This Place, These Words: South Dakota Books

Posted by Katy Beem on

As SDPB engages with folks throughout the state around PBS’s series The Great American Read, we’ve learned South Dakotans are no less literarily inclined than our compatriots. Be it fiction or history, paper, electronic and audio – we read ourselves to sleep with novels, recite Suess to our kiddos, and pass our ample I-90 drive times consuming Audible chapters.

In essence, we’re passionate about the written word. Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

And while we enjoy bestsellers, South Dakotans value local stories: The Children’s Blizzard,Buffalo for the Broken Heart,Little House books and other regional reads are routinely proffered as favorites.

In celebration of the enduring power of books and our devotion to South Dakota’s stories, this month’s Dakota Life provides intimate portraits of three of our state’s distinct literary heritages, including poet laureate Lee Ann Roripaugh, Nicholas Black Elk’s great-great grandson Myron Pourier, and Charles Berdahl, a descendant of Ole Rolvaag, author of Giants in the Earth. Tune in and tip a few titles from South Dakota’s collective bookshelf.

Word Betrayals

South Dakota State Poet Laureate
Lee Ann Roripaugh

As a poet, Lee Ann Roripaugh plucks and arranges words Ð English, Japanese, and hybrid Ð like fruit brimming in a bowl. Her resplendent lines chime with musicality while articulating Roripaugh’s observations of the coarse beauty of Midwestern landscapes, Japanese fables, and her own contrastive identities.

Growing up in Wyoming, Roripaugh was raised by a Japanese mother who dressed her daughter in kimonos and fretted over her femininity. Roripaugh’s father, a writing professor who ranched and rodeoed, taught her to hunt sage grouse and field dress antelope. The full spectrum of her experiences flourishes in her poetry. “As a child you don’t know what the outside world is like,” says Roripaugh. “The way your household is, is the way it is. That shifting seemed normal. It wasn’t until I was more of an adult that I began to process the ways in which those were some radical cultural elements I had going on at the same time. I think it played out in my art in the sense that I’m writing about an Asian American experience that is maybe somewhat more atypical.”

A classically trained pianist and violinist, Roripaugh has a master’s in musicology and an MFA in poetry. Currently, she teaches writing, poetry and literature at the University of South Dakota, is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Review, and serves as South Dakota’s state poet laureate. Roripaugh’s classes and readings are popular, as her lyrical explorations of intersecting identities and the natural world resonate with readers and writers. “I’ve really been genuinely moved by how attentive, welcoming, and engaged all the communities have been,” says Roripaugh. “Poetry seems to be something that people do want to turn to, or it speaks to them in a more personal or intimate way than a political speech, a Facebook post, or a news article.”

Roripaugh knows familiarly the solace and pain words can carry. Versed as a young child from her immigrant mother in what she terms “JapEnglish,” Roripaugh’s foray into school was marked by a “thorniness with language.” Words, simply, were not always what they seemed. She deems the phenomenon “word betrayals,” and evokes them extensively in her work, including her fourth book, titled Dandarians. “’Dandarians’ was my mother’s way of pronouncing dandelions. It was a shock to discover it was dandelions, not ‘dandarians,’ which I actually prefer. The idea that one’s relationship to language as an immigrant is always already complicated is something that I explore.”

Twice “dandarians” has piqued conflict between daughter and mother, eventually leading to a three-year estrangement, a topic she discusses on Dakota Life. “So, there’s also this tension, or danger around the word or the language in this liminal, hybrid space.”

She’s turning to essays to explore the fissure and healing of the relationship, her keen eye still trained on landscape, self, and belonging.  “I think I’m very much a poet of place, even though it might not be readily apparent to certain kinds of readers,” says Roripaugh. “When you live in the Midwest or Great Plains, certain kinds of iconic images, characters, and vistas say, ‘this is what it means to be a regional writer.’ They’re iconic for a good reason. But as a poet, for me it’s important to be able to see things in new ways. Every single katydid, every cricket song on the horizon, or discarded cicada shell that’s filled with rain that I’ve seen in Vermillion or elsewhere, that’s what poet Ted Kooser would call ‘local wonders.’”

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Giants in the Earth

In 1896, Ole Edvart Rolvaag emigrated from Norway to work his uncle’s farm north of Elk Point. He graduated from Canton’s Augustana Academy in 1901 and began writing seriously as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and taught Norwegian language and literature.

Rolvaag’s best-known novel, Giants in the Earth, concerns an 1870s Norwegian immigrant family homesteading in southeastern Dakota Territory. Set in a fictitious Norwegian settlement between Flandreau and Sioux Falls, Rolvaag’s vivid descriptions of the unbroken prairie and realistic portrayals of people in conflict with one another and with a harsh environment were based on his own experiences and on stories from those who had lived the pioneer life in South Dakota. On a deeper level, Rolvaag’s main characters personify the paradox of the immigrant experience: the desire to embrace a new life and become successful vs. intense language and culture loss. Although some critics at the time thought Rolvaag focused too narrowly on the Norwegian-American experience, others defended it as an accurate description of the universal immigrant dilemma.

The Rolvaag Writing Cabin, where Rolvaag penned Giants in the Earth, now sits on the Augustana University campus, near the Berdahl-Rolvaag House. This month’s Dakota Life features a conversation with Charles Berdahl, of Sioux Falls, a descendant of Rolvaag and his wife, Jennie Berdahl.

 

Black Elk Speaks: Carrying on the Vision

For many, Black Elk Peak is a powerful place of prayer. But remaining mindful of heritage and history as one wends the incline of Trail #9 from Sylvan Lake requires discipline. Not only does the mind wander, diversions amidst the granite outcroppings and harebell patches are dogged: tourist helicopters chop overheard, packs of chatty tween campers Ð phones aloft, often mid-selfie Ð hustle the path. Of course, one’s own thirst and breathlessness also distract.

It helps to walk the trail with Myron Pourier, whose magnanimousness rubs off. “Hey, buddy, you’re doing great,” he encourages a nearby hiker of kindergarten age. “You need water? A snack?” The boy smiles no. His parents thank Pourier.

“This is where it all began,” says Pourier, great-great grandson of Nicholas Black Elk, the Oglala Lakota holy man whose story and vision make up Black Elk Speaks, written with John Neihardt. “This is the beginning, the heart of all that is sacred. As a 9-year-old man my great-great grandfather Black Elk had a vision that occurred on top of this peak Ð a vision of cultural diversity and understanding for all walks of life. Coming together under a sacred tree, a flowering tree of unity, as one nation, as one race of people.”

Pourier hikes the peak weekly, often with his teenage son, Myron Jr. “I pray as I walk. This walk represents the struggle in life. The hike isn’t easy, it never is for me. It’s like for me as being a sun dancer to dance for four days without food and water. It’s like when Jesus carried the cross.”

Pourier says he is compelled to retread his grandfather’s literal and spiritual steps. “It’s very significant to me, the way he lived his life. I’m no saint, I don’t claim to be, but I want to continue to follow his vision, his dream, to help people live today better than yesterday.”

Pourier writes down the stories of the people he meets along the trail: a woman battling cancer who prays to Black Elk each day, another 76-year old celebrating her birthday with a walk to the top. Last July 4 on the fire tower terrace, a man claimed loudly that the mountain would always be Harney Peak to him and his family. Myron Jr. urged his dad to go live from the summit on Facebook. “I talked about cultural diversity, coming together as one nation as a family — the blacks, the whites, the Hispanics, the Caucasians, the Orientals, two-legged, four-legged, winged, and grass roots coming together under the flowering tree.” Pourier was met by handshakes and applause, save for the man who prefers the previous name. Hours later back at the trailhead, when a severe thunderstorm broke out, Pourier and his son invited drenched hikers to shelter under their tarp. “That guy, he didn’t realize it was us at first. Then he shook my hand. Things were meant to be.”

See Lee Ann Roripaugh, Charles Berdahl, and Myron Pourier on Dakota Life, premiering Thursday, Sept. 6, at 8pm (7 MT) with a rebroadcast Sunday, Sept. 9, at 1pm (noon MT).

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