KYLE, S.D. (AP) — As summer tourism season kicks off in South Dakota this weekend, staff from several of the state's most popular attractions are learning about Lakota culture in an effort to drive visitors to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Starting Wednesday, more than 100 employees from attractions across the Black Hills — including Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park — are taking part in a two-day diversity training. This is the second year that the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce has offered the training.
The training, which will be held at Crazy Horse Memorial, will teach staff members about the Pine Ridge reservation's tourism resources, infrastructure and culture practices, said Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce. By teaching front-line tourism staff about the reservation, officials hope it will help drive tourists to the area.
"The biggest question we get here is, 'Is it safe to visit the reservation?'" Sorbel said, adding that many people associate Pine Ridge with gang-related violence. "What we're trying to do is shed that image and shine a new light."
A major focus of the training will be outlining the reservation's Department of Public Safety, as well as fire and ambulance services, so tourists know they have resources and will be safe when visiting, Sorbel said. Information for tourists about Lakota history and proper etiquette in certain situations — like not taking photos during religious ceremonies — also will be taught.
The training is one of many programs under way as the Oglala Sioux tribe focuses on building its tourism. Tribal officials hope increasing the number of visitors to the reservation will fuel the economy and create desperately needed jobs among residents. The reservation is one of the poorest areas in the nation and unemployment hovers around 80 percent.
"Ten years ago we weren't able to market the reservation to tourists — there was no place to sleep, eat and go to the bathroom," Sorbel said.
Now, he added, that's slowly changing with the building of hotels like the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort in Kyle and the Prairie Wind Casino located on the western edge of the reservation in Oglala.
One staff member excited about the summer is M.J. Bull Bear, the supervisor of the White River Visitors Center at the Badlands' South Unit. The White River Visitors Center is operated by the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority and staffed by tribal members. The South Unit of the Badlands, which lies entirely within the Pine Ridge reservation, sees far less visitors than the more developed North Unit.
Bull Bear is planning a slew of activities and programs focusing on Lakota culture for the summer months to entice visitors to the South Unit, including arts and crafts for kids, demonstrations of buffalo hide tanning and song and dance demonstrations.
"We want them to understand our way of life — how we lived with the land and in nature," he said. "Our way of life, I suppose, is different, but to us it's natural."
Craig Pugsley, the Visitors Service Coordinator at Custer State Park, said two staff members are planning to attend the training. He said Custer State Park officials found last year's training beneficial to incorporating the Lakota culture into programming initiatives at the park.
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