We drive with our shoulders hunched, grimly accepting the risk of heading into that gaping prairie maw, where we might spend hours waiting for a tow if we slide off the road.
I am headed for the town of Winner to speak with a young Native woman who has worked as a “dancing girl” in nearby hunting lodges.
It is a long, tense drive. The diamond clarity of the new winter light, however, buoys my spirit as I make my way down into the Missouri River valley. I am surprised and thrilled when a huge buck bounds across the hills nearby, so closely I can see the cold stream of his breath, snort from his nostrils.
By late morning, I roll into the little town of Winner, where nearly every merchant has signage welcoming pheasant hunters. Disappointingly, however, I learn that the young woman has changed her mind about talking with me. She says it is too risky.
Disappointed, I retreat into Darlene’s Café, located just off the main drag. Darlene’s is a small local place where Elvis, apparently, is still king. The phone rings frequently with its distinctive Hunk of Burning Love ringtone as Native and non-Native customers drink their coffee and joke. My attention is diverted by the vast array of Elvis memorabilia attached to every possible surface but soon I notice a difference in the atmosphere here in Winner. The Native and non-Native folks seem very friendly with each other.
I last visited Winner in 2006, when the racial atmosphere was decidedly tense. The American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas (ACLU) and the attorney general of the nearby Rosebud Sioux tribe had just brought a class-action lawsuit against the Winner school district. The suit charged the district with discriminatory practices and policies designed to result in unfair criminal prosecution of Native students.
The ACLU settled the lawsuit in 2007 and reached an agreement between the district and Native families. The district agreed to enact policies ensuring rights of Native students would not be violated and agreed to work with and involve the tribal community in creating these policies.
My experience of Winner in 2006 reminded me of other visits to reservation border towns where non-Natives seemed to eye Natives with suspicion and fear and the Native folks seemed resigned to such attitudes. I vividly recalled a 2006 conversation with Winner resident Birdie Ward about Native people and their standing in the community. “They are a conquered people, you know,” she said.
But the mood today was decidedly lighter.
I decide to investigate and call on Marla Bull Bear, who has served as executive director of the Native American Advocacy Project in Winner for several years.
I am surprised to learn that the citizens of Winner have elected a Native mayor, Jess Keesis of the Potawatomie tribe. “But they didn’t know he was Indian until after they elected him,” laughs Bull Bear.
According to Bull Bear, folks were so eager to replace the former mayor, who had served several terms, that they didn’t look too closely at his opponent. “Yes, I think [non-Native voters] were kind of surprised when they found out I was Native,” laughs Keesis.
Originally from Kansas, Keesis moved to Winner about 10 years ago and established a construction business. Although no one confronted him directly about his heritage after the election, he learned that some in the community opposed him based on his race. “There were postings on Facebook saying how Winner was “going to the dogs” now that a Native was mayor,” he says.
“This place was run by the good old boy network and I changed a lot of that,” he adds. Apparently the changes were welcome; Keesis was serving his second term when I visited Winner recently. He has made a point to reach out to leaders of the Rosebud reservation and noted that he is the first mayor of Winner to do so.
But what of the dancing girls and the Keystone XL pipeline?
It turns out that both are touchy subjects in Winner. Keesis understands that the leaders of the Rosebud tribe oppose the pipeline because of its potential negative impact upon the land and the community. A realist, however, he opines that there is little that can be done to change the impending pipeline and hopes his community can reap some of the economic rewards associated with the project.
Currently, Colume, 10 miles away, does not have a resident police officer, so the town of Winner will have to pay for a full-time deputy to oversee the area.
He estimates that Winner and Tripp County stand to gain about $900,000 per year in pipeline-related income. Since the project will be completed within two years or so, he thinks that the impact on the community and land will not be as bad as that of the oil patch in the Bakken. He hopes the tribe will get on board and support the pipeline.
“The pipeline will be a big boost for the county’s economy but the tribe doesn’t want it, they are concerned about leaks and impact of the man-camp on the community.” He sighs. “Truth be told, there isn’t a pipeline in the world that doesn’t’ leak. So I am in the middle once again.”
Winner, he notes, could use the money. Income from hunting is not what it used to be. He notes dryly that the new trend of providing all-inclusive hunting experiences at private lodges keeps hunters away from the town’s bars, restaurants and hotels. Also, Winner passed an ordinance a couple of years ago banning dancing girls from the bars. Strip clubs are now located outside of the city limits.
Keesis chooses his words carefully as he discusses the dancing girls. “Some people are not in favor of prohibiting the dancing girls. They say that not having them here has hurt Winner; the girls rent little houses and have their own clientele who visit the bars,” he explains. “The private lodges have decimated the financial boost provided by hunting.”
Fewer and fewer hunters are seen in local bars and restaurants. Many are brought in by private jet to the local airport and taken directly to their all-inclusive lodges. “I hear that some of [the lodges] bring in their own girls and stuff. There are new lodges opening up every year,” Keesis says. “A lot of the owners are from out of state.
“These days, all we hear are the plane engines.”
An accurate count on the number of private hunting lodges in the area is tough to come by. Many don’t bother to become members of the chamber of commerce, according to Carla Brozik, executive director of the Winner chamber.
The dancing girls still come to the area to work the hunting season, but details of their lives and the structure of their business are elusive. Does “dancing” include commercial sex acts? The question is met with arched eyebrows and non-committal shoulder shrugging in Winner.
I ask Brozik if folks in the community have any reactions to the hard-partying of some of the hunters. She abruptly stops talking and seems to take a few minutes to take stock of my intentions. “Hunting is our tourism and we make sure that the hunters are welcomed and accepted in our community,” she says carefully.
She makes it clear this interview is over. Discouraged, I return to visit with Marla Bull Bear.
“Ah yes, the dancing girls. Women here kind of collectively roll their eyes when mention is made of the girls,” she says.
According to Bull Bear, the locals view the dancing girls as a necessary evil that comes with the income brought in by hunting. Since the bar owners have their own system of recruiting and housing the girls, the community is able to keep the issue at a comfortable distance.
Maria Burch, a newspaper reporter in Chamberlain agrees. “People kind of snigger about the dancing girls; it’s a big joke,” she says.
Bull Bear remembers one year however, when the dancing girls were not a joking matter. One of their own, local a Native girl, began dancing in the bars and selling herself to the hunters. “People were outraged and talked in terms of disgust of what she was doing. But the reality was that there was no difference between her and the other girls except that we knew her,” she says.