Native dancer at Falls Park

Native Words and Places

These great South Dakota places have names rooted in Native culture.

South Dakota’s first people influenced some of the state’s language and most important spots. Just as Native culture remains vibrant today, the legacy of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Sioux language can be felt across the state. Keep reading to learn some of these words and see how they connect to some of the best places in the state.

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Falls Park, Sioux Falls
Falls Park

mní-ȟaȟá (Water Waterfall)

131 E Falls Park Dr, Sioux Falls

WORD: ȟaȟá
DEFINITION: waterfall

WORD: mní

That's right. Located in eastern South Dakota, Minnehaha County is home to both Sioux Falls (South Dakota’s biggest city) and Falls Park, whose flowing waters led to the somewhat redundant combination of Lakota words that created the county’s name.


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Tatanka sign - square
Tatanka buffalo and horse w/rider statues

tȟatȟáŋka (Buffalo)

Tatanka:  Story of the Bison
100 Tatanka Drive, Deadwood

WORD: tȟatȟáŋka/tatanka

Many came to learn the word "tatanka" through “Dances With Wolves,” the 1990 Oscar-winner that was filmed at locations in Spearfish Canyon and Sage Creek Wilderness Area in western South Dakota. While the Lakota word "tatanka" means "buffalo," South Dakotans tend to use the words "bison" and "buffalo" interchangeably, especially for events like the annual Buffalo Roundup. Near Deadwood, Tatanka: Story of the Bison features 17 life-size statues showing three Native riders pursuing bison. There's also an on-site interpretive center, gift show, snack bar, and movie costumes from "Dances With Wolves."


Bear Butte with hikers
Bear Butte with mist and trees

Mato pahá (Bear Mountain)

Bear Butte State Park
20250 Hwy 79, Sturgis

LAKOTA WORD: matȟó/ mato

DEFINITION: butte/hill/mound

Legends about the creation of the 4,426-foot-tall Bear Butte vary, but most agree the laccolith butte was created when a giant bear fell into deep slumber. At Bear Butte State Park, visitors can hike to a four-state view amongst trees adorned with prayer cloths and other religious offerings. That's because Bear Butte is considered by many of the area's Native tribes.  


Buffalo at Badlands
Hikers at Badlands

Mako šíčA (Land Bad)

Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior

WORD: mako

WORD: šíčA
DEFINITION: to be bad

INFLUENCE: Curious how Badlands National Park got its name? Wonder no more. Early inhabitants called the area “mako šíčA” (“land bad”) because of its rugged terrain, extreme temperatures, and lack of water. Today, the otherworldly collection of buttes, spires, canyons, and pinnacles make up 244,000 acres of this unique area that boasts views, trails, and plenty of wildlife.


Sica Hollow in fall with flowing water
Family hiking Sica Hollow in fall
Sica Hollow State Park
44950 Park Road, Sisseton

The word “šíčA” (pronounced shee-chah) also led to the name of Sica Hollow State Park, a scenic forest in northeast South Dakota believed by early Native visitors to be evil. Their opinion was likely influenced by iron deposits that made the water appear "blood red," and phosphorous in rotting tree stumps that gave the wood a glowing green color. Some folks still believe the place to be supernatural. For most, it's a place to experience summer strolls or brilliant fall colors in northwestern South Dakota.  


Spirit Mound path with hikers
Spirit Mound under clouds and blue sky

Was a wak pa’la (red stream)

Vermillion River, Vermillion

PHRASE: was a wak pa’la
DEFINITION: red stream

INFLUENCE: There are a few different theories about how the Vermillion River got its name – maybe the red willows that line the banks, maybe a translation confusion. Regardless, it stuck, resulting in the city of Vermillion in southeastern South Dakota. Vermillion is home to the National Music Museum as well as one of the state’s top universities, meaning there are plenty of good places to grab a bite or a drink. But the area has even more history.


pahá wakan (spiritual mound)

Intersection of Highway 19 and 312th St, Vermillion

WORD: pahá
DEFINITION: mound/hill/butte

WORD: wakȟáŋ/wakan
DEFINITION: spiritual

At the nearby Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, the Lewis and Clark Expedition checked reports of tiny people with large heads that allegedly carried sharp arrows to protect their mound. No one’s spotted the little devils, but many take in the wide open view that comes from a short hike to Spirit Mound’s peak.


Sky shot of Pactola Reservoir
Hiker overlooking Black Hills

pahá sápA (Black Hills)

Black Hills National Forest
Western South Dakota

WORD: pahá
DEFINITION: hill/butte/mound

WORD: sápA
DEFINITION: to be black

INFLUENCE: Being covered in evergreen trees make the hills appear black, leading the Lakota to name the area that’s now known as the Black Hills National Forest. Several tribes consider the area to be hallowed, with the Sioux and Cheyenne both believing it to be the sacred center of the world. Today, the Black Hills is a place full of scenic drives, iconic monuments and hidden gems waiting to be discovered.


Prayer cloths at Black Elk Peak
Prayer cloths
Sky shot of fire tower on Black Elk Peak

Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk Peak)

Custer State Park

WORD: heȟáka

WORD: sápA
DEFINITION: to be black

At the peak of the mountain that now bears his name, a nine-year-old named Black Elk had a profound vision. Since then (and likely before), the area in Custer State Park has been a sacred place to many. Located in Custer State Park, the peak reaches the highest elevation between France and the Rockies, rewarding hikers with a multi-state view and, often, a tremendous sense of peace. Atop the peak is a 1938 stone fire tower and some small grassy areas perfect for a breath or a snack to celebrate one of the best hikes and views in the country.


Child at Black Hills Powwow
Crowd of dancers at Black Hills Pow Wow

ȟé sápA wačhípi NA oškáte
(Black Hills Powwow & Games)

444 N Mt Rushmore ROad, Rapid City

WORD: ȟé
DEFINITION: mountain

WORD: sápA
DEFINITION: To be black

WORD: wačhípi

WORD: oškáte
DEFINITION: celebration

The Black Hills Powwow & Games has become one of the premier Native cultural events in the United States. Over three days each year, the event attracts hundreds of dancers, singers, and artisans as well as thousands of spectators from across the continent. Intricate regalia, traditional songs, powerful dances, and more combine to make the Black Hills Powwow the ultimate Native celebration in the state. 


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