For Lakota, ‘Dances’ Can’t Keep Wolf From the Door : American Indians: As South Dakota profits from the hit movie, the local tribe misses out on the windfall.


When Kevin Costner was filming “Dances With Wolves” in South Dakota last year, Loretta Cook, a Lakota Sioux American Indian, had never heard of the actor.

A friend who worked on the movie as an extra dropped by and showed her a photograph of herself and Costner. “Oh, nice,” Cook responded. “Who is he? Your boyfriend?”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 22, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 22, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Dances With Wolves’--A July 29 story reported that residents of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations had to travel up to 100 miles to see the movie “Dances With Wolves.” Actually, prints were shown in auditoriums on both reservations, according to the producer. Scenes in the movie were filmed near the two reservations but not on them, as the story reported.

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in South Dakota who doesn’t know who Costner is. His film about the life of a U.S. cavalryman who joins the Sioux is exploited in state-sponsored ads to promote tourism. Movie tie-in products are found in stores throughout the state. And officials and common folk alike sing Costner’s praises--not only for the scenes in his film that capture the striking beauty of the South Dakota landscape but also for the sensitive, non-stereotypical portrayals of American Indians.


In part because of the film, tourism in South Dakota is booming. But the Lakota whose culture and history are central to the film’s story line have been left out of the windfall.

“The rest of South Dakota is capitalizing on it,” said Gerald Sherman, director of the Lakota Fund, a community loan program on the Pine Ridge Reservation, “but it’s unfortunate that the people that it’s about haven’t been able to receive anything from it, as far as the tourism is concerned.”

The release of the film brought a swirl of awareness of American Indian problems. Costner himself was honored by the Lakota in a traditional ceremony in Washington in which he was adopted into the tribe. But now, less than a year later, some South Dakota American Indians are beginning to question whether there will be any long-term benefits, or whether the film has merely been a prelude to another in a long line of disappointments.

Tourists, for example, seem to be flocking everywhere in the state--Mt. Rushmore, Badlands National Park, the Black Hills National Forest. But, except at several of the state’s nine reservations that recently opened gambling casinos, the American Indians rarely see them.

Tourism adds $785 million yearly to the South Dakota economy and is the second biggest industry behind farming in the sparsely populated state. Few of those tourist dollars reach the reservations--especially Pine Ridge, the most historically significant of the reservations and the most poverty-stricken.

There is a reason. Despite the upsurge in interest in American Indians, there is little to see here but poverty.


The reservation has few amenities. There are no motels, no restaurants, few places even to buy a soft drink or gasoline. It is little more than a dusty collection of settlements where the unemployment rate is 87% and illiteracy, alcoholism and other social ills are rampant. “We’ve got abject poverty such as you’d see in the ghettos of Los Angeles, with all of the social problems,” said Rene Mills, director of the new Pine Ridge tourism office.

Shannon County, which comprises much of the reservation, is the poorest county in America. Pine Ridge’s 5,000 residents must go off the sprawling reservation to get a haircut, do laundry or buy groceries or clothing.

As a result, the American Indian communities do not even get the benefit of what money there is already on the reservations--much less tourism dollars.

Residents of the Pine Ridge and nearby Rosebud reservations were not even able to see “Dances With Wolves” in their areas, even though parts of it were filmed there. They made 100-mile treks to Rapid City, the nearest city, or travelled to closer, smaller Nebraska towns with movie theaters that border the reservations.

For many, going into town is a major project, said Cook, whose maiden, Lakota name is Afraid of Bear.

“It’s like a vacation,” she said. “I can’t liken it to anything else but a vacation once a month. Many of the people on the reservations don’t have cars, so they have to hire people to bring them in for a weekend. They pay the $25 to $50 or whatever it is, fill the car with gas and feed the people that brought them.”


The answer to the economic problems, the surest bet for establishing economic self sufficiency, Mills believes, is true big-time tourism development.

He has grand plans--a massive 40-acre complex, the Lakota Cultural Heritage Center, replete with a motel, a museum, a casino, restaurants, stores and a “true-to-life” re-creation of an American Indian village with tepees and buckskin--all catering to free-spending tourists and providing jobs to hundreds of Lakota.

Susan Edwards, South Dakota tourism director, shares Mills’ ambitions for the reservation.

“If we make it a place to go and learn about Lakota history then it’s going to be as important to us as Mt. Rushmore,” which attracts 2 million people annually, she said.

A key element in the plan is a National Park Service study of the possibility of turning the site of the Wounded Knee massacre into a national park. It was at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation that up to 300 American Indian men, women and children were killed in 1890 in the last major violent episode of the American Indian War era.

“The tourism potential is just incredible,” said Deb Cottier, executive director of the Chadron, Neb., Area Chamber of Commerce, about 20 miles south of the reservation.

“We have had a tremendous amount of interest in the Wounded Knee battlefield” because of the 100th anniversary of the massacre last December, she said. “But when people go there basically there is a little fenced-in marker and that’s it.”


But there are major impediments to the tourism plans.

Mills acknowledges that most of the people on the reservation have no idea what tourism is or how it can help them. “I think they have a stereotyped image of a visitor who comes taking pictures,” he said.

And some members of the tribe find the idea repellent. Many Pine Ridge American Indians are still angry about other important sites that have been taken from them and adamant that the burial place of those killed at Wounded Knee be treated with respect.

“A lot of people (American Indians) are really interested in it (the idea of a park),” said Sherman, “but then at the same time there are a lot of people who are offended by it.”

Mills said that his office has launched an education campaign to persuade tribal members of the advantages of tourism development. He also said that the people should be integrally involved in planning the park. But when and if the people of Pine Ridge come to embrace his idea of a tourism complex there still is the question of funding. Mills is confident, though, that investors can be found.

Although Sherman disagrees with some of Mills’ ideas, he said of tourism development: “It’s something that will happen. It’s one of the best ways to bring money onto the reservation from the outside.”

Leon Adams, assistant developer in the tourism office Mills heads, said that “Dances With Wolves” brought the tribe international attention before the reservation was ready.


The office is in the process of identifying historic sites and activities on the reservation that might be developed to interest tourists. “We are in the embryonic stage, I guess you might say,” Adams said. “We are about nine months behind. I guess we’re trying to get on the wave, whatever’s left of it.”

Cottier, for one, worries that the wave may have already passed. “I’m feeling a little as though the “Dances with Wolves” thing was nice--it was a warm fuzzy for Native Americans. But I don’t think it will be a particularly long-lasting thing.”

In the views of some Lakota, including Mills, “Dances With Wolves” was just another example of the economic exploitation of American Indians.

He acknowledged that the film is exposing millions of people to Lakota culture and history and is one of the rare Hollywood films to portray American Indians in a positive light. But in his view, the movie highlights the fact that everyone is making money on the American Indians except the American Indians.

Aside from the American Indians in featured roles and the extras who were paid $55 per day for appearing in the movie, few Lakota have benefited economically, he said.

He said that he would like to see filmmakers return to reinvest some of their profits in helping to develop tourism and economic development on the reservation.


“Did they do any kind of moral reparations or come out here and try to help the people?” he asked. “The answer is no. Once they make their fortune and fame they never think to come back and put something back.”

The fear here is that, despite the increased awareness “Dances With Wolves” generated, when interest in it dies down the American Indians will be left exactly where they were before the phenomenon hit.

Edwards, the state tourism director, believes that interest in the movie--and, hence, the state--will remain high for at least another two years.

She has arranged a deal with Orion Pictures, the studio that produced the film, whereby 37,000 state travel brochures will be distributed with the video version of the movie. And ABC recently bought network television rights to the film, along with previously unused footage. She’s hoping the expanded movie will become a miniseries, hence generating another wave of interest.

On a state-sponsored trip to Western Europe and Japan to promote the state last year, tourism officials found that the movie had generated enormous interest in American Indians. But Mills is critical of state officials for not asking anyone from the American Indian reservations to go along. His complaint--that state tourism officials ignore American Indian reservations--was echoed in a study released in January by the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration.

“The Native American has been unjustly forgotten, and the tourism literature of the area is indicative of this situation,” the report said.


The study pinpointed 14 sites in the United States that it said are prime sites for the development of minority historical and cultural centers. Southwestern South Dakota is one of them. The study urged the state tourism office and public and private organizations, as well as American Indian-owned businesses, to develop programs that target assistance to individuals.

One organization already working on grass-roots development is Sherman’s 1 1/2-year-old Lakota Fund, which provides small-business loans on the reservation. It recently has begun a new program--”borrowed from Bangladesh,” he said--that provides training and a revolving credit line of up to $1,000 to individuals. Most of these loans are being used to develop traditional arts and crafts businesses, he said.

American Indians here have always made money from their beadwork and other crafts but there has never been a place on the reservation to sell the work. It has always been taken to white-owned stores in neighboring cities and even to bars and pawn shops.

Now some Lakota hope the arts and crafts business will help develop tourism. “This is our economic development,” said Loretta Cook, standing in her Chadron store, the first Lakota-owned shop to sell the tribe’s artwork. “This is our cultural treasure.”

The shop is off the reservation, but Cook said she is working with artisans at Pine Ridge to develop quality control. She also makes trips to California and to East Coast cities to develop markets for the Northern Plains American Indians artwork.

“Dances With Wolves,” she said, often is the only point of reference for prospective buyers whose only previous contact with American Indian jewelry and crafts has been with better-marketed silver work and turquoise from the Southwest. Buyers may not know much about Lakota culture or art but they remember the seven-inch, beaded earrings worn by Stands With a Fist, the heroine of the movie.


Meanwhile, Hollywood interest in South Dakota American Indians continues. Currently, “Thunderheart,” a movie starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard and Graham Greene, is being filmed on the reservation. And other producers have been in touch with tribal council offices about future projects.

Some observers see development of a tourism office and the rise of a new generation of Lakota leaders attuned to business and marketing as hopeful signs.

Still, no one disputes that turning the reservation economy around will be difficult.

Said Jensen, of the Rapid City tourism office: “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation. How can you develop tourism if you don’t have anything for the tourists to see and some place for them to stay and eat? But how do you get businesses to start up if there are no tourists?”