Attracting more than 20,000 people to the Summit Arena in Rapid City, the Black Hills Powwow features more than 1,000 dancers and dozens of drum groups. The event is hosted annually on South Dakota’s Native Americans Day weekend (October 6–8, 2023).
The powwow — or wacipi to the host Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations — attracts dancers and visitors from Canada to the southwestern United States. While each Grand Entry (when all participants enter the dance area) is special, Saturday night’s ceremony is extra special as about 1,000 dancers fill the arena’s floor.
While attending the Black Hills Powwow offers a special feeling, learning about the powwow — about 35 years old —and other Native American attractions is both eye-opening and educational. Visitors learn a lot of history, tradition, and culture they didn’t learn in school.
1. Black Hills Powwow
He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate — the Lakota name for the powwow — began in earnest in 1989 and has grown to become the third-largest powwow in North America. Dancers from around the continent perform a variety of dances — traditional and fancy — including grass, shawl, and jingle. The regalia (ceremonial clothing) and dance styles differ among regions. The beauty and style alone are reasons to attend the dances.
Besides dancing, the powwow features dozens of vendors selling handmade jewelry, Native American-inspired clothing, and accessories. The He Sapa Wacipi Win pageant will crown powwow royalty. Newcomers may want to attend a powwow introductory class, which introduces them to terminology, styles of dance, regalia, and etiquette.
2. Native American Day Parade
South Dakota was the first state to recognize Native American Day (Indigenous Peoples Day in other states). More than 1,000 people, predominantly Native American, line Main Street in downtown Rapid City, watching dozens of floats and participants cover a five-block area. The hour-long parade includes floats centered on issues facing Indian Country — murdered and missing women and men, children killed and buried in unmarked graves at former residential/boarding schools, domestic violence, water rights, and retaining traditional languages. On a lighter note, parade-goers rake in plenty of candy handed out to children of all ages, as well as listen to traditional Native American songs played.
3. Dakota Drum Company
Part art gallery and part music store, Dakota Drum Company offers a cultural opportunity to learn how large drums are made, many of which are used by groups at the Rapid City powwow.
Sonja Holy Eagle has hand-painted drums created from buffalo hide. It can take up to 6 months to create drums used during powwows, as wood needs to be formed to fit a drum, then buffalo hide is hand-scraped, fitted, and decorated. Dakota Drum — which also features hand-painted art, sage, sweetgrass, and jewelry — has been located in downtown Rapid City for more than 20 years.
4. Prairie Edge & Sioux Trading Post
Serving as a trading post for decades, Prairie Edge & Sioux Trading Post offers artisans an opportunity to sell authentic Native American-created art and clothing, as well as crafts, including beads. A collection of hand-sewn star quilts — given to people during important life events such as death of a loved one or the birth of a child — is sold at the store, along with Indigenous-inspired Pendleton blankets. Prairie Edge also sells non-Native-American-created items, including clothing and paintings.
5. Black Elk Peak
Named in honor of a Lakota chief, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the Midwest at 7,242 feet. Located in the Black Hills’s Black Elk Wilderness, the summit provides a view of neighboring states North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. Considered sacred among Native Americans, many of the Oceti Sakowin (the Sioux Nation) consider it the beginning of the world. Black Elk Peak is a popular hiking destination, with the trail considered moderate-to-difficult. As you approach Black Elk Peak, be respectful of Indigenous people who may be conducting spiritual ceremonies.
6. Journey Museum And Learning Center
From the earliest days of life, from dinosaurs roaming the area to contemporary societies, the Journey Museum and Learning Center offers an informative and interesting look into the history of Native Americans and the Black Hills region. With the Lakota being the original residents of the Black Hills, the Journey Museum and Learning Center focuses on their stories, from life on the plains to modern art.
The Indigenous story is told through art exhibits at the Sioux Museum, located inside the Journey Museum. Learn about the region’s Native Americans through quill art, pipestone carvings, hide paintings, and feather pieces. Traditional exhibits include ceremonial regalia and bags.
7. Devils Tower National Monument
Known as Mato Tipila — “Bear Lodge” — to the Lakota, Devils Tower National Monument in eastern Wyoming has been a sacred location for several Indigenous nations. A Euro-American expedition likely misunderstood the words used for the monument’s name and called it Devils Tower. Supporters of the original name continue to work to change it back.
Mato Tipila earned its name when two young Indigenous girls were attacked by a large bear. Climbing to the top of a large rock for protection, the bear continued its attack, approaching the top before the Creator saw what was happening and raised the rock to its current height. The grooves on the rock represent the bear’s claw scratches.
While visitors to Devils Tower National Monument — 2 hours west of Rapid City — enjoy hiking the area and rock climbing, the monument continues to be cherished by tribes. Ceremonies are conducted throughout the year, but June is the busiest month. Visitors are encouraged to honor these traditions.
8. Crazy Horse Memorial
Lakota Chief Crazy Horse remains a beloved symbol of Indigenous history more than a century after his death at the hands of American soldiers. Crazy Horse solidified himself as a leader among Indigenous Peoples during the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, aka Greasy Grass to Native Americans.
The memorial is an ongoing project started by Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948. The sculptor worked on the Crazy Horse Memorial until his death in 1982 at the age of 74. His family continues to manage the project, which is financed through private funds. Once completed, Crazy Horse will be the tallest sculpture in the United States at 563 feet tall and about 640 feet long, dwarfing nearby Mount Rushmore by more than 27 feet. Crazy Horse’s design showcases the spiritual leader pointing, along with his horse’s head.
Visits over the years reveal the project’s advancements, from mountain to Crazy Horse’s face and the profile of his horse. The memorial’s construction has become part of the attraction.
Crazy Horse Memorial includes a visitor center with a small museum, gift shop, and restaurant. You can see the memorial, along with a large sculpture of the memorial, from an observation deck. Up-close tours of the memorial are available as well.
9. Wounded Knee Massacre Site
The term “massacre” has been thrown around historically when it came to any battle that Indigenous Peoples won against Euro-Americans. However, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry massacred nearly 150 elders, women, and children on December 28, 1890, in an attempt to end a controversial dance. Supporters believed the Ghost Dance would reunite spirits with the living, creating an unbeatable presence that would lead to the end of the Euro-Americans’ westward migration.
The Lakota citizens killed that day were later buried in a mass grave on top of a hill. Today, a monument in the middle of the fenced-in gravesite honors the Lakota who were killed. Across the highway, a historical marker recognizes the Wounded Knee Massacre site, where the killings occurred on the Pine Ridge reservation in southwestern South Dakota, about 90 minutes south of Rapid City.
The Wounded Knee Massacre marked the end of the U.S.-Indian Wars, but it created controversy with many Euro-Americans upset about the way the military handled the situation.