Cowboys in America


Porcupine, South Dakota

A young man with a moustache wearing a cowboy hat and outerwear jacket stands in a patchy grass field, horses stand in the background.

“I have two other brothers and two sisters and there are two of us that are still out in the country… ranching. The rest are working in towns. They think there is more out there. They think there is something that they’re missing. 

And I’m glad to live right here in Porcupine, South Dakota myself…. Porcupine. It’s just a little convenience store and a gas station.”
								—Mark Sager, THE LAST COWBOY

The Sager family’s ranch in Porcupine (population 407) is located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Shannon County, South Dakota. One of the poorest counties in America, Shannon County’s unemployment rates hover around 80 percent, and Porcupine’s median household income is half of the national average. Only minutes from the famed Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota, the region’s hills, canyons and stunning landscapes belie its bloody history.

Porcupine History

Archival photo of a group of soldiers standing in front of three teepees and behind three artillery cannons.
Soldiers with Hotchkiss guns used at Wounded Knee (John C. H. Grabill, Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

Massacre at Wounded Knee

The Lakota people had lived in the Great Plains for generations before American settlers arrived in the region in the early 1800s and Native tribes began more than a century of resistance against encroaching white settlers, resulting in widespread violence, destruction and migration. Pine Ridge and the surrounding Black Hills were the sites of several U.S invasions and battles with Native tribes in the 1860s and 1870s, including the Battle of Rosebud, the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Slim Buttes Battle. By the 1880s, the Oglala Lakota tribe had lost their rights and were forced onto the newly created Pine Ridge Reservation.

One of the most notorious events to take place in what is now Shannon County and Pine Ridge was the Massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1890, after a single shot killed a U.S. officer, Army soldiers respond by killing Miniconjou Chief Big Foot and more than 300 Native American men, women and children.

Woven circular patch says: American Indian Movement, Remember Wounded Knee 1890, 1973, 1990; includes image of Native American in headdress, headdress is made of a hand making a peace sign.

The American Indian Movement

By the mid-1900s, the U.S. government had successfully dissolved tribal nations and scattered Native tribes throughout the country via forced relocation programs. But during the modern Civil Rights Era, the time was ripe for an organized movement among Native American activists. The American Indian Movement, or AIM, was founded in 1968 by a group of Ojibwa Indians—Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and George Miller—in order to fight for the civil rights of all Native Americans. AIM’s actions included the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC to protest federal policies against tribal sovereignty.

In 1973, AIM and its supporters occupied buildings and secured the perimeter at the site of Wounded Knee for 71 days. Federal officers arrived and killed two Native Americans. More than 500,000 rounds of ammunition were fired into AIM's bunkers and nearly 1,200 people were arrested. In the next three years, more than 60 AIM supporters were killed on or near Pine Ridge, and two federal agents were killed in a gunfight between the FBI and AIM in 1975, leading to the jailing of activist Leonard Peltier.

Shannon County Statistics
  • Population of Porcupine: 407
  • Population Pine Ridge Reservation: 20,806
  • Average family income in Porcupine: $24,583
  • Average family income in
    Pine Ridge: $3,700
  • Average national family income: $41,994
  • Average low temperature:
    9.7 degrees F (January)
  • Average high temperature:
    87.2 degrees F (July)
(Based on 2000 U.S. Census figures)
Shannon County Statistics

Porcupine Today

Pine Ridge and Porcupine still remain home to mainly Oglala Lakota, who comprise about 98 percent of the town’s population. With Pine Ridge, a.k.a. “The Rez,” Shannon County itself has the highest percentage of Native Americans—and lowest percentage of whites—of any county in the U.S. Although the region remains starkly rural—the closest regional airport, in Rapid City, is more than 70 miles away—Porcupine is slowly changing.

As seen in THE LAST COWBOY, traditional occupations such as farming and ranching have nearly become a thing of the past. In recent years, the "big city" of Gordon, Nebraska (population 2,175), has lured most of Porcupine's youth away from ranch life with the promise of jobs, mini-marts and paved streets. This new migration, coupled with changing economies and industries, leaves the region’s future unclear.

Trace the evolution of cowboys and ranchers in America >>


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