Appreciating the complexity of South Dakota’s Indian heritage

The South Dakota Office of Tourism sent out a multimedia press release last week touting the “Native American Story” in South Dakota.

The release included video and photos of powwows, lists of Native American attractions, and quotes from tourism officials about the importance of Native Americans to South Dakota.

It’s a tourism release, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. South Dakota does indeed have a lot of great Native American attractions, and Native Americans — or American Indians, as they are also called —  certainly are central to the history, present and future of the state. But there are things that a sanitized press release from the Office of Tourism won’t tell you. It doesn’t say, for example, that South Dakota’s Indian reservations are the most economically depressed and crime-affected areas of the state. In fact, some of the counties on South Dakota’s reservations consistently rank among the 10 poorest in the United States.

I see a lot of tourists who come to the reservations naively, expecting powwows and art. Instead, what they see when they enter many reservations is reality: litter, substandard housing and joblessness.

That’s not to say that you should omit Indian experiences from your vacation. You just need to realize that although the state’s reservations might not match some idealized expectations, they still offer an eye-opening and educational glance into the ways that white settlement continues to impact Indian people.

There are also plenty of off-reservation places to experience Indian history and culture. One of my favorites is the Akta Lakota Museum, on the campus of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain. The museum has a fantastic collection of Indian artifacts and art and is conveniently located within a short drive of Interstate 90, the favored route of many tourists. Chamberlain is also near the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations.

Here are some top Indian attractions listed by the Office of Tourism’s news release:

  • Oyate Trail: A 388-mile cultural route that leads from the eastern part of South Dakota to the west, covering the cultural heritage and diversity of people who have lived and live in South Dakota.
  • Native American Scenic Byway: This path cuts through the heart of South Dakota’s prairie and follows the Missouri River, extending through the heart of the Great Sioux Nation.
  • Crazy Horse Memorial: A sculptural depiction of the legendary Lakota leader, Crazy Horse, emerging from the side of a mountain in the Black Hills.
  • Native American Art: One of the most significant pieces of the Native American culture is the artwork that its people produce. Visit a number of art galleries and museums to see it in person.

Lastly, if you plan to make Indian experiences part of your vacation, I’d encourage you to do some educational reading in advance. It’s worth noting, for example, that all of western South Dakota was once promised to the Sioux Indians by a treaty that the U.S. government eventually broke. When you visit Mount Rushmore and the Badlands and other sites in the western half of the state, you’re standing on ground that many Indians believe should still belong to them. That’s just one of the many facts that can better inform your visit and enhance your appreciation of the state’s Indian heritage.

As the title of this post indicates, the relationship between South Dakota and its Indian people is far more complex than a press release from the Office of Tourism can convey. You’ll be better prepared to visit the state’s Indian attractions if you keep that in mind.

Tags: Museums, Powwows

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.

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