After retiring on June 1, 2012, I took my first post-retirement exploration trip from July 9-15, 2012. It was a visit to South Dakota, land of many Native American peoples, to meet the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota on their tribal lands. These three groups of Native Americans are known to white men as The Sioux Nation. The word “Sioux” is actually an Ojibwa word, or as white men called them the “Chippewa”. It is a derogatory name meaning “snakes” and was used by the Ojibwa to describe the Lakota, whom they feared, as enemies of the Ojibwa. It was a fairly traditional act of arrogance by the European settlers to name Native Americans in whatever fashion they chose, often declining to call them by their given names. Sometimes they would ask a neighboring tribe who those people over the hill were, and then call them by that name from then on, or they would just make up a name. Indigenous people were often called by names created in this way, and since the white men wrote the history books and administered the dominant government, the names stuck. For example, the Lenape tribe, an ancient people in the East, was called “Delaware” because they lived along a river that the settlers had decided to name after Lord De La Warr (pronounced Delaware), their English benefactor/leader, and thus the Lenape are known in most history books as the “Delaware” Indians. The Wyandotte were similarly given the name of “Huron”, by the French. It is a French word meaning “boar’s head” referring to the bristly upright fashion in which Wyandotte warriors wore their hair. I have long admired the Native American culture for its refusal to bend or be eliminated by a bullying dominant culture. This was my opportunity to visit them firsthand, and I thoroughly enjoyed their persevering pride and generous hospitality.
There are nine Sioux reservations in South Dakota. The bands of tribes living on them make up The Sioux Nation, with several bands living on each reservation. The reservations include the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Brule, which are populated by the Lakota tribes; the Santee, and Sisseton-Wahpeton reservations, which are populated by the Dakota tribes; and the Yankton, the smallest of the three groups, populated by the Nakota tribes. When Lewis and Clark made their way to the Nakota tribal lands, they recorded in their journals that “these were the friendliest of all the tribes we encountered”. I spent 3 days in the Yankton hotel/casino outside Ft. Randall, where every employee is from the Yankton tribe and I found that the naturally friendly and generous nature described by Lewis and Clark is still part of their culture. They took great pleasure in being of service whether they were waiting tables, doing housecleaning, or managing the poker room or the hotel in general. The ninth reservation, the Crow Creek, is home to a mix of Dakota and Nakota bands. It was created as a repository for the tribes who fought in the last Indian War with the U.S. government in 1898 in Minnesota. There are other Sioux on reservations outside South Dakota, in Wyoming (Teton), and in Canada (Lakota). I visited the Pine Ridge, Santee, Yankton, and Ponca reservations. The Ponca have their reservation on the Nebraska side of the Missouri river, which is the state line. Their main chief, Standing Bear, along with others Ponca leaders, escaped the reservation in Oklahoma and successfully eventually re-established themselves on their Nebraska homeland. I grew up 40 miles south of the Ponca tribe’s White Eagle reservation outside Ponca City, OK, and grew up thinking that all the Ponca had been moved there, and that was the only place they were. I got the chance to visit with the grandson of one of Standing Bear’s party and listen to their story and see their tribal museum. He shared artifacts, pictures and cultural insights. It was exciting for me. There are numerous other non-Native American attractions in South Dakota, and I visited a few, but I went there to encounter the Native Americans, and this blog post is framed by that intention.
What follows is a travelogue with photos illustrating the uniqueness and beauty I found. Besides the Native American sites, I also took the opportunity to visit the Black Hills, sacred to the tribes, Crazy Horse Mountain sculpture, Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands by accident, the Lewis and Clark Historic Center on Calumet Bluff where they parlayed with the Yankton tribe for passage through Sioux Nation, and the largest active archeological dig in the U.S. located outside Hot Springs, S.D. and called The Mammoth Site. This description is in chronological order beginning on July 9th with a drive of 473 miles from Shawnee, Kansas to Ogallala Nebraska .
This is the view that was constantly outside the window of “Silver”, my pickup, all during the 473 miles of day one. It was mostly corn and some wheat, in continuous plantings as far as I could see on both sides of the highway. About 150 miles of this day’s journey was limited to one lane due to lots of summer road repairs on the interstate. I saw 8 trains, 4 going east and 4 going west. Each train had 120-150 coal cars. The eastbound trains were all full, and all the westbound ones were empty. In the last 100 miles the fences disappeared, but the crops didn’t, until the last 30 miles in which buffalo herds and prairie dog towns replaced the crops on both sides. The road was higher than the surrounding plains which kept the buffalo and prairie dogs from easily wandering onto the highway. The prairie dog towns were composed of dozens of large round mounds of dirt, with each mound having one or two prairie dogs standing straight up, side by side, on guard. I spent the first night of the trip in Ogalalla, Nebraska.
On Tuesday, July 10th, I began the 229 mile drive to Hot Springs, my next destination. The closer I got, the more I was able to see the beginnings of The Black Hills.
I was looking forward to arriving in Hot Springs partly because they advertised on their website that they had a community band that played each Tuesday evening. Unfortunately for me, when I arrived in Hot Springs their “Humanities Council” had posted a sign at the band shell announcing that due to the excessive heat they had decided to replace the regular band performance with a poetry reading, which turned out to be two old geezers reading their original compositions to a sparse selection of locals. This was the first of only three disappointing moments that I encountered during the whole 7 days.
Pictures of Hot Springs, which resembled the artistic tourist town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, are laid out below.
I passed up the poetry reading and took the opportunity to dine at Woolly’s (as in Wooly Mammoth), then went to The Mammoth Site, a truly unique archeological dig where 58 mammoths, 55 Colombian and 3 Wooly, have been found, as well as a Giant Short-faced Bear, and numerous llamas, wolves, and other vertebrates, all of whom had slipped into an ancient pond that was created when a sinkhole was filled by an artesian hot spring. The sloping shale sides were thus kept wet and slippery which made the animals unable to find the traction to get out once they entered. Layer upon layers of the mammoths built up over thousands of years before the spring became blocked and the hole dried up, forming a mud pit, which other mammoths then used to roll in thereby compacting the site and the mammoths buried in it. The Colombian Mammoths were the larger of the two species found, each weighing 20,000 plus pounds in their prime. The Wooly Mammoths were the more recent species found at the site and they weighed about 16,000 pounds each. Compare that to African elephants, currently the largest land mammal, who weigh about 13-14,000 pounds. When I stand upright, I am as tall as an elephant’s mouth. When I stood next to the Colombian Mammoth mockup at the site, my head came only up to his knee. The pictures below show some students doing work at the site because it is an active dig. Here’s the website if you want to know more: http://www.mammothsite.com/mammoth_info.html
On day 3, July 11th, I planned to go through The Black Hills to the Crazy Horse Mountain sculpture, then to the Borglum Historic Center (the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore), then back to Mt. Rushmore, and finally on to Wall, S.D. where the Wounded Knee Museum is located. Don’t ask me why it’s in Wall instead of on the Pine Ridge reservation where Wounded Knee is located, but it is. And that plan is ALMOST the way Day 3 happened. Prior to leaving on the trip, a friend suggested she loan me her GPS in case I ran into a blocked road and needed to know how to get around it. I accepted her gracious offer and after I finished visiting Mt. Rushmore I thought it would be a good time to give the GPS a test run. I had printed out Google maps and directions for each day, so I already knew that going from Mt. Rushmore to Wall was just a short trip out of the Black Hills, then left through Rapid City and onto I-90 to Wall, for a total of 77 miles. I entered the Rushmore and Wall addresses into the GPS and set off for Wall. As we reached the southern edge of Rapid City where my printouts said to turn left, go through town for about 10 blocks and then happily hop on I-90 for the short interstate drive east to Wall, the GPS instead said “turn right”. I thought, “okay, maybe there is a bypass around Rapid City. I’ll follow the smarter GPS”, and so I turned right. It was around twenty miles later before it spoke again, this time saying “turn left on Bear Creek Road in 1.6 miles”. I thought “Finally!”, but as I turned onto Bear Creek Road, I couldn’t help noticing I had just exchanged a paved highway for a gravel road. I still gave the confident voice of the GPS the benefit of the doubt thinking “okay, okay…. so this is a straight shot north to I-90, kind of a dumb way to get there, but I’ve already gone this far…”. It’s next instruction was 7 miles later when it announced “in .5 miles, turn right on Sage Creek Road”. Now I was a bit concerned because we were no longer going toward north toward I-90 but east. Sage Creek Road was a 15 mile stretch of corduroy that forced me to slow to 30 mph or risk bouncing Silver into the bar ditch. I was then confronted with an official sign that said, ENTERING BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK. I knew the Badlands was there, and I had decided back in the planning stages of this trip to bypass it, having no interest in seeing it at all. It tells you in its name not to go there. It’s BAD lands for crying out loud!! Now I’m too far in to retrace my steps, so I resolved to press on carefully. How much worse could it get, I thought. There was little suspense involved in waiting on the answer to that question. The road immediately narrowed to one-and-a-half lanes wide, accompanied by steep slopes of 50 to 60 feet down either side, and I began to imagine what I’d do if I had mechanical problems, or a flat. I checked my cell phone only to discover I no longer had cell service. I was on my own. So, praying that the universe was in no mood to present me with a growth opportunity just now, I noticed the second and only other sign in the park, it read BEWARE OF BUFFALO. Beware?… really? ……not DO NOT FEED THE BUFFALO, or DON’T APPROACH THE NICE BUFFALO, but BEWARE…. Why? Are they pissed off at living in the Badlands? Maybe they are the dysfunctional, unsocial buffalo who have been dragged here as punishment and now hold grudges, giving people a reason to call this the BAD-lands. By now I had developed a sincere hatred for GPS for putting me in this position, worsened by the fact that I KNEW it would have been the smart move to turn left at Rapid City and avoid this escalating drama. The road now appeared to have narrowed again causing me to realize that if I met someone coming in the opposite direction, one of us would have a heckuva lot of backing up to do. Eventually I reached the Much Better Lands on the other side of the park, having avoided a breakdown or a buffalo ambush. I was presented with a paved highway and the GPS voice chose that moment to announce, “turn left, 2 miles to destination”. Trying unsuccessfully to overlook the fact that he had put an additional 51 nightmare miles on to what should have been a short cheerful 77 mile jaunt, I said some really ugly things to the voice on the GPS that I now regret, and unplugged it, putting it face first into the far corner of the pickup cab for the remainder of the trip. On the positive side, I now knew there was at least one technology that I was infinitely smarter than, the Godless Perverted Software bundle, and no, I didn’t take any pictures of the Badlands because the road was too narrow to safely stop, and I wasn’t going to risk taking a picture on the move and ending up sliding down the impending slopes onto the horns of those emotionally disturbed buffalo about whom I had already been officially warned. This was the second of my three disappointments on the trip. Now, returning the travelogue to the point where I left Hot Springs and headed into the Black Hills, here is what I saw. The Black Hills surrounded me and opened up its beautiful mountain scenery before me, reminding me a lot of Estes Park, CO. There were beautiful pine forests, granite outcroppings, a short tunnel through one mountain, and valleys several miles wide with astonishing vistas.
My first stop on day 3 was the Crazy Horse Mountain sculpture. The Native Americans who own the site refuse to take any funds from the government that broke every treaty it ever signed with them, which means that in order to finance the project intended to honor the leader who fought for their land and rights up to the day of his murder in captivity, it will take longer than the 15 years the government funded project of Mt. Rushmore took to finish. The tribes use donations, fees from those visiting the site, and their own incomes, as their sole funding sources. When completed it will be the largest mountain sculpture in the world. I have included pictures of the actual work in progress, as well as photos of the model they are working from in order to give you a perspective of how the finished project will appear.
A wise Lakota grandmother at Crazy Horse Mountain helped me pick out a glazed bowl with tribal symbols on it for myself, and two sets of earrings for my granddaughters from among the items being made and sold on site by Native American artists. She said, “These will make them smile”. She was right. They were very pleased.
Below is a picture taken in 1948 of the survivors of the 1876 victory at The Little Big Horn. It hangs at the Crazy Horse site, among others.
The next place I went was to the Borglum Historic Center in Keystone, S.D., just a few miles past Mt. Rushmore. I wanted to get as much detail as I could about Mt. Rushmore before I viewed it, so I would be more likely to understand what I was seeing. I could think of no better way of doing that than learning what I could from the man who sculpted it. I found out that Gutzon Borglum was 60 when he agreed to take on Mt. Rushmore; that he had mountain sculptures on Stone Mountain in Georgia; that the face of Washington was begun facing further to his right, demolished half way through and begun again in its present location; that the original plan was to include the top portion of each president’s chest but was abandoned when Borglum died in 1941. His son finished the work, stopping with just the faces.
If you look closely you can make out the beginning of Lincoln’s left hand holding his lapel. I ate lunch in the Carver’s Café where the famous Hitchcock scene in “North by Northwest” was filmed. That is my bowl of buffalo stew in the middle picture. The scenic photo below that was taken along the 17 miles of highway between Crazy Horse Mountain and Mt. Rushmore.
Details of Borglum and his times are at http://www.rushmoreborglum.com/ .
After having made it through the Badlands via the Godless Perverted Software, I pulled into Wall, S.D. with the intention of going to the famous Wall Drug Store/Café, and visiting the Wounded Knee Museum. Together they account for the third and final disappointment of the trip. Wall, it turned out, was a poor Badlands imitation of Mayberry, only without a friendly demeanor, or an Aunt Bee. The money spent to make this town an attractive tourist stop was evidently sent to their marketing department for slick ads and elaborate road signs. The Wall Café menu ranged from overpriced chicken that appeared to have been prepared sometime during the week prior to my arrival, to hot dogs, hamburgers, and limp lettuce salad with rolls that could be used to repair brick walls if not purchased by the tourists. The Wall Drug had a premier collection of “Indian” souvenirs, also overpriced and carrying stickers that showed they had been made in China, India, and Pakistan. Evidently the purchasing department had misunderstood the term “Indian” in ordering and stocking their goods. After an Atkins shake and two oranges in my room, I made my way to The Wounded Knee Museum, and found a sign on the front door saying it was open from 9am to 5pm daily. It was after 5pm when I found it, so I went back to my room, watched TV and went to bed. I got up the next morning, dressed, ate, and was parked in front of the Museum by 8:45am. At 9am a man whom I had seen the day before shuffling down main street, and whom I took then to be homeless since his clothes were dirty and in tatters, and his hands and face seemed caked with grime, came out of a side door to the museum, dropped a full trash bag into a dumpster on the side of the building, and went back inside. He still had on the same clothes and the same grime. At 9:15 I was still waiting for the doors to open, and at 9:30 I gave up and headed for my next stop, the Ft. Randall Hotel/Casino owned and operated by the Yankton Sioux.
I stopped for lunch in Chamberlain, S.D. and paused long enough to drive through the grounds of the St. Joseph Indian School, with a large well developed campus. The statue on the right is at the entrance to the school grounds.
I then left I-90 and drove along the north side of the Missouri River to Ft. Randall.
My poker tourney was scheduled for Saturday at noon and this was Thursday. I wanted to have time to visit the Santee Sioux Tribal Museum, the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center on Calumet Bluff, and the Ponca Tribal Museum, all of which were on the south side of the Missouri river in Nebraska. After I checked in, I unpacked and took a deep breath and a vacation nap, in that order. The next morning, after checking my route plans with the very helpful hotel manager, I was off to the Lewis and Clark Center, to be followed by the Santee Museum, and then the Ponca Museum on my way back to home base at Ft. Randall.
The National Park Service ran the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Calumet Bluff, and the rangers there were very helpful, making phone calls for me to verify routes and museum times for the next two stops. The dam and the fisherman were down the bluff.
The Santee Museum was close to the river on tribal lands. I could see the river in the distance as I approached their location. The museum was a cabin style construction, very well kept and informative.
During the Sioux Uprising of 1862, when the U.S. refused to honor it’s treaty provisions of supplying food and other goods to the Sioux that it had confined to the reservation, 38 warriors were accused of acting as leaders of the rebellion and were ordered executed by President Lincoln. Congressional Medals of Honor were given to the executioners and eventually taken away posthumously about 100 years later. Those are the “38 Homeland Security Defenders” that are referred to in the middle picture above.
The Ponca Museum was not on their reservation , but on an agricultural acreage west of the town of Niobrara, NE. It was the site of the tribe’s powwow grounds and community center. Moving there saved them the expense of upkeep on a separate museum building, plus it made good use of their community center year round. In the 1880’s the government, through bureaucratic bungling, decided it wanted to trade lands and shrink the size of Sioux holdings. It included the land which it had already given to the Ponca as a reservation, without telling the Ponca. The Sioux declined. Even though the Sioux rejected the deal, the government ignored their rejection and proceeded with plans to remove the Poncas from the land in question. The highly agrarian Poncas were told they had to go to Oklahoma and were given the choice of 4 parcels of land from which to choose. They had good farmland in Nebraska and declined to move. The government said they must visit the 4 parcels and if they didn’t like any of them, they would renegotiate with them. A delegation of Ponca chiefs were taken to Oklahoma, and when they found that none of the 4 sites were farmland, they rejected all 4 and returned to Nebraska, determined to stay put. Within a month the army showed up at the Ponca reservation and told them they all had to move, immediately. They were marched to Oklahoma not unlike the Trail of Tears the government created in removing the Cherokee from their lands in North Carolina. A few months later chief Standing Bear and a group of Ponca snuck off the Oklahoma reservation and returned to their reservation in Nebraska. Before the government could manage another roundup to move them back to Oklahoma, the Ponca went to the media to state their case. It became a national news story and a group of white citizens of Nebraska were so incensed by the governments actions that they funded a lawsuit on behalf of the Ponca since Indians had no standing in the courts due to the fact that federal law considered them not to be citizens of the U.S. The federal court ruled that they were citizens and had every right to demand that the government uphold the provisions of the treaty it had signed which stated that the Nebraska reservation belonged to the Ponca “as long as water runs and grass grows”. The federal court then decided in favor of the Poncas who had escaped, allowing them to stay on their land, but also deciding against any others leaving Oklahoma to join them.
I was able to talk to the grandson of one of those who came back. The land their museum is now on was planted in corn, a picture of which is included below. The White Eagle reservation outside Ponca City, Oklahoma, is populated by descendants of those who were denied the right to return to their reservation in Nebraska.
To end this travelogue of a fantastic trip, I will say I finished 5th in the poker tournament, had a great seafood buffet afterwards, a chance to consume Indian tacos made with fry bread, Lakota baked breakfast bread called “Cho Ri” and ended with a cookout luncheon with a good friend and her family in Omaha. I then headed home completing a memorable and very enjoyable first retirement adventure. My appreciation of South Dakota had greatly increased, and my admiration of Native American culture was even stronger.