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The Great 8 Ways to Experience Native American Culture in South Dakota
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children. We are more than the sum of our knowledge, we are the products of our imagination." – Ancient Native American proverb
Lakota creation stories trace their nation’s birth to the He Sápa (“Black Mountains”), now known as the Black Hills. South Dakota is today home to approximately 71,800 Native Americans and nine tribal governments. To truly experience the state, one must explore Native American culture, whether that means attending a powwow, taking in the legendary Red Cloud Art Show or experiencing the artifacts, art and other historical opportunities available at sites across the state. There are so many amazing tribal sights and stories in the state, but here are the Great 8 ways to experience Native American culture in South Dakota.
Crazy Horse Memorial
“A very great vision is needed and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.” – Crazy Horse
Not much is known about the early years of the Lakota warrior who earned his father’s name of Tasunka Witco (“Crazy Horse”) by proving himself in battle. But he will be forever remembered and honored, thanks to the work of Korczak Ziolkowski and his family. Ziolkowski, a noted New England sculptor, came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to help Gutzon Borglum with the creation of Mount Rushmore. But time passed, and Korczak ended up accepting the invitation of Chief Henry Standing Bear to create a monument designed to both honor Crazy Horse and help mend relations between Native Americans and non-Natives. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski. Korczak agreed. On June 3, 1948, the inaugural blast took place, initiating an effort to create the world’s largest mountain carving that’s never utilized a single penny of government funding.
Today the giant face of Crazy Horse can be seen looking out over the Black Hills. Even though both Korczak and his wife, Ruth, have passed away, work has never ceased on the monument. The site attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. It also offers Native American students the chance to complete a summer of college education and internships. The campus is home to a restaurant and several on-site museums featuring Native American art and artifacts from tribes across North America. For more information, click here.
Wounded Knee Massacre information at Oglala Lakota College Historical Center
“Wounded Knee has become a confrontation of Good and Evil, rather than a complex misunderstanding and series of errors. We should not try to understand what happened there because, frequently, with understanding comes acceptance. Instead, we should remember and not repeat the biases of the past.” – National Park Service bulletin “Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance”
The story of the Wounded Knee Massacre is one of the darkest chapters of American history. More than 250 Minneconjou Lakota men, women and children were killed when US Cavalry soldiers opened fire on an encampment at Wounded Knee Creek on Dec. 29, 1890. As with much of history, the exact impetus for the bloodshed is unclear. Many historians believe the cavalry soldiers were inexperienced and hungry for revenge after the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn four years earlier. Regardless of the cavalry’s motives, the incident is officially recognized as a massacre that marked the last armed conflict between Native Americans and the United States Cavalry. Congress officially acknowledged the historical significance of the event in 1990 by passing a resolution that expressed “deep regret on behalf of the United States.”
Visitors can learn more about the massacre for free at the Oglala Lakota College Historical Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota. The actual location of the massacre was the site of a stand-off between the American Indian Movement and the federal government in 1973, but it's today an official National Historic Landmark. A solitary stone monument marks the mass grave in an active reservation cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation approximately 80 miles south of Interstate 90 at Wall, but the area remains otherwise largely unchanged. For more information on the Oglala Sioux Tribe, click here.
Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village
“There’s never been a year that we’ve worked here that we haven’t found some unique new artifact or something we just haven’t seen before.” – Adrien Hannus, director of the Archeology Laboratory at Augustana University
Discovered by a Dakota Wesleyan University student in 1910, the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is the only active archaeological site in South Dakota. When we say “active,” we mean it. Two students found rare 1,000-year-old bison bones in 2016. The next year, students from South Dakota and England together uncovered an amazing cache of Native American tools. The sheer amount of artifacts both found and undiscovered—the site is believed to be the home of 70 to 80 buried lodges—is one of the reasons why Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is considered by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the Great Plains region.
Visitors to the site aren’t allowed to dig, but they can immerse themselves in Native American history by checking out the site for themselves inside the Archeodome, which encloses the dig site while housing exhibits and a laboratory. The nearby on-site museum features historical items recovered from the site as well as audio/visual exhibits and reproductions of an earthen lodge and a bison skeleton. Hands-on activities are available for kids of all ages. Visitors can dive even deeper into history during the village’s annual special events, including Archaeology Awareness Days and Lakota Games on Ice. For more information, click here.
Bear Butte State Park
“The medicine men that practice here and bring their people here to worship will all tell you that this mountain is not exclusive to only Indian people praying. Anybody who comes in the right mind and the right heart with prayer on their lips, with humbleness is welcome. When you go to that area with that humbleness then we are all truly equal.” – Jim Jandreau, first Native American park manager at Bear Butte State Park
The Sioux or Lakota call it Mathó Pahá (“Bear Mountain”) while the Cheyenne know it as Noahȧ-vose (“Giving Hill”) or Náhkȯhe-vose (“Bear Hill”). No matter the name, the geological entity most commonly known as Bear Butte is considered to be a sacred site to Native Americans. It’s also an amazing place to hike past prayer cloths along your ascent to a beautiful view of the Black Hills.
Formed by several intrusions of igneous rock, Bear Butte—often mislabeled as a “mountain”—is more than 1,200 feet tall and the site of many religious ceremonies. There are different stories about the origin of the butte’s name, but the most popular involves a large bear who began chasing some children that accidentally disturbed the animal. When the children outran the bear and climbed upon a tree stump, both the stump and the bear began to grow. The bear raked the sides of the growing stump (creating Devil’s Tower in Wyoming) until an eagle rescued the children. The bear gave pursuit before falling into a slumber at the foot of the Black Hills and becoming Bear Butte.
Sica Hollow State Park
“I’ve heard many non-tribal members contact me after their visits here and talk about the spiritual feeling that they had here, how they felt here, the calmness when they left her. To them, it was like where they needed to come.” – Elias Mendoza
When Native American visitors first encountered the area northwest of what is now Sisseton, South Dakota, they called it Sica (pronounced she-cha), meaning “evil” or “bad.” There are a few reasons why early visitors may have been on edge. Streams appeared to be flowing “blood red” because of iron deposits, which led some Native Americans to believe they were seeing the flesh and blood of their ancestors. The phosphorous in the rotting tree stumps can make the wood appear to glow with a green hue. In recent years, visitors have reported hearing drums or war whoops, spotting distant campfires that can never be found, or seeing a bear/Bigfoot-type creature or ghosts of Indian braves.
If you’re looking for a place that’s both spooky and gorgeous (especially in the fall as the leaves change color), head to Sica Hollow State Park. As you hike, picture what it must’ve been like to come across this magical area among the hills and plains of northern South Dakota. The park is home to intrigue, beauty and adventure. It absolutely deserves to be included as one of the Great 8 ways to experience Native American culture in South Dakota. For more information, click here.
Black Elk Peak
“At the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit. And that center is really everywhere. It is within each of us.” – Black Elk
The entire Black Hills area is considered sacred by Native Americans, but few sites within those hills are as beautiful and significant as Black Elk Peak. It was on this granite peak where a 9-year-old Black Elk experienced a famous vision, and where visitors today can hike to a stunning view of the entire forest.
At 7,244 feet, the peak is the highest point in both South Dakota and the United States east of the Rockies. There are a number of trails visitors can take to the peak, including one that starts at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. No matter which trailhead you select, your journey will take you through pine trees and ancient geological formations to an apex of peace and beauty. For more information, click here.
Native American National and State Scenic Byway
“Out of the Indian approach to life there came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing respect for life, enriching faith in a Supreme Power, and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity, and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations.” – Black Elk
This route—which runs from the Chief Standing Bear Bridge on the Nebraska border to the North Dakota border near Kenel, South Dakota—takes highway explorers on a natural path cut by the Missouri River that features mixed-grass prairie, rolling hills, limestone cliffs, and an abundance of wildlife including prairie dogs, pronghorn, deer, bison, and elk herds. Along the way, travelers can stop and learn about tribal history and stories at the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain and the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Travelers can follow the route through the lands of the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Tribes, and experience a first-hand look at the life, ways, and history of South Dakota’s original inhabitants.
The newest addition to the route is Dignity: of Earth & Sky, a stunning combination of art and history located along Interstate 90 near Chamberlain. The stainless steel, 50-foot-tall statue was specifically designed by sculptor Dale Lamphere to honor the cultures of the state’s native people. “Dignity represents the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota cultures in South Dakota,” Lamphere said. “My intent is to have the sculpture stand as an enduring symbol of our shared belief that all here are sacred, and in a sacred place.”
The Power of Powwows
“Some of us dance to forget, some of us dance to remember, some of us dance to heal, but whatever the reason, just dance with your heart and your spirit: we see it shine when you dance.” – Willow Abramson
To witness the power of a powwow or wacipi (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota for “dance” and pronounced wa-CHEE-pee) is to be part of a powerful tradition that existed long before white settlers set foot on this soil. It’s a social event where dancers don regalia that includes colorful finery, elaborate featherwork, and intricate beadwork as they perform dances that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Different tribes host powwows throughout the year, but the Black Hills Powwow—held annually every October in Rapid City—may be the biggest, drawing thousands of dancers and visitors every year. No matter which powwow you attend, you’ll feel the energy as dancers move gracefully to the rhythm provided by traditional drummers and singers. Should the spirits move you, the opportunity to join in the dancing will sometimes appear in the form of an intertribal dance. You can also delve deeper into the culture with foods like Indian tacos, fry bread, and a fruit sauce/ jam called wojapi (pronounced wo-zha-pee). For more information on South Dakota powwows and proper visitor etiquette, click here.
With such a rich tribal history, there are so many important cultural spots that extend beyond this list. Visitors to Tatanka: Story of the Bison—located on the edge of Deadwood—can hear the history of Native Americans and their relationship with the buffalo while experiencing a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of 14 bison being pursued by three horseback riders. On a remote spot on SD Highway 1806 two miles southwest of Mobridge sit monuments to Sitting Bull and Sakakawea. The Sitting Bull monument carries extra significance for a couple of reasons. It was sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, the creator of the Crazy Horse Memorial, but it also has a storied history. In the middle of the night during a blizzard in 1953, a group of Mobridge businessmen snuck into North Dakota with the blessing of the Standing Rock tribe and moved the remains to their current location. The nearby Klein Museum in Mobridge expands upon the history of Sitting Bull and other important Native Americans. Pieces of tribal history can be found in other museums across the state, including The Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City and the W.H. Over Museum in Vermillion. Visitors to the Pine Ridge Reservation can also visit the Red Cloud Indian School to see where students have been learning since the school’s inception in 1937. The school is also home to the Heritage Center, a Native American gift shop, cultural center and fine arts gallery. As it has for the past 50 years, the Heritage Center hosts the Red Cloud Indian Art Show—the largest and longest-running Native American art show of its kind—every summer.
The Native American culture of South Dakota is rich with beauty and history. Experience in person all the things your high school textbooks missed, and let our Native American Great 8 introduce you to the amazing people that make up tribes of South Dakota. One trip is all it will take to leave you saying “Leela ampaytu keen washday!” (“Today is a good day!”)