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Land of Many Legends

16 November 2001

By Catherine Poe

Jutting out from the mountain, Crazy Horse, astride his galloping horse, points across the plains to where his people, the Oglala Sioux, once roamed. Standing at the base of this gigantic sculpture and looking up, I am awed by its beauty and the genius of the sculptor.

While massive heads of the four presidents at Mount Rushmore just 20 minutes away are more impressive than any photograph can capture, Crazy Horse, outlined against the vast blue Dakota sky, has a majesty that any president would envy.

Slowly, painstakingly, the Crazy Horse Memorial has emerged from rock until now the warrior's prodigious head and arm are freed from stone and his horse's face and mane await the dynamite that will liberate them as well. Since 1948, when Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to make the Whites aware that "the Red Man has great heroes too," Crazy Horse became the obsession of one man and now his children as they create the world's largest sculpture.

The nose of Crazy Horse is 26 feet long and his face 9 1/2 stories. When completed, the entire piece will be 563 feet tall and 641 feet long from the horse's tail to its mane. Even more amazing, the memorial, unlike Mount Rushmore, can be viewed from all four sides.

History buffs remember Crazy Horse as a great Indian warrior who led his people to victory over General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. One year later, even though he was considered invulnerable, Crazy Horse was forced to surrender and was killed by a soldier who stabbed him in the back.

Having lost the Dakotas to white greed and consigned to small reservations, the present day Sioux now look to Crazy Horse as a symbol of who they once were. So it is fitting that this monument sits high in the Black Hills, the very same mountains that Custer allowed the gold-crazed prospectors to steal from the Indians, breaking the Treaty of 1868.

A Vanished Life

The question that most people ask at the Indian Museum at the base of the mountain is when will the sculpture be completed. Who knows? is the usual answer. Perhaps not even in our lifetimes. Shunning both federal and state monies, the family of Korczak seeks only public donations and admission fees of $6 per person or $15 a vehicle to fund their project (605-673-4681). So the going is slow, but then this part of the country has never been in a hurry.

The Black Hills are ancient, now ground down to a mere 6,000 feet from more than 30,000 feet high in prehistoric times, and they once loomed over not vast plains but the Pierre Sea that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. It is an archeologist's and geologist's dream. Dinosaur bones litter the landscape. Ancient fish are embedded in the walls of the Badlands. Woolly mammoths and prehistoric bears have been trapped in forgotten watering holes. One such dig, Mammoth Site, is open to the public and lies just outside the quaint town of Hot Springs, which indeed has a spa of hot springs.

In 1974, a construction crew clearing land for a housing development stumbled on the tusks of a mammoth. Since then, the site has been protected by an enclosed, domed museum that allows year-round excavation of the spring-fed sinkhole that sucked in more than 100 mammoths 26,000 years ago.

The dig also revealed a wide variety of vanished species from the giant short-faced bear and camel to a raptor.

Walking along the elevated pathway constructed for visitors, I was able to watch firsthand as paleontologists, working alongside volunteers from Earthwatch, carefully brushed away eons of dirt to reveal the giant skeletons lying in situ (bones left as found), something most digs don't allow the public to see. Open every day, this working dig is worth a detour, no matter where you are headed (mammothsite.com).

Hidden Beauty

A short drive away is another ancient site, one of the dozen caves that honeycomb the Black Hills. Here there are caves for everyone, from people like me to spelunkers. Discovered in 1881, The Wind Cave National Park (605-745-4600) with 83 miles of underground passages offers various levels of exploration based on your physical fitness. I chose the easiest, the Garden of Eden tour ($4), a one-hour, winding descent into the bowels of the earth where the strange webbing of boxwork decorates the cave walls. There are also century-old graffiti gracing the walls, the handiwork of early explorers who couldn't resist leaving their John Hancocks.

At the turn of the century, tours were conducted by candlelight and without handrails or stairs cut into the rock. Now strategic but dim lights guide the way. When the park ranger switches off the lights, we are plunged into a darkness so dense that I literally cannot see my fingers when I wiggle them in front of my face.

When our group ascends from 57 degrees into the 90+ day and bright sunshine, I am more than ready to leave what seemed like the center of the earth.

Two of the joys of the Black Hills are its lush greenness and odd rock formations that seem to suddenly crop up out of nowhere. So be sure to get off the beaten track and even get lost for half an hour.

One of the most interesting drives is the 14-mile-long Needles Highway, or Highway 87, as it winds its way into Custer State Park.

Lakes push up against the highway and around each bend is either a vista worth a Kodak moment or the core of old volcanic activity that has been sculpted by wind and time. The roads are narrow and twisty, so drive slowly, but who would want to rush through this scenery anyway? Plus you just might come upon a bison moseying down the road.

Many people love the unspoiled beauty of the Black Hills and often stay in one of its several lodges. Two favorites are historic Sylvan Lake Lodge (605-574-2561), which is so romantic that many couples get married there, and the State Game Lodge (605-255-4541), a stone and timber building that looks like something Teddy Roosevelt would have built.

Both places are moderately priced and therefore very popular. Nestled at the foot of the Black Hills are two other places to stay, one a B&B, the Hayloft (800-317-6784), which is not only charming, but probably the cleanest place I have ever stayed. At $125 a night, with a delicious pancake and sausage breakfast included, the Hayloft is also convenient to Mt. Rushmore and Rapid City.

If you come in an RV or want to have your own little log cabin on an old ranch, then the Hart Ranch should be your destination. But again call ahead (605-399-2582) because this private membership resort fills up fast, thanks to an Olympic-size pool, horseback riding, tennis, and miniature golf. For $63 a night, I found the log cabin snug, complete with a kitchenette and TV. What more could I expect roughing it?

Perhaps you've noticed that I haven't talked too much about food. You don't go to the Dakotas for an eating experience. The coffee is weak and insipid; the plates of food are huge and artery popping; buffets groan under a load of starchy chow, and even steaks tend to be tough and tasteless. However, whenever you're offered a sweet roll, cinnamon or not, take it. They're colossal and delicious. As to where to eat -- you're on your own. Just be prepared to gain five pounds eating less-than-interesting food. But what the heck, you went to South Dakota for the scenery and the gaming, not the food.

Past Is Present

For lovers of Native American lore, the Sioux Reservation of Pine Ridge is always a must. Don't expect to see teepees. They are few and far between.

Modern-day Indians are more apt to live in a mobile home. And they will be poor, poorer than any ethnic group in America. But if you're like me, you've come here for two major reasons: to see Wounded Knee and the Red Cloud Heritage Center. Wounded Knee is deep inside the Rez, at least an hour's drive, and the site of the 1890 massacre where the U.S. Army opened fire and slaughtered the people of Chief Big Foot, 300 men, women, and children.

Buried in a mass grave on a knoll, there is very little to distinguish it from the desolate countryside except for the iron arch and gates framed against the sky.

It was here that the American Indian Movement took their stand against the Federal government in 1973. Even though defeated once again, the Sioux (or Lakota, as they call themselves) to this day still work for justice for their people. The new museum they are building commemorates both historic Wounded Knee incidents. For them, the past is present.

Just outside the little town of Pine Ridge, which has been invaded by Pizza Hut and Dunkin' Donuts, is the Red Cloud Heritage Center (605-867-5491). Located in the school that the Sioux chief founded with the help of the Black Robes (the Jesuits) over a hundred years ago, the Red Cloud School still educates many of the Pine Ridge children.

It also houses Native American artifacts from the past, but perhaps more important are the works of art by modern Indians -- from satirical paintings to stark landscapes to idealized buffalo carvings to a bronze statute of Big Foot in his dying moments in the snow. A small gift shop attached to the free museum offers an impressive range of books on the Plains Indians, but not very much in the way of Indian arts and crafts.

Heading back off the Rez, you will probably want to stop and try your hand at the tables of the Prairie Wind Casino (800-705-WIND) just off Highway 385. Don't expect to see a Foxwoods looming over the landscape. Instead look for a huge white bubble that seems to emerge out of the ground. Inside you will find friendly Lakotas who more than make up for the less than interesting decor. Slots range from five cents to five dollars.

My daughter struck it lucky in one pull with a quarter. Fifty dollars and all the hoopla that you would think would go with pulling a million-dollar bonanza. There are chances to get lucky and win a motorcycle or a pickup, while draw poker and blackjack dominate the tables. Being on a reservation means no alcohol, but all the soft drinks you can chug-a-lug. There's a snack bar, but most people head elsewhere for a dining experience.

The contrast between Wounded Knee and the Prairie Winds will probably strike you as it did me. I often like to think that the casinos are the Indians' revenge for having lost their land, but a day at Pine Ridge says differently.

Not all Native Americans are reclaiming the lost gold through their casinos. I can't help but wonder what Crazy Horse would think if he could see his people today.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.