The captivating landscapes of South Dakota play an important role in the lives of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. The land holds legends and history as well as hope and strength for the future. Traditional creation stories place the Sioux Nation’s birth in the Black Hills.
The Black Hills
Tradition centers on the pine-covered "paha sapa" or Black Hills. Many of the Sioux tribes believe the story of their creation begins in these beautiful mountains. At their highest point, the Black Hills reach 7,242 feet. This apex, Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), is located within the Black Elk Wilderness, named for the Lakota leader who had a great vision in the area.
At the northeastern end of the Black Hills, near Sturgis, stands "mato paha," or Bear Butte. This site holds great spiritual significance for several Plains tribes. Today, the butte is a state park and the site for religious ceremonies and vision quests. Visitors may hike the sacred mountain, but a stop at the Visitor Center first for an orientation is recommended.
Buffalo remain a central focus of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota people. Legend tells of the Great Spirit taking on the form of a wooly beast to feed his starving people. Today, many of the nine tribes in South Dakota maintain buffalo herds. You'll also find herds at Bear Butte State Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Badlands National Park.
A maze of buttes and spires, the Badlands were named "mako sica," meaning "land bad," by the Lakota. Created by millions of years of erosion, Badlands National Park now stretches 244,000 acres with approximately 120,000 acres located on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Landmarks tied to the Sioux Nation also take on the form of great leaders. Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills is a sculptural depiction of the legendary Lakota leader, Crazy Horse, emerging from the side of a mountain. Crazy Horse's nine-story-high face has been completed, while work continues on the rest of the colossal mountain carving. See the carving in-progress and visit the Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial, near Custer.
Native American Scenic Byway
Extending through the heart of the Great Sioux Nation, The Native American Scenic Byway affords breathtaking views of the Missouri River, diverse landscapes, abundant wildlife and tribal history and culture. The route takes travelers through the lands of the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes, reaching across South Dakota from Nebraska to North Dakota.
Oyate (oh-YAH-tay) in the Dakota/Lakota language means a people or nation. Ochanku (oh-CHANG-koo) means well-traveled road. Thus, the Oayte Ochanku, or Oayte Trail, means "a well-traveled road of nations." The 388-mile highway, stretching from Vermillion in the east to Edgemont in the west, offers off-the-interstate travelers unique cultural and historical opportunities on South Dakota highways 18 and 50.
When the Dakota settled in what is now northeastern South Dakota, they encountered a wooded area, or hollow, filled with unusual occurrences. Phenomena such as glowing tree stumps, moaning sounds and a stream that ran red led the Dakota to call this enchanted hollow "sica," which means "bad." Today, it is a state park known for its hiking and horseback riding trails and its fall colors.
Lewis and Clark encountered tribes who told them of 18-inch devils, armed with arrows, inhabiting a prairie hill. The story sparked Lewis and Clark’s interest and they went to investigate. At the top, the infamous devils were nowhere to be found, but the explorers did see a herd of hundreds of buffalo. Spirit Mound stands along Highway 19, six miles north of Vermillion. More than 300 acres of prairie are being restored to original grasses and there is a ¾-mile hiking trail to the summit.