2018-06-07 / Voices

Tourism & Lakota Oral Tradition


Memorial Day signals summer vacation and tourism. In Pine Ridge, and other reservations, the need is there to develop tourism. If we are to do it right, we need to reteach and relearn what oral tradition means in order to fully develop cultural tourism.

What is oral tradition? Charles Eastman, a Wahpetonwan Dakota, in his autobiography Indian Boyhood talks about the way oral tradition was developed through storytelling; remembering stories and being required to retell them as a hoksida (hoksila). He had to be a good listener and have a clear mind.

Dakota oral tradition, like Lakota oral tradition, according to Eastman, is based on the idea that the ability to remember is a skill that can be taught. Different kinds of stories (genres) exist including what are called myths. But the most important of these is the understanding that Lakota history is included in oral tradition.

In more recent times, scholar Angela Cavender Wilson, a Dakota, scholar and historian recalls stories about the Dakota Uprising in Minnesota in 1862, a historic event: “… [M]y connection to land and place is solidified with each telling of the story. As a Dakota I understand that not only is Mnisota, a homeland worth defending, but through the stories I learn where the blood of my ancestors was spilt for the sake of the future generations, for me, my children, and grandchildren.”

In South Dakota, tourism focuses on places in our homeland, the Black Hills, but most tourists don’t benefit from a limited viewpoint that ignores Lakota history. There is only so much of what South Dakota tourism pushes that makes sense for tourists from other countries.

They want to see the Indigenous people whose homelands are the He Sapa. Many South Dakotans are ignorant of the rich history of the Lakota people because it is often omitted from the state curriculum.

For the Dakota, the area east of the Missouri River is their homeland. Cavender Wilson reminds us that “These stories remind us where we come from” and that, “They validate our identities in a positive way: “[W]hen, as a girl, I was confronted with contrasting negative images of the “Sioux” in school texts.”

As we resurrect oral tradition (in the Lakota language) about places, place names and people, the contribution of these stories is a celebration of our culture. They attest to our resilience and ohitikaness. As Cavender Wilson declares, “they would serve as challenges to the rest of the world to be so strong.”

Our challenge as Lakota people is to relearn, reteach, and rethink oral tradition in Lakota. A language that is so strong in this place (He Sapa) that it is sacred. How can we let it go, if we know that our survival as a distinct people relies on it? At the end of the day, South Dakota tourism and Lakota oral tradition may be the keys to our survival. They may be the two things that help us survive in the next fifty years.

World leaders know this, and they put dates on their agendas, calling an end to poverty, or global warming with specific years in mind.

We, as Lakota people should put 2024 as the year that we successfully develop cultural tourism on our lands through our language and history. That would be the year that marks 100 years of citizenship on our own homelands.

Delphine Red Shirt can be reached at

Delphine Red Shirt:

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