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Dakotas: This is native America

Courtesy South Dakota Dept. of Tourism

The names of North Dakota and South Dakota are more than just simple identifiers; they reveal the extent to which American Indians have shaped the past and present of this region.

The Dakota, along with the Lakota and the Nakota, are Indian tribes that inhabited much of the land that is now North and South Dakota. French explorers later grouped the distinct tribes under the name “Sioux,” and as westward progression advanced, the American government forced the native people onto reservations.

Although much has changed for Indian tribes in the Dakotas, they have never lost their identities, nor have their cultural traditions waned. Traveling through these two states, groups will encounter American Indian art, history, performance and artifacts nearly everywhere they look.

For an appreciation of the beauty of the collective Sioux people and a better understanding of their influence in the region, include some of these stops on your next tour of the Dakotas.

Crazy Horse Memorial

For generations, the Lakota people considered the Black Hills sacred. Today, many visitors feel the same way, struck by the stark natural beauty of the area.

At the Crazy Horse Memorial, a fixture in the middle of the Black Hills, a private organization is working on a mountain monument that pays homage to the area’s native people.

Crazy Horse, an esteemed Lakota warrior and spiritual leader, became famous for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn. The ongoing Crazy Horse Memorial project is the brainchild of area American Indian leaders and late artist Korczak Zilkowski, who began work on the mountain carving in 1947.

Today, Zilkowski’s widow and children continue the work, along with many other supporters.

When the project is completed, the finished sculpture will stand 582 feet tall — dwarfing nearby Mount Rushmore — and will depict the chief sitting atop his horse with a hand outstretched toward his people’s ancestral homeland. Crazy Horse’s face is now visible in the side of the mountain, and his arm and hand are beginning to take shape.

Although work on the sculpture will continue for decades, there’s plenty for groups to see at the memorial. A visitors center and museum at the site feature an array of American Indian artwork, craft and historical items that give guests a look at the traditions and legacy of the Sioux peoples. Groups can also arrange to have educational programs with experts from around the area.

“The unique thing about this part of South Dakota is that history is relatively new here,” said Pat Dobbs, media specialist at the memorial. “So you can talk to people who are only one or two generations removed from the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

Prehistoric Indian Village

Just outside Mitchell, S.D., an ongoing archaeological excavation is slowly piecing together the story of a native group that lived in the area more than 1,000 years ago. Prehistoric Indian Village preserves the site where evidence of an ancient settlement exists.

The central fixture of the site is the archaeodome, a climate-controlled structure that encloses the pit where archaeologists dig through the remains of several of the lodges. Groups can tour the dome, watch workers dig and see displays that highlight some of the pottery, arrowheads and other everyday items found at the site.

“These people were the ancestors of the Mandan tribe,” said Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Prehistoric Indian Village. “We believe that we have 70 to 80 lodges buried out here. Between 12 and 25 would have slept in one lodge; only the respected elder would have had a bed.”

In addition to the archaeodome, the site has a visitors center that features a re-created lodge where groups can walk in and see the mud walls and thatched roof that would have constituted a dwelling for this prehistoric group.

Other exhibits at the visitors center highlight some of the most prized items found in the dig, such as a buffalo skeleton and pottery shards.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.