The Impressive Journey To The Lakota Sioux - Part 2

As the winner of the Tatonka Photo Contest 2016, we invited Christoph H. to participate in a charity-based journey to the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. After their first stops at the Oregon Trail Ruts, Fort Laramie and Fort Robinson State Park, the travel group reaches Pine Ridge Reservation on the fourth day.

Day 4: Henry Red Cloud tells his story

Fort Robinson was founded close to the original area of the Red Cloud Agency, an area assigned to the Lakota Sioux and other northern native tribes. Because of its location, the fort played an essential role in the Sioux Wars, when the legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was fatally wounded in the fort after his capitulation. The fourth day of our trip therefore leads us exactly to these two historical landmarks before we continue to our actual travel destination, the Pine Ridge Reservation.

TATONKA Photo Contest - Crazy Horse was fatally wounded at Fort Robinson.

The reservation lies in a barren prairie landscape. In contradiction to their nomadic forebears, the Lakota Sioux don’t live in tepees anymore but in Trailer Homes and houses. Superficially, their life doesn’t seem to vary much from the rest of the American population.

TATONKA Photo Contest - tent village of the travellers at the Pine Ridge Reservation.

At the property of Henry Red Cloud and his family (all descendants of the eponymous chief), we establish our tent village for the first time. Henry shares his views on the life in the reservation and which opportunities for positive development of the Lakota Sioux he senses. He then shows us around on his property and we get to know his project, the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, which deals with knowledge transfer from natives to other natives.

Day 5: Construction of a tepee and a language course

After the first night in the tent, the next day starts quite early. The three Lakota Tamatane I’atala, Heathen Ducheneaux and Thomas Janis arrive early carrying all components on their trucks we would need to erect traditional Sioux tents. After a short traditional prayer, we start building the first tepee while they explain all rules and interpretations that come with this traditional form of living. Building a second tepee helps us internalizing their instructions and soon we can admire a second tepee we built with our own hands.

TATONKA Photo Contest - construction of a traditional tepee

Heathen and Tommy leave us after lunch. Tama stays to give us our first lesson in speaking Lakota. As a surprise, we are brought to the Red Cloud Indian School in the evening where we attend the Lakota language course for adults – I didn’t know how much fun learning an exotic language could be!

Day 6: Keeping a language alive

By day six, our group is already a well-working team with daily routines and mutual respect for each other. Our morning activity therefore comes at the exact right moment: After breakfast, we are joined by Richard Giago who will give us an insight into the colorful art of traditional bead crafting. In the course of a workshop, we design our own pattern and start crafting our own leather pouch – and realize how much effort already goes into making only one of those.

In the afternoon, we drive to Oglala to get to know the charity project ‘Lakota Immersion Childcare’. We are shown around by Matt Rama. The Lakota Immersion Childcare is a nursery/daycare facility for children between the ages of 1½ and 5½ years where only Lakota is spoken. The goal is to shape the children’s early language development phase by exposing them to the almost extinct Lakota language.

TATONKA Photo Contest - keeping the language Lakota alive

Speaking Lakota used to be forbidden over several generations. Only the tribal elders still speak it fluently, but their number is decreasing. To work against this cultural loss, the Lakota actively try to keep the language alive by teaching it in primary school, voluntary language courses for adults and also with projects like the ‘Lakota Immersion Childcare’. By recognizing and reflecting their own identity, these projects aim to bring optimism into the often harsh reality of life in the reservation. High unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse result in a low life expectancy and often a life below the poverty line.

In the evening, we gather around the crackling campfire, where we gaze at the stars while listening to the sounds and rhythms of a traditional drumming group. Interesting conversations with residents of the reservation give me another deep insight into their everyday life.

Day 7: On the road to Custer State Park

On day seven, we break down our tents at the campground in Pine Ridge and continue our journey towards the Black Hills at Custer State Park. On the way we pay a visit to Larry Belitz, who creates traditional Native American replicas for museums and movies like ‘Dances With Wolves’. Larry presents us impressive tribal craft and shares his immense knowledge of Native American culture. He also lets us work on our rodeo skills.

TATONKA Photo Contest - on the road to Custer State ParkTATONKA Photo Contest - traditional Native American replicas.

Our next stop is at the Wind Caves. Native American legend has it that these caves are the cradle of humankind. After only a short stop there, we drive on, past grazing buffalos, antelopes and deer, along winding roads into the impressive Custer State Park. As darkness falls, we expertly build our tents directly at the Center Lake, in the midst of a pine forest. Not much later, we crawl into our sleeping bags and sleep the sleep of the just.

TATONKA Photo Contest - tents at the Center Lake.

Day 8: Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Mountain and Harney Peak

Today starts with a very enjoyable morning drive through the diverse nature of Custer State Park. Our next stop is Mount Rushmore, of which we catch our first glimpse after driving out of the Scovel Johnson Tunnel. Framed by trees, the national treasure of the United States greets us from the distance and slowly grows as we approach. After our arrival, the majestic sight from the Grand View Terrace overwhelms us. The monumental stone heads of the four US presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt take up all of my view. People with more time to spare can go for a hike on the Presidential Trail to get more views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding nature.

In our case, we are moving on to Crazy Horse Mountain, a gigantic stone sculpture that isn’t finished yet. It will resemble the legendary Lakota warrior Crazy horse. By approaching the foot of the sculpture by bus, we get an idea of how huge this sculpture is going to be once it’s finished.

TATONKA Photo Contest - stone sculpture Crazy Horse Mountain

In the exhibition accompanying the site we admire many tribal exhibits. Then, we continue our journey to enjoy the last hours of the day at Sylvan Lake. Embedded into a mystical, magnificent mountain and forest scenery, we are free to enjoy the next few hours as we like.

For me, today’s goal is crystal clear: Harney Peak, America’s highest rise east of the Rocky Mountains. Wandering along the well-marked trail No. 9, I indulge in the impressive mountain scenery and encounter quite a few resolute chipmunks. I also meet many friendly fellow hikers full of interesting stories and tales. Among other things, I learn that the highest point of South Dakota recently got its old name back. Since August 11, 2016, Harney Peak is Black Elk Peak again to honor the significance of the Native American people.

TATONKA Photo Contest - trail to Harney Peak, America’s highest rise east of the Rocky Mountains.

Arriving on the top, hikers can either use the publicly accessible observation tower or just take in the view from where they stand. Two and a half hours later, I’m back down in the valley and still have enough daylight left for a walk around enchanting Sylvan Lake. The views are lovely and I begin to understand why the Black Hills are a sacred place for Native Americans.

Christoph’s trip is not yet coming to an end! You can read here how his journey continues.