October 29, 2022 | Last updated Aug 9, 2023

“I Don’t Know What We’d Have Done Without the Indians”

Dressed for a post-harvest dance, Lakotas pose at the Burlington depot in Alliance in the 1930s. NSHS RG2063-50-1 (at left).

A labor shortage during World War I left western Nebraska potato farmers facing the loss of their crop. They brought in Lakota (Sioux) Indians as harvesters, beginning a tradition that lasted from 1917 through the 1950s. The story is one both of prejudice and understanding, cooperation and conflict—and of long-lasting relationships forged by economic necessity. David R. Christensen writes about it in “‘I Don’t Know What We’d Have Done Without the Indians’: Non-Indian and Lakota Racial Relationships in Box Butte County’s Potato Industry, 1917-1960.” The article appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Nebraska History.

 

A potato cellar in Box Butte County, 1917. Potatoes had to be picked and stored before the first hard freeze, which would spoil any unharvested potatoes. The western Nebraska potato industry developed in the early twentieth century, but had largely faded by the 1960s. NSHS RG3152-3-17 (above).

 

Harvesting southeast of Alliance. Digging potatoes was notoriously hard work. Many Lakota workers (not shown here) picked 100 to 150 bushels a day. An excellent picker could pick up to 200 bushels or more in a day. NSHS RG1431-8-24 (above right).

The Fall 2011 issue of Nebraska History announces a new NSHS membership category: Subscription Only. For just $29 per year, you’ll receive four issues of each of Nebraska History and Nebraska History News. (Memberships with full benefits are still $40.) Click here to learn more.

—David L. Bristow, Associate Director / Publications

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