Tribal Traditions | Black Hills Travel Blog

Tribal Traditions

  • Tribal Traditions
    Tribal Traditions
By : 
Tom Griffith

Each day in South Dakota, visitors step in the footprints of brave Native American warriors and long-ago cavalry troops who once dominated the American West.

And, while those skirmishes marked the struggle of the Plains Indian wars, you’ll find a much more peaceful co-existence today. Throughout western South Dakota, numerous attractions and collections pay homage to the first peoples who populated this vast tract of the West, as well as the nearly 9 percent of South Dakota’s population who are Native American.

South Dakota’s reverence for its rich Native culture is celebrated throughout the western part of the state, from Rapid City’s Journey Museum to Crazy Horse Memorial®, a mountain carving in-progress that is destined to be the largest work of art in the world. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on the mountain in 1948, intent on depicting legendary Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse riding a horse and pointing into the distance, where his dead lie buried.

But, while the massive mountain memorial honoring all Plains Indian tribes and its attendant dynamite blasts command nearly all of the attention, Crazy Horse’s best-kept secret is its Indian Museum of North America. The expansive museum began modestly, but today displays an outstanding collection of Native artwork and artifacts, nearly 90 percent of which have been donated by generous individuals.

Northeast of Sturgis, jutting from the surrounding grasslands, rises mato paha or Bear Butte. A site of spiritual significance to several Plains Indian tribes, today it is a state park and a popular place for religious ceremonies and vision quests. Visitors may hike the sacred mountain but are encouraged to stop at the Visitor Center first for an orientation. As hikers ascend the butte, they may see bits of colorful cloth in the trees, representing prayers offered by worshippers.

Hidden near the silent hardwoods bordering a winding creek in the south-central portion of the Pine Ridge Reservation stands a National Historic Landmark few other than reservation residents, or intrepid explorers, ever see. Yet, in the context of Indian-white relations, there may be no more important place in the U.S.

A simple stone marker honors those slain along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek on a bitter and brutal day in December 1890. It was here in the Moon of Popping Trees that Big Foot and his band were attacked by remnants of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. When the smoke had cleared, 25 soldiers were dead, but 200 to 300 Native men, women and children also lost their lives that day. The massacre shamed and incensed whites, and effectively led to the end of centuries of unrelenting war against the Indigenous peoples of North America.

Today, some 7,800 Native Americans live in South Dakota or 8.8 percent of the state’s total population. Their history and culture, from centuries-old artifacts to modern day artwork, are celebrated in shops, galleries, and museums scattered in towns large and small throughout the state.

Among my favorite shops in any of the 80 countries I’ve visited to date is Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries at 606 Main St. in downtown Rapid City. It’s filled with exceptional offerings from a massive bead collection to Native American books, music, jewelry, and ceremonial items, the vast majority available for purchase.

But nowhere does the legend, lore, and promise of our Native brethren come more to life than during the annual Black Hills Powwow at Rapid City’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The 32nd running of the Powwow, slated Oct. 5-7, lets residents and visitors step back in time and experience the pomp, pageantry, and beauty of Great Plains indigenous song and dance in one of the premier American Indian cultural events in the U.S.

Each day in South Dakota, visitors step in the footprints of faceless Native American warriors who once roamed the West. But, you can still feel their presence even today.

About the Author

Tom Griffith is a fourth-generation South Dakotan who studied literature and drama at the University of London before graduating from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. An award-winning reporter, photographer and managing editor at newspapers in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, Tom also has written or co-authored more than 70 books and his travel features have been published in more than 300 newspapers and magazines from New York to New Zealand.

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