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Pine Ridge revival

PINE RIDGE, S.D. ? With more than 500,000 people on motorcycles invading the Black Hills for the 62nd annual Biker Rally in Sturgis, it was time for people at Pine Ridge to cash in on some of the millions of dollars spent during a two-week period.

The Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce picked Aug. 5, the first Monday of the rally, to lure bikers on the reservation with a poker ride, ending with a traditional buffalo feed and cultural entertainment.

Mark St. Pierre, executive director of the chamber said he knew the first year would not make money for the chamber, and he was right. The monsoon rains came to the area, lowering the number of people who participated in the ride to 70. The Chamber was ready to feed more than 400 people.

"Everyone had a great time. Those that came said they had a ball and would return next year and bring friends," St. Pierre said.

The trick to luring the bikers is marketing, and marketing early. St. Pierre said he would get brochures and information out earlier and across the state of South Dakota. But perceptions must be changed within the state for tourism to be successful on the reservations.

St. Pierre said when people say they are going to the reservation the next question is, "are you crazy?

"We have to change public impression. We can't change the racists, but we can change public impression," he said.

It could take up to $50,000 per year in marketing within the state to accomplish that task and the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce does not have that kind of money, he said.

Pine Ridge is featured in the South Dakota Vacation Guide and in other tourism magazines. Those magazines have far-reaching audiences.

It could cost $10,000 to market next year's poker ride on Pine Ridge, also a sum the Chamber does not have.

But to get a good share of the tourist dollars, which amount to the second largest industry in South Dakota, marketing will have to take place.

There are 40 businesses on the Pine Ridge Reservation that relate to tourism in some way. Of that number, 14 are campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts; the rest are grocery stores, convenience stores, gift shops and businesses that provide services.

And most of the owners of the campgrounds and B&Bs are very acquainted with the history of Pine Ridge and are more than willing to share some of the stories about the region that tourists will find interesting.

The bikers were routed around the reservation on a nearly 200-mile trek that took them through some of the most beautiful areas of the Badlands and historic sites, such as Wounded Knee.

The tour ended at the Oglala Lakota casino, Prairie Wind, where the cultural entertainment was provided by Dave Little and his historical reenactment group.

This is the 125th anniversary of the death of the revered Oglala warrior Crazy Horse, and Little put together a program that honors warriors.

Young men on horseback reenacted a battle between the Lakota and Crow, with a village set up in the background. It was to show how the Lakota honor their warriors after and before a battle.

"If it wasn't for our warriors the Lakota people would not be here today," Little said.

His reenactment group, with a complete village, has been attending rendezvous and other reenactment gatherings across the country. He plans to set his village permanently on the Pine Ridge Reservation so that travelers can experience the story and history of the Lakota people

He said he hopes it will help to draw people to the reservation and provide an income for his actors and for the many tourist-oriented businesses on the reservation.

"The reservation doesn't have a main industry, and with unemployment at 80 percent we put together an enterprise using the various skills of our tribal members. We already have horse riders, long hair and facial features," Little said.

So the living-history village and reenactments of battles and Lakota life became natural idea. Little said some people talked about the prospect on the radio, and it went further and became reality.

He has 38 people on the list as potential actors or re-enactors for various roles in the village, from warriors to children to elders and to women who tan hides and do their daily work.

And he says that number is getting larger as more people hear about the project. It has been going on now for four years.

The group has traveled as far at Grand Junction, Colo. to be part of a reenactment of the early fur trade and as close as Fort Robinson, Neb. to reenact a battle between the Lakota and the 5th Cavalry regiment.

But it won't be just Little's group that helps draw tourists to Pine Ridge, it will be the history and culture that people want to experience. St. Pierre said the Chamber of Commerce plans to have signage located on and off the reservation that will help travelers locate businesses, campgrounds, B&Bs and other points of interest.

More than three million visitors are recorded as traveling to South Dakota each tourist year to see sites such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain carving now taking shape. They want to see what it was like to live on the prairies for the American Indian and the settlers who came 150 years ago.

The advent of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial will bring millions of tourists, tribal leaders say, and tribes along the Missouri River are gearing up for an influx of money that will aid the reservations economically.

Pine Ridge is not on the Lewis and Clark trail, but St. Pierre and the Chamber of Commerce are anticipating an opportunity to draw the tourists to the reservation.

St. Pierre said the state Department of Tourism is very cooperative and the Pine Ridge Chamber plans to attend more meetings with it.

In a notorious statement a few years ago, William Janklow, governor of South Dakota, discouraged people from traveling on the reservations, warning of jurisdictional issues and, as he put it, panhandlers.

The people in tourism on the Pine Ridge reservation know that many people travel to the state to see American Indian people of the plains, and the businesses on the reservation are planning to provide what the tourist wants, without giving up any cultural or spiritual secrets or jealously guarded ceremonies.