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In Focus

Donald Simmons of South Dakota

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

While following Lewis and Clark’s trail along the Missouri River, Donald Simmons canoed, cooked buffalo meat, and traveled the same distance the Great Expedition covered in a three-day period.

“I really enjoy reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and I have spent a lot of time in my canoe, following the path of those explorers and thinking about all the changes that have occurred in South Dakota,” says Simmons, who is executive director of the South Dakota Humanities Council. A native Mississippian, he spent most of his childhood on the banks of rivers--the Neuse in North Carolina, the Alabama, and the Mighty Mississippi.

The Missouri River will take center stage this year as the South Dakota council gears up for the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. As a member of the Great Plains Chautauqua, South Dakota will present a new program in the summer of 2003, “From Sea to Shining Sea: American Expansion and Cultural Change 1790–1850.” Humanities scholars will conduct five-day residencies in five states. This year’s program, moderated by Dolley Madison, features William Clark and his slave York, Sacagawea, Tecumseh, and John Jacob Astor. Members of the speakers bureau will talk about cultural misunderstandings between the explorers and the natives, as recounted in the journals of Lewis and Clark. Issues in ethnography, zoology, botany, economics, and government will be covered, and one program will describe the foods the Corps of Discovery brought with them, hunted, prepared, and ate.

Simmons came to the South Dakota Humanities Council in November 2001 after serving as assistant director for the Mississippi Humanities Council. He says it took some getting used to how sparsely populated South Dakota is--there are 9.9 people per square mile, which can be a challenge to humanities programming. Some residents live two hours or more from a bookstore. As a precursor to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., last October, authors were dispatched throughout the state in what Simmons calls “circuit-riding author tours.”

“When we can send a nationally recognized author to a community of one thousand to fifteen hundred, they draw a really good crowd,” he says. “All authors come back amazed at how hungry South Dakotans are for the written word.” To recognize Native American authors and literature, the council sent author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a recipient of the 2000 National Humanities Medal, as its representative to speak at the festival.

For Simmons, one of the most rewarding aspects of coming to South Dakota is helping preserve the history and culture of the Native American population. He says, “A lot of people forget. They talk about the Native Americans in the past tense, but the truth is, Native American culture is alive and well in the Dakotas.” The council has funded projects such as Respect and Honor, a documentary film recording oral histories of Native American elders, and “Gaining Perspectives: A Summer 2002 Teachers Institute on American Indian Culture,” featuring scholar Elizabeth Cook Lynn of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe. The council has also offered research grants to explore how the damming of the Missouri River has affected Native Americans and changed the environment.

“I think most Americans are not aware of how culturally diverse South Dakota is. We have Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Northern Europeans,” says Simmons. The council also highlights African Americans’ contributions to South Dakota’s history. The council sponsors an annual film festival in commemoration of Oscar Micheaux, the first African American filmmaker and a South Dakota homesteader. In 1919 Micheaux produced his first feature film, The Homesteader, based on his book of the same title. For seven years, the festival has shown Micheaux’s films and offered roundtables and presentations by scholars.

The motto of the South Dakota Humanities Council is “exploring the human adventure” and to Simmons, that is what the humanities is all about. “South Dakota, to me, is still the American frontier,” he says.

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.