'Dances With Wolves' sparks interest in South Dakota's Sioux lands TRIBAL TRAILS

July 05, 1992|By Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty | Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty,Contributing Writers

The tom-toms are stilled and the Sioux ghost dancers gone from Stronghold Rock in the Badlands of southwest South Dakota.

Anguished chants floating skyward, invoking the great buffalo spirits and foretelling the rebirth of the once-mighty Sioux Nation, have been silent for more than a century.

But another ancient prophecy will be soon be fulfilled, when Chief Crazy Horse returns to lead his people back to the ways of dignity and self-reliance.

The spirit of the great chief has been in the Black Hills west of Rapid City all along, of course, on the mountain known as the Crazy Horse Memorial. But since 1948, the Ziolkowski family has been chiseling the chief's likeness on the mountain.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982; his wife, Ruth; and 10 children have blasted more than 8 million tons of granite off the mountain's face since work began on a warm June day 44 years ago.

When it is completed, the statue will be the world's largest, a colossal 563 feet high and 641 feet long.

The work slowly inched forward until a recent spate of mild

winters made year-round work possible. Last spring, the chief's right eye opened for the first time as Mr. Ziolkowski's son, Casimir, suspended on a scaffolding beside the forehead, chiseled out the lids with a jackhammer.

"The arm and hand are beginning to emerge," Mrs. Ziolkowski says, as we stand on the deck of the Visitors Center and compare the gleaming white model in the foreground with the hacked and shapeless behemoth on the skyline. Recent progress, she says, has renewed interest in the 50,000 Sioux currently living on South Dakota's nine Sioux reservations.

Ironically, the current fascination with American Indians in general, and the Sioux in particular, springs from another art form -- the recent Oscar-winning movie "Dances With Wolves," which is still going strong since it's been released on videotape.

To the delight of tourism officials and the Sioux themselves, the movie was filmed in South Dakota, mostly near Rapid City, using local residents.

The choice was a natural. Long before the white man arrived, the plains were Sioux hunting grounds, where 60 million buffalo roamed beneath a violet sky and grassland stretched from horizon to horizon.

To its credit, the movie caught the dignity and humor of South Dakota's American Indians. The film's panoramic images of their ancestral homeland, the rolling prairies, sparked a flood of curiosity about South Dakota.

"We've had literally hundreds of calls from people who want to see the prairies where Kevin Costner made the movie," says Connie Heier of the South Dakota Department of Tourism. "One lady even asked how much land costs; she wanted to move right out here. Another man, from Holland, said he wanted to live on the reservation and experience the culture personally."

Fortunately, the film scenes are easily accessible. The two best known, Fort Hays and the Summer Camp, are on private ranches that are open to the public, and the third, the winter camp of the film's final scenes, is on national forest land. Only the buffalo hunt scenes, filmed on a private ranch near Pierre, are off-limits to the public.

Visiting film sites

The Fort Hays scenes, where Lieutenant Dunbar outfitted his supply wagon and set out for his post, were filmed on the Olson Ranch, about seven miles south of Rapid City. The film crew left the movie buildings, replicas of an authentic post-Civil War frontier fort, in place.

The ranch's owners, who watched the filming, conduct tours and relate anecdotes about South Dakota's brush with Hollywood. It seems that director Costner wanted to take down 12 miles of barbed wire fencing -- until they explained that on cattle ranches fencing wasn't expendable.

The Summer Camp set, where the Sioux Village tepees remain and the wedding scene took place, is on the Grubl-McNenny Ranch on the Belle Fourche River, about 35 miles north of Rapid City. The location is heavenly -- birds twitter and breezes ruffle the prairie grass.

"It's gorgeous, truly breathtaking," says Carol Cameron, whose company, Affordable Adventures, leads narrated day tours to natural and historic sites around Rapid City and to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Sioux Reservations. "It's a bit of isolated prairie where you don't see a fence or another building, a spot that could be straight out of the 1880s."

The movie's final scenes were filmed in narrow Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills National Forest, where the Sioux of the 1870s camped in winter; the exact site is marked by a sign and accessible by car. But we saw the canyon as the film-goers did, through a rider's eyes on horseback, guided by outfitter and cowboy poet Bob Lantis.

Where the buffalo roam

Mr. Lantis leads two- to 10-day guided horseback rides here and on the 101-mile Centennial Trail, which traverses the length of the Black Hills and crosses Custer State Park, home to 1,500 free-roaming buffalo. The rides are customized for each client, .. and include horses, tents and meals.

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