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)

1 comment:

  1. All my life I watched Bob a small could you NOT know!!? My Mom, Grammah all my aunties...we watched him. I think his appealing and genuine diplomatic kindness, in that old way...the tone of his voice...those teeth...his thick head of hair and TAN that never faded...was all a dead give away!! What a nice man...I loved Bob Barker...and I am proud that he is Lakota!! Thank you for your piece on him... He deserves good words... I always noticed when one of his contestants were from some very Indigenous Island or place. You could see how he acknowledged if they were like Anties he had... The people should be proud to claim him... I am!! even though I am from another Nation...