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Visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Updated on February 3, 2012

Home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the home of the Oglala Lakota or Sioux tribe, a band of the Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation).

The word Oglala means "they scatter their own" in the Lakota language. Then as now, the Oglala live further west than any of the other Lakota bands.

In past times, the Oglala were generally the band that camped at the outer perimeter during gatherings of the Nation, serving as the protectors.

Some famous Oglala leaders from the past include Chief Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. Today's leaders include Russell Means, Charmaine White Face, Pte San Win and the White Plume family.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a remote land steeped in history, culture and tradition that is not widely known or seen by the average person. This lens will introduce you to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and perhaps inspire you to visit one day.

Dances With Wolves

This movie is set in western South Dakota, location of the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It tells the story of a Civil War-era lieutenant who takes a remote post in the Dakota frontier and soon finds himself spending a great deal of time with his Lakota neighbors.

History of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Before statehood, the western half of Dakota Territory was reserved by US law for the exclusive use of the Lakota Sioux people by the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 of 1868.

The treaties were broken after Custer found gold here in 1876 and a deluge of outsiders flooded the sacred Black Hills. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. Army to uphold the treaties and keep the trespassers out, the miners were there to stay.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was formed by the March 2, 1898 South Dakota Enabling Act, which broke the Great Sioux Nation up into five small reservations and asked that Congress grant statehood to South Dakota.

The original name for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was Prisoner-of-War Camp #344, because it was used to house "hostiles"; Lakota who opposed the theft of their homelands. Another early name was Red Cloud's Agency, after Chief Red Cloud.

There is a tradition of resistance here that has carried to the present time. Some believe that the Lakota were put here by the Creator to protect the beating heart of Turtle Island (North America). If you look at the Black Hills on a map, you'll see it bears an uncanny resemblance to a human heart.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

The Massacre at Wounded Knee is generally regarded as the end of the "Indian Wars" that raged across much of the west during the 19th century.

Wounded Knee is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This is the place to which Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Spotted Elk (also called Big Foot) was traveling so as to be closer to Chief Red Cloud and the Oglala band after the death of Sitting Bull.

The band was not in great shape, and they were traveling across western South Dakota in the freezing temperatures of December. Spotted Elk himself was suffering from pneumonia. The band was intercepted by US soldiers near Wounded Knee creek, and made to camp for the night.

The next morning, December 29, 1890, there was a misunderstanding that resulted in the soldiers indiscriminately shooting. When it was all over, over 150 Lakota men, women and children lay dead.

Today Wounded Knee is marked by a mass grave, and a headstone listing the names of those who lost their lives that fateful day in 1890. There is a small museum too that explains the history of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The massacre at Wounded Knee is marked every year by the Bigfoot Memorial or Future Generations ride. During the month of December, elders and youth journey for several weeks by horseback across the frozen Dakota plains, retracing the steps taken so long ago by Spotted Elk and his band.


Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Thunderheart tells the story of a part-Lakota FBI agent and the events that take place when he travels home to solve an alleged crime.

The movie is set during the turbulent 1970s, when members of the American Indian Movement occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre site for nearly four months to protest conditions on the reservation.

Buy Thunderheart

Lakota Woman

This is the story of Mary Brave Bird (Crow Dog), a young Lakota woman who came of age during the turbulent 1970s at the Occupation of Wounded Knee.

Find Out More About Lakota Women

Wojapi is a traditional berry soup enjoyed by the Lakota. Before European contact, wojapi was made with dried chokecherry patties. Dried/powdered timpsila (prairie turnip) was used as a thickener. These days, wojapi is made from a variety of berries either fresh, frozen, dried or canned. Most people use cornstarch as a thickener nowadays. This recipe uses frozen berries.


  • 5 pound bag of frozen berries (cherries
  • blueberries or mixed berries)
  • 2 cups of sugar or to taste
  • 8 cups water
  • 4 T. cornstarch
  • dissolved in cold water


  1. Put the frozen berries in a stock pot with water and simmer uncovered until softened (about 1 hour). Mash the berries with a potato masher or immersion blender. Add the dissolved cornstarch slowly, stirring, until well incorporated. Wojapi can be enjoyed warm or cold. A favorite way to eat wojapi in Lakota country is with fry bread.
Cast your vote for Make Your Own Wojapi

Incident at Oglala

The Incident at Oglala was a shoot-out that occurred between the FBI and members of AIM in 1975 that left two agents and at least one Indian dead.

The subsequent trials of three native men accused of being involved in the shoot-out resulted in the conviction of one: Leonard Peltier. This movie documents the events of that day and the ensuing trials.

Learn More About Leonard Peltier and the Incident at Oglala

OST Powwow Poster
OST Powwow Poster

Visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

One of the most famous sites on the Pine Ridge Reservation is Cankpe Opi, or Wounded Knee. The site is preserved today as a memorial to those who lost their lives there 120 years ago.

Another famous site is the White River or South Unit Badlands.Until recently, this site was used as a bombing range by the US Air Force.

Clean-up has been completed, but I still manage to find empty shell casings during hikes in this area. Sheep Mountain, a remote but sometimes hiked butte in the Badlands, is said to be haunted. Strange lights are often seen over the area and the elders warn that you should never spend the night camping at Sheep Mountain.

Pine Ridge Village is a lively town. If you visit, be sure to stop at the iconic Big Bat's for lunch. You might also want to check out Poker Joe's buffalo herd (you'll see the signs).

Pine Ridge also has a casino/hotel/restaurant called the Prairie Winds, which is located on Highway 18.

Travel distances can be vast in western South Dakota, with few stops along the way so before you head out make sure you have a full tank of gas, snacks and some drinking water.

Learn more about the Pine Ridge Reservation


Skins is the story of two brothers living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: one is a tribal cop, the other struggles with alcohol addiction.

Buy Skins


Imprint is a supernatural thriller about a young Lakota woman who goes home to the reservation and starts to have visions.

Trouble starts when the woman realizes she doesn't know how to interpret her visions, or what they might mean for her future and her safety.

Buy Imprint

Rez Bomb

A story of love and money on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.


Dreamkeeper is a lyrical movie about an elderly story-teller on the Pine Ridge Reservation who asks his grandson to take him to the southwest for one final powwow. Their journey unfolds through the telling of stories from many different tribes.

Buy Dreamkeeper

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Today

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation today is a land of contrasts - one of the poorest counties in the entire US, high rates of suicide and alcoholism and yet a place of breathtaking beauty and undying culture and traditions.

This is the place where Hollywood stars and the wealthy flock in the summer to watch the people carry out traditional ceremonies, and where unemployment sits at 80% and the life expectancy is 48 for men and 52 for women - the lowest rates in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is all of these things and more; a visit here can be life-changing in many ways.

People of Pine Ridge

From modern times, you may recognize the names of Russell Means and the White Plume family, well-known Oglala leaders and activists.

What about Olympic medalist Billy Mills? He grew up in Pine Ridge village.

Have you ever eaten a Tanka bar? They were developed right here at Thunder Valley.

Read on to learn more about some of the people who call the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home.

Charmaine Whiteface

Charmaine Whiteface is an Oglala woman, a long-time activist and the driving force behind Defenders of the Black Hills, an advocacy group that seeks to protect the spiritual, cultural and environmental heritage of the 1851 and 1868 Treaty Territories.

Charmaine is also a delegate to the United Nations; one who worked diligently on the U.N. Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People.

The White Plume Family

Alex and Debra White Plume are well known leaders and activists. They have started a number of programs such as Crying Earth, Rise Up! and Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), mentored the Lakota Media Project and spoken out on a number of issues that effect both indigenous people and the wider world.

Alex is perhaps best known as an advocate for hemp farming and products. The White Plumes have had their home raided by the US government a number of times for the crime of being simple farmers on indigenous lands, trying to make a living for their family by growing a native plant that it is legal to grow on their sovereign territory.

Lakota Media Project

A lot of attention has been given to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since the reservation was featured on a TV show with Diane Sawyer.

While I am glad that a major news outlet has profiled some of the issues facing Lakota youth, I would like to point out that the Lakota youth themselves have a project in place to do this, the Lakota Media Project.

Please support these young people and their efforts to share their stories with the wider world.

Crying Earth, Rise Up!

Mni, water, is sacred to the Lakota people. Crying Earth, Rise Up! is a group that advocates on behalf of indigenous water rights and the quality of the water itself.

“Some day the Earth will weep, She will beg for Her life, She will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when She dies, you too, will die.” --John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932

Owe Aku - Bring Back the Way

Owe Aku is a group that mentors young people to be the next generation of Lakota leaders. It also helps young Lakota looking for a stronger connection to their culture and in understanding their role in Lakota society.

Russell Means

Russell Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1939. He first came to prominence during the American Indian Movement's most active period during the 1960s and 1970s.

Russell Means later went on to act in a number of films, release a music CD and write his autobiography. Now in his 70s, Russell Means continues to advocate for the Lakota people, despite a recent battle with cancer.

Thunder Valley

Thunder Valley is a non-profit entity in the Porcupine district of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that seeks to provide cultural, education and business opportunities to Lakota youth.

Buy Tanka Bars

Tanka bars were born right here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Made from natural, traditional ingredients, this is the original protein bar used by the people of North America. Tanka bars quickly went from being a local secret to a regional and now a national hit. Check 'em out!

What do you think?

Did you like this lens? Have comments or suggestions to improve it? Please let me know what you think in the box below! If you really liked it, please give me a thumbs up!


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    • Yawapi LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Yawapi LM 

      6 years ago

      @smaryanne767: thanks Mary Anne! It's not so much research as just living here - many of these folks I mention are my relatives, friends and neighbors. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the kind comments, I appreciate it!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I just discovered this, Lilly. So much in this. What incredible research. You should teach this or even do a series on PBS. Incredible.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Excellent lens!

      Thanks for sharing and getting the chance to learn something new today!

    • Yawapi LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Yawapi LM 

      7 years ago

      I'm glad you enjoyed my lens - hope you enjoy the wojapi as well!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      interesting read about pine ridge reservation.i am going to try your wojapi recipe. thanks. ~blessed~


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