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South Dakota Winters Set Records That Still Stand

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It was five below zero when I left home for the office this morning. The forecast calls for a high of 14 degrees above zero today and, believe it or not, folks in Rapid City are saying, "Oh good, it's going to be a warm day."

Therein lies the difference between the hearty South Dakotans and those wimps back East. New York, Philadelphia and other points in the east have experienced a winter of blizzards. It seems that every weekend brings a new curtain of snow. Out here in the Northern Plains, we just snicker and hope they endure.

The main difference is that we have to watch their woes on the nightly news. To the citizens back there, these blizzards are a big deal. Their very presence can block out all other news, and so night after night, we watch as brave news reporters stand in front of giant snow banks, bravely facing the freezing winds in order to let us know that they are having a miserable winter in New York City.

In South Dakota, we have stories about blizzards so bad that during one such storm, a farmer trying to make it from his barn to his house got caught in a whiteout and couldn't see the house, and he froze to death just 25 yards from his front door.

There are photos of cattle standing at a barbed wire fence, frozen to death because they could no longer move forward.

On January 22, 1943, a sudden weather change in Spearfish, S. D. set a record that still holds to this day. At 7:30 A.M., the temperature in Spearfish was four degrees below zero. A Chinook wind picked up speed, and in two minutes, 7:32 A.M., the temperature rose to 45 degrees above zero. By 9 A.M., it had risen to 54 degrees. Just as suddenly, the Chinook died out, and the temperature tumbled back to four degrees below zero. The 58 degree drop took only 27 minutes.

And therein lies our problems with the forecasters from back East. They expect -- that's right, expect -- that South Dakota will have miserable winters and that therefore it is not worth reporting. To them, our horrible winters are par for the course. They consider South Dakota to be one of those "fly over" states that nobody would miss at all if it just fell off of the map.

In 1949, a storm still known as the "Blizzard of '49" hit our state, causing the loss of thousands of head of cattle and sheep. The pheasant population also took a big hit. Days after the blizzard dogs were digging frozen pheasants out of the big snow drifts. The snow drifts were so high in front of Red Cloud Hall at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation (where I was a student) that the boys were doing parachute jumps without the chutes from the second floor of Red Cloud Hall.

This year, we were lulled into thinking that Spring was here. The temperatures climbed to a balmy 67 degrees last week and lingered around that temperature for days. People were out and about in t-shirts and shorts. But as I write this column, it is a frozen five degrees below zero.

I even heard a news reporter in Oklahoma City attribute one of South Dakota's long standing quotes to Oklahoma. How dare they? The quote goes, "If you don't like the weather in South Dakota, just wait a few minutes and it will change." The reporter took one of our standard quotes and attributed to another state, and now I suppose even that quote will be taken from us forever. Shame!

The other quote goes, "There are only two seasons in South Dakota: Christmas and the Fourth of July."

Oh, don't get me wrong. I know we have horrible winters, and there are times on these frozen mornings when I wonder what in the hell I am doing here. But then I think of my ancestors, living in tipis and surviving. The Lakota used to count their years on this earth by the winters they survived. One would count the many winters they had seen come and go as a way of judging their age. Unfortunately, the death rate for the elders rose considerably during the dreadful winters of South Dakota.

I saw an old document several years ago listing the Lakota deaths over a short period of time, and I was struck by the fact that nearly all of them occurred in the winter.

So I know I will go home tonight to a warm house and have a hot meal, and this alone will make my winter endurable.

© 2011 Native Sun News

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Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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