PUNISHED WOMAN'S LAKE AND ENEMY SWIM LAKE are just a few of the beautiful names assigned to the Glacial Lakes in northeast South Dakota.
Legends behind the names include tales of lost love, bountiful hunts and bloody battles. And the stories preserve an important part of Indian and South Dakota culture.
The last huge glacier, during the Wisconsin Period (between 75,000 and 10,000 years ago), created the Glacial Lakes that dot the Coteau des Prairies, a rise that covers much of South Dakota’s eastern quarter. In A New South Dakota History, geographer Ed Hogan explains that two glaciers sat on either side of the Big Sioux River, which drains and bisects the coteau. The glacier on the east side melted quickly, leaving valleys, while the western glacier melted more slowly, resulting in lakes and sloughs.
Many lake legends originated in prehistoric times, making them impossible to trace. “Most of what was thought to be reality in those days got changed, or became legends,” says Elden Lawrence, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe and former president of Sisseton Wahpeton College. “Legends are kind of a safe haven. They don’t have to be true or false, they’re just there. So a lot of them, we don’t know for sure what they’re based on. Some of them go into mythology, which was part of the old culture. It’s hard to track down what’s authentic.”
Lawrence says legends were an important part of oral history, an integral component of Native culture. “We didn’t have any written books. History was passed down from one generation to another. It’s just like any modern school system. You can tell people things and they’ll forget. But you always remember a story, or a legend. It was a way of preserving a record of certain events or places. To oral history, legends were like a library, and the more you could remember the more knowledge you had. It was their one way, maybe their only way, of preserving history.”
Legends are still revered by tribal elders, but Lawrence believes younger generations don’t have the same appreciation. For years elders and youth gathered on the shore of Enemy Swim Lake so the elders could tell the lake’s story, but that tradition ended. “An elder told me that young kids no longer sit at the feet of the elders, they sit at the feet of the TV,” Lawrence says.
If that’s the case, then perhaps we’re fortunate that history isn’t always oral today. Here are written versions of some favorite South Dakota lake legends.