An Impressive Journey To The Lakota Sioux In South Dakota - Part 1

Christoph H., winner of the Tatonka Photo Contest 2016, delved into American history for twelve days.

It began with a seemingly unspectacular hiking weekend in Austria. With brilliant weather and breathtaking scenery, I indulged in my wanderlust and tried to ban a particularly beautiful view on camera. A year later, this picture would take me several thousands of kilometers away from home – I submitted it to the Tatonka Photo Contest 2016 and won the first prize.

I didn’t have a shred of hope that I would even stand a chance of winning a trip to the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, USA. But the jury loved my picture. The imagery and the staging convinced them and I’m sure that there was a bit of luck involved, too. So, a few weeks later, my adventure began with checking in my trekking backpack at the Frankfurt airport.

Day 1: Over the great pond into another world

During my flight, my mind revolves around what to expect in the following weeks. A big part of my journey would take me to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwest of South Dakota to get a current look into the life of the Lakota Sioux and to get to know a charity project.

I already read and learned as much as possible about the life and history of the Lakota Sioux prior to my departure. Now, I am excited in how much my perceptions corresponded with reality. As indigenous people of North America, they settled on the vast prairies of the country and lived as nomads. Then, a truly dark chapter of history was written when they were displaced in reservations. A part of their descendants still live there today, a few of them scattered across the country, fighting for their heritage and their cultural identity.

At the Denver airport I meet the rest of the travel group. We are split up on three minivans by our guide Dirk Rohrbach and start heading north. During our first dinner (Mexican, yum!), we get to know each other better and learn a few more details about our itinerary of the upcoming days. Soon enough, the hardships of the flight and a few beers send us all to our motel rooms early.

Day 2: Tracking the settlers

The next morning, our drive north continues to Wyoming, where we slowly get in touch with Native American history. Our first stop is a historical attraction called the Oregon Trails Ruts. Over a circular path close to a settlement called Guernsey, we meander up a hill that was originally part of the famed Oregon Trail. On this route, the first European settlers set out westwards with their wagons. Particularly interesting about this spot are the trails of the wheels and the draught animals imprinted into the soft sandstone.

In the immediate proximity also lies Register Cliff, another famous landmark of the Oregon Trail. This is original hunting ground of various native tribes, as we learn from the carvings in the rock wall. Immigrants soon added their own names, inscriptions or initials to express their feelings about the arduous search for a better world. The quantity of the inscriptions of white settlers – more than 700 – resulted in a loss of the original pictograms of the natives.

Carvings and inscriptions of indians and white settelers.

Our journey continues to Fort Laramie – an important outpost originally erected to protect the settlers. Through the course of history, it evolved into an army fort. We explored the historical area on our own and learned about the history of the place in the small on-site museum.

Fort Laramie played an important part as the place where important contracts between settlers and natives were signed. In 1868, the contract that guaranteed the Lakota Sioux the holy Black Hills as a reservation was signed at Fort Laramie. The contract was later broken due to the discovery of gold in that area. I gained a very personal impression about the life back then by exploring the historical buildings.

TATONKA Photo Contest - a charity trip to the Lakota Sioux.

In darkness and rain, we arrived at Fort Robinson State Park in Nebraska in the evening to spend the following two nights in a historical building.

Day 3: At Fort Robinson State Park

The following third day was at our free disposal. Fort Robinson can also be explored by visiting the museums and many passable buildings. The fort itself lies within a breathtakingly beautiful prairie landscape, limited only in the north by a softly rising ridge overgrown with pines.

During the main season, visitors can undertake many outdoor activities. In the lodge, the friendly staff told me all about their seasonal offers, gave me useful tips and – most importantly – a regional hiking map.

In the early afternoon, the bright sunshine drew me and my fellow travelers into the mountains, past an impressing free-running horse herd and very daunting longhorns. According to the season, the landscape presented itself in bright and dazzling autumn colors. The wind at the bottom of the hiking path rushes through my hair and carries the ethereal scent of pine oil to my nose.

TATONKA Photo Contest - hiking area in Fort Robinson State Park

At the starting point of the hiking area, I can choose between different, well-marked trails which are also easily combined. I pick a few trails that form a loop, starting with the Sheep Trail followed by the East and the West Cloud Loop, returning over the Gravel Pit Loop Trail. I didn’t encounter any rattlesnakes, but a firm step and being aware of your surroundings does no harm, either.

TATONKA Photo Contest - winner Christoph on the Sheep Trail in Fort Robinson State Park.

The next day, the travel group reaches Pine Ridge Reservation. Read here how Christophs's journey continues.