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Project Rural Practice



PRP MissionABA Resolution | Why South Dakota? | Contact PRP | Rural Attorney Recruitment Program

The Unified Judicial System and the State Bar of South Dakota are committed to assuring that all citizens within the State of South Dakota have access to quality attorneys. In 2013, the South Dakota Legislature approved the Recruitment Assistance Pilot Program to address the current and projected shortage of lawyers practicing in small communities and rural areas of South Dakota. 

Read the New York Times Article

Why South Dakota? A Snapshot

This state has many great qualities requiring volumes to adequately describe.  But if you are just beginning your search for work, and you know little about South Dakota, you are not interested in textbooks.  Hence this snapshot of our fair state.  If you are considering a rural practice, South Dakota is a hard place to beat.  Not only does the state have a rich tradition of rural practice, it provides some of the best natural beauty, plenty of venues for outdoor sports (and four true seasons to do them in), and the strong economy to sustain that practice.  Below, these topics and others are described, giving you a taste of South Dakota’s past, present and future.

Information derived from Herbert T. Hoover & John E. Miller et al., A New South Dakota History, (Harry F. Thompson, ed. 2005); Edward Patrick Hogan & Erin Hogan Fouberg, The Geography of South Dakota (3d ed. 2001).


South Dakota’s culture is arguably reflected most vividly in its geography.  Even today, the most stark political and cultural cleavage is the “East River – West River” dynamic, which gets its name from the Missouri River that splits the state in two.  The eastern third of the state was covered by glaciers during the last ice age.  As the glaciers receded, the land was flattened and small depressions carved.  The result is a region of pothole lakes teeming with fish and gently sloping hills ideal for agriculture.  The remaining two-thirds of the state, with the exception of the Black Hills, is comprised of plateaus or tablelands in the north and south and more rounded, picturesque hills in the middle.  This area is traditionally viewed as “Western” geography, with less of a presence of agriculture and more ranches.  The southern portion is more arid than the north and is home to the Sandhills (which are predominantly in Nebraska) and the Badlands – some of the most beautiful geography in the country.  The Black Hills contain some of the most ancient mountains in the world, replete with conifers, incredibly unique geology, and the tallest mountains in North America east of the Rocky Mountains.



As you can surmise by its location in the middle of the country, South Dakota has a very continental climate.  Essentially three types of climate zones influence the state, with a dry continental climate impacting roughly the western half of the state, and two types of “humid continental” climate impacting the east (the type that has more moisture and warmer temperatures impacts roughly the southeastern third of East River South Dakota).  All three climate zones do share certain characteristics, particularly temperature.  Summers are hot and winters are cold in South Dakota.  However, summers are not as consistently muggy as they are in the Southeastern United States.  Precipitation tends to increase as you move further east and south throughout the state.  The Black Hills provides a unique climate anomaly for its communities, helping moderate temperatures and increase precipitation relative to the dry continental climate elsewhere in West River South Dakota.



– Native AmericanBased upon the 2010 census, South Dakota had a little over 800,000 residents, nearly 72,000 of whom are Native Americans.  While the Native American population comprises a little less than 10% of the state’s total population, the community constitutes the state’s largest minority group and has a historical impact that shaped South Dakota in many fundamental ways.   The tribes that currently exist as sovereign, recognized entities in South Dakota are constituencies of the Sioux Federation.  The Sioux Tribes began entering South Dakota from their ancestral homeland around Mille Lacs, in eastern Minnesota, in the last half of the eighteenth century.
The Sioux Federation is  divided by ethnologists based upon language—specifically, three Sioux dialects that loosely correspond to geography.  The eastern Sioux dialect, Dakota, includes four tribes:  Mdewakanton, Hahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton.  These tribes inhabited the northeastern portion of the state around 1800.  Currently, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate has tribal authority over the Lake Traverse reservation in northeast South Dakota, while a melting pot of Dakota peoples—mostly Mdewakantons and Hahpekutes—reside on the lands of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in eastern South Dakota.  The middle Sioux dialect, Nakota, is used by three tribes:  Yankton, Yanktonai, and Assiniboine.  The Yankton and Yanktonai inhabited northern and eastern South Dakota around 1800.  Today, the Yankton Sioux Tribe may be found on a reservation in south central South Dakota.  The western dialect, Lakota, classifies seven tribes:  Oglala, Brule, Minneconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, Blackfoot, and Hunkpapa.  These tribes inhabited the western portion of the state at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Reservations inhabited primarily by Lakota peoples include the Lower Brule and Rosebud Indian Reservations (Brule) in south central South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Oglala) in southwestern South Dakota, and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation (Minneconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, and Blackfoot) in west central South Dakota.

Arguably the state’s greatest challenge will be to partner with these tribes to remedy the dire humanitarian situation on the reservations.  Four of the five poorest counties in the United States are reservation counties in South Dakota.  While new federal legislation, state and tribal partnerships, and reservation-based economic development are beginning to show some signs of progress, there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to improve the lives of tribal members living on the reservations and provide them the opportunity to share in the prosperity of the rest of the state.

– South Dakota GenerallyCaucasians of German extraction constitute the largest ethnic population in the state, followed by Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.   These cultures created a newly-fashioned culture in this state that was, and continues to be, focused upon agrarian issues, political conservatism, and—to a lesser degree—populism.In his landmark work on political culture, the late Daniel J. Elazar identified three political subcultures in American politics and the characteristics of each, two of which are helpful in describing South Dakota culture.  They are the individualistic political culture, characterized by strong beliefs in the marketplace as a solution to economic and social ills, that government’s role should be limited, and that self-interest governs politics;  and the moralistic culture, which is described as maintaining strong beliefs in a commonwealth approach to solving social problems, that politics is driven by issues, and that government is a positive force in the lives of citizens and advances the public interest.  The culture of West River South Dakota most strongly mirrors the individualistic political culture, while East River South Dakota seems to embody the moralistic political culture.
This melding of political cultures is evident in the dueling state traditions of political conservatism and populism.  Conservatives and liberals of either individualistic or moralistic traditions inhabit the state, and the political movements they spawn have had great impacts on the national stage.  The earliest political force in the state was Populism, a movement political culture arising around statehood that introduced the initiative and referendum, instruments of direct democracy.  South Dakota was the first state to adopt this practice statewide, in 1898.  Populists sought to combat the evils of monopoly power, whether embodied in capitalist excess or government corruption and control.  By the early 1900s, this movement matured (or was co-opted, depending upon the source) into the Progressive Movement.  This movement had many flavors, with elements of strong moralist conviction that promoted temperance and moral legislation, and more “progressive” elements with  impulses for investing in infrastructure, improving government, and improving the situation of farmers.  The main political battles occurred between Progressive Republicans and Conservative (“Stalwart”) Republicans, with Democrats providing only a “secondary factor,” a dynamic that still exists today in state government.  A coalition of main street lawyers, business people, educators, and farmers made the progressives a strong political force until the mid-1920s.  Thereafter, traditional, conservative Republicans occupied state government.  Only five Democratic governors have served the State of South Dakota, and none since the late 1970s.  Instead, the state’s electorate often votes for conservatives to run state government, where fiscal responsibility is viewed as the priority, while permitting Democrats outsized success in Congressional races because of a recognition of the benefits of federal assistance for state projects.  Even the lion of South Dakota conservatives, the anti-communist crusader Karl E. Mundt, fought hard to strengthen federal farm subsidies, brought the VA Hospital to Sioux Falls, and brought the EROS Data Center (a satellite geographic imaging center) to South Dakota in his 34 years in Congress.

Ultimately, the political and cultural foundation of South Dakota is not monolithic.  It is much more complicated than any snapshot can convey.  Various influences have impacted the state in a way that simple associations alone do not adequately represent.  The common threads from of South Dakota’s geography and history will likely form the cultural tapestry of South Dakota for the foreseeable future, including strands of Native American heritage, a rugged pioneer culture centered around agriculture, a jaundiced view of concentrated power, and a sense of statewide community that can only exist in a low-population state.



South Dakota’s economy is synonymous with low unemployment and agriculture.   The former is statistically true, and agriculture and ranching certainly have the greatest influence of any sector of the economy on the culture of South Dakota as well as its politics.  However, other important industries and services drive most of the economic engine of the state.  Harkening to its ranching and agricultural focus, the state’s largest industrial employer is meat packing.  Much of the state’s industrial research is in agronomy and animal sciences, although important research institutions, such as the EROS Data Center, the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake in the Black Hills, and others are beginning to diversify South Dakota’s high technology capacity.  Dairy producers and processors, soybean processing, ethanol plants and farm machinery production are also major employers.   Rounding out the major employers are export-scale metal fabrication, chemical processing and polymer industries, which are present to some degree in  many South Dakota communities.
The state’s wide open spaces and substantial wind resources have over the last decade fostered the growth of wind energy as an important industry in the state, with wind farms and turbine manufacturing companies setting up shop.  Tourism constitutes a sizeable chunk of the state’s economy, as is evident during any summer day in the Black Hills or on the Missouri River, or anywhere in the state during the fall and winter hunting seasons.  With the state’s aging population, health care services are experiencing a large increase in demand in communities of all sizes in the state.  This is a trend that will likely continue for the foreseeable future.  Finally, financial services industry in South Dakota is noteworthy because of its size and because of the impact it has had on the growth of Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest community.