Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota isn’t much smaller than the state of Vermont, but the population is so sparse that the typical Vermonters—hailing from a very rural state themselves—could hardly conceive of the staggering emptiness of this reservation’s 9,000 square miles. With a population only around 20,000, it claims fewer than 6 people per square mile. And with that low of density—a settlement pattern that characterizes much of western South Dakota—it is impossible to harness enough purchasing power to justify even the occasional roadside gas station and convenience store; after all, retail follows rooftops. So, across much of the state, especially the ranch-dominated western half, there are none. As one departs from that service station on the edges of Pierre (the state capital itself still a mere town of less than 15,000 people), county signage informs the motorists that the next oasis along State Route 34 is 35, 45, sometimes even over 60 miles away. Better not be driving on fumes. Even more important: better to have a bottle of water on hand. Or perhaps the solution is to tote along a canteen? (I learned the hard way. With my throat parched from spending too much time baking under the sweltering July prairie sun, I reached that gas station—one of the few structures in 60 miles—only to find that it had closed two hours earlier. Thankfully a vending machine saved me.)
Such rarefied distribution of population characterizes the overwhelming majority of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with the potential exception of its largest settlement, also named Pine Ridge, and the tribal headquarters of the Oglala Sioux Nation. And Pine Ridge is only a “municipality” in the loosest sense; it is not incorporated, it shows no evidence that a railroad ever passed through it (the primary origin of villages in the western US), and it only offers a few blocks of a platted grid that one might consider walkable.
But, in the absence of anything to surpass it across an area the size of Vermont, Pine Ridge inevitably offers the closest thing to a cluster of services to serve the reservation: a hospital, a bank, a post office, a few churches (including the intriguingly designed one above), a few schools, a funeral home, gas stations, some familiar restaurants (Pizza Hut, Taco Johns), and, not surprisingly, a supermarket.
The interior is nowhere near as distinctive or colorful as the winsome mural on building’s bricked side.
It’s a pretty normal looking grocery store. But it does offer one unusual sight:
Yes, the store at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation offers bikes along with your beets. I’ve never seen such a juxtaposition, and it’s hard not to be amused by it. Maybe this reflects my urban chauvinism, and bicycles are a common feature in extremely rural supermarkets. As far as this region goes, this 3,000 square foot market—note that it refers to itself as the Sioux Nation Shopping Center—is the equivalent of a shopping mall, and the only de facto shopping mall in this corner of South Dakota is in Rapid City, 95 miles away.
So bicycles are apparently a big enough commodity that the one true retailer in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation carries quite a few of them. Their prevalence then begs the question: in an area so sparse, how big of a purpose can they serve? Outside of the neighboring settlement of Whiteclay, Nebraska, a mile to the south (a controversial town pairing in and of itself), there’s precious little that’s reachable in what most would consider a reasonable bicycling distance. As is typical Oglala, South Dakota (pop. 1,300) is fifteen miles to the north, which is over an hour long bike ride. Wounded Knee (pop. 380, and proximal site of the infamous 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre) is sixteen miles to the northeast. While neither distance is unattainable by bicycle, it certainly would be hard for it to pass as a standard utilitarian trip, not withstanding the often inhospitable climate of the High Plains: scorchingly hot in the summer, punishingly cold in the winter, and fierce winds throughout the year that could easily make even a short bike ride exhausting. Besides those unincorporated communities, the only other potential destinations are a smattering of homes on multi-acre lots scattered along U.S. Highway 18. In short, the configuration of settled areas in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are such that a personally operated vehicle is necessary—and when such vehicle is unavailable, a paratransit service or a program like the like the Tribal Transit Program (TTP) will fit the bill.
Yet the bikes stood there above the fruits and veggies at the Sioux Nation Shopping Center. Keeping in mind the extremely low incomes in the area—the enveloping Oglala Lakota County is the poorest in the nation by per capita income—it’s possible that bicycles are the only affordable means of transportation for many of the reservation’s residents. And although the city chauvinists among us associate bicycles as a primarily urban-minded transportation alternative, they still serve a viable purpose in small towns, even if the density and diversity of destinations within reasonable biking range is understandably less.
I wouldn’t begrudge the residents of Pine Ridge their two wheels. And, for that matter, I hope the successor grocery store sells them as well. That’s right: the Sioux National Shopping Center depicted in these 2016 photos closed in early 2019, leaving residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation without a major retailer for purchasing foods. Thankfully, the decision apparently came less from a collapse in market demand and more from a tribal decision: the Oglala Sioux Council decided to terminate the 50-year contract and begin a new one with Buche Foods, who even sponsored twice-daily bus trips to the nearest grocery store (45 minutes away from Pine Ridge) as they renovated the old facility. The supermarket itself opened in March of that year. And, if the demand really exists for them, I’m confident the new vendor still sells those bikes. Right above the rutabagas.