The wide-open spaces of the Great Plains seemingly roll away to infinity on either side of I-90 in SOUTH DAKOTA. The land may be more green and fertile east of the Missouri River, but vast numbers of high-season visitors speed straight to the spectacular southwest, home of the Badlands and the adjacent Black Hills – two of the most dramatic, mysterious and legend-impacted tracts of land in the US. For certain whites, they encapsulate a wagonload of American notions about heritage and the taming of the West; to some Native Americans, they are ancient, spiritually resonant places.

The science-fiction severity of the Badlands resists fitting into easy tourist tastes. The bigger, more user-friendly Black Hills, home of that most patriotic of icons, Mount Rushmore, have been subjected to greater exploitation (dozens of physical, historical and downright commercial attractions, as well as the mining of gold and other metals), but encourage more active exploration via hiking trails, mountain lakes and streams and memorably scenic highways.

Time and Hollywood have mythologized the larger-than-life personalities for whom the Dakota Territory served as a stomping ground: Custer and Crazy Horse battled here for supremacy over the Plains, while Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were denizens of the once-notorious Gold Rush town of Deadwood.

Sioux tribes dominated South Dakota’s plains from the eighteenth century onward, having gradually been pushed westwards from the Great Lakes by encroaching white settlement. To these nomadic hunters, the concept of owning the earth was utterly alien, a belief that ran contrary to those of gun-toting Christian settlers and federal politicians. The Sioux fought hard to stay free and theirs was the sole Native American nation to defeat the United States in war and force it to sign a favourable treaty (in 1868). Even so, they were forced to relinquish the sacred Black Hills in the face of a gung-ho gold rush; ultimately, their choice lay between death or confinement on reservations.

For decades, Sioux history and culture were outlawed; until the 1940s, it was illegal to teach or even speak their language, Lakota. Today, more Sioux live on South Dakota’s six reservations than dwelled in the whole state during pioneer days, but their prospects are often grim. Nowhere is the legacy of injustice better symbolized than at Wounded Knee, on the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation – scene of the infamous 1890 massacre by the US Army, and also of a prolonged “civil disturbance” by the radical American Indian Movement in 1973.

Today, Native American traditions are celebrated by music, dance and socializing at powwows, held in summer on the reservations; local tourism offices offer annual dates and locations.

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  • The Badlands
  • Deadwood
  • The bison of the Great Plains