Rolling thunder on Pine Ridge

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PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. - When an economic boom hits the Black Hills of South Dakota on a yearly basis, why not capture a little piece of the pie for an economically deprived reservation that is only a few miles away?

A simple poker ride through some of the most beautiful country in western South Dakota may be the answer, the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce contends.

Entice bikers, which number nearly 500,000 this year, to spend a day on the reservation with the chance to win some money and ride through the badlands, prairies and green valleys that Pine Ridge has to offer, then stop for a buffalo feed with a mini pow wow.

About a 100 people made the trip and, there wasn't a disgruntled biker in the bunch in spite of the 100 degree heat. And as far as economics go, they spent money for water, soda, food, art and craft work along the way.

Patty Pourier and Bat Pourier, owners of Big Batt's convenience and food store on Pine Ridge said that business was up this year as bikers passed through on their way to Sturgis, the heart of the rally. She had no actual figures, but it was her perception that numbers were up. When told that it was the largest rally ever, she said it figured.

A rider from Virginia, who paid the $25 for the ride with a chance to win $500 on the best poker hand said he didn't mind spending his money that way. "It's a good ride and we have great weather."

Great weather meaning, no rain, which it did after the buffalo feed and hampered some of their travels back to Rapid City or other parts of the Black Hills where they were staying.

This year's poker ride did not meet the expectations of the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce. "It's tough to get the word out. We put posters all over the Black Hills, in Wyoming and Nebraska," said Mark St. Pierre, director of the Pine Ridge Chamber.

What the chamber and other businesses on Pine Ridge face is the negative attitude of the surrounding towns and sometimes the entire state of South Dakota including some government agencies about the reservation.

St. Pierre said that earlier in the day a bus filled with Italian tourists was told by someone in Chadron, Neb. not to go through the reservation. "There is no basis for that comment," St. Pierre said.

The Chamber is searching for ways to detour the bikers off the interstate highway on their way to Sturgis, but it is a struggle. When they ask for directions they are told that I-90 is the route to take, some bikers said.

I-90 does not go through any of the nine reservations in South Dakota. But should they take secondary roads, travelers most likely will have to travel through at least one reservation if not more. That's what tribal tourism organizations want, but face an uphill battle to make it happen, officials claim.

"That's what this (poker run) is all about. We want to show how beautiful it is here, there are no crowds and they will find exceptional hospitality.

"We will have to do some different marketing for next year. Maybe pass out rack cards that people can keep with them as a reminder," St. Pierre said.

One positive act of cooperation that took place was a breakthrough in racial understanding. Miskimins Motors of Gordon, Neb. sent a group of people to Kyle, the last stop on the tour, to assist with the food and distribute soft drinks. It was a first, said Sean Hoy, marketing and salesman at Miskimins. He had the idea.

"We want to get more involved and this is the first of many functions we will participate in on this reservation," he said.

Companies in Nebraska that distribute Coca Cola and Pepsi products also helped with contributions and discount drinks.

"How simple this is. It is good to give," Hoy said.

He said the company knew it should get involved with events on Pine Ridge, but until the Chamber of Commerce was formed there was no connection. "We want to show our face and that we are willing to get our hands dirty, cut some buffalo, serve some drinks and help make this a great event," he said.

As the ride unfolded and the bikers rested at six different locations on the reservation they were treated to history, art, culture and hospitality.

At the Wounded Knee stop Gus Yellow Hair said the event was a way to encourage people to come to the reservation and help stimulate the economy. He told the group that because the majority of bikers go to the hills, "which is owned by the Lakota," they decided to start with this ride.

Yellow Hair informed the group at the Wounded Knee stop about the poverty on the reservation, which they could see as they rode through. Arts and crafts booths and tables were set up in different places, not just for the bikers, but for the many tourists that travel through the reservation this time of year.

"They try to generate some extra income. Our average income is $3,000 per family and that is a way to help get through the winter," he said.

It was more than 113 years ago that on the site at Wounded Knee hundreds of women and children were massacred by members of the 7th Cavalry. "Wounded Knee is the end of an era as the Lakota changed to reservation life. The people killed at Wounded Knee were running to save their way of life.

"The Oglala Lakota were the most warrior-like of all the Lakota, it was us that put a stop to Custer. And because of that Wounded Knee happened. We are still dealing with that grief." Yellow Hair said.

"As you go through our land you will see the poverty. Pray for a better tomorrow. Our people are very friendly. They may be shy, but will open up to you," Yellow Hair said.

Some of the bikers were local, they led the group and some American Indian riders came from other parts of the state to support the group.

Bikers from Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Dakota, Minnesota and Florida rode in the second annual Rolling Thunder, Ride the Rez Poker Run on the Pine Ridge Reservation.