Perhaps more than any other group, the great Lakota Sioux Nation – with their striking tipis, fast horses and richly feathered and beaded clothing – have become the international symbol of America’s native people. And the Black Hills has an abundance of Native culture if you know where to look.
Powwows, also known as ‘wacipi’ or ‘people’s dance’, are a good way to experience Lakota people and culture. Nearly every reservation holds one during the summer months, however not all are open to the public so be sure to check before attending. If you happen to be in Rapid City October 7-9, 2016, be sure to check out the Black Hills Powwow, a national powwow championship and fine arts expo.
If you just want to plan a cultural trip through the Black Hills, feel free to pick and choose from those listed below, but if you want to jam pack as much as possible into a single day, follow it closely. This isn’t for the faint of heart, nor those looking to dawdle along the way. As always, be sure to check hours as they may have changed since writing this article.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Start your day in Hill City at the Sandy Swallow Gallery. Here, you will find a great introduction to true Indian art by Sandy Swallow—an internationally known Oglala Lakota artist—as well as other local Native American artists. Once you’ve finished admiring and shopping these beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces, make the short drive to Crazy Horse Memorial—just down Highway 385 between Hill City and Custer.
Aside from the incredible mountain carving itself, Crazy Horse Memorial offers a wonderful visitor center for you to begin your visit, including a theater with a short film highlighting the rich history of the carving. You’ll also find education opportunities inside the Indian Museum of North America as well as an extensive gift shop.
Once you’ve soaked in all of the history and beautiful views of the Memorial, jump back in the car for a scenic drive along Highway 385 South. You’ll want to hang a left at Pringle, SD and follow the signs to continue on Highway 385 South all the way through Hot Springs and on to Highway 79/385 South to Oelrichs. From there, head east on Highway 18 all the way to the Red Cloud Heritage Center.
Red Cloud Heritage Center
Playing host to multiple Native American art exhibitions, a gift shop, and educational programming, the Red Cloud Heritage Center is located on the campus of the Red Cloud Indian School and serves as an economic engine for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This year, the exhibitions to keep an eye out for are the Red Cloud Indian Youth Art Show, Horse Nation Exhibition, Quilts-n-Textiles, and the 48th Annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show. Be sure to check the dates if there is a specific one you’re interested in. After checking out the gift shop, hop in the car for a quick drive to Wounded Knee. Go east on Highway 18 until you cross Highway 27, and then go north for just a short distance.
Wounded Knee Site
After just 5 miles up Highway 27, you’ll come across the Wounded Knee National Historic Site. On this hallowed ground, U.S. cavalrymen massacred nearly 300 Native men, women and children. As a trading post, there are still foundations where buildings once stood, but the 843-acre site has been declared a National Historic Site. While there, please be respectful, but also fully take in the history and pain that will forever scar this land. When you’re ready to head out, get back on Highway 27 and go north to Scenic, where you will take Highway 44 NW all the way into Rapid City.
Once in Rapid City, grab a bite to eat and then head over to the Journey Museum for the Sioux Indian Museum. Hosted here is a wide variety of works representing Sioux history, both traditional and contemporary. You can view Sioux artwork from different time periods, see how they lived and dressed, and stand amongst full-size tipis. While you’re there, be sure to check out gift shop as there are numerous local Sioux artists on display. Stop by the bathroom and jump back in the car. Head north on I-90 until you get to Sturgis, take the Lazelle Street exit, and turn west onto ALT-14. This beautiful drive through Boulder Canyon will take you directly into Deadwood.
Tatanka: Story of the Bison
Once in Deadwood, make your way to Tatanka: Story of the Bison where you will find a hands-on interpretive center, as well as 17 larger-than-life bronze sculptures of buffalo and Native Americans on horseback. After you’ve taken it all in, head back into Sturgis on ALT-14 where it turns into Highway 34 and head out of town. A few miles out you will turn north on Highway 79 and head towards Bear Butte, where we end this trip.
Once arriving, you are in for a real nature treat. Bear Butte is a South Dakota State Park and is known as Mato Paha or “Bear Mountain” in Lakota, and it is still used as a holy site to this day. For that reason, there are a few rules about Bear Butte that are listed at the base of the butte. A 2-mile trail will lead you to the top where you will be treated to an amazing view of the surrounding area, and if you plan it right, could be right at sunset. After snapping all the photos you want and soaking in the view, head back down and drive to where ever you want to end your night. At this location, everything is within a close distance; all you have left to plan is where to eat supper. I have a few suggestions, but I’ll leave that choice up to you.