Lakota Indians languish as 'Dances' boosts South Dakota tourist trade

August 06, 1991|By Eric Harrison | Eric Harrison,Los Angeles Times

PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- When Kevin Costner was filming "Dances With Wolves" in South Dakota last year, Loretta Cook, a Lakota Sioux Indian, had never heard of the actor.

A friend who worked on the movie as an extra dropped by and showed her a photograph of herself and Costner. "Oh, nice," Cook responded. "Who is he? Your boyfriend?"

Today, one would be hard pressed to find anyone in South Dakota who does not know who Costner is. His film about the life of a U.S. cavalryman who joins the Sioux is exploited in state-sponsored ads to promote tourism. Movie tie-in products are found in stores throughout the state. And officials and common folk alike sing Costner's praises -- not only for the scenes in his film that capture the striking beauty of the South Dakota landscape but also for the sensitive, non-stereotypical portrayals of American Indians.

In part because of the film, tourism in South Dakota is booming. But the Indians whose culture and history are central to the film's story line have been left out of the windfall.

"The rest of South Dakota is capitalizing on it," said Gerald Sherman, director of the Lakota Fund, a community loan program on the Pine Ridge Reservation, "but it's unfortunate that the people that it's about haven't been able to receive anything from it, as far as the tourism is concerned."

The release of the film brought a swirl of awareness of Indian problems. Costner himself was honored by the Lakota in a traditional ceremony in Washington in which he was adopted into the tribe. But now, less than a year later, some South Dakota Indians are beginning to question whether there will be any long-term benefits, or whether the film has merely been a prelude to another in a long line of disappointments.

Tourists, for example, seem to be flocking everywhere in the state -- Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, the Black Hills National Forest. But, except at several of the state's nine reservations that recently opened gambling casinos, the Indians rarely see them.

Tourism adds $785 million yearly to the South Dakota economy and is the second biggest industry behind farming in the sparsely populated state. Few of those tourist dollars reach the reservations -- especially Pine Ridge, the most historically significant of the reservations and the most poverty-stricken.

There is a reason. Despite the upsurge in interest in Indians, there is little to see here but poverty.

The reservation has few amenities. There are no motels, no restaurants, few places even to buy a soft drink or gasoline. It is little more than a dusty collection of settlements where the unemployment rate is 87 percent and illiteracy, alcoholism and other social ills are rampant.

"We've got abject poverty such as you'd see in the ghettos of Los Angeles, with all of the social problems," said Rene Mills, director of the new Pine Ridge tourism office.

Shannon County, which comprises much of the reservation, is the poorest county in America. Pine Ridge's 5,000 residents must go off the sprawling reservation to get a haircut, do laundry or buy groceries or clothing.

As a result, the Indian communities don't even get the benefit of what money there is already on the reservations -- much less tourism dollars.

Residents of the Pine Ridge and nearby Rosebud reservations were not even able to see "Dances With Wolves" in their areas, even though parts of it were filmed there. They made 100-mile treks to Rapid City, the nearest city, or traveled to closer, smaller Nebraska towns with movie theaters that border the reservations.

For many, going into town is a major project, said Cook, whose maiden Lakota name is Afraid of Bear.

"It's like a vacation," she said. "I can't liken it to anything else but a vacation once a month. Many of the people on the reservations don't have cars, so they have to hire people to bring them in for a weekend. They pay the $25 to $50 or whatever it is, fill the car with gas and feed the people that brought them."

The answer to the economic problems, the surest bet for establishing economic self sufficiency, Mills believes, is true big-time tourism development.

He has grand plans -- a massive 40-acre complex, the Lakota Cultural Heritage Center, replete with a motel, a museum, a casino, restaurants, stores and a "true-to-life" recreation of an Indian village with tepees and buckskin -- all catering to free-spending tourists and providing jobs to hundreds of Lakota.

Susan Edwards, South Dakota tourism director, shares Mills ambitions for the reservation. "If we make it a place to go and learn about Lakota history then it's going to be as important to us as Mount Rushmore," which attracts 2 million people annually, she said.

A key element in the plan is a National Park Service study of the possibility of turning the site of the Wounded Knee massacre into a national park. It was at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge RTC Reservation that from 150 to 300 Indian men, women and children were killed in 1890 in the last major violent episode of the Indian War era.

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