to other sites. There are places that people are more knowledgeable about in the Southwest or the upper Plains. You forget that there’s this rich story right in the middle of our country.”