More people live in Delaware than in South Dakota, which ranks 47th in population. Alaska is 48. South Dakota’s largest city is Sioux Falls. Around 160,000 people live there. Pierre, South Dakota’s capital, is 224 miles west of Sioux Falls. A lot of scenes in Dances With Wolves, the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1990, were filmed in the Pierre area near Triple U. I can now see why. A lot of the land in and around the Triple U Buffalo Ranch, reportedly home to the world’s largest privately owned American bison herd (3,500), still looks like it did in the 19th century.
The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre opened the year before Dances With Wolves was released to coincide with this state’s centennial celebration. Its 63,000 square feet contains the State Archives and an excellent state history museum. Its Visitor Guide says the building is “Nestled into a bluff north of the capitol”. This is accurate wording. It’s not under but into, an innovative design that recalls both an ancient Arikara Indian earth lodge and a modern energy-efficient building.
Inside the Museum are some of South Dakota’s greatest treasures, like the La Verendrye Plate. In 1743, more than 60 years before the Corps of Discovery came through the area, two French Canadian brothers, Louis and Chevalier la Verendrye, were checking out the Dakota plains and searching for the still-anticipated water route to China. To mark their presence, they placed a plate on a hill in what is now the town of Fort Pierre. Some teenagers found this lead marker 170 years later. It’s so historic that an entire museum full of pioneer stuff on Deadwood Street in Fort Pierre is named for it. A copy of the plate is on display in the Verendrye Museum. The real one is in the Primary Gallery of the Cultural Heritage Center (SDCHC).
I surely wouldn’t have realized the importance of the La Verendrye Plate if it hadn’t been for Jeff Mammenga, SDCHC’s Membership Coordinator, who graciously offered to show me around. His tour focused on it and other rarities, like an authentic Medora Deadwood stagecoach named Kittie that was bought new for $1,500 circa 1876 and a Jefferson Peace Medal. Government reps like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark presented these medals to influential Native Americans as needed. When they headed west from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1804, they carried at least 89 ready-to-impress Jeffersons in 5 different sizes. The SDCHC’s Peace Medal was found along the Missouri River near Mobridge, South Dakota. Jeff had a role in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, but you have to rent the 4 hour version to see his 2 key scenes.
In SDCHC, I wrote in my notebook, “As fine a museum as you’d find anywhere.” You don’t have to be a South Dakotan to appreciate it; but if you want to see what I saw, go soon because the curators tend to change displays every 6 to 8 months to keep things fresh. An upcoming exhibit about little-known but significant Northern League Baseball sounds especially interesting.