Monday, December 16, 2013

The Story of Bob Barker, the Rosebud Reservation and Highway 83

Mission, S.D, 1940. By John Vachon. LOC
As a chronicler of all things to do with Highway 83, I have a fairly good list of all the famous folks who came from the towns or cities along its 1,885 miles.
That comes to some 122 communities — depending on how you count them — so there are bound to be a few well-known actors, singers, athletes, politicians and war heroes hailing from these towns.
Some were born in a Highway 83 community but left at a young age, and probably have no emotional connection or memories about their birthplaces. Some were born and raised along the road, and lived there until they left to find their fame and fortune. Some were not born there, but spent formative years in these towns.
Such is the case with game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker.
I only very recently discovered that Barker spent his childhood in Mission, South Dakota.
So I dutifully noted this on my calendar, and when his 90th birthday rolled around on Dec. 12, I wished him Happy Birthday on my Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page, and noted that he was also one-eighth Lakota, which was stated on his Wikipedia page. 
This generated a lot of comments, especially on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Facebook page, where I shared the posting. Some claimed that Barker was lying about being one-eighth Lakota.
People are right to question the accuracy of Wikipedia entries, although in my opinion, it has gotten better over the years.
But this got me to thinking.
Did Bob Barker ever write his memoirs? The answer was “yes.” Then, the next question, did my local library have a copy? The answer to that was also “yes,” and it wasn’t checked out. So I stopped by there on the way home from work the day of his birthday and grabbed a copy.
Priceless Memories, by Bob Barker, published in 2009, actually had quite a bit of it devoted to
Barker’s childhood spent in Mission, and a few other surprising connections to Highway 83 as well.
His mother, a schoolteacher, met his father Byron Barker, who was one-quarter Lakota, in White River, South Dakota, which is a Route 83 town just north of Rosebud.
His father got into the trade of stringing up power lines as the nation was expanding its electrical grids, so the young couple moved from town to town. Bob Barker was born in Washington state, Dec. 12, 1923.
Another connection: His father briefly worked in the Highway 83 terminus town of Brownsville, Texas. Barker was very young, but he has a strong memory of his time there when his parents took him out to the airfield to see Charles Lindberg.
When Bob was six, and the family was living in Missouri, Byron Barker passed away as a result of a work injury. This was in the Great Depression, and his mother couldn’t find work. Byron’s brother, who was living in Mission, secured a teaching job for her there.
That is how Bob Barker ended up on the Rosebud Reservation, spending nearly eight years of his childhood there during the worst of the Dust Bowl years and Great Depression.
According to the memoir, Barker has many fond memories of living in Mission. He went to a two-room school house which was about three-quarters white, and about one-quarter Lakota. Most of the Lakota students went to the nearby boarding school.
He played with kids of both races, and never felt any prejudice. This jives with interviews I have done over the years with adults who attended mixed white-Indian elementary schools as children. (The prejudice comes in the higher grades.)
One tidbit from the book is how his buddies would jump off the bridge from the road south of town into the creek during the summer to cool off. This is the road that would become U.S. Route 83.
Barker’s mother eventually married Louis Valandra, also a member of the tribe. They soon moved back to Missouri after Barker completed eighth-grade. Bob has a half-brother Kent, who would be one-quarter Lakota.
Some on Facebook whose families are connected to Barker/Valandra families said Bob Barker does not have any Indian blood, and he was lying about being one-eighth Lakota.
Well, all autobiographies must be taken with a grain of salt for reasons I don’t have to go into here. People leave out inconvenient facts, or embellish their lives.
However, someone on Wikipedia posted the 1930 Rosebud Indian Census. It denotes Bob Barker at age seven as being “Sioux” along with his father and other members of the Barker family. So being part Lakota was clearly something Bob Barker had been told by his family from a young age. It’s not something he is making up.
Blood quantum is an important issue among Native Americans.
Today, it means qualifying for certain benefits, and maybe even sharing in the proceeds of casinos.
Many over the last few decades when it became fashionable claimed to be Indians, but weren’t. These are the so-called “wannabes.” That certainly wasn’t the case in the 1930s when race mixing was not so acceptable. The Barker family in 1930 identified themselves as “Sioux.” Barker doesn’t mention in his autobiography which of his paternal grandparents were Lakota. Someone with access to the tribal records could probably settle the matter.
Reading between the lines, it is hard to see Barker as a “wannabe.”
While he has fond memories of his time in Mission, he doesn’t mention the name of the tribe, returning to the town to visit since he left, or share any stories about Indian culture such as attending powwows.
It is possible he didn’t encounter much of in the way of ceremonies as a child back then. Policies in the 1930s were to suppress Native American culture and languages. Or maybe he just didn’t write about them.
I’ve known people who were one-sixteenth Lakota, who embraced that part of their heritage, and others with as much Indian blood who didn’t give a hang about it. It’s more to do with attitude than blood quantum.
I don’t normally read game show host autobiographies (okay, I never have and may never read one again) but this one opened up a small window about life in a Highway 83 town — Mission, South Dakota — during the depths of the Depression and Dust Bowl years. So it was well worth seeking out.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83, including Soldier Woman Gallery in Mission, SD, and Plains Trading in Valentine, NE.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

New Bonnie and Clyde Mini-Series and the Highway 83 Connection (UPDATED)

Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch as Bonnie and Clyde
(For my thoughts on the miniseries, read the addendum at the end of the column.)

Sunday, Dec. 8, three cable channels will simultaneously broadcast a two-night miniseries on the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, better known as Bonnie and Clyde.
Back in the 1930s, the Barrow Gang, as they were called back then, terrorized small towns throughout the middle part of the nation, by robbing banks, or whatever they could find — sometimes killing lawmen in the process.
An incident on Highway 83 figures prominently into the gang’s history. The so-called Red River Plunge happened on June 10, 1933, about 11 months before the duo’s demise in Louisiana.
The 1967 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty did a lot to popularize the doomed pair, and even portrayed them as likable, sympathetic characters — victims of the hard times Americans faced in the 1930s. I haven’t seen the made for cable movie yet, and with withhold judgment until I do so. Barrow and Parker were fascinating, complex characters. But make no mistake, Bonnie and Clyde and their cohorts were criminals, and not terribly sympathetic.
A case in point is the incident on Highway 83.
It began as Clyde, Bonnie and a teenage member of the gang W.D. Jones came racing up the road in a V-8 Ford in the middle of the night. Clyde knew only one way to drive—fast— and when you’re one of the most wanted men in America—who could blame him?
U.S. Route 83 was not the nice, paved road one sees today. In fact, it would be more than two decades before it was sealed from end to end. It was a dusty, dirt and gravel road, and driving at breakneck speeds could truly result in a broken neck.
Barrow didn’t see the detour sign that would have warned him that a new bridge was being built over the Salt Fork of the Red River.
The car went flying into the ravine, which was dried out from the relentless drought.
Witnessing the crash was a family living in a home less than 100 yards from the road, the Pritchards, who came rushing to their aid. Bonnie was the most severely injured. Battery acid was leaking onto her leg when family patriarch Sam Pritchard reached the scene, along with his two adult-aged daughters. One of them poured baking powder on Bonnie’s leg to stop the acid from spreading.  
Clyde insisted that no one go to town to get a doctor to help Bonnie. He seemed to be more concerned with retrieving several guns from the wreck. That alerted the family that something wasn’t right, and Sam’s son-in-law slipped away to go to nearby Wellington to find help. (They had no idea that this was the infamous Barrow Gang.)
When two local lawmen arrived, Clyde and W.D. were waiting for them in the house with guns drawn. A jumpy W.D. thought one of Pritchard’s daughters Gladys was reaching for a gun, when she was only trying to protect her toddler girl. He fired his shotgun at her but missed wide. Some of the pellets struck one of her hands, though. Clyde and W.D. took the two lawmen hostage, and left for Oklahoma to rendez-vous with Clyde’s brother Buck. They eventually released the two men, but Clyde never did stop to get Bonnie help. She wouldn’t walk normally again for the remainder of her short life.
These were not the deeds of folk heroes.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to see the beautiful old truss bridge  that was being built when the incident happened. I had arrived in the early evening light. I was luck to see it for it was being prepared for demolition. Not long after, it was reportedly torn down. On its south side, a historical marker gives a brief history of the Red River Plunge. (The description on the marker of how Gladys
was shot is not accurate, according to at least one reputable history book I derived much of this information from, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn.)
Movies are not documentaries. But I will be interested to see if this event makes it into the mini-series and how the writers chose to portray Bonnie and Clyde.

Dec. 19, 2013

Since the miniseries aired, there has been some robust criticism of Bonnie and Clyde, and not all of it was unwarranted. However, I was not upset about all the historical inaccuracies, as many were. My belief is that ALL movies are works of fiction. In the "Based on a True Story" claim one sees on movie posters, the most important word to remember is "based," not "true story." Books are books, movies are movies and documentaries are documentaries. Filmmakers work in a different world than journalists and historians. If this were indeed a documentary, then it would have been an outrage.
The Red River Plunge that really happened on U.S. Route 83 was indeed portrayed (sort of). In this case, it was in a (heavily forested?) Iowa. A crash into a ravine happened while they were being chased, and they were alone instead of with their teenage gang member W.D. Jones, whose character was prominent in the 1967 movie, but written completely out here.
This was actually one of the sloppiest scenes put forth by the filmmakers. Here, we have Bonnie and Clyde being chased, their car crashes, and Bonnie is severely injured and unable to walk. How do they get out of this predicament? 
Well, the next thing we see is Bonnie convalescing from her injuries in Louisiana? 
How did they escape? I guess in this fictional portrayal, we will never know.
I can say a lot more, but I will leave it at what pertains to the Red River Plunge.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.


CLICK HERE; The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas.