Black Hills Area with a Native American Focus
Written by Fred Baumann
April 20, 2020

South Dakota is home to nine distinct Native American Indian tribes and nations, a fact that presents opportunities for adventurous travelers who are willing to go off the beaten path, take a drive and experience different cultures.

The Black Hills, the Paha Sapa, is located in western South Dakota and is considered sacred through Native American histories to today. After the carving started on Mt. Rushmore, it was only fitting for a number of tribal leaders to get together to remind people that Native Americans also had great leaders. Their plans culminated in 1948 with the first dynamite blast on Thunder Mountain, the site that is now Crazy Horse Memorial and the Indian Museum of North America. Consider it a “must stop” for people looking to enjoy the beauty of the expansive region and the past and present heritage of its peoples.

Five miles north and sitting above Custer City, SD, on Hwy 16/385 is Crazy Horse Memorial, the Indian Museum of North America, and the adjoining Welcome Center and Native American Educational and Cultural Center, featuring more than 12,000 contemporary and historic items of the Lakota, Dakota and many other Native American nations, from pre-Colombian to contemporary times. The Mountain Museum wing helps explain the behind the scenes work on the memorial, augmented with the introductory “Dynamite & Dreams” movie at the Welcome Center.  Not just to be known as the world’s largest mountain carving, many feel its history, art and heritage presentations are second only to the Native American exhibits in the Smithsonian Native American displays.

Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse, born in 1849, was honored among the tribes as a famous war leader who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and several other important battles of the American Indian Wars. The exact details of Crazy Horse's personal life are shrouded in mystery, but he's still remembered as one of the most prominent Native American figures of his time. These factors, plus there being no proven photo of him, gave acceptance of him being chosen to represent many leaders and the vast, proud members of the many Native American tribes and nations.

Traveling to the Black Hills offers many other opportunities to experience the histories of the area.

BEAR BUTTE: near Sturgis, SD
Bear Butte was an important landmark and religious site for the Plains Indian tribes long before Europeans reached South Dakota. Human artifacts have been found on or near Bear Butte that date back 10,000 years, indicating a long and continuous interest in the mountain. The mountain is sacred to many indigenous peoples, who use the mountain as a place of prayer, meditation, and peace and make pilgrimages to leave prayer cloths and tobacco bundles tied to the branches of the trees along the mountain's flanks and on the mountain top. Visitors are advised to respect worshipers and to leave religious offerings undisturbed.

Highways take travelers on a north-south journey through the entire state of South Dakota through five reservations and tribal lands, including Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek and Yankton.

Passing through the heart of the Great Sioux Nation in central South Dakota, visitors will experience not only tribal history and culture, but breathtaking scenic views as well. Much of the route follows the Missouri River which provides views of bountiful wildlife, diverse landscapes and stunning vistas of rolling hills and river bluffs. Memorial markers, interpretive signs and monuments commemorate the heritage of the Lakota and Dakota nations and allow visitors to learn history from the Native American and early settlers’ points of view.

A few of the sites along the byway include: Sakakawea and Sitting Bull Monuments near Mobridge; Fort Manual near Kenel; and Fischers Lilly Park, Fort Pierre [where Lewis and Clark met with Native Americans].

On the western bank of the Missouri River in central South Dakota is the Lower Brule Reservation, which features the Buffalo interpretive Center. The center teaches the story of the buffalo, its importance and significance in the North American Indian Cultures of the Great Plains, and its relationship to the people of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

In southwestern South Dakota, visitors to the Badlands can drive a bit farther to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation. Those interested in history may want to see the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of Lakota Indians in 1890 is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 

The Wounded Knee Museum is located in Wall, SD, I-90, exit 110, a small town on the edge of Badlands National Park to the north of the actual site. While small, the museum proves to be a powerful experience with its exhibits telling the tragic story of the massacre, setting it in its historical context, detailing its villains and heroes, and exploring what happened in its aftermath.

“The museum does a skillful job of showing the interconnected stories of the massacre, how it was linked to the assassination of Sitting Bull in 1890 and the Ghost Dance movement, which was an attempt to spiritually reinvigorate Plains Indian culture but which resulted in even greater fear of Indian uprisings. It tells as well, of the role Wounded Knee has played in American culture since the massacre. The museum is not affiliated with any Native American tribe and is respectfully done, the little museum, sad as its story is, records an important chapter in American history, one that we shouldn’t gloss over or forget.”

[excerpts taken from . Edited due to space]

Take a detour south of Interstate 90 in southeastern South Dakota and visit the Yankton Sioux Reservation, which features Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River, the historic Fort Randall Chapel (preserved from a former military fort), and many nearby state parks and recreation areas.

The words Akta Lakota”, meaning “to honor the people” were chosen because the museum is truly intended to honor and preserve the rich culture of the Lakota People. Housed on the campus of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD, I-90, exit 263, the museum displays an array of Native American artifacts, artwork and educational items. More than a traditional museum, the center is an experience that provides a living lesson on the Native American way of life, both past and present.

More than 200 years after Lewis & Clark marveled at the beauty, visitors to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at the Chamberlain I-90 rest area, exit 264, can stand on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. The informative center features panels, murals, and life sized vessels reconstructing the expedition’s journey.

DIGNITY: Chamberlain, SD
The imposing 50 foot sculpture depicts a proud Native American woman in Plains-style clothing holding with her traditional star-quilt overlooking the beautiful bluffs at the Chamberlain I-90 exit 2016. A star quilt has traditionally been used to honor people. She is seen to represents the courage and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota people who hail from the area.

[Additional point of interest in the Chamberlain and Missouri River area:
North of the freeway bridge, the American Legion Memorial Bridge (Chamberlain Bridge) connects the towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma across the Missouri River and Lake Francis Case. The bridge originally was completed in September 1925 composed of four 336 foot, riveted steel truss spans laid end to end to carry US Highway 16 over the river. When the Fort Randall Dam created Lake Francis Case in 1953, the Rosebud Bridge, also completed in 1925, was floated up the river 70 miles and the two bridges were joined together to span the new lake. It was completely overhauled in 2011 and 2012.]

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