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Discover Cowboys, Indians, and Corn


By Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel

Mention South Dakota and everyone immediately thinks of Mt. Rushmore. I knew that the monument was carved on sacred land belonging to Native Americans, but I didn't realize how much of the state revolved around their culture and heritage. Using Sioux Falls as my home base, I wanted to explore southeast South Dakota. Sioux Falls is named for the magnificent waters of the Big Sioux River that cascade in Falls Park. As the state's largest city, visitors can enjoy its pioneer culture, historic sites, friendly residents, a zoo, eclectic shops and 600 restaurants. But I was there to focus on the Great Sioux Nation that once dominated South Dakota.


The regional tribe is divided into three peoples: the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota which all mean "friends." The most recognizable names are Sitting Bull, the renowned leader who defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and Chief Crazy Horse, the subject of the amazing monumental sculpture still in progress.

I spent time with Teri Schmidt, Executive Director of the Sioux Falls CVB (, who told me, "The Native American culture is a part of who we are. Everyone should take the opportunity to learn and be a part of their culture which is fascinating and colorful."

Begin your tour at the Pettigrew Home and Museum (  that houses the collection of R.F. Pettigrew, South Dakota's first US senator. The house was built in 1889, and Pettigrew purchased it in 1911. His love of collecting objects that played an important part in the development of Sioux Falls and the surrounding prairie led him to enlarge his home by constructing a dedicated museum. His collection consists of indigenous and pioneer goods, such as clothing, guns, stone tools and more. The museum opened to the public in 1925, and has free admission.

Museum headress display Sioux Museum Display

Fifty miles from Sioux Falls is the Heritage Hall Museum and Archive ( in Freeman where you'll find a treasure trove of the things that Mennonites, missionaries and other settlers brought to the area. The phenomenal venue has 24,000 sq. feet of exhibit space, encompassing more than 10,000 items. The overwhelming display includes antique household utensils, old types of vehicles, native wildlife, restored houses and churches and much, much more. Among the artifacts are religious articles, Native Americans handicrafts and pioneer memorabilia. Don't miss its Plains Indian Artifact Exhibition that houses over 450 rare historic items. Some of the pieces are surprisingly unique, like the warrior headdress with hanging ermine tails and the 1870's Crow dress of embroidered velvet. Look for the Niobrara Cross which is the seal of Bishop Hare who headed the Episcopal Diocese in 1874. In the center of that religious icon is a design that features teepees.

Seize the chance to visit an archeological dig that's uncovering a thousand-year-old Indian village once inhabited by the Mandan tribe. The excavation is located in Mitchell (71 minutes driving time from Sioux Falls), and is taking place inside the Thomsen Center Archeodome (, one of only three in the world. All work is done with only a trowel and within a four-inch square. They expect the project to last for 50 years or more. You may watch the ongoing work from overhanging balconies that encircle the enclosure.

In another structure on the site, tour an Indian earth lodge that measures 20 by 30 feet, and housed up to 20 people. Some villages had up to 80 lodges. On your guided tour, you'll be able to enter the lodge, and learn how these indigenous people lived. I was impressed how they utilized every part of a bison from its meat to its bones and grease.

Rodeo in Sioux Falls

Immerse yourself in the lifestyle of the American Cowboy. The WJ Ranch ( near Yankton (82 miles from Sioux Falls) offers group packages for horsemanship and cowboy life that run from one and one-half to three hours. They will also arrange an overnight cowboy adventure on horseback for tenderfeet. The owners, Jan and Greg Schiferl, are continuing to invite the public to their annual yuletide celebration. The Cowboy Christmas Event includes pony rides, trick roping shows, buggy rides, arts and crafts and refreshments.







I attended an outdoor rodeo while in Sioux Falls. The bronco busters were teens from the McCrossan Boys Ranch, an outreach program for troubled youth. They rode (or tried to ride) bulls, and girls competed on horses. Even little kids, ages four to seven, tried to "mutton-bust."  The audience consisted of mostly families with small children.

For an offbeat treat, visit the Buffalo Ridge Cowboy Town, a mid-20th century manmade attraction, only four miles from Sioux Falls. There's a saloon, a gold mine, Boot Hill, staged gunfights and other entertainment. "Wonky" animated figures inhabit the town. Kids enjoy pressing the buttons that engage their mechanisms. And for food treats, buffalo burgers are on the menu.

The Corn Palace

We're all familiar with the many uses of corn. There's corn-on-the-cob, corn fritters, corn oil, cornbread, corn syrup, popcorn – and the list goes on. But not in my wildest dreams did I consider corn as a building material. But in 1892, the town of Mitchell did. They built a unique palatial structure, covered with ears of corn, grain and local grasses. The Corn Palace ( is an original architectural concept that incorporates Moorish, Russian and Roman design elements. It's featured in the book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Huge murals, created by Cheri Ramsdell, wrap around the building with themes that celebrate America, like the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, sports and the US Space Program. In September, the Fall Harvest Festival draws big stars, such as Charlie Daniels, Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson. Inside, there're multipurpose spaces for shows, basketball games, graduations, proms and other happenings.

Southeast South Dakota is a little off-the-beaten-track but, like many pleasant surprises, it's something you'll want to tell your friends about. I did.




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