Representing a settler fantasy space: Lindsay R. Stephens, Unsettling South Dakota Literature: Countering Lionized Representations of a Frontier Fantasy Space, PhD dissertation, University of South Dakota, 2021


Abstract: In this dissertation, I challenge the pervasive notion of South Dakota as a settler fantasy space by considering several of its twentieth and twenty-first century literary offerings through the lens of Settler Colonial Studies. Settler colonial ideology has long dominated historical, sociopolitical, and literary narratives in South Dakota, affecting state policy, Lakota and Dakota sovereignty, public school curricula, the state’s economy, and even state and local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notions of Manifest Destiny and a Wild West frontier continue to evolve, shift, and resolidify in South Dakota, playing a key role in the perpetuation of institutionalized disenfranchisement and dispossession of Native peoples. In literature, these troublesome binaries of cowboy / Indian and pioneer / Indian have historically been represented by South Dakota writers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, O.E. Rӧlvaag, and Charles “Badger” Clark, who collectively constitute the state’s canon. Yet South Dakota boasts a multitude of writers who take up urgent issues of settler colonialism and grapple with them in productive ways. In this dissertation, I consider the novels of Black pioneer Oscar Micheaux, the oeuvre of bison rancher-turned-Lakota ally Dan O’Brien, the collaborative memoirs of American Indian Movement activist Mary Brave Bird, the contradictory and contentious works of Linda Hasselstrom, and the ecocentric poems of Courtney Huse Wika. I argue that these writers expose the tensions and complexities of settler colonialism in South Dakota. Their works challenge the dominant settler paradigm in South Dakota literature and culture, showing that despite its oversimplified, stereotypical, and deeply problematic frontier fantasies, settler colonialism in South Dakota remains complicated and unstable.

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