Spirits in the Material World
IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON, AND THE SUN WAS FALLING INTO THE WEST, as Scott Jones and I followed a ribbon of highway winding through Indian country. To our right, the Missouri River ran slowly south. Behind us, Lower Brule, the small town at the heart of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, receded. And all around us were hills and memories and ghosts.
In front of us, however, was the Native American Scenic Byway, Jones's crowning achievement in his effort to do something rare and maybe even revolutionary: Indian cultural tourism. Not just casinos. Not just truck stop wooden chiefs. Not just Wild West reenactments.
No, this is something different, something being done on just a few Indian reservations, but something that is growing. Finally, Native American and other cultures are meeting as equals, sort of: The tourists are starting to come here to dip a toe in reservation life and culture and history.
Jones and I drove down the road, past the run-down houses, past the buffalo herd the Lower Brule Sioux tribe owns, past the vast stretch of plants and grass on the side of the road that, to my eyes, all looked the same.
"I could give you the spiel," Jones said and looked at his watch, "but we're on a schedule." Indeed, we were racing to get to the Buffalo Interpretive Center before it closed. The center is just a small museum and gift shop the tribe recently built, but it's yet another jewel in the Lower Brule's tourism tiara, which is starting to draw wasichu -- outsiders -- away from South Dakota's Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA and the Black Hills that help make up the state's $865 million a year tourism industry.
Which spiel Jones gives depends on a form you fill out, indicating what you're interested in: Geology? History? Treaty issues? Reservation life circa 2007? And so on.
Jones, who directs the tribe's cultural protection and tourism efforts, is a big, pear-shaped man with a trim salt-and-pepper beard who doesn't look particularly native. As we drove west in his huge white truck, he chain-smoked and ate Doritos and corn nuts while he talked about Frank Herbert's Dune, the science fiction epic in which he sees some hope for Native America -- a way to blend old and new, ancient and modern, into a new way to live.
"If we can bring in this tourism we've spent so much time developing," Jones told me, "I'm a firm believer that we can not only become economically self-sufficient, and that we can take care of Mother Earth, and we can take care of the children, the orphans, the elderly, the shut-ins and all the people that in our culture we're supposed to take care of, but we can be a shining example of capitalism in the modern technological era."
You know, like in science fiction.
His truck moved north and west alongside the river. The sun was sinking lower as we passed through two small, perfectly formed hills.
"Twin Buttes," Jones said. "Really sacred. People have made prayers up here and had them answered."
Jones took a Marlboro, tore it in half, rolled down his window and said something under his breath, and let the tobacco fly outside in a kind of offering. The road headed down and wound around the hills. We started down a long slope toward the river, as the valley opened up to our right.