SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — State Parks and Recreation Director Doug Hofer has a spring in his step as he hikes the potential trails meandering through Blood Run, a national historic landmark set to become South Dakota's first new state park in more than 50 years.
The picturesque acreage along the Big Sioux River was used by thousands of Oneota Indians into the early 1700s, and its diverse landscape boasts a large oak forest, rolling hills, flood plains and riverside bluffs. The site also has a story to tell, holding historically rich burial mounds, refuse pits and artifacts.
"The topography and the natural resources working together just give you some fantastic panoramic views, and you have both natural resources and historic resources in one site," Hofer said. "That is going to make it a great story, a great place to preserve and a great place to visit."
Although the entire Blood Run site could eventually encompass some 1,400 acres in South Dakota and Iowa, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department recently partnered with two non-profits to buy a 324-acre parcel from a private landowner that Hofer calls "the key" to creating a state park.
Officials won't seek state park status until the Legislature convenes in January, but Hofer tells the Associated Press that people should be able to visit the land this summer through guided tours by appointment.
"The first step in that is going to be having a veteran interpreter-historian living on site this summer to help tell that story," he said.
The Oneota culture wasn't a single tribe but conglomerate of groups with similar characteristics taking back to 1200 or earlier, said Rich Fishel, cultural resource archaeologist with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois.
The Oneota grew corn and other staples, hunted bison, built circular lodges and stored perishable food underground in bell-shaped storage pits lined with grass and covered with logs or bison hides. Another common trait among the Oneota is their pottery, which features specific decorative patterns and often depict raptors such as eagles and hawks.
Much of the Oneota's history, such as where they originated, remains a mystery.
"We have to rely on what archaeology teaches us and also what the Native Americans have passed down in their stories," Fishel said.
At Blood Run, the prime riverfront location allowed the area to blossom into a trade hub.
Many Oneota groups settled on flood plains along rivers, and the Blood Run site eight miles southeast of Sioux Falls is "probably the largest of the Oneota sites," Fishel said.
The area was occupied in later times by the Omaha, Ponca, Ioway and Oto, and it's believed that many tribes can trace their lineage back to the Oneota, he said.
Blood Run is believed to have received its name from white settlers, perhaps because the iron-rich rocks leached into the stream on the Iowa side to give it a reddish tint.
Iowa's Blood Run National Landmark Site across the Big Sioux River is managed by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the Lyon County Conservation Board. Access to the land is restricted and requires permission.
The Iowa site is home to Blood Run Creek and features numerous burial mounds. There are several pink granite boulders whitened from weathering and adorned with 2-inch cupmarks that have a symbolic or spiritual purpose.
Blood Run has been treasured for more than a century by historians, Hofer said, but the state began its quest to preserve the land in 1995 when it partnered with Forward Sioux Falls and the city's chamber of commerce to acquire 200 acres on the southern end of the area.
The state bought another 10 acres in December before teaming with the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation and The Conservation Fund to buy the Buzz Nelson farmstead for $3.5 million in December. Officials are now looking at buying 80 acres to the west of the Nelson farm that would serve as a permanent park entrance and another 60 acres of flood plain south of the property that sits just across the river from the Iowa site.
Nearly all of the money is expected to come from federal grants and fundraising, and the title holders of the acreage are still changing hands.
Earlier this month, the commission overseeing the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department voted to allow the department to pay $574,000 to South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation to bring another 60 acres of the 324 acres into state ownership. The foundation is expected to vote on the sale Monday, said executive director Wayne Winter.
Hofer said it was important for South Dakota to move forward with the project to minimize the degradation from the continuing encroachment of housing subdivisions and sand and gravel extractions.
The department's master plan finalized last month eventually calls for entrance roads, a visitors center, historic preservation and interpretation, group and rustic camping areas, ceremonial sites and a pedestrian bridge linking the South Dakota and Iowa sides.
For now, South Dakota parks officials will keep the hiking trails mowed and offer a knowledgeable guide to share Blood Run's history with the public, Hofer said.
He said he's excited to expose people to Blood Run's beauty and history.
"We're going to try to accommodate as many groups and individuals as possible this summer," Hofer said.