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South Dakota is a land steeped in story. From the striking Badlands to the rugged, forested Black Hills to its mysterious woodlands, the state doesn’t just look special… it feels special. When faced with the one-of-a-kind, utterly stunning and rich landscapes of South Dakota, the Lakota and Cheyenne could only explain things the way they knew best: with stories. There are countless ancient legends in South Dakota, each highlighting the reverence these tribes had for the land. Visiting these natural features is more than just an outdoor adventure… it can be a spiritual experience. Here are some of the most unforgettable places with ancient legends in South Dakota.
Bear Butte is one of the oldest spiritual sites in South Dakota. Researchers have found artifacts on the 4,426-foot-tall laccolith (a mass of igneous rock) that date back 10,000 years, and early records indicate that famous Native American leaders Red Cloud, Frank Fools Crow, Sweet Medicine, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse all paid visits to the site. The Lakota and Cheyenne have both considered the site sacred, but there’s no one definitive legend on how it was created. One popular legend states that Bear Butte is the body of a giant bear that was wounded during a battle with a water monster. Some believe the bear’s spirit still watches over and protects the plains to this day. Since its creation, the butte has been the site of countless experiences, vision quests, encounters with The Great Spirit, and peaceful meetings between tribes.
The area remains sacred to Native Americans, but it’s open to the public (although state park fees are waived for anyone visiting for religious purposes). Official park policy strictly states that visitors must respect worshippers and leave religious offerings (usually tobacco wrapped in colorful cloth tied to a tree) undisturbed.
Sica Hollow‘s name comes from the Lakota word for “bad” or “evil,” so you know the legend of this park is sure to be a good one. The red, iron-tinged, and bubbling water that looked like the blood and flesh of their ancestors gave the Lakota bad vibes; hence, the spooky name. Rumors of a mythical beast in the hollow—along with practical concerns like the quicksand-like mud and dangerous, hidden ravines—further prevented tribes from settling here. To this day, some people who camp here claim to hear ghostly cries and war whoops, while others have even seen spirits appear in the woods.
The Lakota had a story of how the distinctive rocky and rolling hills of the Badlands came to be. As their story goes, the Badlands were once a lush green prairie with clear springs and abundant wildlife. The Great Spirit decreed that every tribe must share the plains equally, and all quarrels were to be forgotten. For many years the prairie was a peaceful place where tribes traded and celebrated. But then, a tribe came from over the western mountains. They wanted the plains for themselves and didn’t want to share. The tribes called upon The Great Spirit for help, but it gave no answer. The tribes prepared to go to war with the men from the mountains.
On the day of the battle, The Great Spirit took matters into its own hands. It shrouded the sun behind dark clouds, and lightning streaked through the sky. In the ground, a hole appeared and swallowed the troublemaking tribe as well as the grassy prairie. The storm ended as quickly as it had begun, but the jagged waves in the ground remained frozen. The area was now a wasteland where nothing could grow, and no one could fight over it anymore.
Wind Cave is central to the creation story of the Lakota and a big part of ancient legends in South Dakota. Legend has it that buffalo and humans together emerged from Mother Earth through a cave’s mouth. Other stories tell of the cave being home to a maiden called the Buffalo Mother. Buffalo are of vital importance to the Lakota; the Lakota people had a spiritual and physical connection to the buffalo, relying upon them for shelter, food, weapons, and toys while also honoring the animals for the blessings the beasts provided. Today, you can see bison roaming the ground above Wind Cave. This area is another place where visitors might encounter religious offerings of tobacco tied to trees with colorful cloth.