Rides into the heart: Oglala man offers culture on the hoof

MANDERSON, S.D. - For Alex White Plume, riding horseback among the solitary bluffs surrounding Manderson on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is all he's known.

Loving it as he does, he decided to make the experience available to anyone who wants it. If there is a unique business for tourists to enjoy in western South Dakota this summer, it is his Wanbli Wacin Hin Ska, Lakota Pony Rides. Lakota Pony Rides opened for the season May 15. Anyone looking for standard trail ride fare aboard a listless nag in single file, should keep driving. Lakota Pony Rides is nothing like that. If, however, you'd like a ride into the heart of what it means to be Lakota, well then, maybe Alex White Plume can help you.

Located five miles north of Manderson, arriving at the White Plume residence is a journey into surroundings of peace and quiet. Greetings are friendly and sincere. You get settled in. Then, when you're ready, you can ride.

White Plume acknowledged that first-time customers usually are somewhat surprised. "Well, when they get here their first comments are usually, 'This is so beautiful and peaceful here. We never imagined it would be this way.' That's one comment," White Plume said. "Another frequent comment is, 'We never realized we could go to a reservation and get this kind of a service.'"

With a devotion to the integrity of the experience, unlike standard businesses that cater to tourists, White Plume sanitizes nothing. "Another comment we get is, 'You have so much land here, why are the people so poor?'"

Rather than take offense, the proprietor sees this as an opportunity to educate.

"Our business is not really a trail riding outfit, it's more like an open range experience. I assign one guide, and he just goes out real slow. The group can go with him, but they can find their own ways up and down the canyons and across the meadows. The guide just goes slow so he can be sure and keep an eye on everybody," White Plume said.

Lakota Pony Rides' guides are area Lakota youth and master horsemen who have worked for White Plume for many years. He says they must earn the right to be guides.

Of the many unique experiences offered by Lakota Pony Rides, the Full Moon Night Ride offers the biggest challenge.

"On full moons we have night riding for whoever wants to. Some of them are scared, and some of them are challenged. But one day on a horse usually builds their confidence up to where they're better for it in the long run. When they get home it usually impacts their life in a positive way,"

About the daylight rides, White Plume said, "It's different from trail riding, where you go by the hour. Here we take mini-stops for photos and for lessons. On certain hills up here we have some of the burial sites of my ancestors. There's Big Road and Red Hawk, some of the people like that. We stop there and I explain what their impact was on our people during early reservation history and prior to that. They get a history lesson while they're riding.

"Then, in the evening, my wife and I are historians, so we share our culture. We interpret pre-reservation life, early reservation and contemporary life today, White Plume said. "Those are the three issues that we interpret. Our history has always been left out of the American history books, so we try to make up for that."

Besides bookings in advance, Lakota Pony Rides takes drop-ins. "Some people just popped in off of I-90 yesterday and went riding," White Plume said while being interviewed.

Lakota Pony Rides kicked off its summer season with a group of 10 riders and campers from London, England. A substantial portion of the trade thus far, has come via word-of-mouth arrivals from Europe.

"I have 12 days booked in June and 16 days booked in July, and in August I have 8 bookings - so I'd say I'm about a third full. But I'm picking up bookings pretty quick because I'm listed on the South Dakota Travel Guide," White Plume said. "It's starting to pick up faster than normal."