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In my five years as a New York City dweller, I've heard the following line more times than I can possibly remember: "South Dakota? I've never met anyone from South Dakota." Well, consider yourself introduced.

There's a reason you've never met anyone from South Dakota. With about 750,000 residents, what are the odds of bumping into a native South Dakotan outside its borders -- especially in New York state, population 19 million? We're practically the human equivalent of the dodo bird.


Even within the state, running across a fellow Dakotan is not as easy as you might think -- we're the 17th largest state by land size, so there's only 10 of us for every square mile.

Without further ado, I give you six things you should know about the bigger of the Dakotas. After all, you don't want to be one of those dunderheads who thinks Fargo is in South Dakota (it's in North Dakota) or who pronounces our state capital, Pierre, as a French-ified "Pee-ERR." It's pronounced "peer."

Oh, jeez. I'll make it easy: We're the one with Mount Rushmore.


#1. The State Bird = Good Huntin'.

New York and Missouri have the lovely bluebird, Illinois and Ohio have the eye-catching cardinal, Kansas and Nebraska have the flute-throated meadowlark. We have the ring-necked pheasant, an import from China. And we like to blow the crap out of it. About 150,000 hunters annually shoot up about 1.3 million pheasant. Wow, that's nearly double our human population!

My dad, rightly, likes to point out that hunting brings loads of tourist dollars to the state, but all those guns can be a bit disconcerting. My boyfriend recently took his first trip to Sodak, as we sometimes call it. A New York native, he found the clutches of hunters with rifles blasting away just feet from the highways more than a little nerve-wracking. He also was a bit wary of the fellows waving around guns in both hands at the local Wal-Mart as they showed off their wares. And darned if they didn't have a better ammo selection than they did paper towels. Michael Moore would not be pleased.


#2. South Dakota is the Sunshine State!

Until we changed our state motto to the "Mount Rushmore State" in 1992, snowy South Dakota was known as America's "Sunshine State." It was on our state flag. It was a major state selling point. We took pride in sunshine. It's sunny, sure, but it's also freaking *cold.* Was this hilarious misnomer a ploy to attract new tax-paying citizens? Looks like it didn't work -- I think most of them went to Florida, the buggy, swampy retirement community that still probably has a better claim on that nickname.

Maybe our Midwestern modesty runs a bit too deep, because South Dakota seems to have problems promoting itself. Before we were the Sunshine State, we were known as the "Coyote State." Now, it's true that we have coyotes. But if you're trying shine up your image, seeding potential visitors' minds with visions of getting their calves gnawed off by wild beasts is not the way to do it.

Finally, a few years ago, there was a failed movement in the state
Legislature to change the nickname to the horribly milquetoast "Monument State." The idea was to acknowledge the under construction, but incredibly huge, Crazy Horse Monument, which is near Mount Rushmore and will eventually dwarf it. Nice idea in theory -- after all, the white man moved in and plopped Mount Rushmore on sacred Native American ground -- but let's not confuse potential tourists by telling them we have unspecified monuments. They might try to include the Corn Palace.


#3. You Can Leave Your Car Running Here.

If you're in Aberdeen and it's cold, go ahead and leave your keys in the ignition. Heck, leave the car running! Your engine block could freeze in the subzero winter temperatures -- which seem to last from September to mid-June.

Head down for a January Budweiser binge at your local bar (many of which, by the way, are decorated by the aforementioned pheasants, dead and stuffed and perched on the walls), and you may be greeted by a parking lot full of Ford F-150s and Chevy pickups, engines belching steamily in the night. If anyone took off with your car down the main drag and the local cop saw you weren't driving it, you'd have it back to you in no time.

Of course, this trust is sometimes broken. One time, a patient at the local alcohol-treatment center walked off the property, four blocks from our house, looking for passage to Sioux Falls, (pop. 150,000) the largest city in South Dakota. He stepped into my dad's 1967 Olds Cutlass -- "Old Blue," parked in its usual spot in the driveway, keys trustingly dangling from the ignition -- and rolled off. The poor schmuck drove 25 miles to Sioux Falls, where a family friend spotted the old beater and called the police. The suspect was long gone ... but he left his driver's license on the seat.


#4. Hot Dish and Bars Are An Essential Part of the Social Scene Here, Too.

In New York, "hot dish and bars" means "Page Six and happy hour," but in South Dakota, we're talkin' "tator tots and brownies." Winter padding is necessary in South Dakota and social gatherings revolve around pans of hot, gooey food. (Lane Bryant is fashionable!)

Hot dish and bars are two staples of South Dakota eatin'. As the name 'hot dish' would imply, this is simply a hot dish of food. And the most popular one is "Tator Tot Hot Dish" (say that a million times fast) a layered pan full of beef, frozen vegetable cubes, potatoes and mushroom soup. (You can find the approximate recipe here.) Bars are pretty much any dessert you can cut into a bar, like a brownie. Methodists bring them to church meetings and eat them off of paper napkins with nonalcoholic punch. Bars come in several varieties, most with some brownie-like combination of chocolate, marshmallow and nuts.


#5. Some of Us Are Stuck in a Time Warp.

If you think daylight savings time is a pain in the ass, try being a
resident of Fort Pierre, S.D. (Say it with me: Fort PEER.)

Fort Pierre, a bedroom community to neighbor and state capital Pierre, is just west of the Missouri River, which divides Central Time and Mountain Time. That means the poor stiffs who live in Fort Pierre, three miles from Pierre, have to wake up an extra hour early to go to work. When it's 7 a.m. at home, it's already 8 a.m. at the office. Talk about a crap way to start your morning! I guess they make up for it when they leave work at 5 p.m. and get home, by the clock, an hour before they left.

Of course, the time warp allows for goofy scheduling. Have an appointment at 8 a.m. in Pierre and at 8 a.m. in Fort Pierre? No problem! You can do both. Gotta meet the mistress at 7 p.m. on Saturday but that's when your wife's birthday party starts? No sweat.

All in all, though, the Pierre/Fort Pierre area is a tough place to make


#6. Farmers Are Smarter Than You. By a Mile.

Lest I've given the impression that South Dakotans are a bunch of dumb, gun-toting, Bud-swilling, childishly trusting rubes, let me set things straight. Farmers, who make up a good portion of my family and home-state neighbors, are smarter than you, no matter what you think of their voting habits.

Do you know the first thing about playing the futures markets for corn, hog bellies or soybeans? Can you wear the hats of a banker, a CPA, a scientist, a meteorologist, a marketing genius, a handyman, an electrician *and* a blue-collar soil tiller? Do you know how to check the acidity of soil or pull calves from a cow's uterus? Got $250,000 to shell out for a combine you'll use for a month? Want to work from 6 a.m. until midnight to pay for it?

For an average family to survive, they've got to farm about 1,500 acres of corn, which costs about $2,500 an acre. Adding it up, that's like $4 MILLION to get your farm up and running, only to be at the mercy of hail, early frost, commodities prices and plagues of hungry bugs. Keep this in mind the next time you're enjoying a big cube of tofu, all you emaciated, non-hot-dish eating New Yorkers.


A Note on North Dakota:

Back in 2001, North Dakota revived its off-and-on campaign to change its name to "Dakota." Former governor Ed Schafer said that "people have such an instant thing about how North Dakota is cold and snowy and flat... a name change would get a lot of attention."

Well, it did, but the attention was more like a simultaneous national
chuckle. We South Dakotans felt like our northern brothers and sisters were trying to relegate us to the lesser place of say, a West Virginia, to its monomonikered counterpart. (Personally, I'm a big fan of West Virginia, but I think we can all agree it's the butt of far more jokes.) Get over it, North Dakota. We're bigger, we're warmer, we have more people and more money. You are not the original Dakota.

Now, let's make nice and go shoot us some pheasants. After all, Dakota is the Sioux word for "friends."


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