My Powerful Tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation | Black Hills Travel Blog

My Powerful Tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation

  • My Powerful Tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
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Traveling is all about opening your eyes to new places, people and ways of life.

This summer I went on a one-day Familiarization Tour (FAM Tour) of Pine Ridge Reservation, hosted by the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce and South Dakota Department of Tourism. The guided tour took me into the realm of the Lakota (Sioux) country and gave me a deeper understanding of Lakota culture and its rich history.

The eye-opening experience is essential for anyone who feels an affinity with the Great Plains indigenous cultures. You’ll have the opportunity to interact with and learn directly from the people whose history, stories and spirituality are held within these lands.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, which has more than 46,000 enrolled members. The reservation is located in southwest South Dakota and consists of approximately 2.2 million acres. The Lakota’s sacred He Sapa, or Black Hills, can be viewed on the horizon from some edges of the reservation.

Our guide, Warren “Gus” Yellow Hair, lit the sacred silver-leaf sage and welcomed us to Pine Ridge in prayer. Speaking in his native Lakota language, his prayer asked that we remain open to the diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds we would learn about on our journey in Pine Ridge.

White River Visitor Center
Our day began at the White River Visitor Center, located in Badlands National Park. The park’s 244,000 acres protect a massive expanse of mixed-grass prairie that bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets call home. You’ll have a good chance of sighting critters when you’re here. As we drove into the Badlands, prairie dogs, deer and antelopes greeted us.

Pine Ridge Visitor Center/Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce
Our next destination was the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, located west of Kyle. The building houses an impressive wildlife exhibit, where we learned about each animal’s significance in Lakota history. We were drawn toward Lakota art displays that showcased traditional techniques, like beading. Originally, they used porcupine quills for beading. The quills were replaced by glass beads in the early 1800s.

Oglala Lakota College and Historical Center
Next, we visited the Oglala Lakota College and Historical Center. The accredited institution was chartered by the Oglala Sioux Tribe to serve the Pine Ridge Reservation by offering a wide range of educational opportunities while incorporating Lakota culture and tribal self-determination. It offers master’s, bachelor’s and associate degrees and certificate programs. Students can study subject matter ranging from Lakota language and Lakota leadership to business, elementary education, and construction. It was inspiring to see an academic environment dedicated to “rebuilding the Lakota Nation through education.”

Red Cloud Indian School
From there, we went to the Red Cloud Indian School. The Catholic K-12 school is situated on rolling hills, surrounded by dense pine trees, groomed landscape and has a divine atmosphere.

We had the privilege of witnessing an eighth-grade graduation. The students were walking out of the campus' Catholic church in royal blue gowns, surrounded by their friends and family. They were full of hope and the promise of pursuing their dreams. It embodied Chief Red Cloud's mission to educate Lakota youth, enabling them to achieve their own success on and off the reservation. It's truly inspiring seeing that the students of Red Cloud Indian School are given the opportunity to have an education that combines Lakota culture, Jesuit Catholic principles, and the hope of a bright future.

"We do not want riches, we want peace and love." — Chief Red Cloud

We continued our tour of the campus by visiting Holy Rosary Church cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking the school. Chief Red Cloud, the Lakota warrior for whom the Jesuit-run educational mission is named, is buried in the school's historic cemetery. Many people make the pilgrimage up the steep path to pay their respects at Red Cloud's grave.

Wounded Knee Massacre Site
Next, we traveled 20 miles east to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. The National Historic Landmark is the site of the deadly massacre by the U.S. Army that left more than 150 Lakota men, women and children dead. As we approached the desolate and raw sacred site, Gus gathered us and performed a ceremonial prayer and shared sage leaves with us.

For those unfamiliar with this tragedy, the Heritage Center at the Oglala Lakota College offers well-documented facts and historical photos that give insight into the events leading up to the horrific massacre.

Red Shirt Table Overlook
Our day ended at Red Shirt Table Overlook, on the western boundary of Badlands National Park’s Stronghold Unit. The table, named after Chief Red Shirt, is approximately 10 miles long and boasts the highest point in the park. Being afraid of heights, I viewed the sacred mountains from a distance!

At the overlook, Gus shared stories of how the Lakota found refuge from the U.S. Army in the steep terrain of the Badlands. If you look far enough into the distance, toward the Stronghold Unit, you can see where the final Ghost Dance was performed. Gus explained that the Ghost Dance was commonly practiced because they believed that song and dance would restore the buffalo herds, heal their sick and allow them to return to their original way of life. It provided a hopeful message to the Lakota suffering poor conditions on reservations.

We returned to Rapid City with a deeper understanding of and respect for Lakota history. It was an honor to witness the ways in which the current generation honors the traditions of their ancestors while living their lives in the present.

For tour information, contact Ivan Sorbel at the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce, by calling 605-455-2685.

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