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South Dakota
From Pioneer Days to Present Times

Published in the Winter 2007-08 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By David J. Cox
Photos by: South Dakota Tourism

This mid-western state is a blend of living history and modern-day momentum. From its ‘Little House on the Prairie’ to its many fascinating natural wonders, South Dakota offers something special for every visitor.

The tapestry of American history unfolds while travelling through this rolling and often contrasting state. You cannot help being inspired by the trek made by South Dakota’s first pioneers Lewis and Clark and awed by the state’s natural beauty.

The Lakota, Dakota and other Native Americans living within the state still consider much of it sacred land.


Sioux Falls and the East

Flying into Sioux Falls brought with it a sense of familiarity and comfort. Green pastures as far as the eye could see blended seamlessly with the blue skies.

I experienced my first taste of South Dakota friendliness in a small airport boutique. The cashier asked me how my flight went, if I was all right and if this was my first visit. Her warmth and openness was a wonderful way to begin my visit.

The City of Sioux Falls is the largest in the state. The main street of this picture-perfect city is lined with trendy boutiques, art stores and independent merchants.


The Falls

After a walk around the downtown core, I visited the falls that gave the city its name. In bygone days, the falls were partially modified to power the town’s mill.

Today the falls is the central feature of a lovely park, featuring trails, picnic areas and much more.





On the following day, my travelling companions and I visited Mellette House, the lovingly refurbished home of the first Governor of South Dakota, located in Watertown. The tour was hosted by the Governor himself – well, a dead-ringer for him, anyway!


Sisseton and De Smet

Driving farther north, we took our first real steps into the past with visits to Sisseton and De Smet.

As fortune would have it, we arrived in time for the closing ceremonies of the Fort Sisseton Festival, which featured re-enactments of battles, chuck wagons and Indian hoop dancers.

Artisans and traditional clothing makers were in abundance and many other festival participants were dressed in period costumes.


Little House on the Prairie

De Smet offered us a chance to visit the home of Laura Ingalls-Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books.

The homestead is a hands-on experience with wagon rides and a barn where you can learn to make ‘corn dolls’ and other local arts and crafts. Looking around, you can actually imagine the lives of the first pioneers to settle in this rugged region.


Across The Badlands

Travelling west, the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark comes to life. Untouched rivers and lakes dot the countryside, along with farms and small communities. Wildlife roams everywhere and if you keep an eye out, you’ll spot many deer, singing prairie dogs, pheasants (the State Bird), bison and, if you’re lucky, a coyote or two.

On this western trek there are attractions that cater to many tastes. The town of Murdo’s Pioneer Auto Show has several hundred classic cars and motorcycles dating from the early 1900s to the Muscle-car era, including Elvis’ legendary Harley-Davidson.

Western Art

Wall Drug, located in the town of Wall, is the world-famous store that features a unique collection of Western art. Fame came its way during the Depression when it offered free ice water to travellers. It is now a block-long emporium of galleries, stores and attractions.

I can’t imagine what the first travellers must have thought when they came upon The Badlands. Now a National Park, the “mako sica” as the Lakota Natives call the area, is the result of the millions of years of erosion and wind, which stripped this area down to a barren, brown landscape of crevasses and canyons. Breathtaking and filled with uniquely shaped hills and mounds, The Badlands is a meditative paradise, where only the wind and the occasional rattlesnake break the silence.

Wounded Knee, with its tragic history, completes our voyage through The Badlands. In revenge for the death of General Custer, who naively entered into battle with a superior foe, the U.S. Army massacred over 200 Natives in this heartbreaking place.

Fortunately, over the years the Lakota recovered. Oglala Lakota College, the first college in America to be founded and operated by Natives, represents a hopeful, brighter future for a troubled people.


Into the Hills

The Black Hills of South Dakota get their name from the local Natives, who consider the range sacred land. It is easy to see why they chose the name, as the sea of pine trees that cover the hills is so thick they look black from a distance, instilling a sense of awe rarely felt in today’s world.

It is within this range of mountains, older than the Rockies themselves that we find what the locals refer to as the “Spirit of America”.

Recognised as an outdoorsman’s paradise, its trails, hunting lodges and fishing streams are just the surface of this ancient land. Deep below are some of the largest cave systems in the world.

In addition, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where untamed horses and bison roam free of man’s intrusive nature, and Kevin Costner’s Tatanka Reserve, with its larger-than-life statues honouring the traditional Native buffalo hunt, both serve as vivid reminders of an earlier era.

Welcome to the Wild West

Further along within the sea of trees is the original ‘Wild West’ town of Deadwood. As soon as we arrived in town we were thrust back in time by a high-noon showdown: a re-enactment of the capture of Jack McCall, the man who killed Wild Bill Hickock. We witnessed the sheriff with guns-a-blaring get his man.

The town’s refurbished buildings, now mostly casinos and hotels, still retain their original character. It was as if at any moment a gunfight or brawl could break out or an old fella with his donkey could be walking down from the hills shouting, “there’s gold in them thare hills!”

This is a unique town with all the modern-day amenities, but the flavour of the bygone days of saloons, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill and poker-playing gold seekers!

Shrine of Democracy

Ironically, South Dakota’s prime tourist destination was the last of the many attractions we visited on our whirlwind tour of this lovely, charming state. We woke up at dawn after a night of cards and drinks to see the rays of the morning sun lighting up the faces of the four immortalized American presidents.

On arrival at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we were greeted by its imposing caretaker, Gerard Baker. Gerard is the first Native American to be appointed caretaker of the world-famous memorial.

Committed to the reconciliation between his people and the white man, Gerard has combined guided tours of the site with Native American exhibitions and storytelling and the history of the four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln) in regards to their respective policies towards the Native Americans.

This was an amazing alternative and moving history lesson that should be taught everywhere in America! Spectacular and educational, Mt. Rushmore lives up to every expectation.

Dignity of a People

Just miles away, I was treated to a site that has made me promise myself to return to this surprising state.

If Mount Rushmore is a site to behold, then the Crazy Horse Memorial is a new wonder of the world. Started in 1948, this magnificent masterpiece continues to be a testament to the ongoing efforts to bring together the white man and red man in lasting unity.

When completed, the Memorial will be a towering 563 feet high by 641 feet long, three-dimensional representation of Crazy Horse, mounted and pointing, with a written tablet stating, “My lands are where my dead lie buried”.

To put some perspective to the scope of the monument, Crazy Horse’s face and head alone are larger than the entire carving of Mount Rushmore!

This is truly a majestic way to continue the healing process between the peoples of America.

The Sublime State

Whether driving or on horseback, the visitor is guaranteed a wonderful vacation by South Dakota’s rugged character and the welcoming nature of its people.

With lots of family-friendly attractions and places to stay and the best fishing and hunting locales for the adventurer, a holiday spent there is one to remember.

South Dakota is not only the friendliest state in the union, but a relatively inexpensive destination. In addition, its great tourist infrastructure and outstanding attractions make it a fabulous choice for any vacationer.


For More Info:

South Dakota Office of Tourism
711 East Wells Avenue
c/o 500 East Capitol Avenue
Pierre, SD 57501-5070
Tel.: 605-773-3301 or 1-800-732-5682
Fax: 605-773-3256
Email: sdinfo@state.sd.us
Website: www.travelsd.com