Spirits in the Material World
In South Dakota, the Lower Brule Sioux have found a way to promote their heritage and culture without the trappings of Native American cliches and kitsch. Now the tribe waits to see who will come.

By Frank Bures
Sunday, September 16, 2007

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.

"Look at that!" Jones said. "Tell me that is not soooo beautiful. That's the writing of God on the earth! That's the lifeblood! That's the water of life! Anyway, if you were a tourist, I'd be going on and on and on."

ON MY WAY HERE, I'D SPED PAST SOUTH DAKOTA'S USUAL ATTRACTIONS. I'D FORGONE THE CORN PALACE. I'd passed up Wall Drug's 5-cent coffee. I'd even stopped well short of those four famous stone heads, because I wanted to see something else, something less scripted, something less -- I guess -- touristic. I'd passed them all to come to Lower Brule, the tiny town of a tribe so small they have been called "The Forgotten Sioux," the title of perhaps the only book written on them.

I'd first heard of the Lower Brule in 2004, the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Lower Brule have made themselves a stop on the historic route because the Big Bend at the heart of what is now the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation was in fact an important stop for the two explorers. William Clark had climbed to the top of the hill at the narrowest point of the Big Bend and seen the breathtaking 360-degree view, then written in his journal about "the vast inclined plain to the north." So I'd called Jones to find out about all this and the rest of the tourism program. What, I asked, was there to see along the scenic byway? Jones said there was "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky." Were there buffalo, I asked, at the Buffalo Interpretive Center? Well, Jones said, the staff was still trying to figure out how to get the buffalo to hang around the center. Could I get a press packet? Actually, he said, Indians are an oral people, so I would have to come out and get a sort of oral press packet.

Nonetheless, the program has been building steadily, since 1994, when the Lower Brule first started bringing in a few small groups of Japanese visitors through a tour company. After that went well, they brought in some tourists from Britain. And after that, finally, American tourists. The growth has been slow, but at a rate the tribe can handle. Last year, Jones guessed, about 800 tourists came through, some of whom spent nights in tepees down by the river near his house, where they ate traditional bison, fry bread and maize, and listened to talks about Indian history, traditions, politics, culture or whatever they asked to hear about. Word is getting out.

When I heard about the new interpretive trail up to the Narrows overlook, I decided it was time to head out to see Indian country. So I drove 600 miles west from my home in Wisconsin, peeled north off Interstate 90 and pitched my tent on the banks of the Missouri.

BY THE TIME NIGHT FELL, I HAD LEFT MY TENT AT THE TRIBE'S RV PARK AND WALKED DOWN TO THE RIVER, where a brilliant red-gold sunset spread across the sky and water. The wind blew hard, and the waves lapped at the shore, eating away at the banks, threatening to tip an old outhouse into the water. Turning around, I could see the darkening town of Lower Brule rising up in the hills in clusters of homes. A road climbed out of town and up to the ridge, where the new tribal administration building looked down on it all.

I was getting hungry, so I got in my car and drove the few blocks over to the Golden Buffalo Casino, with its "Super loose slots . . . Great Food and Great Fun." There weren't many people inside, just a few doddering, non-Indian senior citizens, with a few tribe members wandering around among them, putting coins in a machine every now and then. There were poker tables manned by virtual dealers on TV screens who looked around, asking, "Poker, anyone?" There were no takers, and the recorded voices gave the room an empty feeling. So I went into the restaurant to order some food, a tasty BLT and a very -- how to put it? -- "Midwestern" salad bar. While I ate, I took out The Forgotten Sioux: An Ethnohistory of the Lower Brule Reservation and read a little about the tribe. They were members of the Teton, or western, branch of the Sioux, and had been in this valley since before there were states or fences or settlers. They'd seen the wars for land and freedom. They'd seen U.S. Gen. Alfred Sully, commander of the North Western Indian Expeditions, order Indian heads to be put on spikes along the river. They'd seen their own reservation established in 1868, and had watched for 100 years as both their white friends and enemies tried to make their culture go away. It went underground instead.

Worst of all, in the mid-1960s the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers finished work on the Big Bend Dam just below the Lower Brule reservation. With the dam complete, 80 miles of the Missouri River basin were flooded, and the tribe lost 10 percent of its land, including 7,000 acres of hardwood forests and some of what Jones called the richest farmland in the world. Their cemeteries and homes had to be moved. And on that day when the water started to rise, the "Lower" Brule tribe became lower no more.

But whether in the lowlands or up on the high ground, the tribe stayed here and tried to figure out how to make what they could of it.

When I finished my BLT, I went back to the RV park, where I lay awake in my tent, listening to the wind and remembering an embarrassing college phase when I'd read a lot about Indian country. I had dreamed of going alone into the wild on a vision quest, as famous Lakota medicine man Black Elk did, and sitting on a hill for days until a vision told me what my life was supposed to mean. I had pined for a world that was balanced and harmonious, and where life was like one big camping trip.

I'd since come to realize that being close to nature meant a lot of hard labor, which I wasn't quite up for. But since then I had always wondered about Indian country and how it had changed. Even now, I couldn't help hoping that a little of that world had survived and had adapted to the new world without totally abandoning the old one.

THE NEXT MORNING, I WENT UP TO THE TRIBAL ADMINISTRATION BUILDING, a new edifice perched high above Lower Brule. It is a beautiful building, built with funds from a $39.3 million settlement the tribe finally wrested from the federal government in 1997 for flooding its village in the 1960s. It also happens to be the first stop on any Lower Brule tourist's itinerary, for its architecture and its panoramic view.

I went in the front doors and looked for Evelyn Charging, the hospitality coordinator, who shows people around and sets up tours, but I couldn't find anyone. (She's a tribal elder and was away at a conference.) So instead, I just wandered around. Near the front door was a small display case with some of what most of us call artifacts and what Indian people call tribal objects: some pipestone sculptures; a letter signed by Lakota elder Oliver Red Cloud; some plaques from schools; braided turnips; old jars and tins. And, next to the case, a full-size mannequin in Indian garb.

I went down the stairs to the lower floor and walked into the chambers of the tribal council. It was a round, tepee-shaped room with tepee poles that reached to the sky. A buffalo skull sat in front of the tribal leader's chair, and a buffalo hide hung above it.

Below a window, hills rolled down to the town and the river. As I turned to go, something caught my eye. Down on the floor, behind the last row of chairs, was a small bowl surrounded by four stones placed in each of the four sacred directions. There was a bundle of sage in it, and next to it another bowl with some braided sweet grass and pieces of cedar, a combination of herbs said to have powerful effects on otherworldly forces.

It struck me as odd that it was just here, behind the row of chairs. There was no altar for it, no architecture drawing your eye to it. Here was possibly the most sacred thing in the room, and it was just sitting behind the chairs.

This, too, was how it seemed in that old Indian country I'd read about. It was still here, still part of the picture. It had been incorporated into the world of Doritos and Dune and dams. It was just something you caught out of the corner of your eye if you were looking, or something that you missed completely.

NOT FAR DOWN THE ROAD FROM THE TRIBAL ADMINISTRATION BUILDING IS THE BIG BEND, the odd place where the Missouri River turns from south to north, then back to south again. At the point where the river loops around and almost touches itself, there are hills, and, when you climb to the top of them, you can see the whole sweep of the water flowing around you. That point is called the Narrows, and it's where the tribe's latest phase of tourism was taking shape.

I drove down to meet Sheldon Fletcher, the reservation's conservation officer, a hulking guy who'd been trained as a guide and who agreed to take me to the top. Fletcher is uniquely suited to the job. He is a tribal member who can trace his lineage on his mother's side directly to Meriwether Lewis, and to festivities the Indians and the explorers enjoyed together in 1804.

Our feet crunched on gravel as we walked up the path to the overlook. The hills were soft and rolling around us, and we watched a deer and a fawn run over the grass, behind some trees. We followed the trail up a steep slope. When it leveled off, we stopped to have a look around.

"Before we had a tourist program," Fletcher said, "people would show up, and all they wanted to see was buffalo. Then everyone started getting interested in the Narrows. But we didn't want people wandering around. We want to keep them on this trail, because a lot of these hilltops are sacred."

At the top, a bench looked out on the water. The sky felt enormous, and we were small underneath it. Below us, smaller still, were the river, the hills and the town. To the north, I could see windmills spinning on the horizon. To the south, the most sacred of all Lower Brule hills, Medicine Butte, loomed.

I wondered about other sacred hills Fletcher alluded to. I came here to learn about Indian country, to be in Indian country. Now, here I was surrounded by sacred hills. What were they for? What did they mean? What kind of prayers did they answer? To me, they were just pretty hills. To them, did they look like rows of churches?

But before I could ask, Fletcher started telling me stories about other people who'd come through with similar questions. There were people who'd paid to get into sun dances. There was a British woman who started chanting in the council chambers. There were people who tried to sneak off with pieces of stone or plants, so they could do their own ceremonies at home.

"A lot of people want to know, 'What do they actually do up there?'" Fletcher said. "But you don't need to know. Just religious stuff. It's our culture."

Tourists usually like to take something with them, whether it's memories or photographs or trinkets. And because a planned open-air market wasn't quite up and running, I tried to think of something else, while Jones and I drove along the scenic byway together.

"You think we'd have a second to grab a little sage?" I asked.

"Oh, you want to get some sage?" Jones said.

"If we have time."

"For a man or for a woman?"

"A man, I guess."

Jones looked out the window at the grasses in the ditch as we drove along.

"We don't pick by the road," he said. "Too many humans been messing with it."

We kept going. And, as we did, a question came to me. I turned to Jones.

"Did you ever do a vision quest?"

I asked.

"Yes," he said, "We call it 'crying for dream,' because that's really what it is."

We turned off the main road and headed out to the vast, inclined plain filled with corn. We followed a dirt road around until we came to a wooden fence tucked in among the giant irrigated circles surrounding a rare stand of native sandhill prairie. We climbed out of the car.

"This is my baby," said Jones. "You're only my second tourist I've taken here."

We walked over into the native plants, a tiny island of tangible history, and Jones went off, head down, muttering about how there should be some sage around here somewhere. Then he paused and yelled back, "Watch out for snakes!"

"What kind of snakes?" I asked.


"You mean timber rattlers?"

"No. Diamondbacks."

I knew we were west, but I hadn't realized we were that far west. I went ahead through the brush a little more cautiously, while Jones plowed on, looking here and there, bending over to look at a plant, then moving on.

"It's really hard in this light," he said. "And it's getting late in the season for man's sage."

"Woman's sage would be okay, too." I said. "I can give it to my wife."

After about half an hour of fruitless searching, Jones gave up on man's sage. Instead, he bent over and picked up a small bundle of light-colored, short green stems. He walked over and handed it to me.

"This is for a woman who's menstruating," he said.

We got back in his truck and headed into town. I looked down at the plant in my hand. It had been picked in accordance with tradition. I wondered what that meant, though, and how I would give it to my wife when she menstruated. Still, it felt good to hold something real and alive in my hand. Here was a small piece of Indian county that was both part of my modern tour and that reached back into another time and place, before our people knew each other at all, before our worlds met so badly, and long before we could meet again, like this.

Frank Bures is a writer who lives in Madison, Wis. He can be reached at frankabures@yahoo.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company