Cultural Tourism on South Dakota’s Native American Reservations

The reservations of South Dakota’s nine Native American tribes have consistently been among the poorest areas in the United States, suffering the detrimental effects of rights abuses, loss of traditional land, discrimination and harmful federal policies, both in the past and the present. Unfortunately, mainstream media have too often focused on the high rates of poverty, violence, teen pregnancy and suicide in these communities while overlooking the many hopeful signs and their rich cultures.

To overcome the lack of economic opportunities and tackle the poverty problem, these tribes and their members are increasingly turning to tourism. Lacking proximity to large metropolitan areas or the major touristic attractions of the Southwestern tribes, the Sioux tribes of South Dakota need to be creative with their initiatives. Like many Indian tribes around the country, the tribal governments have established casinos on their lands, but the income generated, which is used to finance tribal governmental services, is not comparable to that of tribes in Minnesota, on the East Coast or in California, whose success has been widely publicized.

Because of this, the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Sioux are focusing their efforts on cultural tourism. By working together, the tribes aim to welcome visitors into their communities in order to educate them on their fascinating history and unique culture, and to share their hospitality and their authentic art.

Both on and off reservation, there are plenty of art and heritage centers showcasing traditional artifacts such as brightly colored beadwork, finely crafted horse dance sticks, quillwork and buffalo hide drums, as well as modern Native American art, traditional music and traditional medicine. Authentic displays of early plains life of the Sioux help visitors envision the past and the important role of the buffalo in sustaining their livelihood. The Heritage Center in the Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge, the White Horse Herbs & Trading Post in Mission, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Buffalo Interpretative Center in Fort Pierre are among the many such sites in South Dakota.

For further exploration, tribal chambers of commerce or hospitality offices and entrepreneurial tribal members on many reservations offer specialized tours with local Native guides. The Lower Brule Sioux tribe offers seasonal tours including a sweetgrass tour, a sage tour, a berry gathering tour and a corn tour and site-specific tours including an interpretive areas tour, wildlife viewing and photo hunting, an agriculture and ranching tour, and an economic development tour. The Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe offers tours of their herd of 200 buffaloes.

Around South Dakota’s Indian Country there are also plenty of important historical sites, such as the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in Wounded Knee, the burial place of the famous Chief Red Cloud of the Oglalas near Kyle, and the Spirit of the Circle Monument at Big Bend Dam, which honors the more than 1,300 people who died of malnutrition and exposure over a three-year period in the 1860s.

Some of the most popular attractions are the yearly powwows or wacipi. The wacipi, as practiced in the Plains region, is a social event, which can last from one to several days and is a time when tribal people honor elders and gather as families. Tribal dancers wear colorful finery, elaborate feather work and intricate beadwork while dancing to spirited drumming and singing. Popular with tourists, wacipi are typically open to the public, but travelers who attend should keep in mind that powwows are not organized for the purpose of tourism. Rather, they continue to play an important social role in contemporary Native American culture.

When attending a powow or doing any other type of visit to a Native American community, it is important for travelers to adhere to proper visitor etiquette. Native American communities are very diverse, not only between different tribes but also within tribes. Tribal members practice varying degrees of tradition, and what is acceptable to one member might not be to an other. Visitors are expected ?to conduct themselves in a manner ?that is respectful of tribal religion and ceremonies. At ceremonial events in particular, appropriate dress, speech and behavior are important. Many Native Americans have said they often have the feeling of being treated as artifacts or remnants from the past, so it is important that visitors ask for permission to take pictures or video record people.

According to tribal leaders, tourism presents not only an economic opportunity but also a chance to educate outsiders about the tribes’ culture and way of life in order to tackle the stereotypes of Native America in mainstream society. In South Dakota, the hope is that tourists visiting sites such as Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace will also consider these alternative destinations and activities.

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