Dignity to Pierre: Exploring South Dakota’s upper Missouri River

Dignity sculpture near Chamberlain.

With the Missouri River as the centerpiece, spending a weekend in the Pierre-Chamberlain area combines the great outdoors with the state’s history and culture. From Oahe Dam outside of Pierre to the Dignity sculpture near Chamberlain, the drive between the cities along the Native American Scenic Byway offers beautiful views of the Missouri River and the surrounding area.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Caffeine Crawl for the complimentary tickets. "100 Things to Do in Omaha Before You Die" was also a sponsor of the crawl. However, all views and opinions are ours.
Disclaimer: Thanks to South Dakota Missouri River Tourism for hosting our Pierre visit. However, all views and opinions are ours.

The two cities combine for memorable attractions. From the Akta Lakota Museum on the campus of the St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain to the state capitol and state cultural heritage center in Pierre, it’s easy to stay busy over a long weekend.

Rolling Hills along Native American Scenic Byway


South Dakota state capitol

Home to the South Dakota capitol, a self-guided tour offers visitors a look into the state’s government. Standing outside the front entrance to the capitol, one of the first things people notice is the black dome. The black dome replaced its copper predecessor in 1961, and is prominent when the sky is blue. Visitors also notice the V in the South Dakota engraving, which is used to emphasize the Roman influence of the building’s design.

South Dakota state capitol.

Inside, the marble Grand Staircase may be the focal point of the rotunda, but the art challenges it for attention. With the stained-glass Barrell Vault features solid oak frames. Paintings beneath the vault and on the corners of the rotunda highlight South Dakota history and folklore.

A look into the heart of state government includes views of the Senate and House of Representatives galleries. During sessions, visitors can watch as their elected representatives introduce, debate and vote on legislation.

Grand Staircase and its majestic art.


Capitol Lake memorials

Located between the capitol and the governor’s mansion, the five-acre Capitol Lake is home to about a dozen memorials recognizing public and military service in South Dakota. With memorials honoring those who served and died in the country’s wars, the sculptures offer excellent detail in design and their message, such as the bronze eagle situated between the engravings of the men and women who died in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. A soldier from each era is located on either end of the memorial. On a peninsula a few feet away, a set of six military members salute as a way of honoring the 68,000 South Dakotans who served during the war.

A view of the Korea-Vietnam Memorial from the World War II service people,

Three memorials recognize people who have served as first responders, including emergency services, firefighters and law enforcement officers.

The Fighting Stallion Memorial honors eight people, including Governor George Mickelson, who died in an airplane crash in 1993. The memorial is a replica of the carving of the horses at the Crazy Horse Memorial near Rapid City.

The Fighting Stallions memorial with the capitol in the background.

Beginning on the capitol grounds and continuing around the lake and downtown Pierre, the Trail of Governors recognize the people who have served as the state’s chief executive. From its earliest chief executives to 21st-century leaders, the Trail of Governors poses the leaders in roles for which they were known.

Tom Berry served as South Dakota’s governor 1933-37.


Lake Oahe

Oahe Dam – an earthen dam across a chunk of the Missouri River north of Pierre – created Lake Oahe, which stretches 231 miles north to Bismarck, North Dakota. The fourth-largest manmade reservoir in the United States, Lake Oahe is popular for boating, skiing, fishing and other water sports. The shoreline is also excellent for fishing, including smallmouth bass, northern pike and perch. The lake has a maximum depth of 205 feet.

Lake Oahe, created from the Oahe Dam, runs more than 230 miles north.


South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center

Exploring South Dakota’s history, from its First People to Euro-American settlement, the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center offers a respectful look at the state’s story. Built inside a hill, the heritage center resembles a sod house, which was common on the plains.


Indigenous history

The Indigenous People’s exhibit uses Lakota traditional words, as well as English, to describe sections, such as Wacantognaka (Generous) which looks at Lakota clothing, including beadwork. Visitors view a traditional headdress and a tipi among other exhibits.

Headdress and tipi are among the Native American exhibits at the cultural center.

Other exhibits include forcing Indigenous nations onto reservations, as well as a look at boarding schools, when children were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools. While there, they had their hair cut, often forced to wear military-style uniforms and forbidden to speak their native languages, instead of having to learn English. Another exhibit offers a look at the story of the Ghost Dance, which some Indigenous people believed would reunite them with ancestors and rid the world of Whites. Opposition to the ceremony led to an attack by the military on Dec. 29, 1890, resulting in more than 250 elders, men, women and children being killed in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Still controversial with Native Americans, 20 soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their role during the attack.

A photo of an early boarding school at Pine Ridge.


European settlement

As pioneers moved westward, Euro-Americans eventually settled around the state. From farming and ranching to city life, people enjoyed life around the state. Exhibits include ranchers branding cattle, farm equipment and vintage automobiles. A military exhibit highlights South Dakotans’ service during the Spanish-American War, when soldiers fought in The Philippines. Another exhibit looks at clothing and sports.

Ranch workers brand cow on the prairie.

A look at the state’s history includes an antique car anchoring a rural town display, featuring a gas station.

Early 1900s gas station.


Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center

The Fort Pierre center celebrates the life and career of South Dakota’s most famous cowboy. The Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center includes displays covering the cowboy’s rodeo career, in which he won six professional bronc-riding championships, which remain unchallenged. He was also a two-time all-around cowboy champion, as well as winning a bareback-riding title. Tibbs also acted in movies, as well as working as a stuntman.

Casey Tibbs bronc-busting exhibit.

The museum showcases Tibbs’ saddles, as well as the Hall of Champions and high school competitions.

Mattie Goff Newcombe was among the women stars of the rodeo circuit. While once relegated to barrel races, Goff Newcombe pushed the limits by becoming a trick rider. Her career was noted by never having lost her hat during one of her daring rides.

Women wranglers exhibit.

Some Native Americans were drawn to the sport. Considered one of the best rodeo cowboys to come from South Dakota, George Defender contended for world titles and was among the best bareback riders, calf ropers, and buffalo riders.

Native American rodeo display.



Akta Lakota Museum

Meaning “Honor the people,” Akta Lakota Museum does just that. The museum features a variety of exhibits that offer a respectful look at the Oceti Sakowin (Och-et-ee shak-oh-win), the traditional name of the tribes making up the Sioux Nation. Nine Lakota and Dakota tribes reside in South Dakota.

Portrait of Santee Chief Little Crow.

With portraits of tribal chiefs encircling the exterior of the museum, which is located in an octagon-shaped building on the campus of St. Joseph Indian School. Once a federal government-operated boarding school, where Native American children were sent to be assimilated into White culture, the school was eventually sold to the South Dakota Catholic diocese. Today, it’s operated as a residential school, far removed from its original mission.

The museum includes exhibits tracing the history, culture and traditions of the Oceti Sakowin. The museum shares the story of the star quilt and its importance as a symbol of gratitude and honor. Unique pieces, such as colorful hats and one with leaders, are also displayed.

A look at reservation life includes a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police officer’s uniform, complete with beaded moccasins. While the tribal member may be working for the government, the shoes kept him close to his roots.

Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer in uniform and moccasins. Despite their role, the police remained close to their ethnic roots.

A major exhibit recently opened that celebrates The Gift of a sacred pipe. With seven ceremonies, Black Elk said they were brought to the people by White Buffalo Woman. Each ceremony is interpreted by artwork, a poem and a song.

Painting of White Buffalo Woman.

Exhibits include clothing, beadwork, weapons, tools, utensils and toys. Visitors will even see a birchbark canoe that was used by the iSanti Dakhota (Santee Sioux), which is my tribe.

As visitors stroll through the museum, a reenactment of a buffalo hunt includes props once used in the film “Dances with Wolves,” which was filmed in South Dakota and featured Native American actors.

Buffalo hunt scene.

An exhibit exploring the history of St. Joseph Indian School includes artwork by former students. The pieces combine Indigenous history with contemporary art.

Art display at the St. Joseph School exhibit.


Dignity: Of Earth and Sky

Standing 50 feet tall, Dignity: Of Earth and Sky honors Native American women. Located at a rest stop near Chamberlain, the statue is a major attraction in the state. Honoring the Lakota and Dakota, artist Dale Lamphere used three Native American women of various ages to ensure he created the perfect face for the sculpture.

Dignity sculpture at Interstate 90 exits 263 and 265.

Dignity stands above the Missouri River, looking out over the valley, seemingly providing guidance for travelers. With a two-hide dress based on attire from the 1850s, Dignity holds a quilt featuring almost 130 stainless steel blue diamond shapes, which flutter in the wind and glow at night.


Hotel and Dining

During our visit, we stayed at the Country Inn and Suites in downtown Pierre, about three blocks from the state capitol. Our room was comfortable, and we had the amenities we need for our electronics and laptop. We also need to charge several camera batteries after a day of shooting 700-1,000 photographs.

The room had a single-cup Keurig coffee maker, which I have grown to love during our travels. The hotel also includes the typical features of a chain hotel – complimentary breakfast, fitness center, swimming pool and business center.

While in Pierre, we spent a full day with our friend Mary Arlington, who lives in the area. Our trio enjoyed a relaxing casual lunch at Grey Goose Store and Social Club, just outside Pierre. While Mary enjoyed a salad, Lisa ordered a turkey sandwich, which was like celebrating Thanksgiving in June. I went with a handmade cheeseburger. Of course, we had to have a couple of orders of their corn nuggets, which were amazing.

Coconut shrimp at Drifters in Pierre.

Dinner was at Drifters Bar and Grille, located along the Missouri River. Dinner started with an appetizer order of coconut shrimp. Mary went with artichoke Dip. Lisa ordered a salmon salad, while I went with the bulgogi beef bowl, with teriyaki steak and rice. We all agreed that our choices were perfect for capping off a hot summer day on the go.

While in Chamberlain, I had a hankering for a bison burger, so we visited Al’s Oasis. With a side of French fries, Lisa and enjoyed an original bison burger in the heart of South Dakota.

With a trip that ran the gambit of Indigenous history and culture to the state capitol and tons of historic sculptures, we enjoyed our weekend getaway to Pierre and Chamberlain. I’m already looking forward to a return trip, so we can hike some of the trails near each city.