The bear has long been considered by the Plains Indians a powerful symbol of healing and power, a grandfather and a guardian. There is no way to experience the grandeur (and avoid the danger) of the wilds of western South Dakota then with a Native American guide, one of the Plains Indians who lead week-long journeys into Grizzly territory, revealing the mystical connection between the Plains Indians and bears.
There are tours offered by outfits like Go Native that let you go into Grizzly country with an experienced guide (it’s a good way to understand the history of the ground you’re walking on, and, to not get eaten.) For this tour, the journey beings at one of the most sacred sites on the Northern Plains—the Mato Paha, or Bear Butte, a geological formation that is basically an isolated hill with very steep sides and a flat top. This site is, “the holy center of the Cheyenne universe,” where your guide tells the story of the prophet Sweet Medicine, who received the knowledge from God that went on to inform the Cheyenne’s political, religious, social and economic customs. Mato Paha was sacred to the Sioux and Lakota as well, and indigenous people made pilgrimages to the butte to leave prayer cloths and bundles tied to tree branches.
The trip takes you to a highly regarded archeological sites, the Vore Buffalo Jump in Crook County, Wyoming. This is a large sinkhole that was formed where gypsum soil was eroded, which left a 40-foot deep, 200-foot wide steep-sided pit. This is where Native American hunters stampeded bison over the edge and into the pit, killing or disabling them. The Vore was used to kill and butcher bison for 400-years, between the 14th and 18th century. Archeologists have only excavated roughly five percent of the site. The guide will explain the mechanics of how Native American hunters managed this feat.
The next destination is the Bear’s Lodge, or Mato Tipila, commonly known as Devils Tower. The tribal explanation for how this monolith got its distinctive columns. Both the Lakota Sioux and Kiowa legends involve a bear chasing girls. In the former’s legend, six girls were out picking flowers when they were attacked and chased by bears. The Great Spirit felt bad for them and raised the ground beneath their feet. The bears attempted to climb the newly formed tower, but couldn’t reach the top. They clawed at the sides of the monolith to no avail. The Kiowa legend follows a similar narrative trajectory, but includes astrology as well. Seven little Kiowa girls were out playing when they were spotted by several giant bears. The girls prayed to the Great Spirit, and sure enough the ground rose beneath them. The bears couldn’t get to the top of the tower, managing only to claw at the sides. The girls reached the sky and were turned into the constellation Pleiades.
There is much more to this adventure. A trip tot he Buffalo Bill Historical Society in Cody, Wyoming, a trek into Yellowstone, venturing within bear country, a trip north along the Medicine Line to Glacier National Park to the traditional lands of the Blackfeet Nation.
None of this would be possible without the indigenous guides, who aren’t offering a vacation, they’re offering an experience and adventure.