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People are funny. You can quote me on that if you’d like.

As a travel professional I have frequent opportunities to indulge my passion for people-watching as I mingle with visitors at America’s great natural wonders and attractions. It’s both enlightening and useful. It can also be frustrating. The misconceptions about the first Americans are in the latter category.

Because of the nature of my business – sharing historic and cultural experiences with visitors – we often include activities such as pow wows which provide opportunities to interact with Native Americans both on and off reservations. But the questions I invariably field en route to such events illustrate just how wide the gap is between reality and the general knowledge – or lack thereof – about the original inhabitants of this vast continent.

No, there are no fences around reservations, nor gates. People who live on reservations can come and go as they please. I’ve even heard visitors wondering aloud if there are any Indians on the reservations at all because there are no teepees, and the only people they see walking around are dressed like cowboys.

Once I greeted a group at the Rapid City Regional Airport, located just 75 miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and had brought my then teen-aged son along to do baggage handling. As we were driving to our hotel after loading up, the passengers were excitedly talking about how they couldn’t wait to see an Indian. They didn’t recognize the handsome, dark-skinned teenager who had loaded their bags as a Dakota Sioux, apparently because he was dressed – well – like a teenager. And he didn’t have any feathers in his hair!

On the plus side there is a seemingly endless fascination with these perceived exotic people, which gives me an opportunity to enlighten and fulfill a desire at the same time. While I know a considerable amount about the history of some tribes, it is the modern-day situation I am most qualified to address, and which I think there is the biggest need. For twenty years, in a previous life, I worked with tribal schools, government, and even the National Park Service to educate the public about various aspects of tribal life and policies. I had the opportunity to work not only with South Dakota tribes but many others around the country. I never actually lived on a reservation (South Dakota has nine), but my mother did, and I made sure that each of my children visited her every summer to experience reservation life first-hand – something they could never fully appreciate living in the city, no matter how much I harangued them about it.

My kids are each individuals of course, and as such reacted in their own ways to reservation life. One loved it without reservation (pun intended) making friends and having a wonderful time as he does in nearly every situation he encounters. One tolerated it; it wasn’t ideal for her because she was also there to attend summer school, and wasn’t crazy about the idea no matter where the school was located. And one HATED it.

They all however, valued the experience as they grew older and one – the one who hated Pine Ridge – now travels the country as a part of his job, making presentations on various reservations to scholarship applicants. Go figure.

My kids also spent a memorable year as members of the Wiconi Dance Club, within the Rapid City school system, where they practiced the various dances, learning what the steps and music symbolized, and participated in pow wows. It made for great photo ops, but beyond that it was a valuable learning experience they have carried with them throughout their lives. Their parents learned a few things too!

Rapid City hosts one of the biggest and best pow wows in the country every October, which our family has enjoyed for many years. And the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, the second largest in the nation, is home to 15,000 Oglala Lakota Sioux – Red Cloud’s people, Spotted Tail’s people, American Horse’s people. And the mountain carving honoring Chief Crazy Horse is located in the adjacent Black Hills, a mere hour away from Rapid City.

If you are interested in learning more about the Native Americans of this continent and visiting some of the important historic sites, you might want to check out these tours scheduled for 2014:

Old West Trail – July 12-18

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup – Sept. 24-29

Both include multiple overnights in Rapid City, South Dakota, the very heart of Indian Country. It is a perfect hub-and- spoke location for touring the Black Hills, historic Deadwood, Badlands National Park, and the reservation.

See you on the trail!

This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by:

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Shebby for FacebookShebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.