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Civics Lessons from the Hinterland

In just my lifetime we have seen the draft abolished, then reinstated, then converted to an all volunteer military service; the voting age lowered from 21 to 18 (and now there is even talk about lowering it still further to 16). I have my reservations about this last one, but we are living in a far different world than I grew up in, and I will admit we started our kids out at a very early age to learn first-hand about our system of government, warts and all. Even our Bassett Hound participated in the voting process by strutting around the neighborhood on election day wearing a (very long) sandwich board touting our choice for governor.

In the early days of growing our family, the children tagged along when their father and I exercised our right to vote. I can remember walking into a polling place in Custer, South Dakota, with a baby on each hip and juggling a ballot, pens, and diaper bags to submit my electoral choices. We took our civic duty seriously, and felt it was never too early to start sharing that responsibility with the next generation.

Later on, after we had moved into a different precinct, it became even more challenging: we lived at the end of a six-and-a-half-mile dead end road, which accessed a school bus route into Rapid City (where the kids all went to school and my husband and I both worked) However, because of the way the county was sliced up, our polling place ended up in the opposite direction - and even in a different town, the former mining town of Keystone. So on election day we all rose before dawn, piled into the car and headed AWAY from Rapid City - a half an hour or so south - to cast our ballots, in the historic high school’s gym.

The polls opened at 6:00 am, and we were usually there waiting when they opened the doors. The volunteers who manned the booths (mostly women), and served as poll watchers and supervisors, always greeted us with friendly smiles, as we gained somewhat of a reputation as always being first in line. But we didn’t just drag those youngsters along on a detour to school; our kids joined one or the other parent in the booth to observe the process up close and personal. One year we were apparently running late, and there was a flurry of concern that we wouldn’t get the kids to school - almost an hour’s drive away - on time! (We made it - by the skin of our teeth - but it was close!)

As the years went by, I decided that these civics lessons would be enhanced by a better understanding of the state’s history. Not trusting the schools to actually do a thorough job, I gathered teaching materials for varying grade levels and used them in coordination with my favorite method of teaching: story-telling. We had always pointed out important locations and historical events that had happened there to the kids as we drove around the Hills and state, thus giving landmarks a living presence in their lives. (A favorite of course, was the place where Lame Johnny was hung - for horse-thieving!)

But there was also Hangman’s Hill in Rapid City and the first one-room school house in Hayward (alas, the town has long since disappeared and now, so has the school.) Sadly, Rapid City is also home to one of the Indian Boarding Schools which are so much in the news these days, for their reputation for abusing Native American children. And yes, it has a cemetery. We believed (and still do) in learning ALL of the history, not just the feel-good part.

It was both enjoyable and enlightening, because we happen to live in a place that is full of history: the Great Plains are the ancestral home of many indigenous tribes who thrived here before gold was discovered in 1874. Today it is still home to the descendants of those tribes, who live in towns throughout the state, and on the nine remaining Indian Reservations. Following the Gold Rush (which occurred relatively late in the European settlement of North America) came the settlers - mostly farmers and ranchers (including some in my own family) - who added their own Wild West flavor. It is a rich history, which was certainly not devoid of conflict and growing pains, and I wanted my kids to know it all.

As you might expect, those three offspring have turned into active and involved citizens who wouldn’t dream of missing an election. And - God willing, and the creek don’t rise - they are passing along those same civics lessons to the upcoming generation.



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